Understanding even a tiny crumb of the world means paying a lot of attention to ourselves, our thoughts, our actions. Is our destruction of the planet linked with how we interpret life itself?
Perhaps, it is time to start thinking about different ways we can speak to reflect the kind of world we want to live in.
“My name is Anna, she/her, and I’m from Ku-rin-gai Country.”
Sitting down for a morning check-in, the circle goes around. Name, pronouns, country.
Initially, those who have never known or shared that information before may be nervous and caught off guard... Most people don’t know the indigenous name of the place they live in. It’s normal. And very soon, they realise - that’s okay. The whole point is for a space to be created that encourages one’s own learning and familiarity with where they came from, and making the acknowledgement of those who came before us a fluid and conversational addition to our collective vocabulary.
“Let’s start by acknowledging we are meeting on Birri country, the land of the river people, and that sovereignty was never ceded. We acknowledge all elders, past, present and emerging.”
You may have heard something along those lines once or twice before, depending on what circles you’re in. If you’re like me, or how I was rather - living in a busy city, working in hospitality, hopping from bar to gig - you might’ve seen it at the end of an email, or the start of a speech... and it was something foreign, entering your mind for a moment, and quickly vanishing into a forgotten thought, going back to the distant country it came from.
You look around after all, and all traces, trails and footprints of that time have been replaced by concrete statues....
But this acknowledgement represents something much bigger. It enables us to face the truth of the past. A truth that society has chosen to ignore for such a long time.. a tough and horrible truth, bound to make us uncomfortable in our privileged, white societies. Though we as individuals today have not directly taken part in the horrible crimes committed in the colonial period of Australia, we still bear the weight of it’s on-going implications, and it takes an active will to try to mend that division.
It's important because it's a change in tone. It inspires new dialogue, and the first step of mending that huge chasm between city bubbles and what goes on in the rest of the world, is through our language.
In an Orwellian world, variations of words and meanings are reduced as if going backwards on the evolutionary scale. They’re condensed into random syllables, joined together to form a mutated shortcut that renders the original word(s) illegal, and effectively wiped from public memory.
In our world, languages were also lost.
Rich idioms of countless indigenous cultures across the world have been wholly extinguished.
Beaten bloody, perhaps to death, if spoken. Renamed, forced to omit and forget.
I’m not sure which of the two realities is worse.
Wiped from the mouths of children, torn from the roots by the hand of the man, and replaced instead with the rigid mould of cultural assimilation and the colourless nuances of the English language.
We see through evidence of many customs, contexts and structures that indigenous languages paint the world in many exotic shades, most of which are not yet available to us in English.
For example; in Anishinaabe, a Native American people, the word ‘puhpowee’ roughly translates to:
‘The force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight.’
In Portuguese, ‘cafuné’, means to fondle or caress someone precisely around the neck region. It carries an intention that would only be applicable to two deeply intimate people.
The fact that the word ‘love’ is such a broad, undefinable, overused, and oversimplified slogan supposed to encompass the most awe-some mystery in the entire universe....
It doesn’t come as a surprise therefore that the English language holds 70% nouns, as opposed to 30% in Anishinaabe language. Everything is an ‘it’, except us.
A tree is referred to in the same way as household object. The animal is seperate and beneath us. No thing has the right to be alive, other than us.
As Robin Wall Kimmerer put it in Braiding Sweetgrass;
“The arrogance of English is that the only way to be animate, to be worthy of respect and concern, is to be a human.”
Fighting for Peace
There is something that doesn’t sound right when it is said: “We are fighting for... peace, or justice, or a better world.”
Is it not obvious, looking at patterns in the history of so called ‘civilisations’, that sticks and stones, violence and brutality, pushes us further down the spiral of uncontrollable and immeasurable trauma, for generations to come?
Fight - combat - battle - war - so engrained in our vocabulary.
Yet it’s not so easy to navigate.... At times it really does feel like fighting is what it takes.
Words alone won’t stop bulldozers smashing forests, but our bodies will.
One person shouting against a wall won’t touch the heart of millions like strong messaging in a well organised campaign will.
Standing up against the big bad capitalist system so intertwined with our twisted governments and their policies, requires planning, strategies, a thick skin and an undeniable purpose; just like physical battle. So here we stand, in this paradox.
How to uphold ethical and moral values by example in the face of those who do unspeakable things.
As Nadya Tolokonnikova, founder of Pussy Riot says:
"Those who licked your ass yesterday will be happy to use your skull as an ashtray today."
In other conversational avenues, there are those of us who can say they've never been deeply satisfied with the idea of labels, or boxes one must neatly arrange oneself in, adhering to the appropriate method of displaying who you are to the world.
It’s engrained in our conversations, in our vocabulary - our automated responses projecting a model created by who knows what - maybe our collective ignorance or desire to fit in.
“So what do you do?”
I burned this sentence from my dialogue many years ago now, especially when it comes directly after an introduction. It has a way of squeezing someone quickly and efficiently into the ‘label/box’ dynamic, getting smaller and smaller the longer they delay answering, like those trap rooms with encroaching walls in horror movies.
“Uh.... bu...... umm...” - says the prisoner. The interrogator’s eyes google and widen, waiting to throw that box into whatever compartment contains their respective prejudices and judgements about that occupation and industry.
No. Let’s get rid of that. If you must merely substitute your automated response to a different one, try: “How do you spend your time?”
This is way more likely to stimulate a more organic response, and whilst a person may still define themselves the same way or give you the same answer as if you’d just asked the first question, their mind had to travel a different way to get there. A more scenic route, passing by other aspects of their life that happened to be left open to the conversation.
How long will it take us to dissolve this heteronormative, stereotypical way of looking at the world and its people?
When we will stop calling the Earth an 'it'?
The seedlings of a new age are being cultivated by those willing to listen and learn, by those who are willing to apologise for their mistakes and those willing to forgive them, too.
We must teach each other new ways of understanding, more elaborate methods of communicating - a new (or perhaps an ancient and forgotten), language of acceptance and freedom. And maybe then we can begin to truly understand that we are one and the same with the very planet we rape for profits.
“We never developed the language to discuss the wellbeing of the Earth as a whole system. We identify people by where they are coming from, never learning to talk about people as a part of a larger human species."
- Robin Wall Kimmerer