Imagine if the Yahara Lakes had the same rights as people. Would we treat them differently?
Robin Wall Kimmerer, a SUNY-Syracuse botanist who writes about the intersections between science and her Potawatomi culture, believes we might. Kimmerer, who received her masters at UW-Madison, returned to campus to speak to students Thursday.
The idea of granting personhood to a lake might seem far-out by Western logic, but consider that, at least in the U.S., corporations can be legally defined as citizens. In many nations around the world, governments are taking a stand to protect their waters and lands by granting them personhood too.
“What does it really mean to view other species as persons, and what are the consequences?” Kimmerer asked. “In our way of thinking, to be a person is actually one of the most wonderful definitions because to be a person is to be capable of reciprocity, to be capable of relationships, of give and take and participation.”
Many indigenous traditions think of all the living beings as persons in that way, Kimmerer said. In Potawatomi culture, that perspective is formed in part through the language used to talk about the environment — especially when it transcends human exceptionalism by working to imagine a landscape where all living things are granted a sense of personhood through the pronouns used to describe them.
“I would ask you to envision your grandmother in the kitchen, maybe cooking something for you, and I come into your kitchen and say oh look, it’s wearing an apron,” Kimmerer suggested. “I just stole her personhood.”
But that’s exactly what the English language does to all of nature, Kimmerer argued.
“In English, we are trapped,” Kimmerer said. “There’s so much more that’s unsaid — is it any wonder that we have bought into this exploitative worldview?”
For Kimmerer, changing this worldview comes by expanding the pronouns we use to describe our living environment — what she calls “a new grammar of animacy.”
The pronoun Kimmerer has in mind is “ki.”
In Anishinaabemowin, the word “aki” means “the earth,” and is a root of “bmaadiziaki,” which is used to describe something that is “of the earth.”
Kimmerer imagines that using “ki” to describe elements of the living world could grant them more dignity than the English vocabulary could offer. The word “ki,” in its plural sense, may also remind us that we are all kin on this planet.
“It’s a way of speaking that designates respect to those other beings,” Kimmerer said. “I am advocating for a radical change, these are the pronouns of the revolution. We are talking about switching a worldview.”
According to Potawatomi tradition, land is conceptualized as a source of identity, of sustenance, healing, ancestral connection and moral responsibility. Land, Kimmerer said, is sacred.
All of these truths are confirmed and practiced in the Potawatomi language.
But describing land and place in English can reduce those things to a series of exclusive rights and services — natural resources, ecosystem functions, capital, property.
In the U.S., which exists on land that was taken from native peoples, Kimmerer said expanding this “circle of citizenship” is both a responsibility and a door toward building a better relationship with the earth. She also said that naming our common ground is the first step in sharing it.
In fact, not making these inclusions may perpetuate the settler-colonial violence that has resulted in centuries of injustice toward native peoples and the lands they live on.
“The way we use language can be a tool of imperialism,” Kimmerer said. “Language can do violence too.”
Perhaps, Kimmerer said, it is through these linguistic disconnects that an oil company can win the rights to run a pipeline beneath an ancestral river, or that a national monument meant to protect sacred landmarks can be repurposed for mining.
“Corporations have more rights than you have,” Kimmerer said. “And if you are not outraged by this, I think you are not paying attention.”
“Expanding our circles of citizenship” could have both spiritual and political consequences, Kimmerer said. It would both help us restore a relationship with the land we live on and also give us the legal tools needed to protect it in the future.