Saturday, 30 January 2010

Oklahoma - the Kiowa Nation

I've written a lot about Native American culture and history this month, as I believe this to be a good starting point for the US. The variety of Native American cultures is such that I've decided to focus on one Native American tribe for every state I learn about in the US.

Without even being aware of it, I've already fallen into the trap that many well-meaning outsiders fall into, which is to treat Native American culture like some kind of relic of a bygone age when, in fact, most of these cultures are alive and well. It's important to remember that Native American cultures have a present, as well as a past and a future that will (hopefully) be long and rich.

For Oklahoma, I've chosen the Kiowa tribe (pronounced like Iowa, with a K in front). Like most Native American tribes in Oklahoma, the Kiowa came from elsewhere, in this case from (what is now) Southern Canada. But they came by choice, unlike other tribes that were forcibly resettled in the Indian territory.

Kiowa is a name that they picked up from the mountains they passed through in Montana and is the Blackfoot word for 'Grizzly Bear'. Already I'm enthralled by a tribe whose name comes from their travels. The Kiowa also seem to be incredibly artistic people, with lots of Kiowa artists, musicians and handicrafts like bead-making, which they are famous for.

Although I studied Linguistics at University, I'm no great expert of the languages of North America, so I'm starting to build the blocks of knowledge about North American language groups. Kiowa and Tanoan stand almost as language isolates in the US. Linguists have tried to link them with their dominant neighbouring language family Uto-Aztec, but a link has never really been proven. I kind of wonder why linguists have tried to prove a connection, when it's obvious from history that the Kiowa and Tanoan people came from Canada?

One interesting thing about the Kiowa language is the way that they classify nouns. Anyone who has taught English will be familiar with our own system of grouping nouns into 'countable' (like chair/table) and 'uncountable' (like rice/water). Kiowa has four such categories, but also a system of prefixes that allows some flexibility.

For example, if you have a noun that is usually singular, like che (horse), you can make it plural by adding the suffix -gau, chegau = horses. In the same way, a noun like tose (bones) which is inherently plural (ie. we usually talk about more than one bone), you can make this singular by adding the same suffix -gau, so we get tosegau = one bone.

I don't know what this tells us about our cultures, but I can't help thinking that in English, the individual value of something is most important, we don't allow for inherent plural or dual, like Kiowa and other languages do. Has this got something to do with our material culture? We're always taking stock of individual possessions and counting them. Sadly, some of the earliest records written in English are lists of things (think about the Domesday book!) - it seems to be a linguistic-cultural obsession!!

When I found out that a writer of Kiowa descent, N Scott Momaday, had written a Pulitzer prize-winning novel called House Made of Dawn, I just had to get a copy.

The novel is divided into roughly three parts and, if I'm being honest, the first part was very difficult to read. I believe Momaday originally conceived the book as a book of poems and this poetic structure comes through strongly in the first part, where the narrative seems to jump around erratically and the story seeps into the cracks between the imagery and meditations of the characters.

The book is about a guy called Abel - I'm presuming this name is symbolic, Abel (Native America) being the innocent shepherd who is ruthlessly murdered by his cunning brother Cain (the White Man?).  Abel is brought up on a reservation and struggles with his place in the world, clumsily drinking his way through broken friendships and searching for a greater history of his people and the idyll of a man immersed in the natural landscape.

The second part of the book, which is much easier to read, deals with his time in Los Angeles, living the fraught life of a man out of context. His story reminded me a lot of the many 'tribes' of people who come to Moscow from all over the ex-Soviet Union, in search of a better life but with the odds stacked against them, often having their native culture corrupted and debased, home-sickness and feelings of dislocation driving them to the comforts of alcohol.

I think a lot of 'colonised' people feel that way. Being Irish, even in the 21st century, I sense my nation's trauma at having been forcefully separated from the land. What Momaday expresses in his book can't even been described as nostalgia for the loss of land and culture, it's something more than that and the only word I can come up with is 'longing' - I'm sure the Kiowa language can describe this feeling better than English. 

I look forward to learning more about the individual Native American tribes and filling in the linguistic and cultural jigsaw that makes up the American continent.

Image credits

The image of the Chief Two-Hatchett of the Kiowa nation is from Wikimedia Commons and is copyright free.

The image of the bookcover is from
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