and worldview of the colonizer are once again in a showdown with
the indigenous worldview. Knowing this, the water protectors at
Standing Rock were joined by thousands of non-native allies, who
also speak with the voice of resistance, who speak for the living
world, for the grammar of animacy.
Thankfully, human history is marked by an ever-expanding
recognition of personhood, from the time when aboriginals were
not seen as human, when slaves were counted as three-fifths of a
person, and when a woman was worth less than a man. Language,
personhood, and politics have always been linked to human rights.
Will we have the wisdom to expand the circle yet again? Naming is
the beginning of justice.
Around the world, ideas of justice for nature are emerging in
political and legal arenas. In New Zealand, when the Whanganui
River was threatened, indigenous Maori leadership earned protection for the sacred waters by getting the river declared a legal
“person” with rights to its own well-being. The constitutions of
indigenous-led Ecuador and Bolivia enshrine the rights of Mother
Nature. The Swiss amended their constitution to define animals
as beings instead of objects. Just last year, the Ho-Chunk Nation
in Wisconsin amended its tribal constitution, recognizing that
“ecosystems and natural communities within the Ho-Chunk territory possess an inherent, fundamental, and inalienable right to
exist and thrive.” This legal structure will allow the tribe to protect its homelands from mining for fracking sand and fossil fuel
extraction because the land will have legal standing as a person.
Supported by the revolutionary initiatives of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, the burgeoning Rights of Nature
movement is flowering from the roots of animacy, from the personhood of all beings. We’ll need a new pronoun for that.
THE STUDENTS COMMENT that they’d like to use ki and kin, but
stumble over the changes in phrasing. “This would be much eas-
ier if I’d learned it as a child,” they say. They’re right of course.
Not only because language patterns are established early in de-
velopment, but because children quite naturally speak of other
beings as persons. I delight in listening to my grandson, who
like most toddlers watching a butterfly flit across the yard says,
“He is flying,” or “She sits on a flower.” Children speak at first
with a universal grammar of animacy, until we teach them not
to. My grandson is also completely smitten with bulldozers and
will watch them endlessly, but despite their motion and their
roar he is not confused as to their nature: he calls them “it.”
I am also introducing him to Potawatomi words. In honor of
the language that was taken from his great-grandfather, I want to
give that language back to my grandson, so he will never be alone
in the world and live surrounded by kin. He already has the basics
of animacy; he hugs trees and kisses moss. My heart cracked with
happiness when he looked up from the blueberries in his oatmeal
and said, “Nokomis, are these minan?”
He’s growing up in a time when respect among peoples has
grown threadbare and there are gaping holes in the fabric of life.
The mending we need will require reweaving the relationship between humans and our more-than-human kin. Maybe now, in this
time when the myth of human exceptionalism has proven illusory,
we will listen to intelligences other than our own, to kin. To get
there, we may all need a new language to help us honor and be
open to the beings who will teach us. I hope my grandson will always know the other beings as a source of counsel and inspiration,
and listen more to butterflies than to bulldozers. A
This article was made possible through the support of the Kalliopeia
In the Defile
We wake so rarely together, and when we do
the leaves have already left horses for trees.
We didn’t realize when
moving to the canyon, we’d
given up sunsets for good. Gold and
red for cottonwoods and clay.
Here, woodpeckers grouse in the piñon boughs
and your sun-brown hands gather the brownest shells.
We root about like curve-billed thrashers,
silent beneath our chosen trees, try not to speak
of the current news. Pitch-laden
needles pressed to sore knees and palms.
A flicker lands on a branch above,
and we look up but beyond, to
the other side of canyon where
leaf-bare horses sleek and resplendent
gallop through ochred grass.
And when your cupped hand pours
piñons into mine, the edge of your palm
angled to my own, there is relief in knowing.
I take it all down — documented.
— James Thomas Stevens