Do you know me?
getting to know the gods of this place
Do you know me?
In Monica Byrne’s novel, The Actual Star, Niloux deCayo whispers this question again and again while she walks the earth a thousand years in the future. Do you know me? Sometimes the god of the place remembers her, other times there is silence. In this way she seeks relationship with place by searching for the pathways of past selves. Who was she when she passed this way before? Would the gods of this place know her if she had lived above them in a house of stilts, if her feet had not actually touched the ground? Could they hear her beneath the layers of dirt and detritus left by the passage of time? And what if they did know her? Would that knowing draw her closer to Xibalba, a Mayan underworld that might be a way to know the world that truly is.
I didn’t ask that question when I went home for the first time thirty years ago. It never ocurred to me that it was a question I should be asking. And yet, when I reached my hands into the waters of Lac Seul, the gods of that place reached back. It was startling, unexpected. I couldn’t even tell you why I’d put my hands in the water, maybe I was seeking to be known but I didn’t have the language for it at the time and the gods of that place reached back. They knew me. The gods of that place knew me. I thought about that again decades later as we camped along the Great Lakes on our way back north and I thought about the waters that ran from Lac Seul past my home in Niagara Falls and out to the Atlantic Ocean. Those gods that knew me, had they talked about me with the gods of this place where I now live? Does knowledge of me flow along those waters?
I’m currently way over my head in Walter Mignolo’s book Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking. I went looking for Mignolo because Helen Olsen Agger mentions him in her book Dadibaajim: Returning Home Through Narrative where she talks about writing being a strategy of coercive control, language as a weapon of subjugation, and the text as a manifestation of coloniality. She notes that the Anishinaabe have always had to accomodate ourselves to the latecomers. It was always us who accomodated and made room for changes in territory, language, and religion. Who still must accomodate and make room for those who came late to our territories. Those who never asked the gods of this place if they were known, or made any attempt to be known. Those who wrote their languages and drew their lines on top of our lands and lives: a Euclidian geometry of boxes and angles, sharp edges that create sharp boundaries.
Writing as a strategy of coercive control.
Language as a weapon of subjugation.
The text as a manifestation of coloniality.
What language do the gods of this place, the ones who knew me, speak? I’d been told once that we pray in the language because that is the language which the gods of place understand. More than that, they know me by my Ojibwe name. A name that I don’t even know until those who know how to speak with such gods can obtain for me. They remembered me .. but do they know me?
Aniish na? Aniish eshnikaazyin?
What a profound, visceral disruption that is, to sever people from not only their own life in this place but from their afterlife as well. Because that’s what happens when the gods don’t know your name. When all you have is your English name and you can’t even speak to them in a language that they understand. So you follow the god of another place, the one who speaks English and knows the name the latecomers gave you. You follow that god to a place filled with other people’s ancestors.
Have you ever noticed how one of the first things that missionaries do is set up schools? Buildings dedicated to coercive control, subjugation, and coloniality via the three R’s. Even if they do take the time to learn the local language it is rarely so that they can speak to the gods of this place. Rather, in a creative twist they silence us, using the geometry of our own languages to bolster their Euclidean edges.
And what do the eavesdropping gods of these places make of this abuse? Are they listening? Or does this use of their language render it incomprehensible to them?
We return home, as Agger Olsen puts it, through narrative. We listen to our own stories, learn our own languages. Mignolo notes that language “has no mission” other than that of the people who speak it. Who write with it, create texts with it. Maybe that’s what it is to ask the gods of this place if they know me. To listen for them in the language and stories of place and see if we are known. And perhaps, by listening in this way, we can become known.