“To be native to a place we must learn to speak its language.”
― Robin Wall Kimmerer
In honor of Native American Heritage month, RCWMS lifts up the words of indigenous peoples. What truths are they naming that can tell us more about their history, and our shared heritage? We turn to their words to heal our collective relationship with the land and with one another.
Botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer works to name what is missing. “To name and describe you must first see, and science polishes the gift of seeing. I honor the strength of the language that has become a second tongue to me. The language scientists speak, however precise, is based on an omission, a grave loss in translation from the native languages of these shores. My first taste of the missing language was the word Puwpowee, which translates as ‘the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight.’”
In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer’s remarkable collection of essays, ideas of recovery and restoration are consistent themes, which stretch from the personal to the global. Kimmerer tells the story of recovering for herself the enduring Potawatomi language of her people, one internet class at a time.
Another Native writer who “keeps the things we ought not to forget alive and present,” Joy Harjo was appointed the United States poet laureate in 2019. She is the first Native American Poet Laureate in the history of the position. About Harjo, poet Alicia Ostiker has said,
“Joy Harjo has worked to expand our American language, culture, and soul. A Creek Indian and student of First Nation history, Harjo is rooted simultaneously in the natural world, in earth—especially the landscape of the American southwest—and in the spirit world.…Her visionary justice-seeking art transforms personal and collective bitterness to beauty, fragmentation to wholeness, and trauma to healing.”
In his review for NPR, Craig Morgan Teicher argues that Harjo’s latest collection of poetry, An American Sunrise, “tells the tale of a fierce and ongoing fight for sovereignty, integrity, and basic humanity, a plea that we as Americans take responsibility for what’s been—and being done—in our names. Her work is also a stark reminder of what poetry is for and what it can do: how it can hold contradictory truths in mind, how it keeps the things we ought not to forget alive and present.”
The closing lines of the title poem of An American Sunrise epitomize this truth: “We are still America. We know the rumors of our demise. We spit them out. They die soon.”
Many non-Native Americans today fall into the trap of perpetuating rumors of Native Americans’ demise. For example, a number of Oklahoma cities still celebrate the “Land Rush of 1889” with festivals complete with covered wagons and reenactments. This land rush came about after the Civil war, when the U.S. government targeted southern tribes that had aligned with the Confederacy, forcing them off their land in Indian Territory. Into these now “Unassigned Territories,” newly devoid of people, white settlers were encouraged to stake claims.
For those of us who are not Native American, instead of celebrating our ancestors’ role in oppressing and killing Native Americans, let’s identify what is missing in those narratives, and take responsibility for what is still being done in our names. See below for more resources.
Land Acknowledgment Guidelines: HERE.
Indigenous Communities and Environmental Justice: HERE.
More about Harjo and her work: HERE.
Resources from UNC’s American Indian Center: HERE.
We Are Water Protectors: An Illustrated Celebration of Nature, Native Heritage, and the Courage to Stand Up for Earth: HERE.