M103 | The Algonkian Language: A Window into Indigenous Culture | Michael Forbes Wilcox


1:30 - 3:00 p.m. EST


4/10, 4/24, 5/1, 5/8, 5/15, 5/22

Six Sessions 

The language we use reveals our values, and the words we hear help to shape our beliefs. This Berkshire OLLI course will examine the Algonkian language, which provides a window into the mindset of the people indigenous to this area. The language reveals a worldview that is very different from that of the dominant Colonial culture; it co-evolved with the internal structure and cultural practices of a vibrant and sophisticated social system. Its many dialects reflect the diversity as well as the connectivity of the people of our region (and beyond). We will also discuss the history of language suppression by the Colonial powers; a policy that ended only recently. Despite efforts to eradicate it, Native culture has endured as a sophisticated and complex alternative way of understanding and relating to the world. The newly vibrant revitalization movement is opening our eyes to the richness of Native culture, and revealing the wisdom of a way of being that held sway in this area since time immemorial. The Algonkian language belongs to the Algic language group. The languages in this group can be mutually unintelligible because their vocabularies have evolved separately over thousands of years, but they all share the same structural elements, and account for 70% to 80% of all the languages in North America. Examples will be given in the Western Abenaki dialect (spoken in Vermont and surrounding areas). Rich vocabularies reveal the traditional importance of such things as kinship ties, beavers, and snowshoes. We encounter values of cooperation and responsibility, in contrast with Colonial values of competition and ownership. Native language reveals a dynamic view of the world not found in Indo-European languages The word for “chair” literally means “a stiff thing to sit on” One word for “beaver” means “the cutter” English nouns are simply labels; in Algonkian, such words reflect dynamism and purpose.

Michael Forbes Wilcox grew up in Stockbridge, and learned about local indigenous people from his grandmother, who was the town historian. More recently, he has relied on his brother Rick, who has unofficially assumed the same role. Michael is more a student than a teacher of Indigenous topics, being self-taught. He has a graduate degree in Economics, and had a career in finance and investments. All of that (and more) has informed him of many shortcomings of the Western way of thinking and acting. His study of Indigenous culture has opened his eyes to alternative ways of behaving.

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