Kci Woliwon/Thank you very much

I feel such gratitude that I was able to participate in the 4th gathering for Healing Turtle Island, this year held online via Zoom and Facebook Live. Healing Turtle Island is a 21-year ceremony, born through a vision of Penobscot Sherri Mitchell, bringing together Indigenous spiritual leaders from around this land and around the world, to share teachings and ceremony for the healing we need for our times. I am grateful that those of us descended from colonizers have also been welcomed into the circle, that we too might listen and participate in this healing.

I was present for the first year’s ceremonies in 2017 at Nibezun in Passadumkeag, and though I have held its intentions close to my heart, my health has prevented me from attending the last two years. Being online this year, while a disappointment in some ways, enabled me and thousands of other people to participate from all over the world. (You can participate too, by viewing the recordings made of most of the sessions on Sherri’s Facebook page.)

Healing Turtle Island 2020

Poster announcing the schedule, from Healing Turtle Island page.

I am sitting in the silence now, after the closing ceremonies from this morning, thinking about what I have learned, what I carry with me going forward. First of all, it was grounding to hear so many people talk about the need to restore our connection with the land, with the spirit, with each other. It helps me to remember that that has been a guiding principle for me for the last several years, (as well as the theme of this blog and of my book .) By seeing this expressed so passionately by so many people, I felt renewed in my own spiritual journey into earth community.

Secondly, I was struck by how many people spoke of the importance of Indigenous languages for the healing and decolonization of the land and the peoples of the land. Over and over people reminded us that the spirituality and guiding principles of Indigenous peoples are found in their languages. Many people spoke in their native languages, offered prayers, offered songs, and then sharing partial translations, acknowledging that so much cannot be translated into the violence of the colonizer languages. They also spoke of how colonization disrupted the languages, how a whole generation of children were punished for speaking their languages, how difficult it is to bring back the languages, decolonize the languages, but how utterly necessary.

This touched me deeply, especially now that I have been studying a Wabanaki language for the past two years. On the one hand, I was so happy to understand a modest percentage of what Passamaquoddy and Wolostaqi elders were sharing in their language, especially in the prayers and songs and personal introductions. On the other hand, it has sometimes been bewildering to me that I find myself on the path of learning this language. A door opened so fortuitously just after I retired, and I walked through it into Roger Paul’s class at USM. I often ask myself, what is this about?

I feel glad that I helped to increase the numbers to enable the class to continue for its mostly Wabanaki participants through four semesters. I am glad that Roger got permission from his elders to share the language beyond the community. I have said that I want to decolonize my mind, I want to think differently: nkoti-piluwitahas. During the weekend another thought came to me, that any of us who come to live in Wabanaki land should learn the original language of this land. It is only appropriate as respectful visitors. And I remember someone saying, years ago, if you really want to understand our spirituality, you must learn our language.

But I still wonder what my responsibility might be, as a white person learning to speak a Wabanaki language. I am very sensitive to how much pain there is, in the loss of the language, and the slow revitalization that is happening now. Who am I to be learning, while so many Wabanaki people have not been able to do so? So I go forward with carefulness and respect and humility.

One other thing that was shared over the weekend lit a spark in me: that we all, colonizers included, should be seeking to uncover our own distant Indigenous languages. I had this idea to learn to introduce myself in the Innu language, the language of my matrilineal ancestors, and then a few lines in the language of my French and Scottish colonizer ancestors, and then a few lines in the language of my Germanic-speaking immigrant ancestors who came later, but who form the largest part of my inheritance.

The thing is, the Innu language is in the same family as Wabanaki languages, and structured in the same ways, so I feel like I am learning so much about those Innu ancestors by this process. That has been one of the very great personal gifts for me of learning a Wabanaki language. So I say kci-woliwon, thank you very much, for the blessings of this Healing Turtle Island gathering, and to all the language teachers, and especially to the Spirits of my ancestors who lead me into paths I could not have foreseen or chosen on my own.

The Ongoing Struggle

I learned another new word in Passamaquoddy:  Mocahantuwok, which means wicked devils. I am not sure if the word is used in a friendly teasing way, or in a serious condemning way. But in a serious way, I have been thinking about using it for certain people in Washington DC who are bent on undermining the processes and hopes of democracy in this country.  You can guess who I mean.

It is not the worst time in our country’s history.  That might have to be the initial conquest of these lands, and the direct genocide of millions of Indigenous people.  (That oppression still continues of course, but perhaps in more indirect ways.)  Another contender for the worst time would be the 250 years of enslavement of captured African peoples. (That oppression also continues, also in more indirect ways.)  I don’t believe there was a golden age of American democracy, that we are now on the verge of losing.

But I do believe there was a dream of America that had something to do with democracy, cooperation, and reciprocity. I think about the poem of Black American, Langston Hughes, written in 1938.

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed–
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

…Let America Be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed! This dream was not only dreamed in America either. In learning more about my ancestors in Europe, I was struck by the ongoing struggles between the forces of domination, empire, and greed and the forces of reciprocity, cooperation, and shared power.  For example, my East Frisian ancestors valued their freedom and resisted domination, resisted being forced into feudalism. Friesland actually means Free Land.

But those relational values were even more striking among my early Innu ancestors on this continent. I remember reading parts of the record that the Jesuits wrote about the Innu during early conquest times. How horrified the Jesuits were that the Innu people would only follow the lead of their leaders if they agreed with them. (Democracy!) How horrified they were that a man might agree to a contract, but if he went home and his wife disagreed, he thought he should be able to get out of that contract. (Power was meant to be shared!)

Those are the same values we are now struggling over, in Washington, and all over this country, once again and still. Will we create a society in which all people are included, in which power is reciprocal and we cooperate for the good of all? Or will some mocahantuwok create a society in which they dominate over others, accumulate as much as they can, and destroy the rest of the people and the world?

It is no easy struggle.  I don’t know how we achieve our goal.  But I know I choose to live by the values of reciprocity, cooperation, and democracy in every way possible, and I choose to align myself with others who share those values. Perhaps each time we do that, in all areas of our lives, we contribute some spark of energy that makes the dream more possible.

Sunrise

Winter dawn

The Flowing

Orchard August 2019

The other morning I woke from a dream, in which I was thinking about Wabanaki languages. Wabanaki languages are a flowing. Everything is moving. Verbs are central. Verbs change shape to fit who is acting, who is moving, how many, and who or what their object might be. For example, Wiku is a verb for identifying where someone dwells. (The k is pronounced like g.) As in, Wiku Portland, meaning, “He/or/she lives in Portland.” But to say, “I live in Portland,” would be Nwik Portland.  “Where do you live?”  Tama kwik?

Even many nouns are flowing, changing, shapeshifting. Like the word for home. The noun, Wik, means a home. But “my home” is nik. “At our home” is nikonuk. “At your home” is kikonuk. The words flow depending on who lives there, or if you are going there. And the words for “mother” are related to the words for home. Wikuwossol, nikuwoss, kikuwoss. “His/or/her mother, my mother, your mother.” Flowing. Shapeshifting. Full of relationship.

English, on the other hand, is filled with many more nouns than verbs. Since contact with the colonizers, Wabanaki languages have had to add more nouns to the lexicon, to translate from English or French. Some of these nouns were created from verbs by adding an ending that, by itself, means “bait.” For example, koselomol, means “I love you.”  But to turn the verb “love” into a noun, you must say kseltomuwakon. Wakon means “bait.” So perhaps to make these nouns we must capture the verb, trap it with our bait, to stop its movement for a moment.

We colonizers live in solid houses with lots of things/nouns in them. The Indigenous peoples of northern places used to live in easily movable homes, with fewer things, to follow the hunt in winter, to fish the shores in summer. Everything was a movement, a dance, a shape-shifting. (Of course, many southern Indigenous peoples were/are farmers, stayed in one place. I don’t have any exposure to how their languages work.) But I notice the tendency in me to look for solid things, to struggle with the endless flow.  To try to put things in their places, get organized.  Make vocabulary flash cards to capture the words into my brain. (Even though the Wabanaki Languages class I am taking is on summer break, I have been listening to the recordings from the class, and continuing to study.)

Still, the garden in this place, at our home, nikonuk, also tries to teach me about flow, if I can be open to it. Every week is filled with different patterns and growing and shapeshifting. This week, no more snap peas or raspberries. But the basil has come back again after I harvested most of its leaves a while ago. The young fruit trees are wild and leafy. The bee balm is dying, and prone to powdery mildew. My nephew and his girlfriend helped me put wood chips on the paths during their visit a couple weeks ago. It rained during the night last night. Every day is different. There is no way to get the garden in shape, in form, once and for all. It demands relationship, interaction, flowing, it demands the verb “gardening.”

In Passamaquoddy, kihke means “He/she gardens or plants,” and kihkan is a garden. It is also another form of the verb.

 

 

Raccoon/Espons

One of the great things about our cats is how they alert us to visitors in the yard.  This morning, Billie suddenly leaned over into the bedroom window, all focused attention, and then she hurried off to the kitchen.  I looked out the window, and then I too ran to the kitchen–to look out the French door windows to the back.  We had both seen a raccoon, walking right onto our deck, checking things out.Raccoon on the deck

Sadly, this was not a great nature photo–I didn’t capture the raccoon’s adorable face.  And when they saw us at the window, they decided to move along, leaving only small wet footprints behind. I barely caught their distinctive striped tail as they hurried past on their way toward the steps to the driveway.  Raccoon tail

Compost barrel holeThe Passamaquoddy word for raccoon is Espons, and it means the one who leaves a mess. I pulled on my boots to go outside to see if Espons had left any messes anywhere in our garden–but the only thing I found was a tiny hole dug into the side of our compost barrel.  It looks like that compost is ready.

I think this is the first time I’ve seen a raccoon in the yard, though I saw one in a tree down by the brook a while back. As much as Margy and I love to play in the soil, plant trees and bushes, and tend to the growing plant life all around us, the most thrilling part of connecting to this land is when the critters visit us.

Many small birds and squirrels live here all the time, but we’ve also seen turkeys, a very occasional deer (and not in the last year), the skunk, the groundhog, a few chipmunks, the fox, the hawks, the turkeys (they visit a lot–though not this spring–they must be raising young somewhere else right now), not to mention tiny toads and salamanders. I call them visitors, but really, we share this urban environment. They live here as much as we do–but not usually on the deck!  We try to find a balance between welcoming them, and reserving certain garden foods as our own “territory.”  (Since we don’t yet have much food in the perennial food forest we’ve been slowly creating, it hasn’t yet been a big issue.)

I am reminded somehow, by the joy of this unexpected visit, that my spiritual “marching orders” during this past cycle of seasons have been rather clear.  I was not to try to “make magic”–which I understand as to focus my intention and will to create something or to make change in this world.  Rather, I was to flow with the already flowing magic of the deeper River, to let the Earth move my feet, let the Wind guide my mind. I was to rest, and let the Fire of joy carry me through the days.  That joy has carried me into some marvelous learning–the Wabanaki language class comes to mind.  That joy has carried me out into the garden to plant and tend and haul wood chips around.  That joy has carried me to the pages of this blog site, to write and reflect.  But it isn’t really about creating a garden or a blog.

It is about observing, being quiet, listening to the trees, tuning in to the flow of interconnected life. It is about moving beyond doing into a different way of being.  A way that is alert to the many beings who visit us, whether we notice them or not. It is about noticing.

Margy's clover & daffodils

Margy’s clover & daffodil garden in the front yard.

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

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.

 

 

I Walk in Passamaquoddy

I have had the privilege of studying Wabanaki Languages this fall, taught by Roger Paul. For me it has been a small way to begin to decolonize my mind–to begin to think differently.  Our final project was to make a short presentation to our class, and I was inspired by the words we had learned to talk about the animals I see and hear on my morning walk. I also drew on the Passamaquoddy/Maliseet (Wolastoqe) Language Portal for further help with verb and noun forms, and I learned some new words along the way.  If any speakers of the language read this, edits are welcome! Roger encouraged us to jump in with using the language, even though we will make mistakes. 

For those who do not know about Wabanaki languages, you might find it interesting that animals are not referred to as “it,” and people are not referred to by “he” or “she.”  There are “animate” and “inanimate” forms, and both people and animals are referred to by animate, non-gendered verb and noun forms.  A lot of information is encoded into one word.  So, for example, “npomuhs” means “I walk.”  “Nutuwak” means “I hear (beings plural and animate.)

Ntoliwis Mayk. Nuceyaw Portland.  (My name is Myke. I am from Portland.)

Spasuwiw npomuhs. Wolokiskot.  (In the morning I walk. It is a beautiful day.)

Nolokuhs lahtoqehsonuk.   (I walk in the direction of the north.)

Nutuwak sipsisok.   (I hear small birds.)

Nomiyak mihkuwiyik oposik.  (I see squirrels in a tree.)

Apc, nolokuhs cipenuk.   (Next, I walk in the direction of the east).

Nomiya kisuhs musqonok.  (I see the sun in the sky.)

Nutuwak kahkakuhsok. Tolewestuhtuwok.  (I hear the crows. They are talking)

Nomiyak oqomolcin kehsuwok nehmiyik awtik.  (I see eight turkeys in the street.)

Apc, nolokuhs sawonehsonuk.  (Next, I walk in the direction of the south.)

Npomuhs sipuwahkuk, naka nomiya motehehsim sipuhsisok.   (I walk along the edge of the brook, and I see a duck in the brook.)

Nutuwa pakahqaha lamatokiw.  (I hear a woodpecker a little ways into the forest.)

Wahte, nomiya qaqsoss.  (In the distance, I see a fox.)

Apc, nolokuhs skiyahsonuk, naka ntapaci nikok.   (Next, I walk in the direction of the west, and I come back to my house).

WoodchuckNomiya munimqehs kihkanok. N’ciciya wot.   (I see a woodchuck in the garden. I know this one.)

Coness, Munimqehs! Musa micihkoc kihkakonol! Wesuwess!   (Stop, Woodchuck! Don’t eat the vegetables! Go back where you came from! )

Munimqehs qasku. Qasku asit kakskusik. Qasku lamatokiw.   (Woodchuck runs. S/he runs behind the cedar. S/he runs a little ways into the forest.)

Toke, ntop qotaputik qocomok.  (Now, I sit in the chair outside.)

Komac Wolokiskot! Woliwon!   (It is a very good day. Thank you)