Five years ago, when I moved to Hawai’i, I was steeped in the question, “what is the indigenous soul?” This term, which made me uncomfortable because I felt like it objectified and homogenized Native peoples, and because I wasn’t even really sure what it meant, had nonetheless seeded in my mind and taken root. It gave a name to a deep longing I felt. One day, I asked my friend Chris Quiseng what phrase indigenous soul evoked for him. Chris responded: “We are our landscapes.”
We are our landscapes. That night, I jotted those words down in my journal, along with the sentence, “Who I am in Hawaii is different than who I am in the Methow.” That sentence became a riddle I’ve been trying to answer ever since.
These days, I travel back and forth between the two landscapes several times each year. Hawaii (Ka’u district on Hawai’i Island to be precise), a land of moist salty breezes, black rock pummeled by frothy waves, lava forming brand-new earth. In the Methow Valley in Washington State, four fierce seasons define a land of sun, wind, and snow, as alpine peaks give way desert plateau, and ponderosa pines greet sagebrush steppes. In each, I wander through the landscape, forever asking: who am I here?
The land gently reminds me what a silly, self-centered, Western question this is. I am reminded that for most humans that have walked this earth, identity is simple, defined by who claims you as kin. The question is not: who are you here, the question is…how do you learn to speak the language, to move to the rhythm, of a place? Put another way: how do I engage with a place in such a way that the place would name me, kin? Part of this is about how I show up and support the health and resilience of the communities and landscapes I am in. Part of it is about language.
Living in Hawai’i, I learned quickly the importance of language to understand place. Hawaiian language is living and thriving, the words lush, round, and ever-present. I learned how languages are borne out of the landscape, and therefore match the place. Chris and I spoke what it means to pray using the language indigenous to that place. When we pray in English, he suggested, we require the land to make the translation, but when we speak in the indigenous language, it requires no translation.
Since then, I have grown to believe that it is not possible to fully know a place without knowing its language. Okanagan author and speaker Jeanette Armstrong, shares that among her people who are close language relatives of the Methow people, “our place on the land” is the same word as “our language.”
This is not so uncommon among traditional peoples. The Queensland Indigenous Languages Advisory Commission puts it this way: “Language is the expression of our culture and our land. We cannot have one without the others. We cannot describe our culture and land if we do not have language.”
Like many before me, I have come to believe it’s not possible to fully unearth our ancestral traditions without also learning our ancient tongues. That’s why many indigenous cultures are fighting to keep their languages alive—and why the forces of colonialism have worked so hard to suppress them. As one who only speaks English, and one who loves words, I hunger for a different way to understand the world. Richard Wright says “Psychological separation from Eurocentric thinking is not a short-term task.” Perhaps it can be measured in the length of time it takes to learn the intricacies of one’s indigenous language.
To know a place is also to know the language of the land. The plants, the animals, the patterns of clouds and sun and rain, the rocks. It is to know the history of a land: the stories of the First Peoples, and the stories of colonization.
Still, without language, I do communicate with the land. In Ka’u I am asked: How do I take my bodily cues, and the secrets whispered by wind and wave, from the edge, the constantly shifting boundary where water and land meet?
In the Methow the stillness, quiet, gentleness of landscape evokes the simplest and most profound of emotions: love. It is a place that opens my heart, and fills me up full with love. Wind in aspen; vast skies; rolling, open hills; a river threading the valley together and giving it life: each of these calls forth my love.
As humans, words are such an important part of how we communicate. But deeply knowing landscapes also invites us into a relationship beyond words, into full engagement with our senses. The air tastes different in Ka’u than in the Methow. The way it brushes against my skin feels different as well. And the way I feel in each, the qualities the land draws forth, are different aspects of myself.
What about you? What does the landscape in which you live mirror to you, and evoke in you? What does it call forth? What are the ways it touches your senses? What are the languages that grow out of your landscape? These are not questions to be answered, but rather as Rilke says, we can “try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue.” As Rilke offers, perhaps we “will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”