I’ll wash your mouth out with soap and water – literally

In the UK as children our parents used to tell us off if we used rude and crude language. They used to say things like “I’ll wash your mouth out with soap and water” because the language was dirty. But this is a story about times when this has been literally the case.

Photo: Simon Robinson

I have travelled the length and breadth of the UK visiting sacred sites such as stone circles, megaliths, standing stones, wells, springs and henges, in an attempt to really connect with my ancestors and to connect with my lands. I have also visited some of the world’s oldest cave art in Andalucia, Spain and really wondered what the strange images of mythical beasts were really depicting. I have a strong connection with nature, and really feel that our ancestors had an intuitive and deeply heartfelt connection to their lands that in our technology-consumption-obcessed modern lives we are maybe missing.

Inside Stonehenge
Photo: Simon Robinson

I have spent time living in Varanasi, the cosmic city in India on the banks of the River Ganges and learnt the powerful role mantras play in yoga. This was some of the hardest training I have ever done, demanding, bewildering, intense. I have spent much time in the Amazon, and had the opportunity to learn sacred indigenous songs, their interpretations and meanings, and I have also been taught sweat lodge songs from the sacred ceremonies of Native people in North America.

While in India I was close to death in India due to a reaction to the malaria tablets I had been told to take, and so I had to return to the UK to recover. I then decided to go on two one-month tours, one around Peru and one around the south west of the United States, visiting sacred Native American locations.

First trip to Grand Canyon in 1989

At the age of 18 I undertook my first backpacking world tour on my own, taking in Hong Kong, Thailand, Australia and America which I crossed by Greyhound bus. I had two amazing days at the Grand Canyon, and still remember the utter wonder, stillness and impact of the sun set, turning the distant ridges into hazy purples and blues.

Sacred White Buffalo, Flagstaff
Photo: Simon Robinson

The second trip was a road trip organised by my friend Vivienne. There were 12 of us, and we hired two people carriers, with me being one of the drivers who would be covering 5,000 miles in around three weeks. It was a phenomenal trip, culminating in a visit to the humble home of Grandfather Martin, an elder of the Hopi people, and keeper of the prophecy stones. He took us to an extremely sacred site up on the mesa of the Hopi reservation, where he showed us the prophecy rocks, their strange drawings, and how the Hopi had interpreted them.

Hopi Grandfather Martin Gashweseoma at United Nations in 1993

The reason we were able to meet Grandfather Martin, one of the most special moments in my life, was because Vivienne was friends with a number of the Hopi community, including Lewis, who was around my age. Lewis was an incredible artist, who produced staggeringly beautiful Kachinas carved in wood and painted in the most vibrantly vivid colours. I really regret not purchasing one of the two he had available that trip, and neither do I have any photos of them. A search on the internet does not show any Kachinas of the same beauty and awe I felt on seeing his, although of course there are many which in their own ways are deeply special and beautiful too.

Butterfly Kachina by John Poleahla
Photo: Wrights Gallery

Kachinas are wooden dolls painted in the image of the Hopi’s spirits.

Kachinas are messengers – intermediaries between the heavens and mankind on earth.

Kachinas help the Pueblo tribes of the Southwest; farmers who depended primarily on crops for survival. Succesful crops, in turn, depended on the scant and capricious rainfall of the high desert. The Hopi and Zuni, located far from rivers, especially needed the divine intervention of kachinas to ensure harvests in an arid climate.

Since the culture was strictly oral, carvings of the various kachinas were used as visual textbooks – to pass on the lore to the children. When not listening to stories about the kachinas and their roles in ceremonies, the children played with the “dolls” as they are called.

Reference: Wrights gallery

Lewis (centre) with me to his immediate right and Vivienne to his immediate left

Lewis took our group to the Grand Canyon, where we did a ceremony for peace. The Grand Canyon is an extremely sacred site for a number of native peoples, including the Hopi.

Lewis has two languages, American English and his native Hopi. But something he told us about his time at school as a child in the US in the 1970s shocked me. Whenever he spoke in his native tongue, his teachers would force his mouth open and ram in a bar of soap as a punishment and to stop him for ever speaking in it. I am not entirely too sure what the agenda was for this horrendous treatment, but it only goes to show the level of consciousness in many people even in what is meant to be a civilised and first world country.

I am a huge fan of the late physicist David Bohm, not only because of his science, but because of his inquisitiveness into the notion of order in the universe, language, dialogue, creativity and wholeness. Bohm was interested in the role our language plays in our perception of a fragmented world. Towards the end of his life Bohm took part in a series of meetings between Western scientists and Native Americans:

As the discussions continued, Bohm learned about the process-based worldview of the Blackfoot, Ojibwa and Micmaq. Everything was said to be in flux, and this constant change is reflected in their verb-based language. At last Bohm had found a people whose metaphysics strongly mirrored his own.

Reference: Peat, F.D. (1997) Infinite Potential The Life and Times of David Bohm

Henri Bortoft, also a physicist, and philosopher of language and meaning, studied wholeness under Bohm. He has also written about the importance of our native tongues, and in this section quoted his describes what happens when a native people lose their language:

In recent years indigenous peoples themselves have spoken about the effect which the loss of their language has on them. Language is no secondary matter for them – as it might be if it were just a matter of representation. Often obliged to give up their own language in favour of another language which is alien to them, they have made it clear that doing so is not just a matter of switching to a different view of the same world: ‘The worlds in which different cultures live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached’. David Peat describes encounters with Native American people who emphasise that language is the key to their culture: ‘Language, so traditional Indigenous people say, is the door to their world’. They tell him that ‘the language of a people is their life’, and that ‘a people can no more live without its language than a tree can grow without its roots’.

When a language disappears a whole mode of world is lost and the world as a whole is diminished. It is remarkable how the understanding of the difference between disclosure and representation, and the relationship between language and world, that emerged in European philosophy during the last century, illuminates and is illuminated by the existential loss of language and world being experienced everywhere by indigenous people.

Reference: Henri Bortoft (2012) Taking Appearance Seriously

Why am I writing all of this?

Sometimes I think it is a case of we only miss something when it is gone. This post is written just after Black Friday where American consumers are urged to spend spend spend. Here in Brazil America is seen perhaps as the number one role model, the lifestyle and way of living to aspire to, it is now the Brazilian dream. A symptom of this is the deluge of English into Brazil, to the point where English, however crap or embarrassingly written is seen as chic and Portuguese is no longer valued, only good for cheesy tourist t-shirts.

Other cultures and people, such as Lewis have suffered greatly and had to fight for their language. People today, all around the world are lost in social networking, texting and instant messaging, but what are we losing?

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