Indian Reserves and Language

Let’s be humble for a moment. There is a global culture today, and it is not humble. It looks out through human actors, apprehends the image below through their complex biological organs …

… and sees leaves. It is proud of itself. As the humans this culture controls, let’s not set aside that pride, but let’s set humility alongside it. The global culture looks through its humans at the moment broken by apprehension below and sees an ill poplar leaf, suffering  predation by leaf miners in a season of drought.

It may or may not view the three ants at work within the image. This global culture is language-based, in a conception which views language as the expression of individual humans, learned in social environments. Such languages exist, of course: English, Spanish, Swedish, Hallkomen, Urdu, Nysilxcen, Hopi, French, C, and so on. There are thousands of them. They are powerful. All humans use them. Or, rather, all humans are used by them. Consider stag horn sumac (again):

 

To global culture, the sum of individualized, word-based language, those are leaves. The word “leaf” determines what the humans, who use the word, will see. A human can come by, now and then, and say that these are “tongues” or “wings” or “feathers,” but global culture will soon explain that such “use” of language is “metaphor” and “poetry,” and move back to “reality,” that holds that the image shows “leaves.”

 

 

It was not always so. The culture of my ancestors, for example, once held —not very long ago — that the image showed the Word of God, in a conception that a primary force, called God to give it a tag in language, spoke the world in physical form, not in the words now used to point to it, such as “leaf” and “stag horn sumac.” What’s more, these ancestors held that this language was being continually spoken by this God, and continually spoken back, in a form of mutual interwoven consciousness neither human nor divine.

In other words, my ancestors understood themselves as physical bodies in a physical world. Language, or the strings of “words” now known as language came later. What’s more, these word strings embodied the place of mutual, interwoven consciousness represented by bodies interacting with bodies, in a social, human sphere. That was its role: it has now replaced the earth.

Well, only if we let it. I can, for example, give myself over to global culture and treat the mule deer doe above as an animal, foreign to humans and separate from them, determined by the word “deer,” contained within concepts such as “environment,” “flight behaviour,” and so on, or I can honour my ancestors, and the power of my presence in the world, by treating this deer as my self. Or this wasp hunter.

Or this limestone cliff. And here’s the thing: if I am the limestone cliff below…

…I am the seabed it once was, and the clams and other bivalves whose shells once made (and still do) that limestone out of atmospheric carbon…

 

…and the forces of subduction and uplifting that raised them here in the sky in patterns that, like language…

…guide where I walk and where I do not…

… what I will find there, when I will eat choke cherries and when I will pick saskatoons that sing off of their stems with the sound they are known by in the human language of this place, nysyilxcen: siya?.

It is both the sound of the tongue making the glottal stop of the “?” in the written approximation of a vocal word that is the mouth eating a plucked berry, and the sound of the berry leaving its stem while being plucked. It is both at once, and their coming together, and their transfer into a human social language, without the loss of their ground. This limestone is part of the complex of forces which lead to that moment. Here it is three months later.Its story is still opening. When you live in space, you read it, then create objects to extend the power of that reading. That’s what bodies do. Let’s be humble and proud at once: it is not about words. The land created the deer trail imaged below, at the intersection between gravity and the architecture of deer skeletons and musculature. Our bodies follow it. Words are no different.

In this way, humans are an invention of language, and are kept by it. It might prompt them to create the proto-petroglyphs and proto-sculpture of the cliff-face above, or it might simply open through the physical experience of human bodies into narrative. 

If you know how to read these artful transfers of energy, you can translate them into cultural amulets, such as words, baskets, houses, food stores, stories, spirit traditions, and by extension into the worlds of those amulets, into automobiles, avocado peelers, radial tires and so much more, even private castles made out of chipped aspen trees, glued together in sheets, hung on the milled bodies of spruce trees, sheathed in plastic, and decorated with a thin patina of manufactured stone to assert its place in global culture …

… and even the red sun from the smoke of a summer of fires caused by the failure to maintain this story.

 

Folk traditions are serious when they say that the earth is our mother. It is not a metaphor. It is not an abstraction. It is not an idea, or a symbol, or a myth. My ancestors say the same thing as the tradition of the indigenous people of this place, the syilx. We are interwoven. The land speaks us. In Canada, the country which has laid claim to this space of earth-human weaving, bridges between indigenous and non-indigenous people are fraught. They needn’t be. That’s the language, or in the case of Canada a system of Indian reserves and land privatization, that determines these boundaries. Let’s be humble and admit that. Let’s be proud, and admit that we know the way forward.

Every word we speak comes from our ancestors.

Every one.

 

Everything else keeps us on our reservations. Yes, “our” reservations. Indian Reserves are not just there to contain indigenous people. They are there to contain everyone else as well. Let’s take that wall down.

 

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