Speaking the Corn into Being

The oral tradition and the sacredness of the spoken word


| September-October 1997



My concept of the word, the spoken word, is an image I have. It goes back to the time before we killed the word. Before we put it in its little coffin which the written form is. When the word was alive. When it was spirit. When what we spoke coordinated conditions (brought into harmony arrow and animal). Or what we spoke actually served as a causal function. Words as transformers. As makers of things that happened.

Now this is the Cherokee understanding of the spoken word, the voice, anyway. In our tradition, people do not simply speak about the world, they speak the world into being. What we say is intricately intertwined with what we are and can be. To the Cherokee people, all things in the world have a voice and that voice carries life. Storying gives shape to meaning. This concept of speech and voice is based on a notion that the voice does not speak alone, but generations of voices speak. They must be heard and understood by others and added onto by them. When we speak we take the power of the spoken word and infuse it with new breath. We add our voice to story so it shifts, changes, renews with the multiplicity of meanings and the variables of possibilities. To keep words alive and elastic. To keep them the shape-changers they have to be for our survival.

The voice and the thought that rides upon the voice are the challenge. What you speak is spoken into an energy field or field of force that has consequence. The breath forming words is holy. The sound and shape of them breathed into being.

The Cherokee knew their words had the power to create. That’s also the guardian, the check and balance, of the word. It’s power to generate force. What you said could last for generations. Therefore you guarded your words. You made them count in the oral tradition. You spoke them responsibly. You kept in mind that what the speaker says affects the speaker as much as the spoken to.

Now this is what I have to say about speaking the corn into being.

In the old days the farmers did not know the day of planting. It was announced by the holy men. Then the orators would come and sing the seed corn into the field and the field into the form from which the corn would rise in the process of the seeds breaking. Then someone, usually the grandmother, would sit on her platform speaking the crows away from the seeded fields until the seeds were established in stalks and corn tassels waving and the corn itself could speak the crows away. The corn was mixed with words all summer. The fields were never without sound. Even after harvest, a green-corn ceremony honored the new crop. During the storing process. Even during baking or cooking, a woman would speak to the corn. Tell it stories. There was an interconnectedness of things.