Ki and Kin Pronouns

Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, recommends an intentional change to the English language: we need to stop calling our more-than-human relatives “it.” They are not objects, existing to be commodified. They are people, members of our ecological communities. The plants, the animals, the insects; the rocks, the waters, the soil, the land itself—these are all our relations. We would not call our human grandmother “ it. We should not call our more-than-human grandmothers “it.”

I encourage displaced peoples (including settlers in colonial empires) to follow indigenous leadership on any topic related to ecological integration. In the US colonial empire, we have indigenous leadership publicly encouraging the use of animate pronouns to refer to our ecological community members. With the guidance of her tribal elders, Robin Wall Kimmerer recommends the singular pronoun “ki,” borrowed from an Anishinaabe word for “beings of the living Earth.” The plural pronoun is “kin,” a nod to the English word for relatives.

Since I encountered Robin Wall Kimmerer’s suggestion, I now make an effort to use “ki” and “kin” to refer to my more-than-human relatives when I write. I am still working on transitioning my language when I speak. I also have modified Kimmerer’s suggestion to better fit into English grammar rules. To learn more, read my blog on this topic.

I also use other forms of animate language for plants and animals. For years, I have said things like, “Who lives along that stream?” and when the answer is, “Nobody,” I stare incredulously and clarify, “Plants?” Of course there are plants along that stream! But the human answering uses the word “who” to refer only to human beings. It takes a moment for them to catch onto my meaning.

Using “ki” and “kin” in oral conversation requires us to slow down and be more aware of how we are speaking about the other people in our habitats. We must be ready to face the confusion and discomfort of others, and remain loving in our response. We need to practice explaining what “ki” and “kin” means, until our entire human community considers it familiar and natural to use animate pronouns for plants, animals, rocks, waters, and the living Earth.

Robin Wall Kimmerer explains her suggestion beautifully in both written and oral form. Please take the time to hear it from her own mouth or pen—see the links below.
Video Version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QhQKdJHLDcw
Article Version: https://www.yesmagazine.org/issue/together-earth/2015/03/30/alternative-grammar-a-new-language-of-kinship