(Continued from page 18) Writing as an indigenous plant
woman I might say, “My plant relatives have shared healing
knowledge with me and given me a root medicine.” Instead of
ignoring our mutual relationship, I celebrate it. Yet English grammar demands that I refer to my esteemed healer as it, not as a respected teacher, as all plants are understood to be in Potawatomi.
That has always made me uncomfortable. I want a word for beingness. Can we unlearn the language of objectification and throw o=
colonized thought? Can we make a new world with new words?
Inspired by the grammar of animacy in Potawatomi that feels
so right and true, I’ve been searching for a new expression that
could be slipped into the English language in place of it when
we are speaking of living beings. Mumbling to myself through
the woods and fields, I’ve tried many di=erent words, hoping
that one would sound right to my leafy or feathered companions. There was one that kept rising through my musings. So I
sought the counsel of my elder and language guide, Stewart King,
and explained my purpose in seeking a word to instill animacy
in English grammar, to heal disrespect. He rightly cautioned
that “our language holds no responsibility to heal the society that
sought to exterminate it.” With deep respect for his response, I
thought also of how the teachings of our traditional wisdom
might one day be needed as medicine for a broken world. So I
asked him if there was a word in our language that captured the
simple but miraculous state of just being. And of course there
is. “Aakibmaadiziiwin,” he said, “means ‘a being of the earth.’”
I sighed with relief and gratitude for the existence of that word.
However, those beautiful syllables would not slide easily into English to take the place of the pronoun it. But I wondered about that
first sound, the one that came to me as I walked over the land.
With full recognition and celebration of its Potawatomi roots,
might we hear a new pronoun at the beginning of the word, from
the “aaki” part that means land? Ki to signify a being of the living
earth. Not he or she, but ki. So that when the robin warbles on a
summer morning, we can say, “Ki is singing up the sun.” Ki runs
through the branches on squirrel feet, ki howls at the moon, ki’s
branches sway in the pine-scented breeze, all alive in our language
as in our world.
We’ll need a plural form of course, to speak of these many
beings with whom we share the planet. We don’t need to borrow from Potawatomi since—lo and behold— we already have
the perfect English word for them: kin. Kin are ripening in the
fields; kin are nesting under the eaves; kin are flying south for
the winter, come back soon. Our words can be an antidote to human exceptionalism, to unthinking exploitation, an antidote to
loneliness, an opening to kinship. If words can make the world,
can these two little sounds call back the grammar of animacy
that was scrubbed from the mouths of children at Carlisle?
I have no illusions that we can suddenly change language
and, with it, our worldview, but in fact English evolves all the
time. We drop words we don’t need anymore and invent words
that we do. The Oxford Children’s Dictionary notoriously dropped
the words acorn and buttercup in favor of bandwidth and
chat-room, but restored them after public pressure. I don’t think that
we need words that distance us from nature; we need words that
heal that relationship, that invite us into an inclusive worldview
of personhood for all beings.
As I’ve sent these two little words out into the world like seeds
on the wind, they have fallen here and there on fertile ground.
Several writers have incorporated them into children’s books
and into music. Readers have reported that the very sound, the
phoneme pronounced “kee,” has resonance with other words of
similar meaning. Ki is a parallel spelling of chi —the word for
the inherent life energy that flows through all things. It finds
harmony with qui or “who” in Latinate languages. I’ve been told
it is the name of a Sumerian Earth goddess and the root of Turkic
words for tree. Could ki be a key to unlocking a new way of thinking, or remembering an ancient one?
But these responses are from nature writers, artists, teachers,
and philosophers; I want to know how young people, the language makers among us, react. Our little environmental college
is dominated by tree huggers, so if there were ever an audience
open to ki, they would be it.
WI TH ki and kin rattling around in their heads, the students walk
together in the cemetery again, playing with using the words and
seeing how they feel on their tongues and in their heads.
Steeped in the formalities of syntax, a fair number of stu-
dent questions revolve around wanting “rules” for the use of the
new words, rules that we don’t have. Is there a possessive case?
Where are the boundaries? “I could say ‘ki’ about this shrub,”
Renee says, “but what about the wind?”
“Yes,” I tell her, “in my language, the wind is understood as
As we stand beneath the stoutly branched oak, the students
debate how to use the words. If the tree is ki, what about the
acorns? They agree that the acorns are kin, a whole family of
little beings. The ground is also littered, in this unkempt por-
tion of the cemetery, with fallen branches. “Are these dead
limbs considered kin too? Even though they’re dead?” Evelyn
asks. “Looking at the dead branches on the ground, I found my-
self thinking a lot about firewood,” she says. “I’ve always spo-
ken—and thought—as if I was the one who made firewood.
But when I thought of that tree as ki, as a being, I suddenly saw
how preposterous that was. I didn’t make the firewood. The tree