Mitakuye Oyasin

Mitakuye Oyasin

Mitakuye oyasin is a Lakota phrase used as an opening in many prayers and songs.  It means “All your relations” It expresses an idea that is a dialectical holism.  It is the notion that many things (in fact, everything) are related to make one thing. It carries implications that are much greater than just its name.  Mitakuye oyasin, carries with it the idea that a person is not only his body but also his relationships to everything else in existence.  It  carries a very great deal of illocutionary force because it conveys with it, the idea that whomever utters it and believes the utterance, understands that he is not only himself but also a very small piece of something fantastically, tremendously large.  It can also be considered a performative utterance because its effect is dependent upon the act of understanding and believing in the utterance although I must say it is unlike most phrases I’d ordinarily consider performative..  It’s like saying ‘universe’ and meaning that word as one thing in and of itself, spanning back into the past and out into the future with yourself included in the statement by definition.  You are not it, but it is you and its existence becomes verifiable only upon acceptance of the possibility that both you and it exist.
It is interesting to compare our common conception of the universe with an idea like mitakuye oyasin.  Now, everyone knows that they are part of the universe but when your average English speaker utters the word, he doesn’t ordinarily mean to include himself so implicitly as part of the utterance—as does mitakuye oyasin.  We ordinarily speak of ourselves and the universe as  entirely separate things. ‘Here I am. Out there is the universe’. Even when we include ourselves, we still draw a distinction.  We say ‘Myself, and everything in the universe’  Neither do we ordinarily include time in our common conceptions of the universe—even though our physicists know that space and time are aspects of the same thing.  Perhaps your average Lakota in say, the 18th century, had a more accurate conception of his place in the greater environment than your average American urbanite in the early 21st century.
An all-encompassing concept similar to mitakuye oyasin, is the Chinese word ‘Tao’.  Tao is very often translated into English simply as ‘the way’ but a far better definition of what the word intends to convey is ‘everything that exists, has ever existed, or that will ever exist and everything that anything ever does, has ever done, or will ever do, all together, all at once’.  The two notions have many similarities.  For example, according to John P. Clark, professor of philosophy at Loyola University, Tao is a dialectic holism.  Tao is also not a thing, but rather, is best viewed as an  process-in-motion whose validity is contingent upon understanding the phrase and believing it, so like mitakuye oyasin, it represents a peculiar kind of performative utterance.
Janet McCloud says that she marvels at mitakuye oyasin.  I agree.  I think that once you begin to take in the great breadth of meaning found within words like mitakuye oyasin and Tao, you cannot help but be profoundly moved.  Both phrases carry the power and weight of their meaning in all that they imply rather than in the simple conveyance of their definitions.  The  illocutionary force entailed in ideas like Mitakuye oyasin and Tao can show us many things.  I believe a great deal can be gathered from the study of all human cultures as one system stretching back in time and out into the future.


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