Siksimiisii!

Michael Schulman of the New Yorker has an interview with Lily Gladstone (archived) that is well worth your time in general (she’s a wonderful actress, the most unforgettable element of Kelly Reichardt’s fine movie Certain Women), but I’m bringing it here for what she has to say about language:

Gladstone, who is thirty-seven, was raised on the Blackfeet Reservation, in Montana, the daughter of a white mother and a father of Blackfeet and Nez Perce ancestry. […] When we spoke recently, she was in Washington, D.C., for a screening of “Killers [of the Flower Moon]” at the National Museum of the American Indian, along with the Osage musician Scott George, who is nominated for his original song “Wahzhazhe (A Song for My People).” […]

As a student of Oscar history, I know that it’s been a mixed experience for people who have been the firsts in their categories. […] I’m curious if you’ve felt that tension of being out here as an actor, but also as the face of a community. And, in addition to that, you’re playing an Osage woman, so it’s not even quite your community.

That’s something that I try to highlight first. There’s just the roadblock that a lot of Natives have in representation, that people don’t even think we’re still here. There’s some empirical data out there, some surveys—in one study I was reading, forty per cent of people didn’t think that Native Americans still existed. The perception of who we are, which has largely been shaped by Hollywood—it’s very narrow. There’s an assumption that we just disappeared.

There’s an incredible diversity in Indian country. I’m not Osage, but as a Native actor I’ve played a lot of roles now that required that I speak another Indigenous language. And I’m by no means even fluent in Blackfoot! I can introduce myself. I have a few words and phrases. I know some of the bad words.

Can you please curse in Blackfoot right now?

I’m just gonna drop this for my Blackfeet folks, but I’m not going to say what it means. Siksimiisii was one of the worst and funniest things you could say about somebody. It’s a fairly PG thing, but it’s my favorite word in our language. Good luck trying to phonetically transcribe it!

Another film that I did last year was “Fancy Dance,” which premièred at Sundance. Isabel Deroy-Olson, the actress who plays my niece, and I were playing Seneca-Cayuga, and our director and co-writer, Erica Tremblay, is Seneca-Cayuga. Erica was going through a three-year-long language-revitalization program and wanted to make a film where she saw modern characters speaking Cayuga. So, when Isabel and I were at this talkback, a woman very sweetly asked if it felt good for us to be able to speak in our native language. And Isabel and I looked at each other. Neither of us is Seneca-Cayuga! It was really difficult for us to pick up the language, and to get to the point where we could act in it as well. Tribal languages are incredibly different from each other. The perception that we all speak one Native American language is very commonly held. Most of us are not fluent even in our own languages.

That’s an aspect of Native performance that I think a lot of people take for granted. We celebrate other actors for picking up European languages for a role and sounding proficient, but for some reason that same awe and credit are often dismissed for Native actors, because people assume, “Oh, you all speak that.”

In your Golden Globes speech, you talked about how your mother had advocated for your school to teach Blackfoot when you were growing up. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

It was in second grade, when [the educator] Edward North Peigan came into our classroom. I didn’t really know what my mom was up to. I just knew that she was doing everything she could to help in community-building, and she had a degree in early-childhood education. She remembers having to find the funding to pay for a language teacher to come in. The school was fairly mixed—majority Blackfeet students, but a lot of non-Blackfeet students—so there was a little bit of pushback. And my mom was saying, “Well, we’re on Blackfeet land, and most of your students are Blackfeet, and it’s important for brain development, it’s important for sense of self, it’s important for connection to community.” I’m so grateful to her. My dad would come into the classroom and record when Edward was speaking so that we would have an archive of some of our language. But I just remember sitting there and learning how to count, learning how to introduce ourselves. […]

I graduated already cast into a touring theatre production with Montana Repertory Theatre, which is a company attached to the University of Montana actor-training program. […] After that, I decided to stay in Montana instead of going to L.A. or New York. My scene work in class was always praised, but I also got a little bit disillusioned with the whole casting process. If I had gone to L.A. or New York and done the classic [route]—audition endlessly, get an agent—just thinking about it was starting to kill my passion for it. So I stayed in Montana, where I had built some connections with local filmmakers. In between the theatre tours, I auditioned for a one-woman show that toured schools. […]

Before I got cast in the Montana Repertory touring show, I was consulting with an old professor about maybe doing a Ph.D., developing performance-based pedagogy for language revitalization. My primary language teacher on “Killers of the Flower Moon,” Chris Côté—this is his life. He’s a language revitalizationist. He and I would have conversations about how I was excited to test out some of my early theories that performance is a really valuable tool for language revitalization. The first [Blackfoot] language-immersion school, Niitsiipoowahsiin, or Cuts Wood School, was established in the model of the Kamehameha schools, the immersion schools in Hawaii. And one thing that I’ve heard is that these programs were very successful at graduating fluent speakers at the middle-school level, but then the retention rate was fairly low. Having come out of a performance background, I was noticing how being physiologically based sounded like a lot of the practices of total physical response that you hear about in language immersion. When you’re learning the words “to sit,” you’re sitting down. You’re getting the concept in your body, in your movement. I felt like that was a key, maybe, to the next step of what could help with language retention, if you can express emotion in your language.

My great-grandma Lily, the one that I’m named after, was a fluent speaker. She and her family relocated from our rez to Seattle in, I believe, the nineteen-thirties, like a lot of Natives who got relocated to urban locations during that period. I remember my dad saying that other Blackfeet would come over to Grandma Lily’s house because they’re, like, “Oh, that old lady speaks Blackfoot! Let’s go visit with her!” People would talk about how good it felt physically to speak the language. Your whole world view and sense of self are based in language.

You’ve talked about how many Native languages don’t have gendered pronouns, and how that has shaped your own sense of gender. Can you talk a little more about that?

Blackfoot has gendered verbs, which is an interesting concept. There are definitely gendered roles in our communities, but gender is not a prescriptive sort of thing. Our gender is implied in our name. So my name, Piitaakii, means Eagle Woman. And the aki part is what makes it feminized. But a lot of those things aren’t exclusive. One of our heroes in Blackfeet history, Piitamakaan, means Running Eagle, which is a man’s name, but it was held by a woman because she was a really good warrior. And the verbs that she would have used, the things that men do, are gendered, but gender is not really a binary in that way. So when you think about the pronoun usage, when you’re talking about people, it’s just “this person,” “this one,” “that one.” The easiest reach in English would be “they.” It’s different for every tribe. I mean, Navajo Nation has multiple words for multiple genders. So does Crow Nation, I’ve heard.

(Yes, of course a lot of languages have gendered verbs; cut her some slack, she’s an actress, not a linguist.) Needless to say, if anyone can analyze siksimiisii, I’m all ears. Thanks, Eric!

Comments

  1. 1. The excellent online Blackfoot Dictionary is no help, unless I missed something.

    2. “she’s an actress, not a linguist”—she’s got a better understading of language and languages, and expresses it more clearly and correctly, than probably 90% of people anyway.

    3. I can’t find anything about Gladstone’s costar Isabel Deroy-Olson, other than she’s Canadian.

  2. “she’s an actress, not a linguist”—she’s got a better understading of language and languages, and expresses it more clearly and correctly, than probably 90% of people anyway.

    Absolutely! I was just trying to deflect the nitpicking that usually accompanies quoted statements that can be nitpicked.

  3. I checked the excellent Blackfoot Dictionary and found:

    siksikimíí(w/y) n[oun]i[nanimate] tea, lit. “dark liquid”
    siksikimíístsi teas plural

    Maybe it has some slang significance?

  4. aakíí is an animate stem which means ‘woman’. It is not a gender marker in the usual linguistic sense: it does not go together with any sort of agreement, nor is obligatory on nouns with female referents. Blackfoot (like other Algonquian languages) does have animate/inanimate gender which is specified for each noun stem, and which triggers verb agreement.

  5. Note this tweet and all its comments (in which siksimissi is mentioned). This has happened to us all… I was made to say some very foul things in Mardini Arabic before I caught on.

    I cannot find a reflex in the excellent online Blackfoot dictionary, but the -miisii element resembles Proto-Algonquian *mi·si·- “to shit”. Cognates seem well attested across all the central and Plains Algonquian languages besides Blackfoot… I don’t have time at the moment to look into the morphology of the possible compounding in Blackfoot, but maybe someone else can follow up.

    Also, this blogpost at Mii Dash Geget touches on *mi·si·-.

  6. At first I thought misisa₁ might be the Blackfoot cognate. But the blogpost Xerîb links to says (n. 9),

    Two attempts that I know of have been made to connect a Blackfoot word with one of these sets, but I don’t find either to be particularly compelling. Proulx (1989:61) tries to derive misisáyi “dung” (Frantz and Russell 2017:150) from the etymon of what I’ve labeled Set 1a (*mye·yi), which he incorrectly reconstructs as PA *mi·yi; while Berman (2006:278, #76, 282, n. 32) proposes instead that móósa “anus, derriere” (stem -oos-) is from the Set 1a etymon.

  7. Note this tweet and all its comments

    Lily Gladstone herself joins in the fun, too.

    (If you don’t subscribe to Txixxer, substitute a nitter instance, e.g. from this list.)

    NB: An Algonquian comparative dictionary, compiled by the late David Pentland, is supposedly close to publication.

  8. A comment of mine that basically said the same thing as Y’s fell into moderation (or just disappeared). Never mind what I said in it if it appears again. I’ll just note something else interesting here… Besides misisa₁ ‘feces, excrement’, the dictionary has misisa₂ ‘camas (Camassia quamash)’. Adolf Hungry Wolf, The Blackfoot Papers, volume 1, page 130 (visible here, I hope) says, ‘The Blackfoot name was based on the appearance of the roots’.

  9. Karuk, too: “áfkiich • N • a type of lily, perhaps death camas Zigadenus venenosus (NPDC). See áaf ‘excrement’.” I am pretty sure I saw this polysemy in some other language too, but I don’t remember which.

  10. Excellent!

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    I am pretty sure I saw this polysemy in some other language too, but I don’t remember which

    Probably not what you were thinking of, but it reminded me of

    https://languagehat.com/excrement-as-philosophers-stone/#comment-4570488

  12. J.W. Brewer says

    Note the slight initial oddity of the phrasing (by the journalist not the interviewee) “Blackfeet … ancestry,” where one might have expected “Blackfoot ancestry,” for the same reason that a fence that is six feet high is a six-foot fence in idiomatic English, not a six-feet fence. Per the google books corpus, there are multiple instances of both “Blackfoot ancestry” and “Blackfeet ancestry” in books published in fairly recent decades, but it appears there may be a political/factional thing going on. One author who uses “Blackfeet ancestry” claims to be self-consciously following the example of the late novelist James Welch (who grew up on the same reservation as Ms. Gladstone), because “Welch considers the word ‘Blackfoot’ archaic and freighted with negative connotations. In an interview with Laura Coltelli, he says, ‘Blackfeet, always Blackfeet. The old anthropologists say Blackfoot.'”

    I am a bit befuddled about how a singular could become “freighted with negative connotations” without the corresponding plural becoming equally freighted via the same historical processes, but there you have it. In sort of a flipside of Ms. Gladstone’s complaint about lack of general American knowledge, I would imagine that perhaps there may be living white Americans for whom the use of “Blackfoot” rather than “Blackfeet” evokes negative historical stereotypes, but that such people would probably be much more common within a 50 or 100 mile radius of the reservation than in the U.S. as a whole, where residual negative stereotypes about the AIAN population more broadly may persist but are less likely to have that sort of tribe-specific granular scope.

  13. “…and Bolgers, Bracegirdles, Goodbodies, Brockhouses and Proudfoots.” “Proudꜰᴇᴇᴛ!” shouted an elderly hobbit from the back of the pavilion.”

  14. David Eddyshaw says

    I have actual Proudfoot relations. Nobody calls them “Proudfeet.” Except my younger children, of course. But what can you do?

  15. Yeah, “Blackfeet” must have started as somebody’s misunderstanding of how English works and then gotten picked up by people who love brandishing weird forms as prescriptivist cudgels. The late novelist James Welch, like many writers, doubtless diverted his love of language into those rancid channels.

  16. J.W. Brewer says

    On further reflection, a typical individual member of one of the Blackf**t tribes/communities/nations will possess more than one foot, so that could make singular/plural issues trickier. One uncontroversially refers to e.g. a single player for the Los Angeles Dodgers as a “Dodger,” but a single player for the Chicago White Sox is not necessarily a “White Sock.” But I don’t think that’s what’s primarily going on here, as opposed to some weird variant of the Euphemism Treadmill.

  17. This has nothing to do with how many feet anyone has. It’s comparable to complaining that we shouldn’t say “a three-foot board” because it should be three feet. It’s simple ignorance of how language works. And trying to impose some kind of consistent logic on how we refer to players on teams is folly. People talk how they talk, and people are neither consistent nor logical. Needless to say, what native speakers say is ipso facto correct (unless they make a one-off speaking error that they may notice and correct themselves).

  18. J.W. Brewer says

    Far be it from me to be less descriptivist than hat, but:

    1. “Foot” as a unit of measure and “foot” as the part of your body below the ankle are either different words or notably different senses of the same word, so it’s not inconceivable that they could differ in some morphosyntactic context. Consider how “flew” is the past tense of “to fly” except in the baseball-specific phrasal verb “to fly out” where it’s “flied out.”

    2. Proper nouns may reserve the right to be weird and deviate from the common nouns that transparently make up their etymology.

    Again, I don’t think that’s primarily what’s going on here, although if the prescriptivist bugbear becomes standard enough (for good reasons or bad), #2 might help accommodate it.

  19. “Foot” as a unit of measure and “foot” as the part of your body below the ankle are either different words or notably different senses of the same word, so it’s not inconceivable that they could differ in some morphosyntactic context.

    Of course. I wasn’t implying any similarity in feet, I guess the word just stuck in my head. I should have used “three-inch” or something to avoid confusion.

    Proper nouns may reserve the right to be weird and deviate from the common nouns that transparently make up their etymology.

    Of course (again). But (again) it is the usage of most native speakers (and in this case, especially the usage of most members of the Blackfoot tribe/nation) that is determinative, not the loudly stated preferences of peevers (of whatever tribal/national affiliation).

  20. Black-feeted ferret?

    Both for reference to the discussion, and because being called ferrets by reference to the black-footed species, and the MASH-inspired idea that ferret is a slur, may be why the (some?) members of the tribe/nation now prefer being called Blackfeet.

  21. Google n-gram shows that Blackfeet were dominating through 1840-1890 and foot version was slightly more popular in 1950s. There is also Blackfoot river and Blackfoot valley which pads foot numbers somewhat.

  22. J.W. Brewer says

    @D.O. One would expect singular “Blackfoot” to co-exist happily with plural “Blackfeet,” so the question with corpus data is how many of the “Blackfeet” hits are in contexts where one would have expected a singular form (including but not limited to adjectival use).

  23. J.W. Brewer says

    This somehow reminds me by free association not only of the not-generally-considered-top-tier Southern rock band named Blackfoot, but of their unedifying album title that they pretended was a loanword from some unspecified indigenous American language but which was in fact an acronym – one of the rare cases where the seeming “backronym” etymology was actually historically accurate. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siogo

  24. >their unedifying album title that they pretended was a loanword from some unspecified indigenous American language

    Was this an album you knew, or just discovered when the thread reminded you of the band name? Clicking your link, I found the song titled “White Man’s Land.” I’m hopeful but doubtful that it was intended sarcastically. Do you know?

    Editing after I read their wiki. It probably was intended sarcastically, since they were Native American, including a member who was Blackf**t:

    >During the early spring of the same year, the band, after learning of another band on the West Coast named Hammer, decided to change their name to Blackfoot to represent the American Indian heritage of its members:
    Jakson Spires (from Oklahoma) had a Cheyenne/French father and a Cherokee mother;
    Rickey Medlocke’s father was Lakota Sioux and Blackfoot Indian, and his mother’s side is Creek/Cherokee, Scottish and Irish;
    Greg “Two Wolf” Walker is part Eastern (Muskogee) Creek, a tribe recognized by the state of Florida, but not federally.
    Charlie Hargrett was the only white man of the original, classic line-up.

  25. I would certainly say “Fred Lynn was a Red Sock” but it seems odd to write it. A contrasting statement such as “Rich Gossage was a White Sock in the 1970s and a Cub at the end of his career” seems completely acceptable to me.

  26. To me as well.

  27. J.W. Brewer says

    @Ryan: it’s not an album I know in terms of ever having listened straight through to its musical content, but I do vaguely remember seeing it in record store bins when it was first released in the Eighties and I have known the anecdote about the title for quite some time – not sure if I picked it up contemporaneously or a decade or two later.

    I had to check the internet to see if it was the album before or the album after _Vertical Smiles_, which had a somewhat less subtly risque title and cover art. Answer: after. VS didn’t chart as well as Siogo and Charlie Hargrett had quit the band in between.

  28. Handbook of North American Indians, 13:623: “In the late twentieth century there was a generally standardized distinction in local usage between Blackfoot (pl. Blackfoots) for those people living in Canada and Blackfeet (pl. Blackfeets) for those in the United States.” Donald Frantz’s reference grammar of the language, as recorded in Alberta, always refers to the language and the people as Blackfoot.
    The Blood, Piegan/Peigan/Piikani, and Siksika = Blackfoot/Blackfeet proper are different political entities /tribes/reservations, unified by language.

    I hope I got all this right.

  29. Oh man, things are always more complicated than I expect…

  30. J.W. Brewer says

    The general lack (AFAIK?) of corpora that reliably divide texts into American-subject-matter and Canadian-subject-matter may make it tricky to assess the strength of the reported “standardized distinction,” at least once you get outside texts generated by those (on either side of the border) who would likely be following a stylebook diktat rather than going on their own vague instinct. Obviously, borders can matter – e.g. for a variety of reasons the taboo of recent decades against “Eskimo” in Canadian discourse is not found with equal strength in Alaska.

  31. January First-of-May says

    e.g. for a variety of reasons the taboo of recent decades against “Eskimo” in Canadian discourse is not found with equal strength in Alaska

    AFAIK in an Alaskan context “Eskimo” is a larger grouping that includes several tribes for which “Inuit” would not be a correct description, and (supposedly) those tribes happen to be almost entirely limited to Alaska so it just doesn’t come up in Canada.

    IIRC the slur etymology of “Eskimo” had actually been debunked, though it’s still an exonym one way or another.

  32. David Marjanović says

    (supposedly) those tribes

    All the various Yup(‘)ik. (Apostrophe for consonant length.)

  33. David Eddyshaw says

    One of the Yupik groups actually call themselves “Alutiiq”, which is surely disrespectful to Aleuts.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alutiiq#Terminology

  34. J.W. Brewer says

    One imagines one of these high-minded political-prescriptivists arriving in Sweden and announcing “good news, we’ve decided to stop referring to you in English with the derogatory exonym ‘Scandinavians’ and make everyone use the respectful endonym ‘Danes’ instead.”

  35. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    When did Scania become derogatory? But yeah, they are all Danes, they should just shut up and join the party bus.

  36. I’m late to the party, apologies, so this may be missed. Anyway, I’m the author of the Mii Dash Geget blog linked to in one of the early comments, and I can provide a bit of an update. So, looking at it again, I think Blk misisayi (stem misisa-) probably IS from *mye·yi “excrement,” even though it would be a bit irregular. The expected reflex of *myay-i, the earlier form of *mye·y-i (Blackfoot may be a sister to the rest of Algonquian, so maybe the *CyaC > *Cye·C sound change didn’t happen in it?), would probably(?) be misis-i. Evidently a variant or derivative of this, ending in -a, was reinterpreted as the stem rather than the inflected INANsg word ending in -(y)i?? I’ll update that post accordingly.

    miisii isn’t listed in the major Blackfoot dictionaries, but from context certainly seems to mean ~”shit” (the joke from the tweet is partly that it sounds like missi-/-yissi- “be strong, hardy, etc.”). It’s not a regular reflex of Proto-Algonquian *mi·si·- though, so it might be a loan from Cree mîsî-. Or it could be from misisa- with clipping of the word and expressive lengthening of the vowels (if they’re actually correctly transcribed as long), appropriate for taboo slang like this? siksimiisii would I guess mean “black shit”; since Gladstone defines it, at least by implication, as something you would say about another person on the rez, presumably it’s a pun on the ethnonym Siksika “black foot.”

    (As for Gladstone’s comment on that Twitter thread, “And heart is oosii…So they can say I have power in my heart” — oosi is “(his/her) anus,” and from a quick search, seems to be another word that Blackfeet enjoy using to trip up oblivious white folks.)

  37. I’m late to the party, apologies, so this may be missed.

    Are you kidding? The party goes on forever at LH, and no comment is ever missed, especially one as substantial and helpful as yours. Fantastic blog, too; I blush to confess I neglected to follow the link in Xerîb’s comment, so I’ve just discovered it now from the link on your moniker.

  38. Trond Engen says

    Hat: Fantastic blog, too; I blush to confess I neglected to follow the link in Xerîb’s comment, so I’ve just discovered it now from the link on your moniker.

    Seconded, on all accounts. Algic to the people!

    (I haven’t had time for anything much these last few weeks, so I may actually have missed a lot.)

  39. Ozaawaabineshiinh: Thirded. Thank you for leaving such a detailed comment (I have been reading your blog for quite some time, and may I point out that the research you post there would put many a University department to shame? Both in terms of quantity and quality, you understand…).

    Incidentally, I sense (echoing your comment) that First Nations in Canada (and the U.S.?) are very fond of bi- or multilingual puns (I apologize to the Hattery if I ever wrote the following story here before): Back when I was young(er) I went to a Potlatch in a town located in a Prairie Province (“de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme”, to quote a Classic) and met some older Métis gentlemen, quite multilingual, who were delighted to have a “Canadien” to speak French with (To members of this generation, “Canadien” was “French-Canadian”, with “Anglais” for “Anglophone Canadian”).

    I could definitely sense that, on account of my ignorance of any variety of Cree or Ojibwe, several instances of multilingual word play passed way over my head (I did not mind, as I was fairly certain I was not the one being made fun of). Whenever one of the elders’ grandchild was nearby they would switch to English and explain to him/her what they were talking about: they had told me in French that there was a lottery, and one of the top prizes was a G.P.S. system. One of the elders then told his (English monoglot, as were all the participants aged thirty and younger) granddaughter nearby (With the others discretely amused) that one of the top prizes at the lottery was a mere “ten bucks”, which made her sternly agree with her grandfather that the lottery tickets were much too expensive.

    After she moved away from us the elders were all politely staring at me, waiting for me to get the joke, and about ten seconds later it hit me: their realization of English “G.P.S.” and of French “dix piastres” (i.e. ten dollars) was well-nigh identical (/d͡ʒipjæs/ in both instances). I was grinning, trying not to laugh out loud, and I still remember feeling and thinking that they had, in my presence, deliberately made this bilingual joke involving French and English to give me a (little, fleeting) glimpse of the kind of humor and word play also involving First Nations languages. I imagine that for the really fluent tri- or quadrilingual elders the number of word play possibilities must have been exponentially greater…

  40. I have now posted the blog.

  41. David Marjanović says

    Bilingual joke: fast food – weil es fast ein Essen ist “because it’s almost a meal”. (Or “almost food” because mass nouns take the indefinite article in Bavarian dialects.) That’s pretty much all I have to offer, though.

  42. David Eddyshaw says

    Reminds me of a memorable (and accurate) description of a hamburger place I once went to in Lomé: “Fast food, without the speed.”

  43. That made me laugh.

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