Wisdom Still Sits in Places

Relationship between language and landscape

“Over 2,000 nations of Indigenous peoples have gone extinct in the western hemisphere and one nation disappears from the Amazon rainforest every year. There is a direct relationship between the loss of cultural diversity and the loss of biodiversity. Wherever Indigenous peoples still remain, there is also a corresponding enclave of biodiversity.” Winona LaDuke

It is becoming increasingly recognized that in order to tackle the mounding volume of environmental issues we face as a planet, that indigenous knowledge and wisdom has a lot to teach us about how to co-exist with the rest of more-than-human world. Whilst making up less than 5% of the world’s population, indigenous peoples and communities protect and steward around 80% of global biodiversity. Unlike our encroaching capitalist civilization, indigenous cultures have typically lived in relative balance, coexisting within and as part of their geographic territories throughout their long histories. In order to tackle the problems we are facing I believe that we, non-indigenous peoples, need to relearn what it means to be indigenous.

But how do we go about becoming indigenous in a scattered and dispossessed world as peoples who are more and more cut off from their ancestral cultural roots? How can we do so without being guilty of cultural appropriation. How can we do so in a way that is inclusive and encourages diversity but at the same time discourages homogenization of regional cultures? These are major challenges and need a lot of work.

In this post I’ll explore how “indigenous languages” are intrinsically linked to specific places and how this linkage enables an inherent framework of ecological sustainability, tying an indigenous culture to the place in the world where it exists. I’ll follow this with a later post looking at the situation that most of us face today of how we relearn how to be indigenous to the place that we find ourselves situated in, particularly if we do not identify as belonging to the “indigenous” culture who historically reside here. When referring to the idea of “becoming indigenous”, rather than somehow becoming a member of an indigenous peoples, I’m defining indigenous simply as “occurring naturally in a particular place.”

When defining the criteria as to who “indigenous peoples” are, the UN writes:

“indigenous peoples are inheritors and practitioners of unique cultures and ways of relating to people and the environment. They have retained social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live. Despite their cultural differences, indigenous peoples from around the world share common problems related to the protection of their rights as distinct peoples.

Indigenous peoples have sought recognition of their identities, ways of life and their right to traditional lands, territories and natural resources for years, yet throughout history, their rights have always been violated. Indigenous peoples today, are arguably among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups of people in the world. The international community now recognizes that special measures are required to protect their rights and maintain their distinct cultures and way of life.”

Indigenous people’s “unique cultures” emerged from within the context of the geographic locations the peoples found themselves and from where these developed. Often a crucial part of these various cultures is their languages. In these “indigenous” languages there are often embedded concepts that cannot be fully understood with just English or other dominant mega-languages. Through these there might be glimpses of worldviews more compatible to living in harmony with the natural world. The traditional place-based knowledge and applications of such knowledge is embedded in these languages. The survival of these languages and through them these cultures and ways of knowing is directly links to ways of living within a balance with ecosystems and with the preservation of the world’s remaining biodiversity. “Language, in part, shaped thinking and culture and brought a great variety of ways of using and tending the land. Tribal languages simulated the sounds of nature, reinforcing ties to places.”

In “Sacred Ecology” when talking about indigenous people’s ecological knowledge, Fikret Berkes writes “knowledge is a situated process tied to a specific place” and that “many indigenous cultures have developed ways to read the narrative of the land.”

Keith Basso’s “Wisdom Sits in Places” explored this idea brilliantly in a wayfinding study of the process the Western Apache tell and retell the stories of the land that are embedded in the names that have been given to places. Possibly the most famous example of this is the way that many Australian Aboriginal peoples are able to navigate the various Australian landscapes via the extensive systems of “songlines” or “dreaming tracks”, a vital part of the distinct aboriginal groups of the continent’s culture connecting the people to the land. Many of these songlines cover huge distances, crossing boundaries between different languages and cultures.

Interestingly, poet Thomas Kinsella picks up on something similar in Ireland, when commenting on “the continuing preoccupation” with giving places names in early and medieval Irish literature and how the narrative of most famous Irish mythological Epic the “Táin Bó Cúailnge” often serves as a device to describe how different towns and rivers originally came to be named. With the help of the stories “the entire country became a mnemonic that enabled a people to recall who they were and how the land came to be theirs.” In Scotland, “Gaelic culture has a practice of dense naming of the landscape “even to areas the size of a spade.” A look at most areas on an OS map of the Gaelic heartlands of the west of Scotland and this density of the naming is very apparent. But as a non-Gaelic speaker, the names of these places mean nothing to me. They are devoid of any stories, metaphor, context or anything. Indeed, in some places these words appear to have been translated phonetically and in doing so, entirely devoid of meaning and now are just gibberish sounds and letters. A Gael looking at the map however would be able to immediately read history, legend and ecology and meaning into the same page.

Raghnaid Sandilands, a cartographer and translator based on the south side of Loch Ness, has written a series of intriguing blog posts where she explores the Gaelic place names of the empty moors between Strathnairn and Strathdearn. In one post she focuses on features with the word “caochain” in it. Translated as “little blind one, i.e. a burn or rivulet so obscured by vegetation that it is hidden,” the 1st edition Scottish 6 inch OS map for the area she counted 27 caochain/ little blind ones on the moor. These include descriptive names of poetic precision or historic fact such as: Caochan Bad an t-sneachda (of the place of the snow), caochan na moine Guirme (of the blue/ verdant peatmoss) and Caochan na Poite (of the illicit still). But compared to the 27 named Caochain in the 1st edition, she could only find 3 printed in the latest 1: 50 000 OS map for the area. In a very real sense, these names and the information encoded within them are disappearing.

“That these small features were named, and in such detail, goes some way to proving how fundamentally connected the Gaels who named this landscape were to the place and suggests that language allows for attention to detail and facilitates an ability to notice things in nature, that adds value and interest to life here.”

In another post she writes about “An Sealbhanaich,” a large plateau between the two straths, “a place doesn’t appear on any OS map or in the place name books,” but which she offers the possible translations as “the place of the herds” or “the place of the herding”. The name suggests a place with a history of transhumance. At the basin of the plateau, again we find a great number of colourfully place names which have knowledge and details encoded in them market in the 1st edition OS map: Cárn na Loinne — cairn of the shimmer/ heat haze; Allt Uisge Geamhraidh — burn of the winter water; Cárn na Sguabaig — cairn of the sharp gusting wind; Allt na Slánaich — burn of the healing (there is a mineral well marked nearby); and Cárn Caochan Ghiubhais — cairn of the pine streamlet.

It could be very easy to look at landscapes such as these and think of them as barren wilderness of no human value but these names show that this was not always the way. “These names tell of other times and speak of human capacity, a diversity of habitat and wildlife, an awareness of conditions in the sky and underfoot, old beliefs maybe… This place had its own function. The people had purpose and a busy working life and spoke another language, Gaelic…” Today “An Sealbhanaich is just another grouse moor and the only signs of human life there are traps of different sorts and butts.”

The languages of indigenous peoples offer a portal into ways of seeing and understanding the world that could be different to those ways of seeing through more dominant languages. In Pimatisiwin: Walking in a Good Way, which looks at the languages of the Anishinaabe people of North America, an interviewee discusses how connected language and indigenous identity are:

“As Aboriginal people we look at things in our way; a lot of that is rooted in the language. It comes directly from the language. [It’s] just the way we see the world, the concepts we have and the understanding we have in general. When non-Aboriginal people want to have an understanding or try to understand something from an Aboriginal perspective, I honestly don’t think they can. Our worldview is rooted in the language and it is drastically different from other worldviews. An example is the way we classify things as animate and inanimate. English speaking people consider rocks and trees inanimate and if you want to break it down in a grammatical sense we can talk about those suffixes like mitick (tree), mitickok (trees, an animate suffix). It shows that we see it as being a living thing with spirit. Asin, asiniik (rocks). And when you put the “ok” sound, suffix inninowok (men), ekwewok (women) those are living things whereas things with an “an” suffix like onagun (dish), onagunan (dishes) are inanimate and they are not living things. That’s the best way I can understand it. It’s different if we speak the language. If we speak about he or she, the context is always in the third person. If we are talking about an action, we express it in a verb. Pimosay, he or she is walking. There is no distinction between he and she. We use only the third person form.”

Another Anishinaabe speaker goes on to says “Does it confuse you when I refer to animals as people? In my language, this is not confusing. You see, we consider both animals and people to be living things. In fact, when my people see a creature in the distance, the thing they say is: Awiiyak (Someone is there). It is not that my people fail to distinguish animals from people. Rather, they address them with equal respect. Once they are near and identify the creatures’ shadows, then they use their particular name.”

In not understanding languages that have developed within the specific places that occupy them, we lose a huge amount of embedded knowledge about these landscapes, the various living forms and stories which occupy them and with the worldviews encoded within it all. Renowned anthropologist Wade Davis writes “a language, of course, is not merely a set of grammatical rules or a vocabulary. It is a flash of the human spirit, the vehicle by which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material world. Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind, a watershed of thought, an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities.”

When we lose a language, we are in danger of losing not only an understanding but also the inherent sacred connections and bonds between these landscapes and the indigenous peoples who dwell there. According to Emergence Magazine, “language survival is directly linked to the preservation of biodiversity and living in balance with our ecosystems.” This, unfortunately is now what appears to be happening and doing so at an ever-increasing pace.

In the modern era and especially from World War 2 onwards, we’ve seen a great problem for language diversity. There are currently over 7000 different languages in the world, but we are now entering a situation where all but the strongest 3–400 are in the process of being lost. 53% of the world’s languages are spoken by just 1% of the world’s population; the flipside of which is that 1% of the world’s languages are spoken by 80% of the world’s population. As minority language professor Conchúr Ó Giollagáin puts it, modernity and post-modernity has been a “cultural chainsaw which has pruned away the linguistic diversity. It has been very, very difficult for minority groups to negotiate modernity in a way that is sustainable.”

According to National Geographic every two weeks a language dies. With it goes a world-view and an understanding of the place it co-evolved in. Wade Davis makes the strong case that “no biologist, for example, would suggest that 50 percent of all species are moribund. Yet, this, the most apocalyptic scenario in the realm of biological diversity, scarcely approaches what we know to be the most optimistic scenario in the realm of cultural diversity. The key indicator, the canary in the coal mine if you will, is language loss.”

With regards Irish Gaelic, Ó Giollagáin says “Irish is the spoilt child of minority languages in the world. It has the most minority language institutional provision of any culture in the world, and still we deal with this issue of endangerment. We are probably now onto the last generation of communal Irish speakers unless we are able to come up with a new mechanism of supporting these communities.” In the last few remaining Gaelic speaking regions of the Western Isles, a recent survey by Ó Giollagáin’s team indicated that fewer than 4% of preschoolers at the point of enrolment to schools could speak or had an understanding of Gaelic. “Within the remaining Gaelic vernacular communities of Scotland, the social use and transmission of Gaelic is at the point of collapse.”

The difficulty, in the context of this piece, is that his research indicates that the strategy minority language institutions take of spreading their resources across wide areas to try to inspire “non-native” speakers to learn, rather than focusing in on the last remaining pockets where the languages are still spoken, isn’t working. In the Scottish Gaelic context, the institutional focus is at a national level with aspirations to have Gaelic as a second national language. The reality is that, in contrast to some of the remaining heartland areas with high percentages of gaelic still spoken in the household, at a national level only 0.3% of households across Scotland speak Gaelic intergenerationally in the house. This indicates that in order for Gaelic to survive another generation, the resources and provisions that it’s institutes have need to be directed primarily at creating the social conditions necessary in the remaining enclaves where Gaelic is still spoken day to day, to keep the language vigorous. In the context of “Beurla Reagaird” the secret cover tongue language of Highland’s travelling people, Timothy Neat writes “In more traditional and less institutionalised communities, the process of transmission is an integral part of the lived culture… The lifestyle is the culture, the culture is the lifestyle.

Any minority language that is surrounded by seas of a dominant language struggles to remain functional in normal societal situations where the dominant language is used. This means that in practice, for example, if you are struggling to find what you want in a shop in Gaelic Scotland, the shop assistant will not ask if they can be of help in Gaelic (the minority language) but ask in English (the dominant language). The examples from Irish and Scots Gaelic that Ó Giollagáin cites are local manifestations of a global trend of endangerment. It is obvious that the current strategy for helping minority languages survive the dominance of the mega-languages isn’t working and that something has to change. Yet the issues of minority languages and cultures are treated as individual cases for individual cultures rather than treating the pattern that is happening to the minority cultures as a global collective.

This leads to the dilemma of how to support indigenous communities, in this case the Gaels, retaining the things that make them culturally indigenous and ensuring their cultural survival, but at the same time recognising we are in a post-modern and dispersed world, and Scotland now homes a diverse array of peoples, how can this indigenous culture and with it understanding of place be open to “non-indigenous” peoples??

References —

Anderson, M. Kat Tending the Wild: Native American knowledge and the management of California’s natural resources

Berkes, Fikret Sacred Ecology

Davis, Wade The Wayfinders: Why ancient wisdom matters in the modern world

LaDuke, Winona All Our Relations: Native Struggle for Land and Life

Linklater, Andro Owning the earth: The transforming history of land ownership

MacKinnon, Iain Education for life: Human ecology Pedagogy as a Bridge to Indigenous Knowing









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