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Teachings From the Tree of Life, part 27: Finding the Missing Link

Namebine-giizis (Suckerfish Moon)/Zaagibagaa-giizis (Budding Moon) - May 15, 2024


Nanda-gikendanowin ("Seeking Answers") painting by Zhaawano Giizhik
Nanda-gikendanowin ("Seeking Answers") ©2024 Zhaawano Giizhik


When you pray

you use language

the spirits understand.

When you sing

you use language

the spirits can hear.

When you drum

you use language

the spirits can dance to.

Words are spirits. Words are messengers.

Words are songs.

To pray is to seek,

to seek is to know,

to know is to heal, to heal is to live.


©2024 Zhaawano Giizhik


Boozhoo! This morning, as I was browsing the Internet, I stumbled on an article, a thesis submitted in 2015 by Gail Blaney. I forgot what I had been looking for and started to read her thesis, titled "I will Honor My family By Living My Language," about the language of her people, the Tla'amin First Nation of British Columbia.

In the introduction she said that a whole generation of her People used to mourn for the loss of the old language. But then, she went on, when a new generation emerged, most stopped caring and moved on. But not everyone forgot. Some feel a deep hole inside themselves. Some feel the echo of that aching feeling deep within their heart and soul and keep looking for ways to, and I quote "fill that missing part, that hole deep within oneself."

What Gail Blaney said in her introduction immediately inspired me into writing this post. I can deeply relate to her words, and I know many others can, too. There is undeniably a missing link between us and the world of our ancestors and this missing link is the language.

It is commonly understood that the original Peoples of Turtle Island (North America) are on a crossroad. They have almost reached a point of no return. There is only a handful of first-language speakers alive. Most Indigenous languages in what is now the United states and Canada are critically endangered, if not extinct.

There is undeniably a missing link between us and the world of our ancestors and this missing link is the language.

For centuries, the European colonizers have suppressed use of Indigenous languages, establishing their own languages for official communications, and beat, starved, or otherwise abused children when they spoke their Native languages in governmental educational institutes and Catholic boarding schools. As a result, Indigenous communities have dramatically suffered from loss of speakers – and, consequently, loss of culture.

Indigenous languages are not only methods of communication, but also extensive and complex systems of knowledge that have developed over many thousands of years. They are central to the identity of Indigenous peoples, the preservation of their cultures, worldviews, and visions. Also, in a political sense, languages are powerful expression of self-determination. When Indigenous languages are under threat, so too are Indigenous peoples themselves.


White Man Has Been Here painting by Zhaawano Giizhik
"White Man has been here. How can you tell? We're speaking English." ©2024 Zhaawano Giizhik

Also, Indigenous languages are closely connected to the environment they are spoken in; they contain rich, detailed and technical knowledge about the flora, fauna, and habitat of that area. When the language disappears, this knowledge disappears too, never to return.

Indigenous languages are generally speaking more complex and unique than those of the colonial suppressors. Because of this complexity and uniqueness, the languages which are most at risk of disappearing are those that have the most to teach the world.

If the languages become extinct, then the wisdom and knowledge and experience they carry are lost to humanity forever. 

Our languages are central to the identity of our peoples, the preservation of our cultures, worldviews, and visions. Also, in a political sense, languages are powerful expression of our self-determination. When our languages are under threat, so too are we as Indigenous peoples.

If the Indigenous languages spoken on Turtle Island do one thing, it's to demonstrate that human speech is not limited to the spoken word. We also have our songs and our drums and rattles. But even when we chant our songs or beat the drum or shake our rattles in a ceremonial or ritual context, words, either spoken or sung, accompany these ways of communication with the spirit world. Then there is the role of the 'linguistic' artist. To 'linguistic' visual artists like me, the combination of image and language is an powerful tool in exploring one's culture and the natural world, and, in extension, in communication with the entities that dwell in the spiritual realm.

Our language holds a myriad of stories, songs, protocols, dances, family and clan histories, and a deep connection with other human beings and with plants, animals, and spirits. This is why language is the foundation of our culture and of our close relationship with nature and the supernatural phenomena and beings that surround us.

To 'linguistic' visual artists like me, image and language are both important tools in exploring culture and nature, and, in extension, in communication with the entities that dwell in the spiritual realm.

To know the language is to truly comprehend its complete and complex nature. Only by speaking the language, and speak it right, we can begin to mentally grasp the worldview in all its layers and the spiritual depth it reflects.

But what does that mean, speak the language right? Is there also a wrong way to speak it?

It is only through learning the language the way our ancestors spoke it that a clear line between our Indigenous worldview and, for example, English and French can be maintained. The key to understanding our unique, spiritual, cyclical relationship with nature and the world we live in is therefore to be found in learning the language in a right way meaning, untainted by an Euro-centric worldview and the linear grammar rules of the colonizers' languages.

So, how do we fill that missing part, that invisible but deeply felt hole inside ourselves? How do we find the missing link that separates us from our identity?

If you are lucky enough to live in a traditional community, if possible, respectfully approach a first-language speaker. If you live in a rural area or if there are no fluent speakers around, consult dictionaries and wordlists and start reading the words aloud and learn them by heart, and do this every day. Carefully pronounce the words and often repeat the words in your head. Talking dictionaries (the ones that have audio recordings) are especially helpful. Why? Because they teach you how the words sound. if you want to express, and safeguard, the richness of your language, a phonetic and phonic approach is essential. Remember, having an extensive vocabulary is helpful, but being able to sound out the words in a correct way is even more important. This is an essential rule of thumb: Whatever it is you want to say, it has to sound right. The same goes for grammar: In learning the language correct, sounds do not depend on grammar, yet grammar should always depend on sounds. Grammar (including syntax) are helpful, but it is the sounds that inspirit and empower a language.

Start from an intuitive understanding of the sounds of words you pick up along the way. Whenever possible, listen to recordings of Elders and teachers and record yourself to hear where you can improve. Remember, the old people used to speak slowly, thoughtful, never rapidly. Take each word slowly, breaking it into parts or reading it backward if necessary. Most importantly, try to practice every day with words at first, and then phrases, so that you become comfortable speaking out loud. If it sounds right, fine, if it doesn't, just regroup the sounds, apply the sounds to specific words or groups until it sounds right and conveys the meaning of what you want to say. If a fluent speaker frowns on you and tells you it's not grammatically correct, don't let it discourage you. It might sound odd but that's OK, if it sounds good, it sounds good! All you have to do is open your heart and listen...

In the end, despite your estrangement with the ways of your ancestors and the language they spoke, learning the language in a spiritual, sound-oriented context will, eventually, fill the missing part that has bothered you for such a long time. It will reconnect you with what and whom you thought you lost and, not unimportantly, ensure that you are still recognizable by the ancestors when it is time to leave this world and return home.

Miigwech gibizindaw noongom, thank you for listening today.


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1 Comment

3 days ago

Thank you for explaining why I was missing my relatives language and voices, crying and happy for the healing knowledge. Your words touched my heart.

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