Words and Viewpoints in Indigenous Religious Language

I'm in boot camp for a new job, which is why I didn't file a column last week. This is keeping me pretty busy. The class has about twenty people from all over the U.S., and a few from elsewhere. It's an interesting mix.

But now, down to work.

Back in 1979, a book appeared that started an interesting controversy. Hanta Yo, by Ruth Beebe Hill, is a novel about a band of Lakota around 1800. For me, the most interesting part was the first paragraph of the author's preface. It's a list of words.

If you manage to locate this book and read the paragraph, you may have to go over it a few times before you even start to guess why the author wants you to notice these words. Then she tells you: something to the effect that none of these words, nor the concepts they represent, appear in this book. She claims that she wrote the story in English, then translated it into the Sioux dialect of her characters, then translated it back into English. The intent was to tell the story as much from within a cultural viewpoint as possible.

After the book was published with much fanfare, a firestorm grew up around it, mostly from the Lakota tribe and other Native Americans. I'm not sure where that ended up. It was a while ago now. I thought the story was good. But it's the list of words in the preface that had a lasting impact on me.

After the intent is explained to you, it's easy to see why some of those words are there. For example: weed. What use would a non-agricultural people have for a word like that? If I were a member of a hunter/gatherer tribe, I might even think a concept like weed, if I could somehow get it into my head, was an evil idea. But what about if, or because? Try living without these words, and some of the others on this list, for even a few minutes. You will find it far beyond hard.

In online reviews, some readers complain that the language has a wooden feel to it. If it didn't feel that way to me, perhaps it was because I accepted early on that this language, and the story it conveyed, was about a point of view that was just different from my everyday experience. As a reader, it was my job to understand that point of view as well as I could through this linguistic subterfuge.

Over the weekend, we invited one of my new classmates from work over for dinner. He is a pleasant fellow, originally from Lithuania (I love that word: it feels good to say, and to hear). This country on the Baltic Sea was absorbed, much against its will, into the Soviet Union for several decades. But a more interesting aspect of its history is that it was the last country in Europe to succumb to Christianity, holding out into the 1400s. With the exception of a few remote tribes, Baltic Paganism is historically closer to the surface than any other native religion in Europe.

And, incidentally, Baltic Paganism is a very close Indo-European relative to Scandinavian Paganism: what we usually call Heathenry. Of course, there are differences, but our Thor is very similar to their Perkunas, complete with thunder and hammer.

One of my new friend's comments during dinner was that, when he wants to talk about religion, he has to switch into Russian. Lithuanian, he says, just doesn't have the words for it.

I have a suspicion about this, though. I wonder if Lithuanian is actually very well equipped to talk about religion, but just not about Christianity. Perhaps this old language can speak eloquently about religion: the religion that lived and grew alongside it.

3/21/2012 4:00:00 AM
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  • Steven Abell
    About Steven Abell
    Steven Thor Abell is a storyteller and the author of Days in Midgard: A Thousand Years On, a collection of original modern stories based on Heathen myths. As of 2013, he is also Steersman of the High Rede of The Troth.