On Learning Indigenous Languages

My reaction to a great article from Everyday Feminism’s Taté Walker

First of all, definitely read the article. Please. Here’s what I wrote to share it on Facebook, and then decided it was too long for a share text.

at the 2010 Tinkuy de Tejedores

Most of you probably realize I speak an indigenous language, Quechua, and have since I was a small child. Quechua was my sister’s first language, and she refused to speak any other even when we were in the USA, until she was 4 and wanted to be friends with a specific girl in preschool. Some of you may not realize this about me, because I have very pale skin, hazel eyes, and dirty blonde hair, and no genetic connection to indigenous Peru, although that’s where I largely grew up.

I can’t know how indigenous North American cultures feel about their languages, but I can only imagine it is every bit as nuanced and personal as the feelings I, my family, and my community have about Quechua.

There are things you can say in Quechua that you can’t easily say in English. The whole world looks different when seen through a Quechua filter. My parents, both of whom learned Quechua beginning in their teens (so as to be able to converse with indigenous people), understood this, but freely admitted they didn’t experience the same struggle to translate a Quechua concept into Spanish or English — that English was their native tongue, while my sister’s was Quechua and it was harder to pin down what language I found most comfortable (probably because it depends, for me, and I have a lot of strange polyglot baggage and habit).

I struggle emotionally with written Quechua. My grade school classes were among the first where Quechua was supposed to even be a thing in school, and I still saw some pretty horrifying stuff up close and personal, stuff that’ll change your life if you’re a little blonde girl who speaks Quechua with native fluency. Quechua is the means by which you’re known, it’s a thing to be oppressed for, it’s a thing that sets you apart, it’s complicated. It was always spoken and not written, until recently. I don’t feel like you can really learn Quechua in a written way. Quechua is nothing without the rhythm and flow. You don’t even know where words begin and end if you don’t get the flow. It’s not like European languages. And it’s not for posterity or keeping records or whatever. It’s for living.

And yet, I understand the desire to catalog and chronicle and document and preserve, and why writing is good for that. But if there is a key thing I know because of being a Quechua speaker, it is that there is no better way to preserve a body of lore than by making people care about it and use it, even when the whole world shits on you for doing so.

You cannot learn Quechua without its context. You cannot learn Quechua without knowing how the high Andes smell at dawn. You cannot learn it without eating watia. Nobody cares if it’s spelled wakatay or huacatay, they care if you know what it’s for. You do not speak Quechua with true comfort and real fluency if the cold doesn’t make you hiss “alalau” and the voices in your head are never repeating ama sua, ama llulla, ama qella. If you’ve never bitten off a piece of rock-hard yiptin for the wad of leaves in your mouth so you could work harder, walk further, and persevere longer, then there is no translation of “ama qella” that will ever convey it all.

Why don’t I write Quechua? Because the people with whom I speak it don’t typically go out looking to read it. Because I live at the intersection of the oral tradition and the writing-things-down and one of the things I want to do at that place is teach those who depend on writing-things-down that there are more ways to know and learn and teach, that the written word is not good for everything, that there are more kinds of literacy than the one that makes words on paper or screens make sense. Because writing it down impresses the white people, the city folk, the european or europeanized. But simply writing it down also compromises some of the things white people wish they could do that native Quechua speakers can. Making it gringo-safe means losing the instinctive understanding of why something is raki-raki. We don’t have a concept like raki-raki in English, or Spanish. Making it gringo-safe risks the bodies of lore gringos don’t even know are there.

My town of Chinchero’s signature weaving pattern is Loraypo. All the gringo weavers always want to learn it. I will not teach it to you if you do not have the prerequisites. You can make a chart on paper. You can reproduce the look. But if you didn’t grow up building to it, then you don’t really know Loraypo. When my parents did not know why Loraypo was Loraypo, and so was a plant, and sometimes also, some water? When they couldn’t see the underlying theme? It was because they could speak Quechua words in translation, but they could not yet see the world in Quechua. Loraypo, like Quechua, has a flow.

And that specific flow, in weaving, belongs to Chinchero. If weavers from other towns weave it, they still know it is Chinchero’s Loraypo, and that you would not wear it if you were not of Chinchero. This doesn’t mean they’ll never weave it, never learn it, and so on — but it cannot be theirs. And an indigenous Quechua speaker will generally know this, even if they’re not a weaver. There can be sharing, there can be cultural blending, there can be all these things, but this is more than language — it’s who you are.

So, Taté Walker, thank you for your piece. It is one I will share many times, in many places, in many contexts. Because it’s about asking: why do you want to know this thing? How deeply do you wish to know it? Is this a thing it’s reasonable to want to know on a shallow, surface basis? What will your learning it mean to the people who’ve preserved this lore so far, even though people who look like you have done everything they could to eradicate it?

If you’re thinking of learning an indigenous language — or an indigenous skillset of any type — because you think it’ll make you cool and popular, or provide you with something you can leverage for profit, allow me to spoiler this story for you: it doesn’t, and the “natives” can tell a lot about you based on how well you figure you speak the indigenous language.