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That pesky ignorance of word usage

God is a word that has a specific meaning in English, if not a specific God, then the idea of a powerful supernatural, often omniscient, creative super being is shared by many cultures. The names for God can be different, such as the Arabic Allah and the Hebrew Yahweh. Many assert they are the same god, and not surprising given Arabs and Hebrews are both Semitic peoples.

The Oceti Sakowin have no word or term for God, because the concept of God as Semitic peoples understand it, and most of Western culture understands it, differs fundamentally. White culture has attempted to create their perception of God in Native languages with terms like the Great Spirit for God, or the Happy Hunting Ground for heaven. You can form the term Great Spirit in Lakota—Wakan Nagi, but it holds no meaning. Wakantanka is often translated to mean Great Spirit but it really means Great Mysterious. Not that the Oceti Sakowin did not anthropomorphize the natural world, they did, but they did not give a distinct identity to the creator of this world. You hear tribal people say Creator all the time, but that word, and that concept are not traditional spiritual beliefs held by the Oceti Sakowin.

Words can be repurposed to backdoor corruptive alien cultural ideas into traditional belief systems. It starts innocently enough. Hihanni waste may mean good morning, but the words good morning mean nothing in Lakota. While the dominant culture may distort Lakota words and Lakota spirituality, so, too, the Lakota distort English words.

Mark Twain wrote that the difference between the right word and almost the right word was the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. Any language has similar sounding words, or words of similar meaning, and one word does not readily substitute for another.

An otherwise compellingly written piece on Facebook, analyzed the militaristic nature of Christian religion from a tribal perspective. The piece was written in a confident, even haughtily dismissive manner, by a Native self-deluding herself that she was learned and wise. But the core assertion of the writing was that the Calvary Baptist Church, and military units like the 7th Cavalry, prove the militaristic connection between religion and war, because they use the same word. Except Calvary and Cavalry are different words, with distinct and unrelated meanings. In terms of spelling, the writer had almost the right word, but failed to see the separate spelling and meaning. Why? Was she stupid? No, a fool, certainly, and you wonder how she could commit such energy and draw such deep conclusions from not being able to correctly read two different words.

The source of that foolishness is a simple one to identify—she doesn’t read. I don’t mean she never reads, and I don’t mean she just reads the back of cereal boxes or text messages like “r u ok?” She doesn’t read enough books, and she doesn’t read books with the intent to learn and not just reinforce what she already believes to be true. So, time after time, over the course of decades, she read the words calvary and cavalry and never bothered to notice or process them as different words. Those two words are probably the tip of her ignorance iceberg, and most of an ignorance iceberg is unseen below the water surface, being misapplied on a regular basis to deeply important topics this woman has duped herself into believing she understands.

One of the worst books I ever read was the Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom. The book attempted to blame higher education for closing impressionable minds, but the author proved to be a textbook expression of that mind closing. Poor guy had no clue. Only by reading a book I did not like spouting nonsense that made me wince, did I deepen my understanding of the subject. This is not about education, though, and it’s not about being smart or stupid, or even foolish. It is about arming yourself with the tools to communicate. I want people to understand what I say, what I write. I want to understand what they say and what they write. Bad communication skills are rife on every reservation, and we send our kids out into a world where they are not understood, and because they don’t read or listen to others, they also fail to understand much of what they see and experience.

(Contact James Giago Davies at

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