Learning the Lexicon: “That’s Good Medicine”

I’ve written before about Learning the Lexicon – about getting familiar with the private language every group has. Learning the Lexicon of “Private Language.”)

I don’t learn their lexicon just to be able to communicate with the people I’m working with in a mediation. That’s important – knowing how to speak and understand is necessary of course.

There’s another reason as a mediator I have to learn their lexicon. It has to do with how people in conflict can change as their language changes.

This is a story about learning, and changing, through language.

I’ll get to the story in a minute.

How we communicate reflects our thinking. Our language comes out of our thoughts. What we say comes from our thoughts about what we’re talking about. And it goes the other way, too. In a very real way, what we say, how we talk, the language we use and how we communicate also affects our thinking.

This is very important for my work as a mediator and facilitator. The language between people reflects their conflict. The words they choose are chosen in conflict. Their communication patterns provide a window into their conflict. They also, in a very real way, may actually be perpetuating or even causing the conflict.

Language also provides an opportunity for them to change their thinking about their conflict.

If they’re going to solve their conflict their thinking about is has to change. If they change their language about their conflict they may be able to change their thinking about it. (See the post And Now for Something Completely Different.)

I need to Learn the Lexicon to understand people I’m working with, their culture, and what’s going on. I need this to understand where and what the conflict is between them. And to be able to help them do something about it.

Now for the story.

I received a great lesson in how a new understanding of a single word in a new context can radically change thinking. In this case, it was mine.

The last several years I have volunteered with a local cultural arts festival as an Artist Liaison. One year I had the privilege of meeting and being with Brian Frejo, aka “DJ Shock B.” Brian’s art is to integrate contemporary styles – hip-hop, rap and electro – with traditional and community-based Native American values and folk-art.

During his stay Brian was to do a performance at a school assembly on a nearby reservation. He had friends there he wanted to visit, too, so we drove down and I got to spend the whole day with Brian on “The Res.”

Just entering the school building was a profound experience. The respect the students, teachers and staff had for each other was palpable – it permeated the walls. The students filed into the gymnasium which was lined with the flags of all the dozens of nations from which the students come. Brian held their attention like I’ve rarely seen a performer before or since.

After the performance, students flocked around Brian. I heard a term I’d heard before, and that I only understood in a simple, cartoonish and stereotypical way: something about “medicine.” It seemed incongrous to me at the time. I didn’t understand in this context what the word meant.

Among the students a group of four young men were encouraged by an elder to “sing Brian your song.” A bit reluctant at first, they were persuaded. With the sag-baggy-pants and sideways ballcaps I thought I knew what was coming: a rap filled with ‘tude and swag.

They came close together and stood in a half-circle. They lowered their eyes, lifted their heads and started to sing – to chant.

It was a song in a traditional style. Melodic, deep, powerful. Others who were leaving the gymnasium heard the singing, came back to the group and stood near them. Some knew the song and quietly sang along.

The young man who wrote the song explained afterward he had been in the tribe’s canoe, in the open water and was caught in a storm. There were too few paddlers, and though many were smaller and young, they pulled against the wind and waves and made it safely to shore. That’s what his song was about. Without having known the words, I had heard in the song them finding their strength: the strength they found together paddling the canoe and the strength in the singing of it together.

Later that day we went to the tribe’s cultural center and saw the canoe. It was dugout from a single cedar tree and was huge. It weighed tons. It took dozens of people just to launch and paddle. A multi-generational community had formed around the canoe – adults, elders and young people. They met regularly to maintain it, learn about open-water canoeing, and to pass-down the traditions and all that the canoe meant to these people. The young men who sang were part of this community.

As we were hearing about the canoe-community, Brian made reference to “medicine.” Again, I didn’t understand what he meant.

Brian had heard of a drum-maker on the reservation and was interested in purchasing one of his drums. At the cultural center he asked after the drum-maker. He wasn’t there, but one of his drums was. Brian asked to see it. The drum was brought to him. As he held it in his hands, very reverently and gently, he started to drum. Slowly, rhythmically. His eyes dropped. He softly hummed along to his drumming.

After a few moments he handed back the drum. He said “that’s good medicine.”

That was it – I began to understand. I finally heard the word in a new way. I started to know what he meant. “Medicine” is what heals.

“Medicine” isn’t just what heals a body. Its what heals relationships. Heals a community. Heals a people. Heals a soul.

Anything that heals well is “good medicine.” It can be a school, an assembly, or a performance. A song. A people. A canoe. A drum.

Sometimes language – even just a word – can be “good medicine.” It was for me.

Check out Brian and Culture Shock Camp here. See the video of Brian’s performance at the Puyallup school here.

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