Things show themselves. Do you see?
Tim McSweeney posited this question on one of his Facebook Pages, prompted by the discussion posted by Lauret Savoy, professor of geology and environmental science at Mount Holyoke College. Lauren cited this at A Stone’s Throw on the Terrain.org site, in a post entitled Walking Thoughts on a Frozen Pond. Tim reposted this entry on his blog. It’s one inquiry in a list of several which Lauret says she asks her students “to pause and consider… as we explore the environmental history of this country.” I find this self-questioning foundational.
In line with his post, I offered my place-based comment to Tim:
“There is no need to question the land, the place where one finds oneself. The answers are all freely available – Creation is always speaking and being. Rather, aways question oneself. Am I listening? Can I see? Am I present? Who else is here? Am I fulfilling my responsibilities as a part of the Great Mystery or have I (again) separated myself ?”
Lauret offers: “In order to remember, one must also forget.” This is to be human and to be aware that we don’t know all the stories.
I was asked by someone recently what is it that makes the Kwenitekw, n’sibo, our river, sacred. Is it the traditional fishing places? Is it the burials of the ancestors? What follows is my reply:
- It is important to remember that words have power and they derive from our worldview, which is expressed in the cultural tool we call language. There are many languages, and many ways of seeing the world. They differ dramatically, and the use of a word, or concept, can mean very different things to different people. Thus, “sacred.” When speaking of Abenaki cultural concepts, one cannot look at it through a Western religious lens. The dictionary definitions that fit “sacred” best are (from Merriam-Webster): 1) entitled to reverence and respect and 2) highly valued and important, as in “a sacred responsibility.” It is not a religious designation, but rather a spiritual recognition.
- So, with regard to your questions of the river’s significance regarding fishing locations or burial grounds, the answer is yes, all of that, and much more. The reason being that we are all related, all equally significant, and part of the same great circle of Creation. Time does not exist in a linear sense, but is a continuum, constantly changing but all part of the same. Thus, we as human beings (in common with, say, plant beings, fish beings, stone beings, wind beings) have a ongoing responsibility to honor these relationships. We cannot act to harm the River, as it is as deserving of respect as anyone else, and in fact, we derive our very life from it – it would be very shortsighted to do otherwise..
- As indigenous people (defined as the original people of a distinct place), we so identify with our homelands that we see ourselves as part of it, inseparable and continuous. For example, when an Abenaki person identifies him- or herself, they would not say “My name is so-and-so and I live in Brattleboro.” They would state “… I am Brattleboro.” Consequently, one’s attitudes and actions toward the River, are as unto one’s very self and one’s family, because it is exactly that. We (most of us!) consider human life to be sacred. So is the river.
- You have heard the expression, especially this past year with the action at Standing Rock, that “Water Is Life.” This plays out clearly in the Abenaki language, which by nature embodies its cultural worldview. Let me explain that, in a Native sense, the well-known term “medicine” means anything that promotes or sustains health and vitality – this makes complete sense, but in our Western way of thinking it has been separated and limited into a drug that addresses (often only symptomatically) sickness. It has got the relationship backwards and misses most of the bigger picture of the interconnectedness of life. The word for water in Abenaki is “nebi”; the word for medicine in Abenaki is “nebizon.” So, you can see, that water is at the heart of life. The River is our great provider, for which we can only be grateful.
- To learn that burials are often at the edge of the River is no coincidence. I don’t think I even need to explain that one! It is a place where strong connections have always been made, and where they can be accessed over and over. We go there to pay our respects to our ancestors, to say thank you to the water, and to pray for the same blessings for the generations to come. It is our “church.” There are certainly other places that are important as well, but the River is at the heart of them all. It unifies and connects – think in terms of a watershed – a flowing cradle, a web, an endless cycle enveloping the people.
Tiokasin Ghosthorse was setting the scene for a story at a gathering which I joined this past winter. He recounted a little nondescript location far away, a place which is usually characterized as being “in the middle of nowhere.” But he turned that dismissal in upon itself, and stated that it was “in the center of everything.” It was an illuminating moment, demonstrating the power of words. It has taken root and stayed with me. Language, worldview, perspective, experience – these things matter, everything matters.
Rather than making a zero-sum equation, a calculation of worth, and finding it of little or no value – objectifying, a characteristic of an English-speaking worldview, noun-based and categorical – this place was seen as a core participant in the narration of what was occurring. It was in relationship. It is a very different way of experiencing a moment as part of a whole. It is “being in” rather than “looking at.” The difference between a point on a line / a separation of otherness, and an infinite web of connection in an expanding universe.
I visited a reception for indigenous artist Alyssa Hinton (Tuscarora-Osage) yesterday, at the C X Silver Gallery in West Brattleboro, VT. We had a cheerful conversation about her artistic journey of discovery, first through intuition and then traditional knowledge – her focus being on her southeastern roots, but finding commonality with other native, earth-based cultures. One thing was clear through our exchange: the truth that traditional understandings are not destroyed, missing, or lost. All of this knowledge, these relationships, “ways of seeing,” are still here and still accessible to those who seek them. A Chadwick Allen quote from the exhibit program (using indigenous earthworks as its particular reference point) makes the point well:
“…like other Indigenous writing systems, they assert, earthworks and their encoded knowledge have been ‘asleep’ rather than ‘dead.’ Dormant but alive, they have waited to be awakened by descendants of their makers finally free to re-approach and even to remake them, finally freed of the psychological fetters of an internalized colonialism that has undervalued Indigenous technologies and ways of knowing. Earthworks have been waiting, they assert, for old scripts to be reactivated, for new scripts to be written and performed. A time of waiting appears near an end, near the beginning of a new cycle. That time of new beginning is now.” Chadwick Allen, University of Washington
The significance of this reality here in N’dakinna becomes more clear, and more affirming, each day.