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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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)