Familiarity and Hope

Reading Santal and Nishnaabeg creation stories

30 April, 2024

ABOUT A DECADE ago, when I worked in Pakur, a district in Jharkhand’s Santhal Pargana, I often took the train from Howrah, in West Bengal. On one of those journeys, a co-passenger and I got talking. I could tell that they were not Santal, but they knew Santali. We spoke in English, but, upon learning that I was Santal, they asked, “Hod kanam?”—Are you a Hod?

“Hod” is a Santali word that means people. When we say, “We are Hod,” we do not just mean that we are people; we mean that we are Santal. To non-Santals, we usually introduce ourselves as Santal. Among other Santals, we are just Hod. In my childhood, I often heard fellow Santali-speakers call our language Hod rod” or Hod adang”—the language of the Hod. Over time it grew clearer for me that Santals saw ourselves as the people. The fact that we describe ourselves, our community, with a word that means “people” shows that we see this earth as our own and ourselves as its only human inhabitants. In a way, perhaps subconsciously, we assert that we were the first people on this earth.

Santals make up the third-largest indigenous community in India. As I learnt more about fellow indigenous peoples in the country, I came to know that the community known officially as Gond, the second-largest indigenous community, prefer to be identified as Koitur. In an essay for this magazine, Akash Poyam noted that the term “Gond” is an “outside imposition.” The word Koitur, in Gondi, also means “people.” I marvelled at this similarity in the languages of two of the country’s largest indigenous communities and at how, over centuries, we have held the belief that we were the first people on this earth.

I recently read Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence, and a New Emergence, by the academic and activist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. The book, first published in Canada by Arbeiter Ring Publishing, in 2012, before adivaani republished it in India, two years later, explores the Nishnaabeg language, intellectual traditions, creation stories, celebrations, processions and protests, and contemplates the community’s place in Canadian society. Both Arbeiter Ring Publishing and adivaani have published works relating to minorities, and the latter has published specifically on Adivasis—books that would either be invisible on the rosters of bigger, mainstream publishers or be relegated to lists of academic titles.