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Learning from an Indigenous Language

Reviving this indigenous language can teach people about an alternative worldview that can certainly help us today.

I work with reviving an indigenous language in the two dialects known as Wendat and Wyandot. It is related to the six languages of the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora) and Cherokee. They are descendants of the peoples that the French first named the Huron and Petun early in the 17th century. Their homeland was in southern Ontario, close to Georgian Bay in Lake Huron, one of the Great Lakes on the Canada-US border. 

The people were driven out of this homeland in the mid-17th century. The Wendat went east to the edges of the city of Quebec, which is where they live now. The people called Wyandot were forced to make several major moves. They went to live in the Detroit area in the early 18th century, later to Ohio, then Kansas and to Oklahoma in 1867. There are Wyandot communities still in Michigan, Kansas and Oklahoma. I am the tribal linguist for the people who call themselves the Wyandotte of Oklahoma.

My main reason for working with the language is so people can reconnect with the language and traditional culture of their ancestors. But over the last few years, I have discovered another important reason. The language can also teach people about an alternative view of life at a time when such a view can certainly help the world today.

A good part of this alternative view can be termed, “lessening or altering of hierarchy.” When the French came to Wendat country in the 17th century, they had many terms of hierarchy that could not easily or readily be translated into the language of the people:

Political hierarchy: lord, master, commander, baron, duke, prince or king

Religious hierarchy: bishop, archbishop, cardinal or pope

During the 17th century, the first bishop that the Wendat encountered was François de Montmorency Laval, the first bishop of New France. He was adopted into the Bear Clan and given the respected name Harihwawayi, meaning: “He holds a matter, an affair.” The pope came to be called Harihwawayiywannen, meaning: “He is the large, great one who holds a matter, affair.”

When I was translating the last recorded traditional stories of the Wyandot, I came across a character named Kurakuwah. He was an influential man who in one story was constantly being tricked by a Wyandot trickster. I did not at first recognize the name as being a Wyandot one. Then, while researching something else, I discovered that people speaking a related language, Mohawk, used to refer to the governor of Massachusetts as Kora. Then I saw that the name for the king of England was Korakowah. The kowah is the Mohawk equivalent of the Wyandot ywannen, so the name means “big Kora.” Wyandot has a “u” where Mohawk has an “o.” So, the person constantly being fooled by the Wyandot trickster was the namesake of the king of England.

Not only were strict positions of hierarchy absent from the language, but there were no terms in the language for “command,” “order” or “obey.” You can “put your word” or “be with someone’s word.” The verb meaning “to tell” refers to telling a story or informing someone, not telling that person what to do.

There are no ways of saying “best” or “worst.” When I discovered this, I quite quickly became aware of how often English speakers use these terms, especially “best,” and how often they are misleading or inaccurate ways of seeing things. Think, for example, of misleading questions such as: “Who was the best writer in the English language?” or the very Canadian argued-in-a-bar question, “Who was the best hockey player?” The answer I favor for these questions is a simple: “No one, but the following were or are very good.” You will notice that I avoided saying “the best.” If you are on Facebook, think of how often you read the inaccurate statement, “the best X ever.”

Now we tend to think of the opposites “rich” and “poor” as a hierarchy of material goods. It doesn’t work that way with Wendat and Wyandot. The term that would come to be used for the material rich referred primarily to the spiritually rich. Hondaki means, “they are spirits or are linked with spirits.” Add the ywannen referred to above and you have hondakiywannen, which means, “they are or have large spirits.” This is the term that came to be used by the Jesuit missionaries as meaning, “they are rich.”  

Just in case you think that the ywannen was always a positive attribution, there was the term yandetaraywannen that referred to someone who was pompous or arrogant. The literal meaning is, “‘to be a big or large pumpkin.”

For “poor” there is a verb root esa that for years I translated as, “to be in a poor state” or “to be poor.” It took my translating traditional stories to realize that a significant use of this verb was having it mean “to be family poor” because of meanings such as the following:

Huwesandih: He is in a family poor state. He is a widower.

Uwesandih: She is family poor, a widow.

Hotiesandi: They are in a family poor state, are orphans.

In terms of hierarchy and in a number of other key terms in speaking of human life, Wendat and Wyandot present an alternative way of thinking and speaking that should be preserved and served as a teacher.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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