Language of the day is all about decolonization or re-indigenization and I watch the conversations taking place all over the place by Nish and non-Nish alike discussing points of view on the subject. All the while we do this in english or french, because that's the mainstream language, and let's not forget to mention that colonizers have done everything they possibly could to kill off our languages to the point that most of us have to relearn our languages.
Oh, I'm sorry did I start this off in the middle of the conversation or have you just joined the decades-old conversation? Well, I'm going to continue as if you were here all along don't worry you'll catch up.
Languages that when we do start to relearn are obviously infected with colonizers' ideals. Take our word for “hello”, and how changing its meaning fundamentally shifts our whole language and therefore our way of thinking and perceiving the world and each other. “I see your light” is how it was first translated by colonizer priests and I had to ask myself why that would be changed, “why light?” This of course led to the bible and depictions of light in reference to people where people were seen with halos of light about them, light being the word describing a person's soul. Why would a colonizer translator use the word “light” then, why not use “soul” when we were saying “I see your soul” in greeting. Would it be because we were seen as savages and therefore could not possibly have souls, would having a soul, and a language based on the principle of souls put us on par with the colonizer who desperately needed us to be inferior, lesser than in order to stomach the carrying out of genocide?
Not having a soul. Being soul-less. Makes it easier to kill a baby when you think of it that way. But our language was always based on our spirit, on your spirit, on your soul, on our soul, the soul of all our relations. And if you've ever talked to a Nish you've heard that saying “All Our Relations” or “All My Relations” and maybe they talked about that for a while and you heard that it meant everything in creation. From insects, fish, trees, bipedal, and quadrupeds, to avians and the earth itself, the rocks, dirt and clouds, and sky and the stars above. That it included every living thing in existence and all those that have passed this way before and now are memory and just as importantly it includes all things yet to come.
We're all related, meaning we're all alive, or we're all creations of Gizheminido. That truth is in all our teachings, all our medicine, all things we share with each other and in our ceremonies; the very fabric of our culture is the spirit, the soul, the connection to all things in creation including our creator.
And that is why our word for “Hello” was translated into “I see your light” because the light is lesser than, it doesn't hold the gravitas of a soul and it paved the way for five hundred thirty years of genocide. It led us to where we are right now, talking about the need to take back control of our narrative. Ironically it led us to a place in history where we can tell our stories and be heard. Where we can share our culture and have it loved as much as we love it. Where our language is being learned and taught by our own people instead of non-indigenous teachers. Where our creative people, our artists, and writers are challenged to talk about our journey and how it's shaped our new stories. But the loss of our spoken language wasn't how they really divided us, no it was with the loss of our trade language. Just like english is the trade language of the north, central and the southern continent today, Indigenous people had their own trade language; sign language. A little bit of research will show how it was the precursor to today's ASL and largely how that language was formed.
Tribes and nations from the north pole down through to the southernmost tip of south america spoke the trade language and that was how we communicated with each other when we met. It wasn't that we learned to speak each other's languages at all, although that did happen as well, it had to, and only makes sense that it did. No we all learned to speak with signs and those signs evolved and were perfected over time and generations of people for thousands of years.
The language itself doesn't have a massive library of signs instead it has signs that mean different things depending on the sign before and after it, so it's a fluid language that adapts to the speaker's needs in the moment it's spoken. That's really awesome when you think about it. There might be one sign for ten different things, and you'll know the meaning when you see it put together with two other signs, and those two signs will also change meaning depending on the other signs involved. Destroying that trade language was essential to colonization and it's vital to our decolonization and our re-Indigenization in the sense that to complete the picture of how we think when we think in our languages we need to also learn our sign language again.
And language as a tool of colonization is a fundamental one, make the people you want to colonize learn your language when you do you change the way they think in a fundamental way. Language has its own philosophy as I said already, our language is built around the idea that everything has spirit, everything has a soul, and our language is a language of spirits. When you look at the language that way, the philosophy of its people also becomes apparent, but that's not the whole of it, because there's the very little known sign language that wasn't based on spirit, instead, it was based on commerce. Mind you it wasn't capitalism but the exchange of goods. See if our base language philosophy was of spiritual connection then that too would shape how we traded with one another.
I have always loved languages, and I knew a long time ago that in order to write about an alien, I needed an alien language, so I created one for my then-protagonist. Simply put it's a three-dimensional language where each symbol like a 3D object has at least 6 sides, like a 6-sided die, with each side representing a different meaning. Combine those varying sides with six other symbols and you get the meaning of the seven symbols “paragraph” and that tells you what the meaning is of each facing symbol. Want to create a really kewl and uniquely alien for your book, then start with its language, or more importantly the fundamental philosophy of their language, because that will show you their psychology, and once you have that you've got the basis for a truly wonderful alien race and character. For my character and alien language, it began with conquest, which was the guiding ideal behind their language. It's shaped how my alien interacts with every other aspect of my character's universe, that character and his race all look out into the universe with the fundamental belief that it's to be conquered. Not traded with, not communicated with, not bargained with, not co-exist, not negotiated with, but conquered and that means their morality is defined by that idea.
Decolonization for my people means at its purest form learning our languages until we are once more so fluent that we think first in our languages and then translate them into english or french or whatever language we have mastered growing up. We will have to master the trade sign language to complete that journey into Indigenizing ourselves and shedding the constraining shackles of colonization. The lesson in this writing for you, a writer, is how do those colonized aliens, or humans, in your books deal with a colonizing force that has fundamentally shifted the way they think by making them master their colonial language?
Aanii, I see your light, I see your spirit, I see your soul. When we meet, that's how we greeted you, how we greeted each other by saying “I see your soul . . .”
Do you think “Migwetch” really just means “Thank you”?
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
NShannacappo is a Nakawe graphic novelist and poet from Rolling River First Nation in Manitoba. He's Eagle clan and currently living, working and playing in Ottawa. You can find his stories in the Indigenous anthologies called Sovereign Traces - Not (Just) (An)other, Vol 1 and Sovereign Traces – Relational Constellation, Vol 2. The graphic novel Mashkawide'e (Has a strong heart) was published by Senator Kim Pate and copies can be found by contacting her office. Neal published his own creation, The Krillian Key in November 2020, and is working on If I Go Missing which is being published by James Lorimer & Company Ltd., and Niikaniganaw (All My Relations) commissioned by a group of healthcare researchers.