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  • Writer's pictureJean Linville

Potawatomi & Getting Rid of It

At the risk of appearing to be a Robin Wall Kimmerer groupie due to two previous references to her book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants (July 12 & September 13 blogs), I am giving this marvelous book one last mention. The chapter from this book that has stayed with me the most is Learning the Grammar of Animacy. In this chapter, Kimmerer discusses how she discovered the limiting nature of the English language and scientific thinking as she explored her ancestral Potawatomi language. "My first taste of the missing language was the word Puhpowee on my tongue. I stumbled upon it in a book by the Anishinaabe ethnobotanist Keewaydinoquay, in a treatise on the traditional uses of fungi by our people. Puhpowee, she explained translates as 'the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight'. As a biologist, I was stunned that such a word existed. In all its technical vocabulary, Western science has no such term, no words to hold this mystery." It is sad to realize that no equivalent word exists in English. If there is no word and no common use, it is easy for one to not even realize that a force or dynamic natural processes even exists.

​Kimmerer goes on in this chapter to explain more of the Potawatomi, Ojibwe and Anishinabemowin languages and how within them nouns and verbs are both animate and inanimate. ​​For example a bay can be an inanimate object, but it can also be a verb. "...I could smell the water of the bay, watch it rock against the shore and hear it sift onto the sand. A bay is a noun only if the water is dead. When bay is a noun, it is defined by humans, trapped between its shores and contained by the word. But the verb wiikwegamaa--to be a bay--releases the water from bondage and lets it live." Wow! The transformation of nouns to verbs promotes a very different way of thinking. I have been thinking a lot about this and what it means for the lake that we live on to be a lake. Being a lake seems a much more apt way of thinking of how this body of water moves, changes, provides for plants and animals and oh so much more. Thinking in this way encourages a broader view of how everything is interdependent and much more holistic.

​​Additionally, Kimmerer explores the relationship our language has with our view of the world in one other key way. "Imagine seeing your grandmother standing at the stove in her apron and then saying of her, 'Look, it is making soup. It has gray hair.'...we never refer to a member of our family, or indeed to any person, as it. That would be a profound act of disrespect. It robs a person of selfhood and kinship, reducing a person to a mere thing." And yet, we do this on a regular basis to so many beings that live with us. As she explains, in Potawatomi "...what it means to be animate diverges from the list of attributes of living beings we all in Biology 101. In Potawatomi 101, rocks are animate, as are mountains and water and fire and places. Beings that are imbued with spirit...the list of the inanimate seems to be smaller, filled with objects that are made by people. Of an inanimate being, like a table, we say, 'What is it?' And we answer Dopwen yewe. Table it is. But of apple, we must say, 'Who is that being?' And reply Mshimin yawe. Apple that being is."

My new mantra is, get rid of it! The "it" I am referring to is not an object, but rather the word. Throughout the summer and now into the fall, I have been thinking of the "beingness" of the world around me and engaging in the practice of trying to not use "it" when observing and thinking about beings of all kinds. I am doing a lot more asking of "Who is that being?". It is amazing how profoundly this shift in language has impacted my thought process. I have found that when I take the time to think of an ant, a tree or a lake as a being and all that is encompassed in being, it is much harder to discount and disrespect its existence. Through trying to understand whether the being is eating, resting, a mother or even a food source for another being helps me to build my relationship to my world in a much more meaningful way than simply observing it. In the sage words of Robin Wall Kimmerer, "Maybe grammar of animacy could lead us to whole new ways of living in the world, other species a sovereign people, a world with a democracy of species, not a tyranny of one--with moral responsibility to water and wolves, and with a legal system that recognizes the standing of other species. It's all in the pronouns."

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