This poem was written during a visit to Aotearoa (New Zealand) where I was able to compare concepts across languages and hemispheres. Small spirits, known in te reo Māori as pounamu, are carved in bone or a type of greenstone, usually jade. Each treasure, typically made into a pendant, carries a story and a responsibility. The manaia is a hybrid creature with the beak of a bird, the body of a three fingered human and the tail of a fish. It is a guardian representing the balance between sky, earth and sea and the cycle of birth, life and death. It is reminiscent of the misshibizhew of michigami, an underwater panther with horns and a long tail who lives in the Great Lakes of North America and guards the lakes. Too often the modern world forgets the power and significance of liminal spaces — the sands between the waves and woods, the swamp that filters using liquid and minerals, the dreams that rearrange our conscious and unconscious knowledge and the space between this life and the life after.
The three stanzas of the poem celebrate the tripart identity of the manaia. Written first in Anishinaabemowin, the morphology and rhythm are more pure in that language. The “maa” of maamakaazaabandaan and maamakaamaadizid is an echo of extraordinarity which reappears in later lines. The center of each stanza contains internal alliteration and repetition that cannot be replicated in English. I always do my best to keep the meaning consistent for the sake of learners and language purists, sometimes sacrificing specific patterns of sound. In Anishinaabemowin there is no need to choose between she or he when speaking of the subject because the third person is gender neutral which is represented by a dual pronoun, “she-he.”
Indigenous knowledge is embedded within indigenous languages and while we have a responsibility to protect and preserve the languages intimately connected to our own space I believe we must also allow these languages to continue ancient conversations across cultures and communities, sometimes even continents. This is the only way we can prepare for the ways the universe may rearrange reality.
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