Indigeneity, Language and Authenticity

Home » Uncategorized » The Indigene in Gaelic Writing: Some short thoughts on Aonghas MacNeacail’s America and Japan poems

The Indigene in Gaelic Writing: Some short thoughts on Aonghas MacNeacail’s America and Japan poems

Ever since MacRàth penned the line ‘tha sinne nar n-Inseannaich, cinnteach gu leòir’- we’re like Native Americans now, sure enough – in Dèan Cadalan Samhach, a song where a Gaelic family who has been forcibly removed to the States compare its fate to that of the displaced Native Americans in their new homeland, there has been a strong tendency among Scottish Gaelic writers to align themselves with indigenous cultures from around the world. In fact, far more than adding to a Scots voice arguing for independence from an English coloniser, many contemporary Gaelic writers subvert the idea of themselves as members of a homogenous Scottish nation and instead use a reversal of the archipelagic qualities of the Gàidhealtachd to depict mainland, majority Scotland as equally remote and undesirable as England in the eyes of a Gaelic world centre, which instead connects itself to a global indigenous world.

This is particularly obvious in the poetry of Aonghas MacNeacail; in a poetry suite on countries published in 2007, his poetic depiction of Scotland invokes a modern version of Dàl-Riata, an ancient Gaelic kingdom, far removed from an Anglo-Scotland and his invocations of both Japan and America look away from mainstream Japanese and American culture and instead focuses on meetings with the Ainu and the Lakota, where his poetry, much like the family in MacRàth’s famous song, gives a voice to the subaltern. This is further emphasised by the use of lower-case letters throughout his poetry; by avoiding capital letters, he skews the rigid borders of the mainstream in order to attack it from within.

Both of these things can be seen in e.g. the following poem, which deals with the mistreatment of the Lakota’s holy mountains Pahá Sapá (Black Hills). And while Aonghas own translation of the poem avoids giving a voice to the ambiguity of some of his Gaelic – ma ghearras can be understood as ‘if you penetrate’ and sgàinidh also translates as ‘to rape’, giving the poem an even darker undertone – it still manages to convey a sense of the subaltern solidarity with the Lakota, amplified by the first person narrative, which is found in the Gaelic. 

monaidhean dubha dhacota

ma ghearras tu seiche nan cnoc seo
na do shannt airson òr
sgàinidh tu m’anam 

the black hills of dakota

if you cut the skin of these hills
in your greed for gold
you’ll pierce my soul 

Some of his other America poems, however, sit uncomfortably on the edge between buckskin and actual solidarity. In coup, to name one example, he describes a Lakota tradition most likely learnt from Hollywood rather from any real discussions with contemporary, living Lakota, but in ùrnaigh, the adoration for the land draws far more upon a shared appreciation of the same found among Gaels and Lakota alike, than any colonial settler narrative gleaned from TV. Thus, even though the plains are invoked as the main example of American indigeneity, and the contrast of tradition and modernity which characterises his Scotland poems are gone most of the time, I would still argue that most of his America poetry still steps away from the common romanticism of European settler poetry. 

ò: ùrnaigh

chuir mi sàighead dhan speur,
cha do mharbh i
iolaire no dia

from: prayer

i put the arrow in the air
it killed neither
eagle nor god 

However, it is perhaps his poem about the Ainu that truly shows a genuine connection between Gaels and a pan-indigenous community in contemporary Gaelic writing. Focusing on the devastating loss of language experienced by Gaels and Ainu alike, there is nothing romanticising about his depiction of Japan’s aboriginal people. Perhaps it is the fact that Aonghas is using an endangered language to write about another community’s language loss that makes these poems seem more genuine than his America ones? Where the former in a way rely on a narrative which forces the writer to in one way or another address the noble savage trope, his poetic representation of Japan derives its strength from a deep sense of shared experiences of language and culture loss and nothing else.

ò: ainu

gach nì a bha naomh na chleas
dhan luchd-turais,
a chànan na fuidheall
a’ priobadh mar dhuilleag gun shùgh
air oiteagan foghar,
ach aona ghas feòir
cho gorm ri dòchas

from: ainu

all that was sacred now sport
for the tourists,
the language like scraps
of glimmering sapless leaves
on autumn gusts,
one blade of grass 
stays green as hope 



  1. Reblogged this on .

  2. Marconatrix says:

    I remember seeing some Gàidhlig stories from Nova Scotia dealing with interactions between the Gàidheil and the Mìkmaq. I’ve often wondered if there are accounts telling of these interactions from the indians’ point of view. Both are now minority cultures with endangered languages. How long do you need to live in a place to be ‘indigenous’? Everyone came from somewhere … 😉

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