Words Are Medicine

We are in a windy, sun saturated weather pattern, with chilly nights and warm days. The gardens need rain.

I have been participating in a couple of groups that are organized around discussing politics. I enjoy the time with folks who are perhaps slowly becoming friends.; I am also struggling as I find the conversations create a good deal of hopelessness and frustration in the groups. Yes, we are living in difficult, threatening times and the need for immediate action is great. Still, it seems crucial to me that we take the long view, and resist the urge to polarize even as we insist on speaking truth.

This week one of the groups was discussing where we individually and collectively want the country to go in the next few years. There was general agreement that we all wanted to move towards a more sustainable and equitable distribution of money and power, a government that adheres to the rule of law, environmental sanity, and a huge reduction in racism and violence. We are thinking big!

Understandably, several people expressed dismay at the heavily armed thugs who have threatened state and local governments around the country. I suggested we might have a difficult time reaching these important goals without looking at the ways racism, inequality, and genocide are tightly woven into our country’s history and forms of governance. I also reminded folks that armed men threatening communities is hardly new to many of us. I wasn’t trying to be difficult, although I would understand it if people found me so. Rather, I was attempting to gently remind folks that their shock is a result of relative safety and privilege.

Before sleep last night I was reading poems by Simon Ortiz. In between poems he provided some commentary on his process, and how his work is firmly rooted in his Indigenous experience. This set me to thinking about those large cultural differences that are often invisible to those in dominant cultures. One difference in particular struck me as I thought about our political groups. The primary mode of discourse in the groups is debate, punctuated by brief personal stories or reports of feelings. The debate gets hot, so intense that often it is almost impossible to interject a thought.

This is a mode of discussion that is part and parcel of academic discourse as well. When I teach, I encourage my students to move away from it, to seek some other ground for discussion. Usually the Indigenous students feel great relief, and express eagerness to move to a more respectful means of conversation. Just as often, other students express great discomfort brought on by the shift. Sometimes we can talk about this.

Looking back, I have come to realize that in my father’s family there was a decidedly Indigenous mode of being together. Conversations usually took place at the enormous round kitchen table. For the most part, the discourse was centered in story, and long pauses between speakers were the rule. Whoever had the floor spoke until they were finished, although others might provide further details or ask for clarification. Of course there was also no small amount of gossip, none mean spirited. Too often I got bored and wondered off, meaning I missed out on a lot.

This more Indigenous form of conversation slowed and deepened time, was filled with metaphor and image, and privileged the lived experience of the speaker. It also allowed for the explication of interstices, reflecting the complexities of life lived embedded in an understanding of self as a process of the natural world. I am not speaking here of projective identification. Such western concepts pathologize the very knowing, the realization of self as act of nature, that lies at the heart of much Indigenous thought and experience. Nor am I suggesting that we Indigenous people are in any way primitive in the colonial sense of Native as Nature. Rather, I am struggling to articulate the way these conversations expressed a profound sense of belonging and being that is rooted in lived experience of life/nature as ongoing process.

They were also quietly articulating a sense of continuity, persistence, and resistance, a soft voicing of the importance of recognizing that we are still here. In contrast, I frequently find myself desperately asserting my survival by pushing too far forward in conversations, afraid I will drown in the noise of so many desperate opinions. I can hear my grandmother right now telling me to BE QUIET! I can feel Ipu, my beloved friend and teacher who was a much celebrated academic and traditionalist, and who has also gone to the land of the spirits, telling me to breath, drop down into my senses, and feel my connection to the Earth. “Don’t get lost,” he says, “Don’t lose yourself. Stay rooted.”

The implication is that conversation, like story, is sacred. It is the basis of community, a way of honoring those who have passed into the spirit world, and a path for sharing our lives with one another and the Creator. From our conversations we build the world we live in and the future; it is as though at least seven generations are always at the table. Perhaps those who have passed and those yet to come are whispering to us now, participating in the circle of speech, if only we might hear them.

So what might a different kind of conversation look land feel like? It would be spacious, grounded in lived experience, and saturated with sensation and feeling. It would, perhaps, be centered in personal and community story, and the valuing of the stories that are shared. There would be a few moments between contributions so that all of us participants had some time to listen to the resonances and echos generated by the stories and beliefs that were offered. I hope we would listen, truly listen to one another, hold the conversation close and dear, and honor the lived truths of each person.

I’m also imagining that there would be less division, fewer calls to action, and more recognition of difference and value. Were we to learn to sit together in this way, there might be more empathy and less racism and violence. Hopefully, whatever actions arose from speaking together would be more grounded, future oriented, and inclusive.

Speech truly matters; every word is a prayer calling the future into being. May our words be worthy of our hearts and of the sacrifices those who came before us made so we might have life. May they fill the world with wonder, and nurture everyone at the table and the generations of all beings to come.


11 thoughts on “Words Are Medicine

  1. Your post has interesting timing for me. I am a Franco-American, and I am part of a group of Franco artists and creators, which is sponsored by the University of Maine at Orono. Recently four of us, all women, had an online discussion about how patriarchy affected our ethnic group. The discussion took the form of a conversation—this brings it back to your post. In that conversation, there were differences and similarities. But there were no accusations thrown out that someone was wrong. Our experiences were our experiences. Now, I know this can’t apply to everything. In some cases there is a great wrong. But how illuminating it was to read the other responses, and how safe it felt to express my own response. No judgement. Just acceptance.

  2. Your post got me thinking about my study of qualitative research methods and the associated feminist literature – and also the dichotomy of objective and subjective ways of reasoning and knowing. My work in academia included a stint as Director of Academic Assessment so I had many conversations with people around measuring (objective in nature) student learning (frequently subjective in nature), including that grey area of giving academic credit for life experience. I found it fascinating working on how to help students integrate objective theory and help faculty to understand that learning does take place through lived experiences. The university where I worked required that all students have a 21-day cross cultural experience studying the major social institutions, with exceptions for those who couldn’t go abroad because of expense or family responsibilities. I had a male social work student who couldn’t take three weeks away from work/family. He had spent time in prison and I encouraged him to petition to do an independent study option on the culture of prison life, integrating economics, education, family, government and religion. He did it successfully. But most of all, your post reminded me of how hard it is for women (who communicate in many of the same ways that you describe in native culture) to be heard and respected in the academic setting. Last thought – telling that your dining table was big and “round” – no one sitting at the head of the table (controlling conversation)?

    1. Pat, the table took up much of the large kitchen and seated quite a few, as my aunt and grandmom fed whoever was around. No, there was no head of the table, although while she was alive, my grand mom certainly ruled. My dad’s family was traditional in that they were definitely matrilinial.

  3. I agree with you. We too want the same fate for our country and the government. But there things which need to get done before such a good fate can come by. We must keep doing our bit.

Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.