In Langscape Magazine Articles

Tunun Kayutukun: Words Have Power

February 22, 2021

by Ilarion (Larry) Merculieff and Libby Roderick

Waves at St. Paul Island

Waves at St. Paul Island in the Bering Sea, Alaska. Waves are a visible manifestation of physical energy, but there is also a general Indigenous recognition of subtle energetic fields, which extend to language itself. Photo: Paul Melovidov, 2014

Contrary to most people in modern societies who see words simply as vehicles for conveying information or expressing thoughts and feelings, people in traditional Indigenous societies view words as entities that carry great power; therefore, they must be chosen and used with utmost care. Most non-Indigenous people don’t view words this way; indeed, they frequently, casually, and sometimes violently chastise children, criticize those with whom they disagree, and express ingratitude without worrying about potential consequences to themselves, others, or life itself. Even brief exposure to any TV “talk” show makes it clear that violent communication has become the norm in modern society.

People in traditional Indigenous societies view words as entities that carry great power.

In Indigenous societies, speaking loving words in loving ways promotes harmonious relationships and is considered profoundly important to the health of individuals and communities; speaking negative, violent words causes disharmony and is considered dangerous to all of life. The emotional, physical, and spiritual intent and energy behind spoken words have a very real force, one that affects a wide circle around those being spoken to. This view is consistent with a general Indigenous recognition of the power of subtle energetic fields, a phenomenon that Western physicists and medical practitioners are just beginning to acknowledge. For example, Indigenous Elders warn that all the energies surrounding a baby in the womb—including any words spoken by and to the mother—will impact the growth and development of the child. Food must be prepared with love (including all communication between the people preparing it) because the energies involved in the preparation will become part of the nutritional and spiritual value of the food when it is eaten.

Language and Views of the Earth

From an Indigenous perspective, language derives from the vibrations emanating from the lands and waters where it originally develops and evolves and is infused with the spirit of those places. Thus, words not only carry power, human intention, and specific meaning (often multiple meanings simultaneously), but also the literal energies of the places occupied by the peoples who speak them.

The industrial and scientific revolutions were driven and accompanied by a shift in how European thinkers viewed the Earth; this shift determined how we think about everything, including the energetic impacts of language. It involved moving from an “Earth-as-living organism” worldview to an “Earth as machine” paradigm. Beginning roughly in the 1500s in Europe, the Earth began to be viewed as a giant machine that ran efficiently, rather than a living entity. No longer self-regulating and sacred, the Earth became a source and a “re-source” for economic exploitation and scientific inquiry. Language, too, had lost its spiritual connection to the living Earth.

life forms

All life forms have things to teach human beings, and their inherent natures need to be honored and viewed as gifts. Photo: Paul Melovidov, 2014

Indigenous cultures did not participate in this changed way of relating to the Earth, except when forced to do so by colonization. Instead, they continued to view and relate to the Earth as a living organism infused with spirit. All forms of life were seen and experienced as complex, fluidly interconnected, interdependent, self-organizing, and self-regulating entities that contain and express individual as well as collective souls and spirit. All life forms had things to contribute to and teach human beings, and their inherent natures needed to be honored and viewed as gifts. Language, deriving from Earth, was a living force as well.

The Disconnection of English Language Words

As a result of these two very different ways of relating to words, we must be very careful when we translate Indigenous languages into English. Translation is a very tricky and inexact art, and it is dangerous to assume that we can truly understand what someone from another culture means simply by substituting a similar word or phrase in our own language. Lacking the deeper, wider, richer, and infinitely more complex context in which that word or phrase lives daily, we inevitably shrink and distort it to fit inside of our own.

Translation is a very tricky and inexact art.

Given that English is the world’s dominant language, the worldviews, concepts, and paradigms of Indigenous Peoples suffer enormously from the deficit caused by translation of their words and phrases (not to mention entire stories and histories) into the language of their colonizers. Their expressions are often viewed through the lens of a mind that has unconsciously absorbed the fundamental assumptions and principles that underlie the dominant culture (e.g., mechanistic Earth, individualism, profit, nature as a “resource” for human exploitation, etc.). The English language embodies the assumptions and principles of its founders; from an Indigenous perspective, it is frequently an expression of the disconnection from and commodification of life underlying European institutions, such as industrialization, private property, and Western science and law.

Let’s look at some of the ways in which a few English language words and terms express this disconnection and commodification. Let’s also look at some words from Alaska’s Native cultures that have been mistranslated and what more accurate translations might look like.

English Language Terms

Natural resources. From an Indigenous standpoint, the lands, waters, wildlife, plants, and elemental forces that surround and support human beings are part of a highly complex, interconnected, ever-changing, living network of “relatives.” There is no “human” separate from “nature.” All life forms—even those that appear inanimate to Western minds—possess a spirit and have much to teach and contribute to human beings. Humans are not superior to other forms of life, and they have no right to exploit the Earth solely to gratify their own needs and wants. Rather, they need to co-exist in a relationship based on reciprocity, respect, reverence, and partnership with other life forms. To refer to these “relatives” as “natural resources” implies that they have no independent spirits, no rights and needs of their own, and that they exist largely or solely to be used by humans.

living network

From an Indigenous viewpoint, land, water, and all life forms are part of an interconnected, living network of relatives. Photo: Barbara Lestenkof, 2014

Subsistence lifestyle. The term “subsistence” is a non-Indigenous word used by Westerners to refer to the harvesting of fish, wildlife, and plants that make up a significant portion of the diet of most Indigenous Peoples. However, the harvesting of wild foods cannot be separated from all other aspects of Native life. In Indigenous communities, the gathering of fish, of animals, plants, and other food sources is at the center of culture, daily life, community, intergenerational relationships, education, philosophy, spirituality, dancing, storytelling, humor, and more. The term “subsistence lifestyle” is offensive to many Native peoples because it not only fails to recognize the integral role food harvesting in Indigenous cultures but also reduces an entire way of life to a simple preference. The term “lifestyle” implies that Indigenous Peoples can “choose” a different way of living without the profound disruption that comes with losing connection with lands, waters, communities, languages, Elders, and the cultures involved.

duck hunt

A duck hunt at sundown. For Indigenous Peoples, the harvesting of fish, wildlife, and plants is at the center of culture and daily life. Photo: Barbara Lestenkof, 2014

Alaska Native(s). The term “Alaska Native(s)” is used by Westerners to encompass peoples represented by two hundred or more tribes within Alaska. This collective term for peoples from Alaska’s seven major Indigenous nations only came into use when their leaders recognized that they needed to unite to protect their ways of life in the face of pressures from white settlers and governments who intended to seize their traditional lands. It is often used as a proper noun; a more accurate use is as an adjective, that is “Alaska’s Native peoples.” Ideally, one refers to peoples by their proper names (e.g., Inupiaq).

Sustainability. The word “sustainability” has become a buzz word intended to describe actions or goals more in harmony with the Earth than others (which are “unsustainable”). We often hear about “sustainable businesses,” “sustainable development,” and so on. Wikipedia says, “In ecology, sustainability (from sustain and ability) is the property of biological systems to remain diverse and productive indefinitely. The organizing principle for sustainability is sustainable development, which includes the four interconnected domains: ecology, economics, politics and culture.”

Indigenous Peoples do not have a separate word for ‘sustainability’; rather, living sustainably is a way of life.

Indigenous Peoples do not have a separate word for “sustainability”; rather, living sustainably is a way of life that encompasses all aspects of living in harmony with Mother Earth. Practicing “sustainability” without transforming our way of life is seen by Indigenous Peoples as only a partial (sometimes misguided) response to the core dysfunction of modern societies: separation from Mother Earth, separation from others, separation from self.

Traditional ecological knowledge and local knowledge. The terms that Western science gives to Indigenous ways of knowing are “traditional ecological knowledge” or “local knowledge.” Indigenous Elders always say knowledge without wisdom is useless and may be dangerous.

Scientists, researchers, and policy-makers often speak of “incorporating traditional ecological knowledge” into their work. They usually seek discrete information to fit the missions of their institutions, agencies, or legal mandates, such as population trends or the health status of wildlife. In doing so, they fail to understand the basis of Indigenous ways of knowing, which recognizes that information taken out of context results in distorted interpretations. When Yup’ik people study salmon, they observe the daily weather, climate in each season, vegetation along the river banks, actions of animals nearby, the kinds, directions, and intensities of storms that occur, and so on. Hence, they know with great accuracy what the salmon runs will be the following year.

Western scientists often take discrete data points (e.g., numbers of salmon moving up a river for a few weeks) and extrapolate from that alone. Indigenous people know that any conclusion they arrive at regarding fish, wildlife, or habitat must be based on intimate observation of all key elements impacting those things.

Maximum sustainable yield. The Oxford Dictionary defines “maximum sustainable yield” as “the maximum level at which a natural resource can be routinely exploited without long-term depletion.” Used in “resource management” to describe how much humans can take from a system without destroying it, the term assumes that typical Western scientific data are an appropriate baseline from which to make these kinds of decisions. Indigenous Peoples know that these decontextualized data are extremely limiting in that they account for only part of a whole system (e.g., a fishery) and that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts . . . its totality is a mystery. Hence, a flexible, reciprocal, humble relationship with a system is required, and a respect for its holistic nature, not a maximum level of taking.

Indigenous Phrases

It is worth learning some words from traditional Indigenous languages because they communicate worldviews critical to healing Western individualism and moving towards a more holistic, life-sustaining worldview. Here are some Unangam Tunuu (Unangan/Aleut) words. The layered meanings go beyond literal translations into English, which is true for all Indigenous words.

Tanum Aawaa means “the work of the land,” yet it is layered with meanings. Storytellers open with the words Tanum Awaa, acknowledging that their stories come from the people, ancestors, land, and Creator.

Unangan storytellers - eagle

Unangan storytellers begin by acknowledging that their stories come from the people, ancestors, the land, and the Creator. Photo: Barbara Lestenkof, 2014

Aang Waan means “hello my other self.” Unangan greet each other every day with these words, acknowledging their interconnectedness. In the worldviews of Indigenous Peoples, words that separate human beings from “All That Is” cause all human suffering and the degradation of fish, wildlife, and habitat.

Cowax raandeethuk. When Unangan hunters mortally wound a Steller sea lion, the sea lion swims in a circle. This is interpreted by the hunters as preparation for death. The circling shows that the animal has completed its life journey and is preparing its spirit to go on to the nextlife. The phrase demonstrates that Unangan hunters understand that the animal has a spirit and understands the ritual of dying.

Kelax exuumnax, kelax kusuuthax. Unangan greet each other daily by saying “good morning, the morning tastes good.” This phrase points to the fact that speakers are using all their senses and all the gifts of the “real human being”—including touch, taste, smell, hearing, gut feeling, heart sense, thought, and intuition—to experience the present moment in integrated ways.

Unangan hunters

Unangan hunters understand that when a mortally wounded sea lion swims in a circle, it is demonstrating an awareness that death is coming and that its spirit will soon be going to the next life. Photo: Paul Melovidov, 2014

Indigenous languages contain ways of looking at the world that English cannot replace. They contain words steeped in meaning and connected at multiple levels, whereas English is generally precise and separated. The world needs Indigenous languages for many reasons, including that they reflect an intimate connection with the lands, waters, and creatures, and ways to understand what hurts or benefits them.

These languages are fast disappearing; we must save them because words have power.

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Ilarion (Larry) Merculieff has over forty years of experience serving his people, the Unangan (Aleuts) of the Pribilof Islands and other Indigenous Peoples locally, nationally, and internationally in a number of leadership capacities. He speaks in various venues nationally and internationally about the wisdom of Indigenous Elders with whom he works.

Libby Roderick is Director of Difficult Dialogues at the University of Alaska; editor/co-author of Start Talking: A Handbook for Engaging Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education, Stop Talking: Indigenous Ways of Teaching and Learning and Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education, Alaska Native Cultures and Issues, and other publications; and an acclaimed singer/songwriter.


Further Reading

Alaska Native Knowledge Network. (n.d.). Resources for compiling and exchanging information related to Alaska Native knowledge systems and ways of knowing. Retrieved from http://www.ankn.uaf.edu/

Merculieff, L., & Roderick, L. (2000). Stop Talking: Indigenous Ways of Teaching and Learning and Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education. Anchorage, AK: University of Alaska Anchorage Press.

Roderick, L. (2010). Alaska Native Cultures and Issues. Fairbanks, AK: University of Alaska Press.


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