The Language of Letters


“I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”
(Letter 16, 1657)”
Blaise Pascal, The Provincial Letters


These past weeks as I considered language as a conduit for communication, I came across some old letters, cards and notes that I have kept over the years. I found the first birthday card that I received that mentioned age.  As I looked at all of the signatories I recalled my surprise that others had identified my transition before me.   How had thirty come so soon?

Letters are more than a record of a long distance conversation. As John Donne once wrote, “More than kisses, letters mingle souls.” Whether they are scribbles of a pen or the faded print of a manual typewriter, letters are the remnants of relationships between lovers, parents and children, sisters, brothers, friends, or colleagues.  They bear witness to a moment of historical significance between the sender and receiver.  Letters are the stories of people’s lives, of their hopes and dreams, of their achievements and failures.  Most of all, they are the narratives of humanity.  Letters season our history and biographies with vibrant detail, allowing us to experience what will never be again.  Voices long silent come alive as if the writers themselves were sitting across the table or in the opposite armchair.

In the coming days, I want to explore the language of letters within the context of words and actions.

“Because thou writest me often, I thank thee … Never do I receive a letter from thee, but immediately we are together.”
― Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Letters from a Stoic

A Chief Speaks


“What treaties that the whites have kept, that the red man broken?
Not one.
What treaties that the white man gave to us they kept?
Not one.” 

 Sitting Bull

 Sitting Bull

Sitting Bull, a Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux, is recognized by many as the most powerful of all First Nation leaders.  Born in 1831 in Grand River, South Dakota, his destiny was to become a holy man and tribal chief during a time of great upheaval.  As a young boy, he wanted to emulate his warrior father, Returns-Again, but he lacked the aptitude for martial endeavours.  As a consequence, he was given the nickname, “Slon-he or “Slow.” That changed dramatically when Sitting Bull felled his first buffalo at the age of ten.    His name became Tatanka-Iyotanka, a Lakota name describing a buffalo bull sitting on its haunches.

Sitting Bull was a guardian of his people; he recognized that their tribal ways would be forever changed by the ever forward movement of pioneers moving west.  He said, “Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.” His life was a testament to courage and determination in the presence of hardship.  He travelled many miles across the plains and into Canada in his search to find a place for his people to live in peace.

Wherever he went, Sitting Bull left his indelible mark. James Morrow Walsh, commander of the North West Mounted Police, became Sitting Bull’s life-long friend.   Chief Crowfoot of the Blackfoot nation, an old and powerful enemy, accepted Sitting Bull’s offer to smoke the Peace-Pipe.  On leaving Canada, Sitting Bull joined Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show and adopted Annie Oakley as a daughter, giving her the name “Little Sure Shot.”

“If the Great Spirit had desired me to be a white man, he would have made me so in the first place.”

 Sitting Bull

In the end, Sitting Bull sacrificed his life for his people. There were false rumours he would participate in the Ghost Dance, a sacred ceremony that would bring back together the living with the spirits of the dead to bring peace, prosperity and unity to the tribes across the land. On December 15, 1890, Sitting Bull was mortally wounded.

“Behold, my brothers, the spring has come; the earth has received the embraces of the sun and we shall soon see the results of that love! Every seed has awakened and so has all animal life. It is through this mysterious power that we too have our being and we therefore yield to our neighbours, even our animal neighbours, the same right as ourselves, to inhabit this land.” 

 Sitting Bull