I’m reading another fascinating book recommended to me by one of my nephews, John Hartman. It’s titled Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. In her book, she blends her scientific knowledge with her indigenous wisdom. The result is (as one reviewer said) “A hymn of love to the world.”
In today’s blog, I will focus on one chapter she calls, “The Grammar of Animacy.” First, some background. When missionaries went to educate Indian populations, they were directed by their governments to forcibly assimilate the native peoples into “our culture.” This often meant ripping children from their families and herding them into large institutions where they were stripped of their names, clothes, and language. The motto for some of these boarding schools was: “Kill the Indian, save the man.” Certainly this practice ranks as one of the most shameful in U.S. and Canadian history (as well as other countries).
At midlife, Kimmerer decides to learn her native language Potawatomi. Sadly, there are only about nine native speakers left. During her lessons, she realizes anew that language has a profound affect on how we view the word. She also appreciates that every language has its beauties as well as its limitations. And finally, what we have words for and how we express ourselves, often tell us what we value and what we do not.
One day, while walking in the woods, Kimmerer comes upon a mushroom that was not there the previous day. She is in awe of how this mushroom pushed up through the heavy layer of dead leaves overnight! She learns that Potawatomi has a word for this phenomenon: puhpowee. Translated into English it means “the life force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth during the night.” She was surprised to learn this, adding, “In all its technical vocabulary, Western science has no such term, no words to hold this mystery.”
She compares Potawatomi with the scientific language she knows so well. She writes, “Science can be a language which reduces a being to its working parts. It is a language of objects.” In contrast, Potawatomi is a language of subjects. She quotes Fr. Thomas Berry, “…we must say of the universe that it is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” European languages often refer to nouns as animate or inanimate. But in her native language, nouns and verbs can both be animate and/or inanimate. A bay can be inanimate if the water in the bay is dead. But the bay can also be animate because it could become a river, waterfall, or ocean. This distinction affects which pronouns we use.
In English, if we see our grandmother stirring something on the stove, we would never say, “Look, it is making soup.” Our grandmother is not an “it.” An it in English is often inanimate or at least a non-person. But what if we came across a maple tree and, instead of saying, “It is beautiful!” We said, “She is beautiful!” Says Kimmerer, by saying she, we might not be so ready to reach for the chainsaw. In Potawatomi, beings are imbued with spirit. So “things” like sacred medicines, songs, and even stories, are all animate. The list of inanimate things in her language is very small and usually refers to things made by people. So if we see a table, we might ask in Potawatomi, “What is it?” But if we see an apple, we would ask, “Who is that being?”
Throughout the chapter, Kimmerer points out some other differences between the two languages. In English, only 30 percent of words are verbs, but in Potawatomi, 70% are verbs. Her native language has many words for thank you, but no word for please. This absence caused some missionaries to label the native language as crude—and by extension, the native people as crude. But there’s a deeper mystery here. When we ask for more potatoes or for someone to pass the salt in Potawatomi, we do not need to say please. The underlying cultural assumption is this: All food “was meant to be shared; no added politeness needed.”
In showing some of the subtleties of the Potawatomi language, Kimmerer points out the humor of language. She says of Potawatomi, “Even a small slip of the tongue can convert “We need more firewood” to “Take off your clothes.” When struggling to speak Potawatomi, Kimmerer says, to a native speaker she would sound like this: How are you? I am fine. Go to town. See bird. She says, “I would sound like Tonto’s side of the Hollywood dialogue with the Lone Ranger.” She and the other students in the class sometimes filled in the gaps in their Potawatomi with their high school Spanish. They dubbed their new language Spanawatomi!
The very titles of the chapters in Braiding Sweetgrass hint at the richness and beauty of this book: “The Council of Pecans,” “Allegiance to Gratitude,” “Asters and Goldenrod,” “Sitting in a Circle,” “Epiphany in the Beans.” For me Kimmerer’s book is magical. I’m so grateful my nephew recommended it to me. Now I’m doing the same for you!
For reflection: Did anything in today’s blog stand out for you? If so, what and why?
Do you know a second language? If so, do you see differences between this language and your native language? Did learning another language reveal anything to you about your native language?
If we saw trees, African Violets, robins, and ants—as well as inanimate things like rocks, rivers, and soil as “persons” and referred to them as “who,” what effect might that have on our view of the world?
Can you give any examples in English of how our words influence the way we think? Or how the words we choose reveal our attitude to what or whom we are talking about? (Be attentive to the words used during political campaigns…)
PS: I ask your prayers for a zoom retreat I’ll be giving this week to the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration located in Colorado Springs, CO. It runs three days: May 24-26. Thank you for your prayers!
For today I chose a 5 minute video called “Tribute to Mother Earth.” It consists of Native American instrumental music set against a background of nature photography. There are no words (This post already contained enough words…) Instead, just relax and enjoy the beautiful music and the visuals.
I invite you to respond below to this reflection.