Translating worldviews

Mashpee Indian Meeting House
Mashpee Indian Meeting House

I have been curious to find stories from the early days of encounters between Natives and settlers from the early days around Cape Cod, from the moment when two worldviews met, to see what was in the air in the moment before one assumed dominance over the other. I have been following the story of Richard Bourne who lived in my hometown of Sandwich and was an early minister and missionary to the Wampanoag people. He helped to establish the neighboring town of Mashpee and was frequently called upon as the arbitrator when it came to land deeds and to drawing the first borders around Sandwich and Barnstable. The intention of the settlers was to recreate as closely as possible the English-style towns they left and to gather Natives willing to convert to Christianity into “Praying Towns” led by Native converts under colonial jurisdiction. Bourne spoke some Wampanoag language and is credited with translating the Lord’s Prayer into Wampanoag.

This detail piqued my interest, as learning a language requires relationship and a strong desire to communicate and to be understood. Who was teaching Bourne the Wampanoag language? And what were those first communications like with the ones he was learning from? I can hardly imagine the many hours spent of mistakes, misunderstanding, and then understanding.

After the Lord’s Prayer, the English Bible was translated into Algonquin and printed at the press at the Harvard Indian College in 1663. It is known by the name of the missionary who oversaw the project, John Eliot.

In a discussion with historians Barry O’Connell and Lisa Brooks, they talk about how as Europeans moved westward across Turtle Island, there was a series bibles translated into local languages. Each edition attributes the translation to an English or European minister. However it was most certainly Native people who did the work of translation. In most cases, the ministers named did not have the fluency to be able to translate. North America at the time was multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, and trans-national. In the Northeast region there were many languages before the English arrived that were very different from each other, for example Abanaki and Mohawk languages. There were always some people identified in the tribes who were particularly adept at learning languages.
 
Historical marker at Hassanamesit

Lisa Brooks points out that the Eliot Bible project gained momentum when James the Printer, the Nipmuc man who ran the printing press at the Harvard Indian College, and 4 or 5 of his Native companions became involved in the translation.

The other sign that makes it clear it was Natives who translated is the way they brought to the text their own way of seeing the world. Translation is never direct letter for letter. The indigenous worldview is infused throughout the translated version, and the Algonquin spiritual cosmology speaks through it. It contains points of view that Puritan ministers at the time would have found blasphemous to their cultural worldview.

One example Lisa Brooks gives is that in the Psalter, “My God” is translated as “Num-Manittoom,” where “Manittoom” is the animating spirit that flows through all things. It is the life force itself. There is no concept in Algonquin of good and evil, heaven or hell, and so this life force is one that has the potential for both creation and destruction. And Manittoom has the pronoun “Num,” “my dearly beloved,” where “my” is relational and not possessive. There is no way to talk about a divine power that was only externalized. In these two words we can understand that there is a personal relationship to the life force that runs through everything.

This is the worldview that has long been woven in to the landscape of the Northeast, still multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, and trans-national. These worldviews are well supported to be reincorporated into our society and the way we live in this place today.

Waking Up a Sleeping Language

The Wampanoag language of Cape Cod and the Northeast US had been known as a “sleeping language,” with no native speakers for the last 100 years.

Through the Wopanaak Language Reclamation Project, linguists and teachers are building connections to reconstitute the grammar and pronunciation through closely related languages like Blackfeet, Cree, Ojibwe, Passamaquoddy, and Sauk that are still spoken.

There is now at least one very young native speaker, with many more to come. This means we can most definitely re-thread a fabric of memory that has been frayed and re-enlived what looked to be sleeping.

The math on where we’re headed

The universe is said to have a direction where it is heading. Roger Penrose, Nobel laureate in physics, has done the math on where that is.

Rupert Sheldrake and Mark Vernon discuss:

SHELDRAKE:
Roger Penrose in his latest theory about cosmology, is that the entire universe goes on expanding faster and faster, until all the matter evaporates into light. And that the universe ends when everything is dissolved into light.

It’s the opposite of the contracting universe cosmology which was fashionable until about the year 2000. People thought that because of all of the dark matter, and mass in the universe, the expansion of the universe would slow down. It would stop expanding and begin to contract faster and faster, until it all imploded into a terminal black hole. So in that vision, everything ended in darkness.

In Penrose’s vision, everything ends in light. Fortunately we are poised somewhere in between the two at the moment.

It is interesting that in his cosmological vision everything dissolves in light. Which then, he says, gives rise to a new universe. By a kind of mathematical slight of hand he suddenly says, Well if its all light and it has no dimensions, then you might as well contract it by thousands of orders of magnitude until it just becomes a Big Bang and starts another universe. That is, I think, slightly fanciful, but it’s interesting that his cosmology is the entire cosmos transformed into light.

VERNON:
The way I read his explanation of a transition from a massively expanded cosmos where all is light to the beginning of something new is that:

When everything becomes light, not only does time disappear, because light exists in eternity, in timelessness — but also space disappears for the same reasons. Traveling at the speed of light, light does not know dimensions. And so you move towards a cosmos where there is no space, no time, and that is like the aboriginal seed bed, the source, the origin, for a new cosmos. Out of nothing, literally; a reality where there is no space or time, outside of eternity.

The Life Force, Ashé, Megin

Classical systems thinking looks at flow thru a system — the flow of material things; information; data; people; resources.

Life Force

In family systems constellations, the “thing” we are tracking is the flow of life itself. We trace how life passes through the generations from parents to children. We pay attention when a life in the family system, for whatever reason, fell off the map; ended too soon; or could not be acknowledged. We track the outcasts; the secreted children; the ones who died prematurely. We look at all that supported the flow of life — including particularly supportive people, earnings, the lands where a family called home. All that enabled life to flow from one generation to the next seems to be remembered and imprinted on the family system, consciously or unconsciously.

The flow of life has a force. It persists, even in the face of very dire and tragic circumstances. Unique to family systems, the life force has a clear and certain direction, always downhill, always from parents to children. It keeps going no matter what.

The Life Force is known by other names in a number of cultural traditions and is not reserved for humans alone.

Ashé

In the Yoruba tradition West Africa, Ashé is the power to make things happen or produce change.

We do not exactly have the right words to describe Ashé in English, so to get the meaning it may work better to sense into it, as if listening to a riddle:

Ashé is an “immanence.” It is the creative potentiality that exists within a thing itself. Because things have Ashé, they are not inert, lifeless objects. They are a process in motion. They are a doing; they have agency. They are acting in the world.

Megin

Nordic traditions have a similar concept of Ashé known as Megin. Megin is the acting force within a person, a thing. The word Megin is derived from Mega — one’s “being able to;” one’s capacity for action.

Human beings are not the only ones with agency. Things also act. In their beingness, they are also doing. The Megin of a thing is its active “doing beingness.”

The potentiality in a thing is activated by exchanging with humans. We can make a thing come alive through relation-making, for example by naming a thing, and more traditionally, through singing and recitations. In Nordic tradition the Gods were said to be able to activate the Megin in us — to empower us for the victory we seek.

“The Megin is in there, it just needs to be called back by us reclaiming kinship with the land, through real, actual engagement with the material world.”

— Rune Hjarnø Rasmussen

Religious studies scholar and founder of Nordic Animism, Rune Hjarnø Rasmussen, shares about these connections with mega Megin.

Relational systems change

More than one way of knowing

Two-Row Wampum Belt trentmagazine.ca

Since the Age of Reason, European schools of thought have privileged rationalistic ways of knowing, relying on overdeveloped skills in reasoning. In the process it has marginalized relational, process-oriented ways of knowing common to Indigenous societies.

Melanie Goodchild, Moose Clan, Anishinaabe (Ojibway or Chippewa) from Biigtigong Nishnaabeg and Keteganseebee, and co-founder of the Turtle Island Insitute suggests that these two ways of knowing need to be taken side by side, like the two rows of the Wampum belt. The Wampum belt was the way the agreement between the Haudenosaunee and the Dutch was documented in the 1600s about how they were to treat each other and live together. Each of their ways was shown in a purple row of wampum beads.

We are both sailing down the river of life together. Our responsibility is to help one another, but more specifically, the river of life is in danger now, so it behooves us to utilize our knowledge together to work to sustain, perpetuate, to strengthen the river of life. At the end of the day any social innovation should be about the continuation of life — not just human life, but all of it, for this generation, right to the end of time.

Awareness based systems change is a process into the deeper structures of the social systems in order to see, sense, presence, and shift them.

There is a knowing Center in all human beings that reflects the knowing Center of the Earth and other living things. Elders have always known that “coming into contact with one’s inner Center is not always a pleasant or easily attainable experience, (Cajete, pl. 1130). This led Indigenous people to develop a variety of ceremonies, rituals, songs, dances, works of arts, stories, and traditions to assist individual access and utilize the potential healing and whole-making power in each person.” (p. 1130)


A transformational element of coming to know is “learning through self-reflection and sharing of experience in community” (p. 1131). This allows us, concludes Cajete, to understand our learning in the context of the great whole. Cross-culture dialogues help us to see that there are as many ways of seeing, hearing, feeling, and understanding as there are members in a group. We come to understand that “we can learn from another’s perspective and experience,” and we also “become aware of our own and other’s bias and lack of understanding through the process of the group” (p. 1131).

References:

Recommended reading on systemic design

Why do 54% of Icelandic people believe that elves exist?

What unique things happened in the national consciousness of Iceland; the land; the language; the culture? Headmaster of the Elf School Magnus Skarphedinsson explains it like this:

1. Most people in Iceland know somebody personally who has had an encounter with hidden people or elves.

Throughout its history Iceland has known difficult living conditions, with the long winters, unpredictable volcanos, times of not enough food, fishing accidents. At one time, one in four young men would die from fishing accidents. There are seemingly as many stories from a relative, grandparent, neighbor who have been helped in some way by kindly elves and hidden people. They have been rescued from being lost in the forest; were taken in from the cold, fed, and taken care of; were guided about when to go out fishing and when to stay on shore. Many of the accounts are about life and death survival moments.

2. The Age of Enlightenment did not arrive in Iceland until much later than the rest of Europe.

Being further away meant that the shift towards a clockwork universe did have the same impact. The price of the rationalistic way of thinking from the Enlightenment was a loss of faith. For Magnus, faith is the key to why in Iceland people have been able to hold on to their beliefs this far into the modern era.

In 1941 during WWII the British and American armies invaded Iceland. With it the Enlightenment arrived more quickly and is now cleaning the elves away.

How do you study elves, hidden people, and phenomena that not everyone experiences?

Magnus is a historian and has not personally had encounter with hidden people. He thinks that is because the elves know who he is. “Hidden People have described me as their worst enemy,” he said. “They think I’m some kind of maniac.”

He says that the only way to study them is through collecting accounts from people who have. By this point, he has taken more than 1,300 witness interviews and, convinced that we need to take this longstanding friendship more seriously, is always looking for more.

After doing this for 30 years Magnus is so well known that witnesses come up to him in the grocery stores with their accounts. But on a slow news day, he is known to go around town, asking anyone and everyone:

Psst, have you seen any elves?!

Walking thru nursing homes and talking to the elders is often particularly fruitful.

This phenomenological way of working is a similar approach taken by the Institute of Noetic Sciences in their rigorous studies about consciousness and the mind-body connection.

References:

Interview with Magnus Skarphedinsson of the Elf School