13 May 2023

Ella Deloria's silences

Ella Cara Deloria (1889 - 1971), also called Aŋpétu Wašté Wiŋ, meaning ‘Beautiful Day Woman’ in Lakota, the language of the Lakota people of the Sioux tribes, was an educator, anthropologist, ethnographer, linguist and novelist. Some of the wisdom of her people has been captured in ‘Deer Women and Elk Men: Lakota Narratives of Ella Deloria,’ a collection edited by Julian Rice.    

That’s a book I haven’t read but plan to. What directed me to Ella Deloria and this book is a quote that pops up on social media every now and again. It’s almost like a finely distilled treatise on the different ways in which words or rather communication is understood by different cultures. She refers to white people and native peoples. The conclusions, hardly complimentary of white folk,  were probably framed by the violent nature of a specific encounter between cultures.  

If we were to ignore what encounter has inscribed on these reflections, there’s some very interesting thoughts, in particular about the use and abuse of words, and the largely unrecognised worth of silence.  

‘People should regard their words as seeds. They should sow them, and then allow them to grow in silence. Our elders taught us that the earth is always talking to us, but we should keep silent in order to hear her.There are many voices besides ours. Many voices.’

We can’t force other people to be silent, but we can help dampen the cacophony simply by listening. Ella Deloria speaks of situations where silence troubles certain people to the point that they fill it with words. Any words. In fact, she observes, some people speak as though they are convinced that pause and, worse, silence indicate stupidity. They want to talk and are not willing to listen because listening requires silence and silence is feared since it might make others think one is stupid and therefore has nothing to say. So such people would interrupt others. 

Ella Deloria likened words to seeds. Seeds are valued. They are not sowed aimlessly. The sowing or planting is a measured exercise. If you were to bury one seed in a fistful of seeds, plant growth will be inhibited. Indeed, it could very well diminish the yield. The worth of a word, likewise, gets devalued if it is buried under dozens of other words.

Those who speak slowly and with an economy of words are not necessarily dull. Perhaps they speak only when they feel they must and only when they can contribute to whatever is being discussed.

Ella Deloria made me think of dictionaries. She made me imagine all the words of a dictionary flying off the pages.

What do we do with a roomful of words? Do we take them one at a time, examine their shapes and ponder about their meanings? Do we wait for words to walk up to us on their own volition, demanding examination? Do we order them alphabetically? Do we pick a few randomly and see which configurations could make a grammatically correct sentence? 
If there are indeed several grammatically correct sentence do we filter them through heart and mind, shelve them according to some form of categorization that makes sense to us, commit these to memory and, if the need did arise, pick the right one from the right drawer and with the solemnity typical of reading some sacred text speak out the words slowly and softly?

Do we reach out, collect a fistful of words and fling them in all directions? Would these words encounter other words similarly flung? What kind of conversations do words randomly picked and carelessly configured have with one another? What happens to word seeds willy nilly tossed around but unnourished by the water of silence? How many words survive this drought and will those that do not perish mutate to the point that they acquire the most grotesque shapes or lose meaning altogether? Do truths retreat from these clashes of ‘civilisations,’ scurry to find shelter from the ballistic missiles that some words have turned into, waiting for more discerning minds and hearts?

Ella Deloria said a few words. She was quiet for the most part. Maybe that’s why this morning I was drawn to her and that’s why I think I should stop. Right now. 

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below]

Other articles in this series:

Blackness, whiteness and black-whiteness

Inscriptions: stubborn and erasable 


Deveni: a priceless one-word koan

Enlightening geometries

Let's meet at 'The Commons'

It all begins with a dot

Recovering run-on lines and lost punctuation

'Wetness' is not the preserve of the Dry Zone

On sweeping close to one's feet

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

To be an island like the Roberts...

Debts that can never be repaid in full

An island which no flood can overwhelm

Who really wrote 'Mother'?

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember

On loving, always

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal

When you turn 80...

It is good to be conscious of nudities 

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday 

There's a one in a million and a one in ten

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature

Pathways missed

Architectures of the demolished

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts

Who the heck do you think I am?

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha'

The Mangala Sabhava

So how are things in Sri Lanka?

The most beautiful father

Palmam qui meruit ferat

The sweetest three-letter poem

Buddhangala Kamatahan

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked

Pure-Rathna, a class act

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles

Matters of honor and dignity

Yet another Mother's Day

A cockroach named 'Don't'

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara

Sweeping the clutter away

Some play music, others listen

Completing unfinished texts

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn

I am at Jaga Food, where are you?

On separating the missing from the disappeared

Moments without tenses

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have)

The world is made of waves


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya'

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced

Some stories are written on the covers themselves

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time 

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists?

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords

The books of disquiet

A song of terraced paddy fields

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart