Friday, May 18, 2007


A friend came to visit and wanted to know about Blackfeet. What he insisted on knowing specifically was whether their language were “Algonquian,” meaning was it classified with that big category of languages developed by linguists when they tried to group Native American languages into “families” that somehow echoed the European languages of French, Spanish, and so on. I kept resisting telling him what he wanted to know, partly because I think the assumed idea that if you knew what language a group spoke then you could assign them to some “nation,” meaning some territory that could be called their “homeland” so you could say they “belonged” there.

Actually Blackfeet IS assigned to the Algonquian family, but that category covers the entire North American continent from coast to coast, as far north as the subarctic and as far south as South Carolina and includes more than thirty recorded languages -- who knows how many went unrecorded or what constitutes the defining differences between one version and another? Here’s a sentence to think about (from “The Encyclopedia of North American Indians”): “Reconstructed Proto-Algonquian terms for various animals and plants indicate a homeland for that language in the region between Georgian Bay and Lake Ontario.” “Proto-Algonquian” is supposed to be between three thousand and twenty-five hundred years old. What did the People speak before that? Where were they before that? What was “Pre-Proto-Algonquian” like?

If the original theorists about the paleo-days of the continent are right, the first languages should have come with the first people, who seem from the genetic evidence to be Asian. So the languages should have spread from west to east, right? Or did everyone speak some kind of “dawn Chinese” until a proto-Viking landed on the east coast (in search of cod fish) and started a back wave of new words. But do the Blackfeet have a word for codfish? Does this have anything to do with the old-timers’ prejudice against fish as dangerous food?

Languages develop the capacity to mark with prefixes or suffixes whatever qualities are important to the speakers. So Algonquian languages don’t distinguish between male and female in the way the Romance languages do, but they distinguish between what is animate and what is inanimate. These nouns are usually animate: persons, animals, spirits, large trees, some fruits (raspberries but not strawberries -- no one knows why), some body parts (Napi’s rear end is always talking to him), feathers and tails, pipes, snowshoes and kettles. There is a third category: the sacred. This encyclopedia entry doesn’t address it.

Edward Sapir, a major linguist, says that Algonquian words are “tiny imagist poems.” Certainly the words invented to describe new phenomena are this way. Earl Old Person says that the word for “post office” is “the place where you throw things in.” In other words, the letter slot or box where you stuff the outgoing mail. I wonder what the word is for where you get your incoming mail back out, but probably in the days when the major language was still Blackfeet, one’s mail was simply handed to one, so the name of the postmaster was all a person needed to know.

The more one pays attention to the things in the environment, the more one develops words to describe them. At present the growing edge of the language is in physics and the computer world. Many of the words are playful and derived from previous vocabularies and phenomena that are assumed to be culturally shared, in the same way that the planets were named for the Greek mythological gods. I’m waiting for something to be named for Napi. Maybe a fumarole in Yellowstone?

What used to be “the fairgrounds” just west of Browning, which was improved and named “the Blackfeet Stampede Park” (maybe after the Calgary Stampede, a famous rodeo?), has just been reclaimed again and renamed “Charging Home Park.” It’s often used for horse races. "Fairs" featuring 4-H and "best of crop" are from the old ag world that had only a temporary impact on Blackfeet culture.

I’m working on maps of the rez and thinking about neighborhoods in Browning. One is named “Chinatown” because the overhanging upper stories reminded someone of Chinese houses. Another is “Hell’s Corner” because a notorious bootlegger lived there and his clients got in fights. "The White House" (which is white stucco) is where you can buy cocaine. “Knot’s Landing” is a loop of houses where the occupants got into naughty behavior reminiscent of the TV series on which the plot consisted mostly of sexual entanglements of each other. “Palookaville” is a spot out by Heart Butte where the sheep shearers used to put up their tents and corrals once a year in the days when Blackfeet raised more sheep than cattle. A sheep shearer was called a “palooka.” Usually these invented names are rather rude, which makes them funny and more likely to catch-on.

Names come from a history of interaction. “Kristy the Wordsmith” has developed a career from recovering the origins of words -- she has published a book and does a daily spot on public radio -- and there are a number of word-meaning daily email services. In my youth, the Reader’s Digest published a word list for vocabulary expansion.

Today the emphasis in many schools is not vocabulary development, but proper grammar and usage. The high value is conformity, rather than creation -- uniformity rather than innovation. This is because those in charge believe that success in the world depends on fitting in, lookin’ good, belonging. But does it?

As soon as proto-Algonquian formed, it split out in at least ten directions as the speakers looked for new lands and new ways to live. Prairie people needed words for grass and prairie fire. Coastal people needed words for surf and whales. New language goes with new places and lives, new times.

So when I finally gave up and admitted that Blackfeet was an Algonquian language, what did my friend gain by knowing this bit of taxonomy? Could he speak the language? Could he see the land around us in new ways? Or are such pigeonholes only important to people in libraries?

1 comment:

Vinnie The Man said...

Ever since spotting "Palookaville" on an old map as an "abandoned settlement," I've been curious and puzzled. No ref could I find so thanks and salute to prairiemary! Vince Moravek (first encounter w/that great land in 1986 as wide-eyed jammer from Kansas. Blackfeet saved my butt twice that summer. VM