The Three Sisters

“I love the future when I water my garden,” muses the Traveler, hose in hand.

Robin Wall Kimmerer teaches of the Three Sisters: corn, beans, and squash. Planted together in early May, these three veggies grow well in close proximity and form the core of indigenous agriculture.

“I continue to love it. I continue to long for it and lean toward it,” admits the Traveler. “I welcome it without apology, despite what comes to pass.”

“Mmmm,” replies the Narrator, savoring the taste of a tomato. “As do I.”

“I love it and open myself toward it,” continues the Traveler, eyes closed, recalling futures past, “as when I open my heart and mind to the sounds of Sons of Kemet’s Black to the Future and Emma-Jean Thackray’s Yellow.”

Narrator places an arm ’round Traveler’s shoulders, leans close and whispers Prufrock-style, “Let us go then, you and I.” He smiles, pats the Traveler’s shoulder, and steps away. “But first, another of these lovely tomatoes.”

Grammars of Animacy

Robin Wall Kimmerer teaches the importance of a “grammar of animacy” in her book Braiding Sweetgrass. The book’s title reminds me of the great Iroquois culture hero Hiawatha, whose name means “He Who Combs.” Hiawatha was a kind of healer, combing snakes from the mind of Onondaga wizard Atotarho (also known as “Tadodaho”). Kimmerer “braids” where Hiawatha “combed.” She’s a member of the Potawatomi, a Great Lakes tribe whose lands were far to the west of the Iroquois. Kimmerer now lives and teaches, however, near the Onondaga Territory, the center of what was once the Iroquois Confederacy.

Birthplace of the Iroquois Confederacy

Syracuse is a place with a rich and storied past. The Iroquois Confederacy was founded here at Onondaga “some time about the middle of the fifteenth century,” as Paul Wallace tells us in White Roots of Peace: The Iroquois Book of Life. I find Wallace’s book on a shelf in the city’s four-story Antiques Exchange: one of innumerable structures and forms by which the city retains its history.

Driving a car is already a form of time travel — but ’tis especially so in Syracuse. Multiple eras coexist amid the beauty and dilapidation of major city thoroughfares like Salina Street. Sitting now on a sleeping bag in a tent, I read of the Five and Six Nations and the Constitution of the Haudenosaunee. Wallace recognizes the resulting Iroquois Confederacy as “a model for, and an incentive to, the transformation of the thirteen colonies into the United States of America” (19). Other scholars contest some of Wallace’s claims, suggesting that the ratification occurred further west (near what is today Victor, NY). These are stories told among Indigenous people, passed on to white anthropologists like Wallace: tales retold in the tongue of the settler. One understands that much is lost in translation. Time travel is an imaginal practice, not a science. The Great Peacemaker Deganawidah appears in Wallace’s account as a miraculous figure comparable to Christ and Buddha. “I come from the west and I go toward the sunrise,” he tells those he encounters. “I carry the Mind of the Master of Life, and my message will bring an end to the wars between east and west” (38-39).

Westcott Nation

The phrase “Lady and the Tramp,” like the title of the Disney film, sung to the tune of “Bennie & the Jets”: such is how I begin my morning. I wake to a lovely quiet hour in the tent, sun rising in front of me. There’s a conversation among crows in those trees there — the ones beside which I slept. It’s good to be back in Syracuse, camped in my sister-in-law’s backyard, listening to crickets and birds, music discernible from the park across the street here in Westcott Nation, a sister nation of sorts to the nearby Onondaga Territory. The Westcott’s persistence gives me comfort. To know better where we are, let us listen to Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Kimmerer’s book has me wanting to enter into caring relation with the pecan trees in my yard — indeed, makes me want to honor all beings, including those crows parked in the branches above my tent. Geese, too — like those in the story of Skywoman. Kimmerer shares this tale: the great Potawatomi creation story. “Skywoman Falling” will pair well with texts I teach this fall, thinks the Traveler as he reads. We have been given this gift. Let us share it with others. Let us fit it in at semester’s end. Let it resonate with Silko’s Ceremony and Snyder’s Turtle Island and Butler’s Parable of the Sower. Kimmerer’s cosmology “places” all of the others. Skywoman transmits “original instructions,” tells us where we are, how we got here. It suggests as well what ought to be done. It sets us within cyclings of a vast cosmic gift economy: one that conceives and receives numberless generations of Skywoman’s daughters — for Skywoman is the Great Mother, bearing life despite the story of her fall.

Sunday June 20, 2021

Indigenous ways of knowing; Black Radical thought; Surrealism; Afrofuturism; Zen Buddhism. All have been guides: blueprints for counter-education for those who wish to be healed of imperial imposition. All provide maps of states other than the dominant capitalist-realist one. Hermann Hesse describes one such line of flight in his short novel The Journey to the East, a book first published in German in 1932, unavailable in English until 1956. Timothy Leary’s League for Spiritual Discovery takes after the League in Hesse’s novel. It, too, is but a part of a “procession of believers and disciples” moving “always and incessantly…towards the East, towards the Home of Light” (Hesse 12-13). Two of Leary‚Äôs psychedelic utopias, in other words, take their names from books by Hesse: both the League for Spiritual Discovery and its immediate precursor, the Castalia Foundation.

Sunday June 6, 2021

As I continue to read Tyson Yunkaporta’s Sand Talk, I learn of digital hyperobjects like “boids.” Apply three or four simple rules to these objects, he reports, and complex patterns emerge in their behavior, their movement together in groups. Yunkaporta claims that these patterns “cannot be programmed, but must emerge within the system organically — a process that is called ‘random’ in western worldviews but is in fact following the patterns of creation” (135). Patterns of right relation can arise in any complex, self-organizing system, he suggests. Kevin Kelly wrote of such patterns in his book Out of Control. For Yunkaporta, however, such patterns are excuses not for free markets but for heterarchies: complex, self-organizing learning communities where members “operate autonomously under three or four basic rules” (136). Heterarchies are systems “composed of equal parts interacting together” (137). There’s a moment in the book when Yunkaporta says, “If the world ever experiments with an actual free market rather than an oligopoly, this would be the perfect system to facilitate sustainable interactions” (144). In no way, though, should this be read as a defense of what capitalists themselves mean by “the free market.” I admit wanting to tug a bit on this part of Yunkaporta’s yarn. The Marxist in me wants him to turn up the base.

Saturday June 5, 2021

Yunkaporta describes his book Sand Talk as “an examination of global systems from an Indigenous perspective.” This is what we need, is it not? The Marxist literary theorist Fredric Jameson proposed that we call this thing we need a “cognitive map,” but Yunkaporta calls it “a template for living.” Reading the latter’s book, I’m reminded immediately of “songlines,” or “maps of story carrying knowledge along the lines of energy that manifest as Law in the mind and land as one, webbed throughout the traditional lands of the First Peoples.” Yunkaporta’s is a cosmology that allows for Elders and Ancestors, as well as “sentient totemic entities” and non-human kin. That cosmology clarifies, its form shimmers into being, when he writes, “Beings of higher intelligence are already here, always have been. They just haven’t used their intelligence to destroy anything yet. Maybe they will, if they tire of the incompetence of domesticated humans.” Most of us, he argues, have been displaced. History is a narrative of global diaspora, as most of us are “refugees” severed from the land-based cultures of origin of our Ancestors. Progress or healing occurs by revisiting “the brilliant thought paths of our Paleolithic Ancestors.” The ancients possessed cognitive functions that remain part of our evolutionary inheritance, but most of us remember no more than a fraction of these functions, our capacities stifled by our separation from the knowledge systems of Indigenous, land-based people. Through reading Yunkaporta’s book, one encounters “yarns.” Oral culture provides a lens through which to view the print-based knowledge systems of the Empire. Yunkaporta recognizes the challenges involved in such a project. “English,” he writes, “inevitably places settler worldviews at the centre of every concept, obscuring true understanding” (36). To communicate with the global system, Yunkaporta must write with “the inadequate English terms of his audience” (38) — but he makes the language work through “the meandering paths between the words, not the isolated words themselves” (37). “Dreaming” is an example of such a word: necessary, Yunkaporta notes, “unless you want to say, ‘supra-rational interdimensional ontology endogenous to custodial ritual complexes’ every five minutes” (38). Yunkaporta introduces “the dual first person…a common pronoun in Indigenous languages” (39) — and just like that, the Cave is behind us and we’re beginning to see the light. He translates it as “us-two.” Us-two’s fingers type those letters while with our mouths we say ngal.