Language is the foundation of civilization. It is the glue that holds a people together. It is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.
—from the film Arrival (2016)
The winds toss the brown autumn leaves in the chilled morning air as I walk with a mentor, Birgil Kills Straight, of the Lakota Nation, along the barbed-wire barriers. We linger behind our group of international visitors who have come to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland, the largest concentration camp during World War II, to spend four days of silent remembering for those who perished during the “Final Solution” from 1940 to 1945.
It was here that I began to ponder, listen, and then question: Why would anyone seek a “Final Solution” to exterminate others? On this annual pilgrimage of remembrance, our group of Zen Peacemakers walks the perimeter of the barracks, ringed by electric fence. We stop at various points along the two-mile route, offering words and tears. Our group includes the children and grandchildren of those who were exterminated or those who survived the death camps. At the stopping points, I placed canli (tobacco) to express my thoughts—in the traditional manner of laying tobacco on the Earth—alongside a question: “What can be done to create a common knowledge and shared understanding among diverse humanity?”
I think humans struggle with the meaning of knowledge, often believing themselves to be its sole owners. Might we connect to another way of knowing, in which understanding is derived from watching how life nurtures living?
At Birkenau, we walked through sections of the camp that were oddly named: “Canada” and “Mexico.” Canada contained the warehouses for all the things the Nazis took from the prisoners. Coats, food, kitchen implements, luggage, eyeglasses, false teeth, wigs, shoes—all the valuables that had any material worth, and everything else that could be salvaged. Europeans in those days considered Canada a place of wealth and prosperity. So the camp’s authorities called this place of pillaged belongings Canada. The prisoners who got to work there had a privileged position of surviving by finding food and other things from what was taken from the luggage. Mexico was the area of the camp to the south of Canada where they would haze the prisoners after they were stripped of all valuables; it was called Mexico as a reference to lawlessness.
My mind abhors borders, walls, and barriers that are created to divide and conquer, whether on land or in language. I seek to understand the origins of perceptions that find only differences between us and promote indifference to the experiences of others. Such barriers were fully on display in this section of Birkenau.
The sun was high as we walked around the perimeter of the camp. Between “Mexico” and “Canada” our group gathered in a circle. The four Natives—a Lenape-Shawnee and three Lakota—came forward within the circle to offer a canunpa, or a pipe ceremony, for what we had heard throughout the morning. As Birgil filled the pipe, and I sang the four-directions song, I noticed the enormous flocks of birds, rabbits, and a small herd of deer in the distance that had negotiated their way between the cordoned-off barbed-wire fences into a no-man’s-land where humans were not allowed to wander. These other animals had ignored the boundaries created by humans.
In my experience, when Native people gather in a circle for ceremony, oftentimes others naturally gather in this circle formation as well. I have wondered if it is a mark of respect for our ways, or if the people who gather feel some distant memory, within themselves, of the nature of the circle.
So, there I was, holding fundamental thoughts, fundamental questions, seeding relationally into the circle. I felt fully aware, seeing and feeling, noticing every facial movement and hand gesture among us. Then, like the lifting fog around us, there arose a knowing intuition, a medicine moving among us, as if the others understood a memory without having to mouth the words. In this circle, everyone was equal, balanced, quiet, respectful, and conscious. The birds stopped flying, and the deer and rabbits remained still, observing the participants.
I began to sing in the Lakota language and, in that sound, the people, the land, and the world seemed at once in unison—a kinship of all life. Within that circle, there was no feeling of need for anything else. The knowing of being nurtured became realized within the circle. Reverence for all life and all death encircled us. The power of the circle became the balance of relationship, which was both beyond and inclusive of the tragedy that took place on the land we were standing upon. I think that singing in a language of energetic memory brought all those present—human and nonhuman—together to honor those who perished, and also brought an integrity to the Earth that witnessed the memories. The past and future are all within the present, enfolded in layers of multidimensional reality.
This way of knowing and being is carried within the Lakota language, a language that verbalizes the energy of relationship to all, and then verbalizes the motion of that energy. For example, the word wakan, or “pure energy,” is often used to acknowledge the presence of the mystery in everything. This presence of mystery might be understood as the foundation of our kinship. Our ancestors understood the effects of being within the metaphorical world of quantum physics, where there is no division between any dimensions of the world, where all is present and interconnected at once. Crazy Horse—Tȟašúŋke Witkó “His-Horse-Is-Enchanted” (c. 1840–September 5, 1877)—a Mniconjou and Oglala Lakota, was quoted saying something that gets at this truth: “We live in the shadow of the real world.”
No matter what language you speak, a hidden, nurturing world has already discovered you and is already at work with you, whether you know it or not. Humans have already been given the gifts, tools, and potential for this relational knowing and yet this source often goes unacknowledged, because we lack understanding of the sublime intelligence of Nature’s nurturing, the nurturing that becomes the human body, that is the human body. Although we may speak of lack and yearning, I acknowledge that this already-present, hidden world is already listening to you and meeting every need with abundance. I also acknowledge the whole process of the sun—as a verb—as a giving, living being; sunning through the trees, rooting, leafing; creating consciousness; and finally producing the reciprocity of life-giving oxygen, as we return carbon dioxide to the trees, which, as a process, is a form of acknowledgment to the sun.
At Auschwitz, within our circle, there grew an awareness of consciousness known to some as respect for the seeing and the unseeing worlds. In that moment of remembrance from the past and the future, an entire history moved into a fulfilled circle of reality that we can choose to live with or not: the grief of human history. This “sense of fulfilling” was without dogma or religion—it was replete and relaxed—and in that circle, I recognized binary thoughts such as war and peace were impractical. I am reminded of something an eighty-six-year-old elder said: “When I am in prayer, in wakan, I am never hoping or promising, nor wishing something to come true. Only when I am in the moment of prayer acknowledging is the power present to move the impractical.”
I looked into the eyes of those in the circle and could see men and women shedding tears while smiling. There was a sense of relief, a sense of grieving—a conscious common understanding of life-giving motion in that moment that struck me as innocent. And within that innocence was a fresh start, forgiveness, the knowing that all things are always in wakan (the mystery of and in everything), and most important, knowing that every moment never exists again. It is our responsibility to expand this realization, to acknowledge the consciousness of the world, not through a how-to instruction manual but by recognizing the living power of Earth and respecting all living beings. Mother Earth, as a being, is always listening to us.
What languages are the foundation of sustainable cultures without “development” or “progress”? Let me rephrase this. What languages are sustaining cultural relations with Earth?
Yes, there is a communication with Earth, and we have been detoured away from it by anthropocentric perceptions and a language that, for the most part, neglects the Being that sustains and nurtures all of life’s forms. What rationale excuses us while we continue to extract the sources of life that remain in the Earth? Is there an exit strategy for anthropocentric languages? Will we realize that the same languages we use to try to awaken are the same languages that put us to sleep? Is there a language that has always remained in an awakened state?
I’m reminded of a story by Vi Hilbert (Upper Skagit) that has been passed on to encourage respect for the Earth. I heard this short story at a college graduation event in 1994. Vi noted that, in her language of Lushootseed, people cannot call one another a skunk or a dog. That would be disrespectful to the skunk or the dog. So often, we indirectly blame our lack of responsibility on nonhuman animals and detach ourselves from our direct responsibility as humans—individually or otherwise.
If we continue to use domination and dominating languages—enforced by bullying or policies of education, government, and science—and acquiesce to those same authoritative belief systems, then we will continue to feel detached as a species. We will continue to act as though we were separate and did not share relationships with all life—plants, trees, stones, fire, water, species of living forms with legs, and those with wings of the air, wings within the water, and those that crawl and creep within the earth.
A relational language is a language without nouns. It is a language that does not need to add suffixes to explain concepts and theory. It is not founded on subjugation; rather, it springs forth from kinship. A relational language never disconnects. It is always conscious, knowing respect for all forms of beings.
This sounds idealistic and implausible when our default language stems from domination. But think about a language that is only relational—a language that has evolved past the need for an alphabet, the need for nouns, the need for a beginning and an ending, the need for time, the need “to be” or “to become” someone other than you are now. A language that has evolved past the need for concepts of domination. Consider a relational language that recognizes the ever-moving skan skan, which, in the Lakota vernacular, is the continuum of motion behind the motion.
I wonder if Westerners know there are Earth or Indigenous languages that already understand the forces and principles involved in the living world, having evolved from thousands of years of experience and observation. Sooner or later, the perseverance that Native peoples have exercised over thousands of years—waiting for this time to arrive—will result in finally having their languages acknowledged and recognized as languages of sustainability and longevity. These languages are based on observing how animals and plants have adapted and maintained their interactions as wamakaskan (all living forms on the surface as sacred to life beneath ground level). Native peoples, like their languages, have also adapted, moving with the changing Earth, and, for example, planting seeds according to the land’s capabilities rather than adjusting the land to fit our needs.
Original Intuition as Medicine
It was in Auschwitz-Berkinau, a time away from the vast plains of North America, where I came to understand relational values through the simple yet profoundly articulated First Nations language of the Lakota. It was a question I asked of Birgil: “Do we have a word or concept for domination?” He responded with a sound of quantum physics in motion—a simple “No. Domination does not work in a relational language that has evolved beyond war and peace unknown to the human race.”
Further into our discussion, I understood the way “relational languages” are critical for learning the balance, rhythm, sound, and motion of Mother Earth. So, when Birgil and I conversed in Lakota, there was no “domination conversation” possible within a thought process based on the Lakota language. The separation between Lakota and the land, however, was transparent when we spoke in English. We described the energy, and the motion of the energy, that could move us through the separation we felt so as not to stagnate the wakan and to consciously apply mystery to everything.
I am reminded of when I was a boy sitting between my grandfather and grandmother, hearing them speak in the motion of old Lakota language, where there was a difference in how the female and the male referred to all life, to each other, in a relational manner. I would think on how they spoke to each other in a gentle, calm, and effective way, feeling an intuitive healing once I understood the deeper meaning. They would heal each other with the language. The energy, the quantum physics, the verbs that made everything come to life, felt never-ending.
I opened this essay with the epigraph “Language is the foundation of civilization. It is the glue that holds a people together. It is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.” This assertion makes a clear point: language is not neutral. It can be a bonding agent, strengthening the ties between seemingly disparate things, and it can be a weapon, dividing things that are more alike than not. My experience at Auschwitz-Berkinau helped me understand how language is a force that can heal, speaking our relations into being, becoming a source of life, gathering together our kin. The Earth is listening. It is time for us to learn to speak what she is hearing.
Reprinted from Kinship: Belonging in a World of Relations, Vol. 5: Practice.