The path of kinship: Ki and Kin as pronouns for the living world

Robin Wall Kimmerer, a scientist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, suggests that language can be a path of healing. In this article in Yes Magazine: Nature Needs a New Pronoun: To Stop the Age of Extinction, Let’s Start by Ditching “It” she suggest that when speaking of the Earth and the living beings on it, we use not “it,” but “ki.” The plural of ki is “kin.”

Singing whales, talking trees, dancing bees, birds who make art, fish who navigate, plants who learn and remember. We are surrounded by intelligences other than our own, by feathered people and people with leaves. But we’ve forgotten. There are many forces arrayed to help us forget—even the language we speak.

Kimmerer is the author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants–a book I’ve been reading bits of for several years; but now this has inspired me to continue steadily reading it. Reading this article she wrote was such a relief. I often feel so discouraged by our culture’s blindness and objectification of the natural world, which we are killing as readily as we kill other people, people who we think stand in the way of making everything and everyone into a thing we can own, use, and spend as we like.

Changing this overpowering relationship seems like what is left for us to do in this time, learning respect, service to the natural world and other beings, and humility as humans. Since it seems we are so much about ends and don’t acknowledge enough concern for means except as to how ruthless we can make them, perhaps it’s time to learn something of the path of kinship. Think of all the ignored resonance of the word “means,” and how it could be a careful path of action, as in a daoist sense, the low path of utmost respect, awareness and humility. Here, as we see ourselves as kin, we think first of all our commonness, that which we share and are not truly different or better. In our language or culture, have we not valued gratitude enough . . ? Now in this time, do we begin to see a different possibility?

But I find myself angry still and I recognize the feeling I have is not the path of humility, but rather I’m stuck in rage at so much blindness. Why am I so angry? I see how much I desire to achieve victory over all the ways in which others are out of balance and destructive. So I ask that of myself. Can I enter back into the sacred, that is, the path of deep relationship and respect, sacred ground all around me, within me and without me–and not be about conquering everything in my path through aggression or rage? Can I begin to really grasp that revenge for the blindness of the world will not heal me or bring what I need? Can I accept what feels like defeat or weakness, and continue on my path without suffering over it?

What does it mean to learn to “take it,” not overcome it and possess it, but to take a very different path that starts with the assumption that well-being can always be found to be there . . ? I’m certainly not there yet, but can begin to see it. Sometimes. Everything shines in that light and as I saw in my prior post, here is the humility of finding strength to have renewing intention and action that stops without also intending a particular result.

But it seems so much trauma insists on reparation for any loss, a core of pain we want acknowledgement for, through overcoming a world in which we feel we’ve become less, so we want to take more as our due . . . make that which might hurt us into a victory, the power to stand on top of everything. But victim and victor are two sides of the same corrosive coin, that we can go on spending endlessly and meaninglessly . . . thinking it’s what gives us greater life. But the path of shared connection gives us more life, is a real healing, a dedication to connection beyond victory.

Robin Wall Kimmerer:

” . . . in English, we speak of our beloved Grandmother Earth in exactly that way: as “it.” The language allows no form of respect for the more-than-human beings with whom we share the Earth. In English, a being is either a human or an “it.”

Using “it” absolves us of moral responsibility and opens the door to exploitation.

But in Anishinaabe and many other indigenous languages . . . We use the same words to address all living beings as we do our family. Because they are our family.

What would it feel like to be part of a family that includes birches and beavers and butterflies? We’d be less lonely. We’d feel like we belonged. We’d be smarter.

On a crisp October morning we can look up at the geese and say, “Look, kin are flying south for the winter. Come back soon.”

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