Ishi’s Name: Seeing and Being Seen

ishi

Perhaps you have heard a story of Ishi. He is considered to have been the last of his people, the Yahi of the Yana, whose homelands are the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada, in today’s California. I won’t go into the story here; it is oft-told and readily available. I would like to think about a particular aspect, which helps to inform the rest, of course.

I learned of Ishi’s story many years ago… it is powerful, haunting, and telling – a cautionary (true) tale of how humans can become separated, estranged from each other and the earth.

I have always been deeply moved by the statements encountered in the introductions to the stories: “Ishi means “man” in the Yana language. The anthropologist Alfred Kroeber gave this name to the man because [it is said] in the Yahi culture, tradition demanded that he not speak his name or that of anyone who was dead. When asked his name, he said: “I have none, because there were no people to name me,” meaning that no Yahi had ever spoken his name.”

I don’t think it’s as simple as a basic omission or quid pro quo. That is a shallow observation, true on the surface but much more complex than a verbal exchange with social proscriptions.  I see this situation with a vastly wider underlying significance. Simply put, our names are not who we are as an individual. They are what we are called by others (I am called… Abenaki: Nd’elewizi… ), ideally by our own community, the people who know us best. Humans do not exist by themselves. Not for long.  We are social creatures. Without his people – the Yahi, with their cultural understandings derived directly from their homelands, a context within which to make reference to a sense of being- to call to him, to create that relationship of knowing, seeing and being seen, Ishi had already been dealt the ultimate separation. Outside of community, he was no one. There was no context, no one to know him for who he was, a being in relationship to a place and all of its other beings. “There were no people to name me.”

This rattles me to the core. As it should.

 

 

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Alikwsimozi: Sweet-Fern

sweetfern-female-flower-vernon-2017

Sweet-fern – Comptonia peregrina – is a small, highly-aromatic, mounding shrub, 2-4 feet tall,  that may occur in dense colonies in poor soils. It has multiple stems with loose, spreading branches bearing long, narrow, olive-green leaves, the edges of which have rolled back edges and rounded, fern-like division. Flowers are brown catkins that appear before the leaves unfold. They develop into small nuts  in a bur-like husk. While sweet-fern’s common name derives from its appearance, it is not a fern at all; it is a member of the wax-myrtle or bayberry family (family Myricaceae). As with many other members of the family, the leaves are very aromatic: on a hot, sunny day you will know when you are walking past a stand of sweet fern.

Colonies are usually found in dry, sandy, infertile soils in full sun where other plants might have a hard time becoming established. Pine woods, cut-over forest, powerline right-of-ways, gravelly banks, abandoned and over-grazed pastures, and rocky outcrops are favorite places for sweet-fern. Preferring poor, acidic soils, sweet-fern fixes its own nitrogen through a symbiotic relationship with Frankia bacteria living in nodules on its roots. It grows throughout N’dakinna – Abenaki country – from Quebec and the Maritimes south as far as Georgia, following the mountains.

Sweet-fern, along with many other aromatic plants, happens to be a good repellent for ants. This is a good thing to know when one is living close to the soil, in a bark wigw8m or lodge, perhaps with food items in loosely covered containers. Scattering fronds around the walls of the shelter would help to keep these tiny visitors from wearing out their welcome. Knowledge of this ant-repellent aspect is what creates sweet-fern’s Native name, which translates to “ant bush.”

Working from the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy names for this plant relative (see next paragraph), which both translate literally to “ant tree” or “ant bush,” we can easily construct an equivalent in Aln8ba8dwaw8gan – the Western Abenaki language. Sozap Lolo – Joseph Laurent – in his “New Familiar Abenakis and English Dialogues” gives the word for ant as alikws; to this we can add the Abenaki suffix for “tree” or “bush” which can take the form -mizi or -mozi. With the letter “i” as a connector, the combination is: alikws + i + mozi = alikwsimozi. The pronunciation can be given as ah-leek-oo-SEE-moh-zee. The third syllable “oo” is nearly voiceless.

sweet fern brattleboro 2018

This photo and the one preceding are from the sweet-fern nation in Sokwakik, Sokoki Abenaki country – n’dal8gom8mek. #allmyrelations

The Penobscot cognate is enikwsimosi (listen to audio here). It is used for eye medicine, with the leaves steeped in hailstorm water. It translates literally as “ant bush”.

The Passamaquoddy cognate is eniqsimus (listen to audio here). It, too, translates literally as “ant tree (bush).”

Among the Wabanaki people, and close relations, the uses of alikwsimozi include:

  • Ant repellent, also used for mosquitoes, as a skin rub or smudge
  • Lining berry baskets and buckets to aid in keeping the fruit fresh
  • Edible nutlets
  • As a relief for poison ivy and other skin itches, infusion in water or rubbed on
  • As a relaxing, dried ingredient in smoking mixtures
  • As a tea for upset stomach and colic
  • As a poultice for sprains or swelling
  • Burned for smoke in ceremony

In closing, I end with a poem by Mi’kmaq writer Alice Azure, from the collection entitled “Dawnland Voices: An Anthology of Indigenous Writing from New England,” edited by Siobhan Senier, et al (Vol. 1, 2014):

Mi'kmaq Haiku

Kejimkoojik

cliffs, old sweet fern petroglyph

still keeping us calm.

Sokwakik Today: Volunteers Prepare Accessible Trail in Northfield

greenfield recorder shelby ashline mt grace trail northfield

“Since the project began, Rasku said Mount Grace has coordinated with the Abenaki, Nipmuc, Narragansett and Wampanoag tribes due to the land’s cultural significance.

“It’s had a lot of features tribal nations would appreciate,” he said, explaining the tribes could gather medicinal plants, harvest the nearby farm fields and take advantage of the water source, making the area around the pond active.

As such, Rasku said that in making the accessible trail, Mount Grace has avoided changing the terrain or excavating out of respect for the land’s Native American history.”

Read the full article by Shelby Ashline in the Greenfield Recorder here.

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Interpretive signage on the Ames Trail will include information about Abenaki cultural lifeways and language translations for our many indigenous relations. Aln8baodwaw8gan!

Kwikweskas

kwikweskas-robin-pia8dagos-wantastekw

First robin seen this year! On January 28th… we are now into the beginning of the second Abenaki month, Pia8dagos, “makes branches fall in pieces moon.” Kwikweskas = whistlemaker = American robin.

We were out for a family walk in the skamonikik8n/cornfield ( just north of Wantastekw/West River near The Marina restaurant. There are a series of tamakwa nebisisal/beaver ponds at the back edge below the next terrace, where the river ancient course had been, many many generations ago… The steep bank faces south there and provides a warm, sheltered place on a bright winter  day. I had been hearing a bird call as we explored the frozen ponds, and couldn’t place the familiar sound. Just as it dawned on me (out of context), I saw a flash of orange motion and a robin flew over to a luxuriant spray of bittersweet berries on a tall tree. Another came to join a few minutes later. Kwai kwikweskasak!