ARC Fellows: I cause my heart to pour out is how to say remember
Submitted by our 2020 Poetry and the Senses Poetry Fellow:
Beth Piatote (Professor, Native American Studies)
Earlier this month I gave a commencement address to a class of Native American undergraduates. I was alone in my living room, recording into a laptop perched atop my ironing board, four reference books, and a novel. The new graduates will be seeing the speech in their living rooms, along with the rest of the program, sometime in May (or whenever). Technology is a marvel.
Only later did I realize that in my brief yet upbeat message I had made references to both smallpox and youth suicide. Because it was for a Native audience, it didn’t seem odd at the time; only later did I think perhaps it wasn’t normal material for a capstone event. But I couldn’t pretend that the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t happening, and I also couldn’t pretend that epidemics had never happened before. The point was: as Native people, our historical consciousness is a great resource for remembering that our ancestors survived and these are not the worst of times.
As for youth suicide: that’s another epidemic. Suicide rates for American Indians and Alaska Natives are the highest of any demographic group in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control. It’s the second leading cause of death for Native youth under 24. Last year my tribal council declared it a State of Emergency. So I had to say something, in case someone needed to hear it.
Essentially my speech came down to this: Congratulations, everyone! Now stay alive. Stay connected to life.
The life of language—the connection to life through language—is what drives my work, especially my work in my heritage language of Nez Perce, which I have learned as an adult. Nez Perce language and the lifeworlds that spring from it are at the core of my poetry collection in progress that responds to our theme of Emergency.
When people talk about the importance of indigenous language revitalization, often the focus is on the potential loss of language; the languages, which are rich worlds of texture, sound, and meaning, are endangered or “dying.” And while the potential loss of language is a terrifying thought on its own, it can obscure the issue that Indigenous people are dying. And we need the languages to live.
To put it simply: language is alive and fuels other forms of life.
We need to generate stories, songs, poems, and other expressions in our indigenous languages for the strength and vitality of indigenous life, for all of life. Speech communities are not restricted to humans. Plants, animals, waters and mountains speak our languages too.
Anyone who appreciates poetry can appreciate the particular life force that it embodies. In Indigenous communities, our languages are a healing force. Language workers are sometimes called “language healers,” and I like this title very much, because it means that we are healing the language, and the language is healing us.
I’m not speaking symbolically here, but practically. A study in Canada has shown that there is an inverse relationship between the use of Indigenous languages and the youth suicide rate. Language use goes up and the suicide rate goes down.
For me, writing poems in Nez Perce is responding to an Emergency. My collection is envisioned as a grammar book and written for English speakers, in English; all Nez Perce words are translated in the notes and Nez Perce poems are translated in the body of the text. The pieces play with Nez Perce words, concepts, and linguistic structures, and riff on characters and ideas from Nez Perce traditional stories, with footnotes for language learners. Poetry is uniquely suited to exploring the relationships among words, sounds, and concepts, so some of the poem cycles are based on dictionary entries that show how one verb morphs into many concepts.
In our workshop, I have enjoyed the opportunity to think about the relationship between “emergency” and “emerge.” It’s beautiful that English gives us this connection. One of the poems I’m working on now is a cycle of short poems that riff on the verb “emerge” in Nez Perce, which is pin’i, “to come out; to pour out.” In our language, emerge is not related to emergency, but it is related to sew (to flow/come out with sharp object); ask a question (cause to come out); run, as a river (to swiftly flow out); and remember (cause the heart to pour out), among many other terms. “I cause my heart to pour out” is a translation for “I remember.” Another translation would be “my heart causes to pour out.”
And perhaps in this term there is a link, after all, between
emergency and pin’i/emerge: the thing to do in an emergency is to remember.
Remember our ancestors. Remember our words. Remember to stay alive.
 Hallett, Chandler, and Lalonde. “Aboriginal Language Knowledge and Youth Suicide.” Cognitive Development 22 (2007): 392-399.
Beth Piatote is author of two books: a mixed-genre collection, The Beadworkers: Stories (Counterpoint 2019); and a scholarly monograph, Domestic Subjects: Gender, Citizenship, and Law in Native American Literature (Yale 2013), as well as numerous essays and short stories stories in journals and anthologies. Her recent work, The Beadworkers, has been long-listed for the Aspen Words Literary Prize and the PEN/Bingham Prize. She is currently associate professor of Native American Studies, where she specializes in Native American literature and law; Nez Perce language and literature; Indigenous Language Revitalization; and creative writing. She earned a PhD from Stanford University.
Note: Over the course of the spring semester, each 2020-2021 ARC Fellows will submit a short blog post about their project. We hope you will enjoy these short readings! Poetry and the Senses will create meaningful opportunities for engagement, research, and collaboration. As a think tank for the arts at UC Berkeley, ARC will act as a facilitator and connector between the campus and the many flourishing regional poetry communities. This two-year initiative (Jan 2020 – Dec 2021) explores the relevance and urgency of lyrical making and storytelling in times of political crisis, and the value of engaging the senses as an act of care, mindfulness, and resistance. To learn more about the program, click here.