Wolasuweltom

“When you think in Passamaquoddy, your whole life revolves around being thankful for everything that’s around you,” says Roger Paul, our Wabanaki Languages teacher.  “Everything about what you look at, or what somebody tells you, you think gratitude.” The root verb for giving thanks is wolasuweltom (he or she gives thanks, is grateful). To say “thank you” to someone you say “Woliwon.”  

He went on to comment, “…in other cultures I’ve noticed it’s about, ‘What am I to gain from this?’, …or ‘What’s my goal?'”  He told a story about a woman he met in Washington, DC, who wondered why Indigenous people didn’t come to testify in Congress about why they needed certain funding–they might send lawyers or other non-Native employees to explain–but she had never seen an actual Indigenous person explain why they needed this funding.

Roger said, “It took me a while, but I figured it out. …The reason, I told her, was because we’re not about going to demand what we deserve. We’re about being thankful for what we already have… So… we’re not good at going up to say, ‘Hey, we deserve this–we have an entitlement to this–you owe us this.’ …We’re more at, ‘Oh, this is all we get? But, you know what, I can use this. Thank you.'”  He said, “It’s that attitude, that almost every word in our language surrounds that concept of gratitude.”

All this was during a conversation among a few of us before class last month.  Ironically, earlier that morning I had been thinking about my final presentation, in which we were supposed to introduce ourselves in the language.  I had thought to myself that perhaps I should try to say something about why, as a non-Wabanaki person, I wanted to learn to speak Passamaquoddy.  What was my purpose or goal in doing this?  In English, I have said, I wanted to “decolonize my mind and learn to think in a new way.”  But I couldn’t figure out how to express what I meant in the language, even with the help of the online dictionary.

So when Roger spoke of how the language itself was not so much about expressing goals, as it was about giving thanks, I was struck by the irony of it all.  Here I was, even in my attempts to speak the language, thinking exactly like a white person.  And maybe, the goals and purposes didn’t matter as much as I thought they did.  Maybe I should try to say, instead, what I am thankful for.

Later, I asked Roger if it would be okay to quote him for the blog, and he gave me a generous yes.  I am thankful for all of these conversations, more than I can say.  These days, I am less and less sure of the purpose of anything I am doing.  I am less and less sure of my goals.  But I am reminded, each morning, to give thanks for everything around me.

Ducks in Spring

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Anishinaabe Land

Anishinabe Treaty ConferenceIn an earlier post, I began to explore which Indigenous people belonged to the land where my East Frisian ancestors had settled in the 1850s.  But I had not done that for the land where I was born, in Detroit, Michigan. I wasn’t surprised to read that it was Anishanaabe land, the land of the people of the three fires, Ojibwe (Chippewa), Odawa (Ottawa), and Potawatomi.  Significantly, I didn’t learn about them while I was growing up. Nothing. But as a young adult, that changed as I became an activist. I remember participating in an Anishanaabe gathering in Muskegon, Michigan. I found the button I still have from that gathering, the “Great Lakes Anishinabe Treaty Conference,” in 1982.

The Anishinaabek were really the first Indigenous peoples that I learned about. It has been so long since I lived in Michigan (I left in 1983), that it is hard to remember too many details about what I learned at that time, rather than later.  I remember a children’s book written by Edward Benton-Banai, in which I learned the word for grandmother was Nokomis.  I remember that sovereignty was important, and treaties had historically been tools for taking land away from the people, but they also preserved certain rights to hunting and fishing.  Louise Erdrich is a brilliant Anishinaabe novelist from whom I learned much more of the people’s lives in the context of colonization.

The Anishinaabek lived in the area of the Great Lakes before any Europeans arrived.  I learned from Roger Paul, in my Wabanaki Languages class, that the Anishinaabek were related to the Wabanaki many generations ago, and lived on the east coast.  About a thousand years ago, they were led to move west, and they were guided to stop in the Great Lakes. The Anishinaabe languages are in the same language family as the Wabanaki, (and the Innu as well), called Algonquian by linguists. The word for “my grandmother” in Passamaquoddy is Nuhkomoss.  The Innu would say, Nukum.

The first Europeans who interacted with the Anishinaabek in the Great Lakes region were the French.  When Michigan later became a territory of the new United States, the majority of people living in Michigan were Native people.  You can find out many more details of the history of the people from that time forward on the website of the Ziibiwing Center of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan.  Michigan still has twelve federally recognized tribes today.

I think the first step in the process of making right relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples is to learn the history of our peoples’ interactions with each other, to understand the traumatic process of colonization that occurred on these lands. Only if we know the history can we begin to make sense of the present.  With the mixed blessing of the internet, it isn’t so hard to find out these things if we look.  Do you know what Indigenous people lived on the land which you now occupy?

Angela Andrew

angela-andrew

Photo by John Gaudi/CBC

I just learned today that Angela Andrew, an Innu artist in what is now Labrador, best known for her crafting of traditional Innu tea dolls, died February 5th at the age of 72. I posted earlier about the Innu tea doll that my friend Wells gave me, which was created by her. I found this article in the CBC News from Canada.  I am so glad I learned about her and her tea dolls before she died.  The article said she was also instrumental in teaching the Innu-Aimun language to young people, and she had an infectious smile. If you can hear me in the spirit world, Angela, thank you for your beautiful work! her daughters plan to continue making the dolls.

Wabanaki Languages 102

I wanted to study Wabanaki languages with Roger Paul as a way of decolonizing my mind.  Yesterday we began the second semester and already I am experiencing two challenges which seem directly related to this very decolonization process.

Wabanaki languages were spoken for thousands of years, and only more recently have been written, usually with the aid of outside linguists who were sent to each tribe and devised writing systems that differed from each other.  These writing systems are still in flux.  There is an “official” writing system for Passamaquoddy for example, exemplified in the online dictionary, but there are also phonetic systems that spell words more closely based on how they sound.  Roger really doesn’t care how we spell the words.  He grew up speaking the language, but only learned to write it as an adult.  He cares about how we pronounce and speak. So this is a shift from my own ingrained habit of learning more by seeing a word written, than by hearing it spoken. (Though of course, all babies learn to listen and speak before we learn to write. And we do learn to write the words as well.)

The second challenge is that Wabanaki words do not exist as fixed isolated units, but change form in relationship to the context and meaning. In the first semester, we studied lists of words (and a few phrases), beginning to create a basic vocabulary.  But in this semester, we will be studying sentences.  Words in relationship to each other.  And words as sentences–because a sentence might be expressed in one “word.”

As I think about it, I realize how much this may reflect underlying differences between Euro-centric culture and Indigenous culture here on this land.  Euro-centric culture is object oriented–taking things apart, categorizing them, defining them.  Indigenous culture is relational–nothing exists except in relation to everything else. Likewise, English words are more fixed in form, while Wabanaki words are relational.

Last semester, I gradually created a huge set of flash cards with all the words presented, so I could practice and learn them.  I created recorded excerpts of the words and their meanings, so I could listen to them (especially in the car) and get the pronunciations into my head. But now, we are stepping into a different sort of process. The change goes deeper.

Kuskicinuwatu?  (or) Gooskeejinuwadoo? (or) Do you speak a Native language?

Robins in berry tree

Robins hidden within the branches of a winter tree.

 

 

Going Back to School

USM IDI have a feeling of glee because I am taking a class at the University of Southern Maine.  Well, actually I am auditing it.  I discovered that anyone 65 and over can audit classes almost for free (compared to actual tuition costs).  I had to pay a $55 “transportation” fee, and then learned that with my student ID (I have a student ID!) I can take the metro bus for free.  So many new things, and it reminds me of my excited feelings of going back to school when I was a kid.

But I am especially excited about this class, Wabanaki Languages, taught by Roger Paul, whom I got to know through the Decolonizing Faith project in which I am involved.  Roger is really fun and funny and is a native speaker of the language, and a fountain of history and understanding. We’ll be learning “oral history of Wabanaki languages and stories of Wabanaki elders passed from generation to generation,” along with vocabulary and pronunciation and the like.

For those who are not from this area, the Wabanaki peoples are the Indigenous people of Maine, and there are four distinct modern tribal communities, but as Roger tells us, they are not really so distinct.  It was Europeans who thought of them as different from each other.  The people lived in villages where the food supply would support them (mostly hunting, fishing and gathering) and when the group grew too large for that system, they would start a new village down river or at the next river.  So the languages are variations of the same tongue, and the people were identified by the places they lived, or by characteristics of those places.

Most of the students in the class are Wabanaki tribal members learning to speak their own language, as much was lost during the era of boarding schools.  Now there are efforts among children and adults to revitalize the language while there are still Native speakers.  Roger has been involved in teaching children on the reservation.  But why am I interested, as a white person, to learn this language?  Years ago, when I was first learning about the challenges that face Indigenous people, I got involved in the issue of cultural appropriation–the theft of Native spiritual practices by non-Native peoples, especially in New Age settings. (See more on that at Wanting to Be Indian.)

I remember one Indigenous writer saying, “If you really want to learn about our spirituality, learn our language.” I’ve learned a lot from Native authors such as Robin Wall Kimmerer talking about some of the key differences between Indigenous language and English.  Particularly, Kimmerer speaks about the idea of animacy and inanimacy as embedded in the syntax.  Trees, animals, plants, rivers are never referred to as “objects” or as “it” in her language.  They are alive, animate.  All the verbs and pronouns are organized around whether you are referring to something alive, or inanimate.  The language we speak affects how we think about our world.  The English language has colonized this place, made the land and water and creatures into “its.”

I want to learn Wabanaki Languages to better understand Wabanaki people and culture, and this place in which I live, the language native to this place.  I want to help decolonize my mind, and learn to think in a new way.

Rune Carvings

Beech Tree Markings 133650002When I sat in the old copper beech tree, surrounded by the hopeful carvings of many human persons, I was reminded of the runes, the early carved alphabet of the Germanic languages. I had earlier taken up the study of runes, because I was curious about the culture and spirituality of my ancient Germanic ancestors. The traditional way of making runes is to carve them into small staves of wood cut from the branch of a fruit bearing tree. The rune letters themselves are sharp and angular, revealing their origins in the markings that blades can make in wood. Each of the rune letters is a symbol of some sacred power in the German understanding of the universe.

Runes were used for magic, for divination, and for communicating with sacred forces. According to some German and Norse myths, the runes were given to the God Odin, after he hung suspended for nine days and nine nights on the sacred tree of the world, Yggdrasil. Odin then shared the runes with humankind. The runes were a gift from a holy tree.

Runes DSC01305Two of the runes are specifically linked to trees. Eiwaz represents the yew tree and Berkana, the birch tree. The yew tree is a symbol for Yggdrasil and is linked to death and the everlasting realm beyond death. The tree is poisonous and its wood was used to make long bows for hunting and war. It lives to be perhaps the oldest tree we know. There is a yew tree called the Fortingall yew, which is situated in a churchyard in Perthshire, Scotland. It is believed to be the most ancient tree in Europe, between two and five thousand years old.

The birch tree, on the other hand, is linked to birth and beginnings. It is one of the first trees to grow in an area after a fire has destroyed its vegetation. Birch branches were used in cheerful springtime rituals, a symbol of new life and the fruitfulness of spring. When Margy and I were looking for a home in Maine, we were feeling discouraged after May and June had passed without our finding anything. We did a reading of the runes, and pulled out Berkana—the birch tree rune. It could be read as a great indicator of prosperous new beginnings coming into our life. But we also decided to take it more literally.

We began to look for houses that had anything to do with birch trees. We noticed an ad for a house on Birchwood Road, and saw another house described as having birch cabinets, and a few others like that. So we came up the last weekend in July to check them out, and then found another house in the newspaper on the last day. The backyard turned out to be full of birch trees. It was also just what we were looking for.

Some people believe that the runes communicate magic messages. But what strikes me most powerfully about the runes is the magic of written language itself. What an uncanny ability it must have been at first—to communicate across distance or time in a way that talking could never match. The root of the word “rune” implies secret or hidden. A message could be carved out by one who knew the runes, and—sent via a messenger who did not know the message—it could be understood by another person far away. The ability of rune readers to communicate in silence with each other would have appeared magical to anyone who witnessed it. These messages could even endure beyond the death of their creators, to be received by those who came after. We have forgotten to be in awe of that power.

A Finger Pointing to the Moon

Moon in branches DSC02496The Zen Buddhists tell this story:

The nun Wu Jincang said to the Sixth Patriarch Huineng, “I have studied the Mahapari-nirvana sutra for many years, yet there are many areas I do not quite understand. Please enlighten me.”

The patriarch responded, “I am illiterate. Please read out the characters to me and perhaps I will be able to explain the meaning.”

Said the nun, “You cannot even recognize the characters. How are you able then to understand the meaning?”

“Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger…”

I want to call us to a deeper appreciation of truth—that we not be attached to any ideology in a way that becomes a kind of idolatry of the mind. Words and ideas about spirituality are not meant to be literal. They are like the finger pointing to the moon. If we spend a lot of energy debating the nature of the finger—what good will that do for us? If we defend the finger, or try to ridicule the finger, or argue about the finger—we’re missing the point. The point is that the finger is pointing to the moon. I hope that we might learn to shift our gaze, and discover that beauty and mystery!