Ni pi je ezhyayen? asks the little yellow sticky note on my back door. My hands are full and the car is running, but I switch my bag to the other hip and pause long enough to respond. Odanek nde zhya, I’m going to town. And so I do, to work, to class, to meetings, to the bank, to the grocery store. I talk all day and sometimes write all evening in the beautiful language I was born to, the same one used by 70 percent of the world’s people, a tongue viewed as the most useful, with the richest vocabulary in the modern world. English. When I get home at night to my quiet house, there is a faithful Post-it note on the closet door. Gisken I gbiskewagen! And so I take off my coat.
I cook dinner, pulling utensils from cupboards labeled emkwanen, nagen. I have become a woman who speaks Potawatomi to household objects. When the phone rings I barely glance at the Post-it there as I dopnen the giktogan. And whether it is a solicitor or a friend, they speak English. Once a week or so, it is my sister from the West Coast who says Bozho. Moktthewenkwe nda–as if she needed to identify herself: who else speaks Potawatomi? To call it speaking is a stretch. Really, all we do is blurt garbled phrases to each other in a parody of conversation: How are you? I am fine. Go to town. See bird. Red. Frybread good. We sound like Tonto’s side of the Hollywood dialogue with the Lone Ranger. “Me try talk good Injun way.” On the rare occasion when we actually can string together a halfway coherent thought, we freely insert high school Spanish words to fill in the gaps, making a language we call Spanawatomi.
Tuesdays and Thursdays at 12:15 Oklahoma time, I join the Potawatomi lunchtime language class, streaming from tribal headquarters via the Internet. There are usually about ten of us, from all over the country. Together we learn to count and to say pass the salt. Someone asks, “How do you say please pass the salt?” Our teacher, Justin Neely, a young man devoted to language revival, explains that while there are several words for thank you, there is no word for please. Food was meant to be shared, no added politeness needed; it was simply a cultural given that one was asking respectfully. The missionaries took this absence as further evidence of crude manners.
Many nights, when I should be grading papers or paying bills, I’m at the computer running through Potawatomi language drills. After months, I have mastered the kindergarten vocabulary and can confidently match the pictures of animals to their indigenous names. It reminds me of reading picture books to my children: “Can you point to the squirrel? Where is the bunny?” All the while I’m telling myself that I really don’t have time for this, and what’s more, little need to know the words for bass and fox anyway. Since our tribal diaspora left us scattered to the four winds, who would I talk to?
The simple phrases I’m learning are perfect for my dog. Sit! Eat! Come here! Be quiet! But since she scarcely responds to these commands in English, I’m reluctant to train her to be bilingual. An admiring student once asked me if I spoke my native language. I was tempted to say, “Oh yes, we speak Potawatomi at home”–me, the dog, and the Post-It notes. Our teacher tells us not to be discouraged and thanks us every time a word is spoken; thanks us for breathing life into the language, even if we only speak a single word. “But I have no one to talk to,” I complain. “None of us do,” he reassures me, “but someday we will.”
So I dutifully learn the vocabulary but find it hard to see the “heart of our culture” in translating bed and sink into Potawatomi. Learning nouns was pretty easy; after all, I’d learned thousands of botanical Latin names and scientific terms. I reasoned that this could not be too much different–just a one-for-one substitution, memorization. At least on paper, where you can see the letters, this is true. Hearing the language is a different story. There are fewer letters in our alphabet, so the distinction among words for a beginner is often subtle. With the beautiful clusters of consonants of zh and mb and shwe and kwe and mshk, our language sounds like wind in the pines and water over rocks, sounds our ears may have been more delicately attuned to in the past, but no longer. To learn again, you really have to listen.
To actually speak, of course, requires verbs, and here is where my kindergarten proficiency at naming things leaves off. English is a noun-based language, somehow appropriate to a culture so obsessed with things. Only 30 percent of English words are verbs, but in Potawatomi that proportion is 70 percent. Which means that 70 percent of the words have to be conjugated, and 70 percent have different tenses and cases to be mastered.
European languages often assign gender to nouns, but Potawatomi does not divide the world into masculine and feminine. Nouns and verbs both are animate and inanimate. You hear a person with a word that is completely different from the one with which you hear an airplane. Pronouns, articles, plurals, demonstratives, verbs–all those syntactical bits I never could keep straight in high school English are all aligned in Potawatomi to provide different ways to speak of the living world and the lifeless one. Different verb forms, different plurals, different everything apply depending on whether what you are speaking of is alive.
No wonder there are only nine speakers left! I try, but the complexity makes my head hurt and my ear can barely distinguish between words that mean completely different things. One teacher reassures us that this will come with practice, but another elder concedes that these close similarities are inherent in the language. As Stewart King, a knowledge keeper and great teacher, reminds us, the Creator meant for us to laugh, so humor is deliberately built into the syntax. Even a small slip of the tongue can convert “We need more firewood” to “Take off your clothes.” In fact, I learned that the mystical word Puhpowee is used not only for mushrooms, but also for certain other shafts that rise mysteriously in the night.
My sister’s gift to me one Christmas was a set of magnetic tiles for the refrigerator, in the Ojibwe, or Anishinabemowin, a language closely related to Potawatomi. I spread them out on my kitchen table looking for familiar words, but the more I looked, the more worried I got. Among the hundred or more tiles, there was but a single word that I recognized: megwech, thank you. The small feeling of accomplishment from months of study evaporated in a moment.
I remember paging through the Ojibwe dictionary she sent, trying to decipher the tiles, but the spellings didn’t always match and the print was too small and there are way too many variations on a single word and I was feeling that this was just way too hard. The threads in my brain knotted and the harder I tried, the tighter they became. Pages blurred and my eyes settled on a word–a verb, of course: “to be a Saturday.” Pfft! I threw down the book. Since when is Saturday a verb? Everyone knows it’s a noun. I grabbed the dictionary and flipped more pages and all kinds of things seemed to be verbs: “to be a hill,” “to be red,” “to be a long sandy stretch of beach,” and then my finger rested on wiikwegama: “to be a bay.” “Ridiculous!” I ranted in my head. “There is no reason to make it so complicated. No wonder no one speaks it. A cumbersome language, impossible to learn, and more than that, it’s all wrong. A bay is most definitely a person, place, or thing–a noun and not a verb.” I was ready to give up. I’d learned a few words, done my duty to the language that was taken from my grandfather. Oh, the ghosts of the missionaries in the boarding schools must have been rubbing their hands in glee at my frustration. “She’s going to surrender,” they said.
And then I swear I heard the zap of synapses firing. An electric current sizzled down my arm and through my finger, and practically scorched the page where that one word lay. In that moment I could smell the water of the bay, watch it rock against the shore and hear it sift onto the sand. A bay is a noun only if water is dead. When bay is a noun, it is defined by humans, trapped between its shores and contained by the word. But the verb wiikegama–to be a bay–releases the water from bondage and lets it live. “To be a bay” holds the wonder that, for this moment, the living water has decided to shelter itself between these shores, conversing with cedar roots and a flock of baby mergansers. Because it could do otherwise–become a stream or an ocean or a waterfall, and there are verbs for that, too. To be a hill, to be a sandy beach, to be a Saturday, all are possible verbs in a world where everything is alive. Water, land, and even a day, the language a mirror for seeing the animacy of the world, the life that pulses through all things, through pines and nuthatches and mushrooms. This is the language I hear in the woods, this is the language that lets us speak of what wells up all around us. And the vestiges of boarding schools, soap-wielding missionary wraiths, hang their heads in defeat.