More on Ki and Kin Pronouns

Robin Wall Kimmerer explains that the Anishinaabe language does not use gendered pronouns like Spanish does (for nearly all nouns) or English does (for all humans and some animals).  Instead, Anishinaabe divides the world into two types of noun: animate and inanimate.  Animate beings are those with spirit, people who belong in the community of all life: plants, animals, insects, rocks, waters, and the land kinself.  Inanimate objects are those which are made by industrial processes, like paperclips, tractors, and plastic cups.  Kimmerer urges us to move the objectifying language of colonization towards one of kinship by adopting the use of ki/kin pronouns to refer to animate beings.

As my local community and I use ki/kin pronouns, we discover some questions about how best to apply these pronouns.  I propose the following modifications to Robin Wall Kimmerer’s suggestion to make it more consistent with existing English grammar rules.  These ideas are based on conversations between my community mates; I honor their help in clarifying my thoughts.

Robin Wall Kimmerer offers “ki” as a singular animate pronoun, and “kin” as a plural animate pronoun.

For example:

            “Ki is a cottonwood tree.”
            “What are those geese doing?”
            “Kin are flying south.”
            “I hate that my neighbor shoots kin.”

However, in English, this simple pronoun distinction between singular and plural is consistent with object pronouns.  We have “it” and we have “they/them.”

For example:

            “It is a cottonwood tree.”
            “Why are they on the table?”
            “Put them away in your drawer.”

Existing English animate (gendered) pronouns add another two singular forms, one of them possessive:

            he, him, his
            she, her, hers

The plural animate pronoun in standard English is “they/them.”  So a group of “he/she” would be “them.”  I don’t see any problem with this being the same as a group of screws.  The way to indicate that cottonwoods are not paperclips, and indeed have animacy (spirit) is to use animate language in the context.  For example:

“Who are they?”
“They are Cottonwoods.”
“Who lives there?”
“Elderberries, Willows, and Red Alders.”
“I love them!”

So my friends and I have been using “they/them” as an animate plural pronoun, and using “kin” to replace “her/him,” and “kins” to replace “hers/his.”  For example:

“Where do you think ki is going?”
“Kins nest is over there.”
“I don’t know how to listen to kin.”
“Sit down beneath kin and let the sound of kins leaves wash over you.”

            Note that in English, a feminine pronoun form would be like this:

“Sit down beneath her and let the sound of her leaves wash over you.”  (same)

            While a masculine pronoun form would be like this:

“Sit down beneath him and let the sound of his leaves wash over you.”  (different)

            Using “kins” in the second instance of this sentence mirrors the masculine pronoun pattern, but we like it better because it sounds more flowing.  Remember that “ki” and “kin” do not refer to gender in any way, but to animacy.

There may be a reason to refer to trees and animals using gendered pronouns.  For example, if you are discussing the breeding habits of trees, you might note that American Persimmons are dioecious, meaning that male and female sexual organs (flower parts) occur on separate individual trees, and those individuals always make the same male or female flowers from year to year.  In other words, the tree is biologically male or female.  You might have a conversation like this:

“Where are we planting these American Persimmons today?”
“The female makes fruit, so let’s plant her closer to the house.”
“Look at her!  She’s so beautiful already!  Her bark is so lovely!”
“Where shall we plant the male?”
“How close does he need to be in order to pollinate the female?”
“Anywhere in this area is close enough.  They are pollinated by insects.”
“Let’s plant him here so he can provide a little shade to the playhouse.”
“Now we’re done planting.  Let’s thank them.”
“Thank you, my relatives, for feeding us and helping create the conditions for all life on this planet!”

Often though, there is no reason to indicate sex when talking about plants and animals.  Or you don’t know their sex.  Or they do not have bifurcated sex like mammals do.  Or the individual you are speaking of may be intersex like my sheep Bix or transsexual like one of my ducks.  (Yes, these things happen in more-than-human species, too.) 

Rocks and waters are asexual.  We may refer to the Earth as a Goddess, but her seething, teaming, ever-hungry soil layer, like a giant stomach ready to digest any organic matter laid down on kins surface, is both an entire community of life and not accurately able to be referred to with any gendered pronouns.  Yet ki is alive, and properly referred to in some contexts as singular (soil).

As I use ki and kin pronouns more often, I am struck by the gendered imperative in standard English.  In order to refer to a being as animate, you must also refer to kin in a gendered way, even if the conversation has nothing to do with biology, sex, or reproduction.  Why would we do that?  What social function does that serve?  What other meanings have been layered on top of biology through cultural expectations and systems of oppression?

The other side of that gendered imperative is the inability of standard English to apply the language of animacy to beings whose communities are not biological sexual binaries, or whose sex is not visibly obvious.  How do you refer to a blackberry plant, an individual who makes both female ovules and male pollen?  How do you refer to a river?  How do you refer to a turkey vulture circling overhead?  (Turkey vultures use sexual reproduction, but males and females appear visually identical.)  How do you refer to a human being who is intersex or third gender?  (At least you can ask the human being which pronouns ki prefers.)

I am grateful to my human community for engaging in this process with me.  The community of all life is so much richer and more diverse than the language of colonization acknowledges.  Please join me in grieving the loss of our ancestral languages, those ways of speaking which emerged from the lands of our ancestors. 

As we listen to those who speak our ancestral languages, we can get a taste of how language is not just a different way of saying the same thing.  Language reflects a different way of organizing ourselves as human communities, in relationship with our specific ecologies.  I am grateful for the indigenous leadership of Robin Wall Kimmerer, who encourages me to keep thinking about moving English away from a default gendered animate pronoun, and towards a language of belonging in the community of all life.

To sum up:

Person/ThingSingularSingularSingular PossessivePluralPlural
Female Animatesheherhersthey (use “who”)them (use “who”)
Male Animatehehimhisthey (use “who”)them (use “who”)
Animate (No sex/gender indicated)kikinkinsthey (use “who”)them (use “who”)
Object Inanimateitititsthey (use “what”)them (use “what”)