keeps me going is the pulse of animacy in every sentence. There
are words for states of being that have no equivalent in English.
The language that my grandfather was forbidden to speak is composed primarily of verbs, ways to describe the vital beingness of
the world. Both nouns and verbs come in two forms, the animate
and the inanimate. You hear a blue jay with a
di=erent verb than you hear an airplane, distinguishing that which possesses the quality of
life from that which is merely an object. Birds,
bugs, and berries are spoken of with the same
respectful grammar as humans are, as if we
were all members of the same family. Because
we are. There is no it for nature. Living beings
are referred to as subjects, never as objects,
and personhood is extended to all who breathe
and some who don’t. I greet the silent boulder
people with the same respect as I do the talkative chickadees.
It’s no wonder that our language was forbidden. The language we speak is an a=ront to the ears of the colonist in every
way, because it is a language that challenges the fundamental
tenets of Western thinking—that humans alone are possessed
of rights and all the rest of the living world exists for human use.
Those whom my ancestors called relatives were renamed natural
resources. In contrast to verb-based Potawatomi, the English language is made up primarily of nouns, somehow appropriate for
a culture so obsessed with things.
At the same time that the language of the land was being suppressed, the land itself was being converted from the communal
responsibility of native people to the private property of settlers, in
a one-two punch of colonization. Replacing the aboriginal idea of
land as a revered living being with the colonial understanding of
land as a warehouse of natural resources was essential to Manifest
Destiny, so languages that told a di=erent story were an enemy. Indigenous languages and thought were as much an impediment to
land-taking as were the vast herds of bu=alo, and so were likewise
targeted for extermination.
Linguistic imperialism has always been a tool of coloniza-
tion, meant to obliterate history and the visibility of the people
who were displaced along with their languages. But five hundred
years later, in a renamed landscape, it has become a nearly invis-
ible tool. We forget the original names, that the Hudson River
was “the river that runs both ways,” that Devils Tower was the
sacred Bear Butte of the Lakota. Beyond the renaming of places,
I think the most profound act of linguistic imperialism was the
replacement of a language of animacy with one of objectification
of nature, which renders the beloved land as lifeless object, the
forest as board feet of timber. Because we speak and live with
this language every day, our minds have also been colonized by
this notion that the nonhuman living world and the world of in-
animate objects have equal status. Bulldozers, buttons, berries,
and butterflies are all referred to as it, as things, whether they are
inanimate industrial products or living beings.
English has come to be the dominant language of commerce,
in which contracts to convert a forest to a copper mine are
written. It’s just the right language for the purpose, because
the forest and the copper ore are equivalent “its.” English
encodes human exceptionalism, which privileges the needs
and wants of humans above all others and understands us as
detached from the commonwealth of life. But I wonder if it
was always that way. I can’t help but think that the land spoke
clearly to early Anglo-Saxons, just as it did to the Potawatomi.
Robert Macfarlane’s wonderful book Landmarks, about land and
language, documents myriad place names of great particularity
that illuminate an ancient Anglo-Saxon intimacy with the land
and her beings. It is said that we are known by the company we
keep, and I wonder if English sharpened its verbal ax and lost
the companionship of oaks and primroses when it began to keep
company with capitalism. I want to suggest that we can begin
to mend that rift — with pronouns. As a reluctant student of the
formalities of writing, I never would have imagined that I would
one day be advocating for grammar as a tool of the revolution.
SOME OF THE STUDENTS in the cemetery have read the chapter in my book Braiding Sweetgrass that invokes the grammar of
animacy. They are taken aback by the implicit assumption of the
hierarchy of being on which English grammar is built, something
they had not considered before. They dive headfirst into the philosophical implications of English-language pronouns.
One student, Carson, writes in his essay that it is a numbing
word: “It numbs us to the consequences of what we do and allows us to take advantage of nature, to harm it even, free of guilt,
My chance of knowing my native language
and your chance of ever hearing it were
stolen in the Indian boarding schools
where native children were forbidden to
speak their own language.