The chapter ‘Learning the Grammar of Animacy’ in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book “Braiding Sweetgrass” contains a wonderful example about different perspectives regarding creation.
“In English, we never refer to a member of our family, or indeed to any person, as ‘it’. That would be a profound act of disrespect. ‘It’ robs a person of selfhood and kinship, reducing a person to a mere thing. So it is that in Potawatomi and most other indigenous languages, we use the same words to address the living world as we use for our family. Because they are our family.
To who does our language extend the grammar of animacy? Naturally, plants and animals are animate, but as I learn, I am discovering that the Potawatomi understanding of what it means to be animate diverges from the list of attributes of living beings we all learned in Biology 101. In Potawatomi 101, rocks are animate, as are mountains and water and fire and places. Beings that are imbued with spirit, our sacred medicines, our songs, drums, and even stories, are all animate. The list of the inanimate seems to be smaller, filled with objects that are made by people. […]
Yawe – the animate to be. I am, you are, s/he is. To speak of those possessed with life and spirit we must say yawe. […] The language reminds us, in every sentence, of our kinship with all of the animate world. […]
The animacy of the world is something we already know, but the language of animacy teeters on extinction – not just for Native people, but for everyone. Our toddlers speak of plants and animals as if they were people, extending to them self and intention and compassion – until we teach them not to. We quickly retrain them and make them forget. When we tell them that the tree is not a who, but an it, we make that maple an object; we put a barrier between us, absolving ourselves of moral responsibility and opening the door to exploitation. Saying ‘it’ makes a living land into “natural resources”.
Recommendation from Hygeia: Listen to “Why Is The World So Beautiful?” (Radio Talk) and to the music composed for the book.