Indigenous Speech and Migrant Language between Apuleius and Cecilia Vicuña

Greetings from Madrid! On the flight over I was reading the new issue of Afterall magazine which is dedicated to the idea of indigeneity (a term that combines the adjective indigenous and the noun identity). In her essay ‘Floating Between Past and Future: The Indigenisation of Environmental Politics’, Lucy Lippard discusses the artist Cecilia Vicuña (of Chilean, Basque and Spanish heritage) and her claim that We Are All Indigenous – a video she made with her partner, poet Jim O’Hern.

Lippard quotes curator and Native Canadian, Candice Hopkins’ critique of such a generalization of indigeneity, who writes:

the perspective that everyone is indigenous can be harmful, as it erases or speaks over the voices of those who have been quite radically dispossessed. Is it the same as the call for Black Lives Matter being met with “all lives matter”?

Yet Lippard defends Vicuña’s specific claim by showing how she situates indigeneity in the deep past, quoting the following poetic text by the artist:

The Inca is about to be

and the ruins of the past

are the model for the future

being created by our remembering.

Vicuña’s ability to dig through languages to find an indigenous space, even for the migrant, is apparent in her work for documenta 14 – not only the died wool piece Quipu Womb (The Story of the Red Thread, Athens) (2017) and a performance, but also the text ‘Language is Migrant’:

Twenty years ago, I opened up the word “migrant,” seeing in it a dangerous mix of Latin and Germanic roots. I imagined “migrant” was probably composed of mei, Latin for “to change or move,” and gra, “heart” from the Germanic kerd. Thus, “migrant” became “changed heart,”

a heart in pain, 
changing the heart of the earth. 

The word “immigrant” says, “grant me life.” “Grant” means “to allow, to have,” and is related to an ancient Proto-Indo-European root: dhe, the mother of “deed” and “law.” So too, sacerdos, performer of sacred rites.

The way that Vicuña was able to build new linguistic forms and create poems out of indigenous ‘roots’ reminded me of the opening of Apuleius’ The Golden Ass (aka Metamorphoses). This novel, written in Latin by a North African Platonist, begins with the speaker (who may be the author/protagonist/book itself) describing how he is not a native speaker of Latin:

mox in urbe Latia advena studiorum, Quiritium indigenam sermonem aerumnabili labore, nullo magistro praeeunte, aggressus excolui.

(Soon after in the city of the Latins (i.e. Rome), as a newcomer to Roman studies I attacked and cultivated their native speech with laborious difficulty and no teacher to guide me.)

The speaker is a migrant to ‘Roman studies’, but worked hard to learn the indigenous language, which we, the reader, are now experiencing directly. These contrasting terms advena and indigena are used later in the novel when the protagonist Lucius describes moving to Rome as an initiate in the cult of Isis (and then Osiris) as a ‘stranger to the shrine, but a native of the cult’. Like Vicuña, Apuleius presents both linguistic and cultural forms of indigeneity and migration that combine the personal sense of self and an identification with place and its past.

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