indian linguistics

The Black Indians
Growing up Dalit in the US, finding your roots, fighting for your identity

Running, passing, hiding. This is the litany of the Dalit American. Growing up in southern California, my family was one of the first Tamil families to immigrate to Los Angeles. Representatives of the Indian brain drain that started in the 1970s, we were part of the first wave of Indian immigrants whose functions, sangams and religious communities helped establish the little India enclave in the now-famous Artesia.

We were also Dalits living underground. Caste exists wherever Indians exist and it manifests itself in a myriad of ways. The Indian diaspora thrives on caste because it is the atom that animates the molecule of their existence. In the face of xenophobia and racism abroad, many become more fundamentalist in their traditions and caste is part of that reactionary package. So, what does caste look like in the US?

Quite like in India, it is the smooth subtext beneath questions between uncles, like, “Oh! Where is your family from?” It is part of the cliques and divisions within those cultural associations where Indians self-segregate into linguistic and caste associations. It continues when aunties begin to discuss marriage prospects. They cluck their tongues softly, remark about your complexion, and pray for a good match from “our community”.

Many Americans can’t imagine what it looks like to pass. For my family, it was finding clever ways to avoid the ‘jati’ query.

For second-generation NRIs, flashing caste becomes a part of their cultural street cred with other communities. Some do it intentionally to elevate their identity while others operate from a misunderstanding of their own roots and blindly accept the symbols of their culture. Punjabi rappers throw down lyrics about being proud Jats. Tam- Brahms show off their sacred thread, recreate Thiruvayur in Cleveland, and learn Bharatanatyam while using their powerful networks to connect and succeed in the diaspora. Ultimately, we trade and calcify what is seen as proper Indian culture. But hidden within that idea of ‘proper’ lies the code for what is aspirational and ultimately upper caste.
It’s dangerous, this culture of caste-based intolerance in the diaspora for it extends beyond individual relationships. Individuals build institutions and institutions are steeped in caste. From Hindu temples to gurudwaras, there is a separate yet unspoken policy of worship for those that are Dalit. Furthermore, in the over fifty south Asian and Asian studies departments in North America, there are less than a handful of tenured Dalit faculty. And, crucially, as the Campaign to Stop Funding Hate has shown, NRIs in the US have directly funded and fuelled communal violence in India by supporting cultural and aid programmes that are fronts for local Hindutva organisations.

Through it all, Dalits Run. Pass. Hide.

For while caste is everywhere in the diaspora, there is a damning silence about naming caste. And in the silence there is violence.

I know because my family passed for many years. It was confusing, painful and lonely. We could never truly unpack the memories that my parents fled in India, nor could we confront the same infrastructure being rebuilt here in the shining land of the American Dream.

Many Americans and Indians can’t imagine what it looks like to pass. For my family it was finding ever clever ways to sidestep the ‘jati’ question, attending temple functions and never speaking about “our community” in public functions ever. We got away with it because there were so few of us in the beginning, and every Tamil was a valuable connection while learning to navigate this new country.

The leverage of our new lifestyle however allowed my family to support Dalit causes back home and work underground through a network of uncles who debated caste issues over phone calls, meetings and conferences. And, of course, while the men were active in this way, the women, like my mom, would pass on Dalit songs and stories holding on to that space—which was important even if we could not share it.

For though it has been almost 100 years since Ambedkar came to study at Columbia University, Dalits like my family are still struggling to find a foothold that is uniquely our own. Unlike other Indians, Dalits do not have their own public institutions within the diaspora. There is no way to go into any city and find and connect with local Dalits unless you are already plugged in to the unofficial Dalit underground communities held together by mailing lists, Facebook groups and phone trees that help us survive the double whammy of racism and casteism.

I do not know exactly what age I understood I was untouchable, for it was always around me. But I knew exactly when it was that I became a Dalit. It was only when I was 17 and picked up a book about Ambedkar that had grown dusty in our family library that a lightning rod singed my soul. I read his work alongside my Dad’s battered copies of works by Black activists, Stokley Carmichael’s Black Power and Malcolm X’s Autobiography. Through their words, I found the courage and conviction to be able to address the profound lack of information and access to Dalit history in the diaspora. I was part of a powerful tradition of resistance.

Despite having two parents who are doctors, I returned to my caste’s profession of singing and telling stories and found dignity in this. When I assumed my performance name, Dalit Diva, it was a declaration of the joy of being part of such an incredible line of creators, survivors and leaders. And there have been repercussions. I have been served by Indian friends in ‘different utensils’, curses and even death threats have been hurled at me. But I have never regretted coming out. I sing the Dalit history of resilience, resistance, revolution.

On my dash, someone posts a big map of North America, with the various Native American language groups blocked out on it, from Aleut down to Maya.

OK, interesting. Someone posts, ‘this should be in every history book!’

Someone else posts, 'I’ve been waiting for this forever!’


They had one of these in my World Book Encyclopedia sets when I was ten. Your U.S. history book, if you are a junior in high school in the US, should have something related, possibly territorial divisions rather than linguistic ones, but it’s in there. OPEN IT. Find out.

If you Google 'Native American languages map’, you will find about a hundred and fifty versions of this same thing.

This is what drives me nuts about the “I learn everything on Tumblr” approach–it requires you to start from scratch, assuming that NO information about subjects of interest is available, it’s all been suppressed, no one knows about it–and then someone throws up a map of language families from a 1950s linguistics textbook, and everyone acts as though we’re really sticking it to the kyriarchy now.


I didn’t take any selfies today, so these video stills are my offering.

My father is Lakota and Northern Cheyenne. My mother is Anishinabe, Cree, Seneca, Oneida, Ho Chunk, and a handful of other nations that escape my memory right now. 

My ancestors fought at the Little Bighorn, witnessed Wounded Knee in 1890 and 1973, were chased by the government into Canada, served as interpreters for U.S. presidents, and were chosen as chiefs to their nations.

I can tell you the story of how my family got their surname and how I got my own name. I can introduce myself in Lakota, but no other languages of my ancestors. I was born on a reservation, and am now away from home as a graduate student in both American Indian Studies and Linguistics. I study revitalization and resilience.

I am endlessly proud of my heritage, and hope to one day become a source of pride for my descendants to come. 

And I have love, so much love, for Indigenous peoples everywhere.

Meet the new mods!

Hello all,

Writing With Color would like to give a big welcome to our new mods, Lesya and Nikhil! They’d also like to introduce themselves:


Hello and welcome! I’m Lesya of the Wyandot (Huron) in Canada who only discovered my roots/got adopted back into the tribe in my very early 20s thanks to generations-old assimilation. A 22 year old white passing individual who’s spent her whole life navigating a world of in betweens and wants to see more queer PoC on bookshelves. Best described as “spiritual”. I took a year of anthropology for the sole purpose of learning more effective researching, which was the main catalyst for connecting with the Native community.

I write primarily non-European fantasy and I spend far too much time analyzing everything literary, with a tendency to speak in TV Tropes. My specialty is breaking apart real world cultures and adapting them to fantasy worlds, along with researching to get society right. I’m still learning about my own culture but have a general knowledge about Canadian Natives, especially around the Great Lakes/Quebec region, with a touch of knowledge about Plains and costal Natives. Firm believer in Idle No More.


Greetings, humans of the internets!  I’m Nikhil, aka science-of-noise, a 28-year-old Indian-American linguist and grad student who puts off writing his dissertation by writing all kinds of speculative fiction instead, usually with a heavy dose of philosophy or satire disguised as a good romp.  I have a knack for dark humor, carnage, poetic language, and sneaking in heavy metal references where they don’t belong.  I’m also currently entering the dark and fraught world of querying manuscripts to literary agents.

As a nontheistic Hindu (who spends plenty of time explaining that this is, in fact, a thing), I’m here to help you not mess up your representation of Indian experiences, Hinduism, and South Asian themes.  I’m in an interracial marriage with a part-Jewish historian and fellow cat enthusiast, and I like to play loud songs on the guitar, cook spicy food, and run long distances on hot days.


As for our other applicants: note that we are still contacting folks and making decisions on new team members, so you might see a small trickle of new mods joining the team over the next few weeks - months.

And for those wondering, yes the ask box will be opening up soon! We’ll give you a heads-up closer to that time, as well as information on the upcoming patreon.

Have a great writing week!


anonymous asked:

In class our teacher (Native Studies, the teacher is Ojibwe) told us a theory about how Native Americans are linked to Asians and i keep finding more and more evidence and stuff about that ... do you have any thoughts on this? I just watched a buzzfeed video about genetics where "east asian and native american" were the same category (as opposed to, say "european") and i'm tripping out

The Bering Strait totally contradicts the oral tradition of basically every tribe on this continent, so I’m gonna say no. But since some people need a more Western approach, I’ll address that too.

There are almost no linguistic similarities between Native American languages and any East Asian languages. You would think would be a huge indicator, but that only thing even vaguely (and I mean vaguely) similar happens between a single Indigenous group there and a single Indigenous group here. And let me reiterate the vague part.

The difference between just Native languages is too diverse for the Bering Strait Theory to account for. Here’s a little snippet of a quote on just how diverse they are:

Exactly how diverse the American languages were became clearer in 1891, when the famed explorer and director of the Bureau of Ethnology, John Wesley Powell, released the monumental work,Indian Linguistic Families North of Mexico.In his introduction, Powell explained that, “The North American Indian tribes, instead of speaking related dialects, originating in a single parent language, in reality speak many languages belonging to distinct families, which have no apparent unity of origin.” Powell grouped the American Indian languages in the U.S. and Canada into 58 language families (or stocks) that could not be shown to be related to one another

So the Bering Straight Theory gives a 10,000-15,000 year ago estimate, but how long would it take for languages in an area to become that diverse from one another? For that answer we have to go to the Sahul region, which is Australia and the outlying islands:

The Sahul is one of the most linguistically diverse areas in the world, home to more than 1,000 languages, about one-fifth of the world’s total. The linguists had already predicted that the “time depth” required to achieve this type of linguistic diversity was clearly not in the thousands of years, but in the tens of thousands of years. Subsequent archaeological finds have now pushed back the date of human occupation of Australia to a minimum of 45,000 years ago and possibly 60,000 years ago.

So 45,000-60,000 years to create *one of the* most linguistically diverse areas in the world. Do you know what the most linguistically diverse area in the world actually is?

That’s right. It’s the Americas.

To give some perspective to this diversity, there are more language stocks in the Americas than in the rest of the world combined.

So this is all just in terms of language. This isn’t even bringing up the fact that the oldest known inhabited site in the Americas has been carbon-dated at 35,000 - 48,000 years old.

All that aside, I see why people believe the Bering Strait, because it’s logical in its simplicity. But until it’s seriously reworked, I’m gonna call bullshit on it. It’s based on way too much assumption that is contradicted by evidence from both Indigenous communities and Western science.