In Mojave, the words we use to describe our emotions are literally dragged through our hearts before we speak them—they begin with the prefix wa-, a shortened form of iiwa, our word for heart and chest. So we will never lightly ask, How are you? Instead, we ask very directly about your heart. We have one way to say that our hearts are good, and as you might imagine if you’ve ever read a history book or lived in this world, we have many ways to say our hearts are hurting.
The government came to us first in the form of the Cavalry, then the military fort (which is why we are called Fort Mojave), and finally the boarding school. The government didn’t simply “teach” us English in those boarding schools—they systematically and methodically took our Mojave language. They took all the words we had. They even took our names. Especially, they took our words for the ways we love—in silencing us, they silenced the ways we told each other about our hearts.
One result of this: generations of English-speaking natives have never heard I love you from their parents, which in their eyes, meant their parents didn’t love them. However, those parents never said, I love you, because it didn’t mean anything to them—it was an English word for English people. There is no equivalent to it in the Mojave language—the words we have to express our feelings, to show the things berserking in our chests for one another are much too strong to be contained by the English word love.
But after boarding schools and work programs sent them to the cities for work, our children stopped speaking Mojave—they were beaten if they were caught talking or singing in their language. Maybe when they came home their parents spoke to them all about their hearts, but if they did, the children didn’t understand anymore.
It is true, the Mojave language does not say, I love you—and it is equally true that the government was hoping we would quit expressing this toward one another, that we would never again give each other tenderness. While we don’t say, I love you, we say so much more. We have ways to say that our heart is blooming, bursting, exploding, flashing, words to say that we will hold a person and never let them go, that we will be stingy with them, that we will never share them, that they are our actual heart. And even these are mere translations, as close as I can get in English.
Despite Cavalries and boarding schools, our language is still beautiful and passionate—it carries in it the ways we love and touch each other. In Mojave, to say, Kiss me, is to say fall into my mouth. If I say, They are kissing, I am also saying, They have fallen into each other’s mouths.
The word for hummingbird is nyen nyen, and it doesn’t mean bird—it is a description of what a hummingbird does, moving into and out of and into the flower. This is also our word for sex. Mat ‘anyenm translated to English means the body as a hummingbird, or to make a hummingbird of the body. On a very basic level we have a word that means body sex hummingbird all at once.
I think of the many lame things people say when they want to have sex with someone--imagine how much more luck they would have if they came to you with that lightning look in their eyes and that glisten in their mouths and said just one word: hummingbird. And you would think: bloom, sweet, wings that rotate, heart beating at 1,260 beats per minute, flower, largest proportioned brain in the bird kingdom, syrup,iridescent, nectar, tongue shaped like a “w”—which means something close to yes.
Recently, an adult learner who is teaching her children the language in her home asked our Elders if they could teach her to tell her son that she loves him. They told her that we have no word for that. But, the learner insisted, I need to know because I never heard my parents say that to me, and I will not let my son grow up without hearing me tell him that I love him. The Elders asked her, What is it you really want to tell him? The learner was emotional at this point, her words had caught in her throat. Instead of speaking, she made a gesture with her arms of pulling someone closer to her, and then she closed her eyes and hugged her arms against her chest. Ohhh, one of the Elders exclaimed, Now, we have a word for that—wakavar.
Maybe there is no great lesson to be learned here, but when I sit down to write a poem, I carry all of this language with me onto the page--I try to figure out what I really mean, what the words really mean to me. I don’t ever want to say, love, if what I mean is wakavar, if what I mean is hummingbird, if what I mean is fall into my mouth.