Vernacular, Agency, & Intersectionality of Language Transformation

Growing up in households where words and phrases in both Kiowa and Cherokee were spoken and mixed with English, it gave me a unique understanding of language. As my family spoke, someone could be both skaw-stee and mon’sape. Skaw-stee is a Cherokee word that means “stuck up,” and mon’sape is a Kiowa word that means “trouble maker.” Mix these words with other phrases and Indigenized English words like gaa which is the Native version of “golly,” and all of a sudden language becomes a playground of agency. Where this Kiowa/Cherokee/Mexican boy had a canvas of words to create a beautiful new symmetry.

When I arrived at the University of Oklahoma for the Master’s program in English, I had already written one of my earliest pieces where Kiowa and Cherokee communities intersected. I became even more fascinated by colloquial vernacular and the waves it could create in literature. It made sense to me. Of course community members had the freedom to use language in a way that made sense to them. Each community, whether tribal or not, had its own terms and sayings and accents and ways of engaging, and every community had the freedom to make of language what it wanted.

While I was learning to be a grammarian, I also learned how to break those rules exquisitely on the page. For me, it was an act of rebellion. I was going to exercise my agency and use language the way it was used in the households where I grew up and had access to. As a child, I could be at a traditional Gourd Dance and hear Kiowa and Comanche and then later in the same summer be at traditional Stomp Dances and hear Cherokee or Creek. Then there were times when I’d be with my cousins in Aldama, Chihuahua, Mexico and hear streams of Spanish. I shifted between these cultures fluidly, and all these languages were normalized as they landed on my ear. I didn’t think it odd or unique. This was my life and it was just the way things were.

Fast forward a few decades and I’m in a classroom at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I’m buying into the doctrine of “literary fiction,” where we bear witness to our experiences, where we bleed on the page, where we tell on ourselves before we tell on anyone else. And as I’m writing as catharsis, seeking to heal deep traumas from childhood, I’m also aiming to capture my communities and my families the way I had truly experienced them. Not some generic version of Native identity that makes white people feel safe enough to consider us “model minorities,” in some type of sad display of pitiful. But Natives who were sometimes mean and vicious and were amazingly cruel heroes. Blur the lines between hero and villain–make characters so human that readers think they’re real.

And in all that, I had to be honest about the intersectionality of language and how language itself is “real” and “living.” I knew I wasn’t only going to capture character with genuine authenticity, but I needed language to lay on the page the way it lays on the lips of children–with direct honesty. This is what I heard. This is what I said. This is the way we were–and still remain. So when you engage my debut novel be prepared for language and rhythm to disrupt your senses. You think you know Native peoples, but you only know a Native people, and are about to learn what it means to be Indigenous in a Neo-modern intertribal world, where Turtle Island is the only map to show you the way.

1 Comment

  1. Your post is a teaser! It whets my appetite for your book. It causes me to examine my own childhood language in a home where my English-as-a-second- language-father grew up forbidden to use his beautiful Italian language outside the home. What a shame, huh!? He never taught me … and the only Italian I know are the cuss words yo delighted in repeating after hearing my colorful grandma!

    Liked by 1 person

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