Tag Archives: indigenous people

“Final Say – How a self-taught linguist came to own an indigenous language” by Alice Gregory

Penobscot Bay

Published in The New Yorker, April 19, 2021

This article came out RIGHT after I read Dickon Among the Lenapes! It centers on Carol Dana, who was born on Indian Island, Maine, in 1952 and now holds the office of “Language Master” for the Penobscot Nation. I Googled the term “Language Master”, and found it to mean either a recent software offering or a very archaic term for a male language teacher. So the Penobscot use of the term is new and possibly unique. Why is it needed?

The “self-taught linguist” of the article’s title is Frank Siebert (1912 – 1988), self-taught anthropologist, ethnographer, bibliophile and cranky eccentric, who documented and analyzed the Penobscot language for decades. He was so certain of his scholarship that he once corrected a tribal elder on a point of grammar. (This was neither forgotten or forgiven.)

This article had an additional subtitle: “How to save -or steal- a language”. In what sense did Siebert “own” the Penobscot language? His books (he collected avidly) and papers, auctioned off after his death, generated twelve million dollars which went to his two daughters. Siebert’s Penobscot collaborators and hosts received nothing.

The Penobscot language was declared “dead” before 2000, meaning there were no more speakers for whom it had been a first language. Many Penobscot had been educated in the infamous Indian boarding schools, where only English was permitted. Carol Dana understood the spoken language because she remembered hearing her grandfather tell stories. She and the tribal leaders are committed to bringing back the spoken language and publishing the legends. It’s a complex, long term project.

A language is so much more than grammar and vocabulary. In Penobscot culture, certain stories belonged to certain families, who could grant or withhold the right to share them. Certain stories were restricted by gender. Some were only told during a certain season. Who regulates such uses? What happens when the situation is subject to intellectual property law?

Appointing a “Language Master” is only one of many steps (some controversial) taken by the Penobscot leadership to revive and protect their language. A University of Maine scholar commented

“if…we had never been forced to unlearn our language, we wouldn’t have to this sort of precious relationship with it.” 

American law and culture have some catching up to do. I hope Alice Gregory (who has covered a variety of interesting topics in The New Yorker) will continue to write about this in the future. 

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“The Indians of New Jersey – Dickon Among the Lenapes” by Mark. R. Harrington (Jiskogo)

The Indians of New Jersey: Dickon Among the Lenapes

This book was published in 1938. It’s about half fiction and half ethnography. The combination works! Amazon lists it as being for ages 9 – 12 years, but I wouldn’t call it a children’s book. 

The plot… In 1692, an English ship bound for the Jamestown, Virginia, colony (established only 5 years previously) is struck by a storm and young Dickon is washed overboard near what is now the New Jersey shore. He is found by the native Lenape residents and taken to Turtle Town on the western (Pennsylvania) bank of the Delaware River. 

Dickon fears for his life, but the village leaders decide he is human (not a demon!) and keep him alive. His initial status is that of a slave or servant.  He is handed over to an old woman who lives alone. She is good natured and instructs Dickon in both Lenape language and a wide variety of skills and chores that are important in the village. Dickon and “Granny”, as he thinks of her, become close, and when she dies, he grieves. 

Eventually, Dickon is formally adopted into the community, which numbers (I think) fewer than 100 people. He lives in Turtletown for about two years, before being “rescued” by an English ship.

One thing to keep in mind is how badly the English Jamestown colony was doing at that early date. They were starving on land that supported the native population in good health, and their understanding of the original culture was minimal.

I wondered, as I read descriptions of hunting, gardening and wood gathering, if the Turtletown community described was pushing against its ecological limits.

Dickon Among the Lenapes book is wonderfully descriptive, enhanced by numerous drawings (by Clarence Ellsworth) and maps. Supplementary material includes introductions from 1938 and 1963, plus ten pages of commentary on the Lenape language, with vocabulary. The 1963 introduction was written by Rutgers University scholar Mary Gaver. The curious reader is directed to the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton and institutions in New Brunswick and Newark.

Harrington, who died in 1971, wrote as follows: “To The Survivors and Descendants of the Lenape Who Unfolded to Me Their Heritage, This Book is Affectionately Dedicated”. He names two Lenapes and one Seneca who assisted him in his research and writing. I was surprised that the two Lenapes did not live on historically Lenape land, but rather in Oklahoma and Canada. In addition to the Lenape name “Jiskogo”, Harrington was given names by three other tribes. His field work was extensive and very thorough. 

Harrington wrote a second novel describing Dickon’s further adventures among other tribes in the Iroqois Confederacy. I hope to find a copy.  

“Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants” by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants

This book came to me highly recommended by people whose judgment I regard with some skepticism. Why? Because I wonder if they take either science or nature seriously. There are lots of “wow” moments in science and in nature, but if you go that far (“wow, it’s so amazing!”) and then stop… what have you accomplished?

Maybe my scientific training has made me a snob. But I think nature is worthy of serious study, and I value science. I’m the kind of geek who is really happy that someone declared 2019 the “International Year of the Periodic Table”. I LOVE the periodic table! And I’ve studied it carefully. For six years, the time it took to earn two degrees in Chemistry. Sometimes there’s just no shortcut.

So I’m skeptical about quickie workshops in which people groove on nature for an hour at a time.

Robin Kimmerer has more than “paid her dues” scientifically, with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in botany and a PhD in plant ecology. She works outside the conventional scientific framework by teaching college courses in subjects like Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Creative Writing. She is a member of the Potawatami Nation, an Algonquian-speaking Eastern Woodlands indigenous tribe. She has studied her Algonquian heritage as carefully as she studied botany. Her passion is the integration of the two, scientific and traditional knowledge. Braiding Sweetgrass is a collection of essays about this endeavor.

This is a BIG book, generous in concept and broad in subject areas. I reacted differently to different subjects.

I LOVED the chapter entitled “Learning the Grammar of Animacy”! Kimmerer undertook to learn the Potawatomi language at a time when only NINE fluent speakers of the language were still alive.

“Our language, millennia in the making…The words that praised creation, told the old stories, lulled my ancestors to sleep, rests today in the tongues of nine very mortal men and women.”

So she has tried to learn it. Not a single word came to her through her family. She found the language difficult because, instead of dividing nouns into masculine, feminine and neuter (he, she, it), nouns are categorized as animate (person) or inanimate (thing). Personhood is attributed to many more objects than in English – almost everything “natural”, including water, fire, stone. “Inanimate” refers mostly to created objects – coat, car.

Additionally (and unlike English), Potawatami is a verb dominated language. Kimmerer found it wildly difficult.

“The simple phrases I’m learning are perfect for my dog. Sit! Eat!…But since she scarcely responds to these commands in English, I’m reluctant to train her to be bilingual. An admiring student once asked me if I spoke my native language. I was tempted to say, ‘Oh yes, Yes, we speak Potawatomi at home’ – me, the dog, and the Post-it notes.”

Anyone interested in languages should read this chapter!

A problem I have with Kimmerer’s approach to the natural world is that it seems to me that she attributes consciousness and intent to creatures and even ecosystems much more frequently than I do. I “love” nature, but I’m not so sure nature “loves” me back. Sometimes I don’t see relationship where Kimmerer does. I don’t think that parasites and hosts “intend” to do something for each other.

Another chapter I especially enjoyed was “The Three Sisters”, about agriculture based on growing corn, beans and squash together. Now I understand about the squash – it is a source of vitamins.

The last parts of the book discuss solutions to the current environmental dilemmas, including climate change. The emphasis is on restoration ecology. Kimmerer is less specific when she discusses the social aspects of our situation, but I am grateful that she shares her vision of hope.