This contribution is edited from a series of conversations with Tiokasin Ghosthorse, project producers, Neville Gabie and Philippa Bayley, and fellow contributor Malcolm Maclean.
Neville: As you have described it, Lakota is a language of verbs because everything in our world is alive, in motion, active. That idea completely changed my thinking because suddenly I could no longer see a tree as passive, but as actively being – ‘treeing’.
Tiokasin: If you see something in motion and suddenly it stops then you have to noun-ify it and it does not have any life – it does not have any motion… It becomes ‘a thing’. To think in the ‘earth paradigm’ (rather than in the ‘human paradigm’) – when you are seeing something in motion it is a more alive way to see and feel something because you are part of it. Your eyes are actually a part of that energy of motion, so you describe it that way. And then you describe the energy that you are feeling. So these two ways of understanding – motion and energy – are probably as close a way of getting to say how the language is structured.
The English language is not effective enough because we use concepts which are very basic building blocks. Concepts get in the way. Concepts put barriers in the mind and in the spirit too.
Neville: I remember you were saying that the human body and the trunk of a tree have the same word in Lakota – čaŋ. Can you say more?
Tiokasin: čaŋ is a tree – so we are talking about a torso, we are talking about the finger, the arm, and our hair is the leaves, you can go on, and our toes are the roots. It’s not just that your body is a tree – it’s the wíyukčaŋ – knowing, consciousness. You hear the čaŋ in it? So, in Lakota thinking, when you fragment the word: wí-yu-kčaŋ… Wí is the sun and to us, sun is a verb – it is being and it is always alive. And the yu is like the consciousness that is given to the tree and the tree is acknowledging the sun. This is not just us as the body of the tree, but this is the tree of who we are. We can spiral out into a bigger thought: Wow, the consciousness of the sun is the consciousness of the tree and vice versa. And we are the acknowledgement of it because look how we are made. We don’t have the language for that in English. I am speaking so many English words to describe one little thing!
Wíyukčaŋ – that’s knowing, consciousness – the wíyukčaŋ is also involving the moon and the stars and the trees of the earth and how they communicate, and we are in that as humans.
Philippa: You have talked about people becoming ‘technical human doings’ rather than ‘organic human beings’. Can you say more?
Tiokasin: In the older world, in the petroglyphs and hieroglyphs, you can see humans and nature; in some of the prophecies the Hopi have their feet below the ground as if they are planted. And the technical people are going nowhere, they are not planted. So that means their minds have become ethereal and disconnected. We are at a point now where there is still a chance for the majority to start thinking differently, more earth-oriented. There are a few who retain that sobriety with the earth. Otherwise we become intoxicated with our own humanness and get into the patterns of thinking we have superior intelligence, and that’s defined by concepts in the language.
It’s not progress to lose consciousness with the earth. Where is the language to keep that aliveness of the earth? You see how much confidence children have with the earth. They have a lot of confidence with the earth and then that’s torn down and replaced with false confidence. When my friends come from the more urbanized settings they are in nature and it’s all new and they are afraid of it, because they have no confidence in nature. So they will get their manuals out, so they can identify, but the butterfly is not thinking about identity.
When you are not confident with the earth, you lose your roots. But what I see is that as native people – we can wander but we know who we are. In the USA we are landless, we are landless as native people, but we are not homeless. Ok, temporarily we don’t have the land, but who said that we had it anyway? So those binding languages that are forcing you to say ‘you need to think this way – let’s make a treaty’ and yet history says ‘but where is your contract with the earth?’ That is our responsibility – being with the earth making sure that she is maintaining all life including the little human being.
Malcolm: That was a wonderful thing you said there about being landless, but not homeless. It applies in my part of the world as well. We have a famous poet here, Norman MacCaig, and I have to paraphrase it… ‘Who does this land belong to? The man who claims to possess it, or me who is possessed by it? ‘
Tiokasin: What if we thought in terms like that? You belong to the earth? And if you think like that then your language is confident. If you maintain a relationship with the earth, rather than control of the earth, that all life will be here. We started by saying ‘if we need the earth, does the earth need us?’ In a Western context we would say ‘of course we can save the earth; of course we can do this’ but that is an industrialized way of thinking and at the same time we are thinking she is going to flick us off like a flea. It’s not even a question. If the earth needs us because we are the earth it’s a sense of responsibility: ‘Yes, of course we need the earth, but of course the earth needs us.’ We are here in a relationship, so our language is all of relationship.
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