The Conception of the Self Among the Wintu Indians

[Note: Wintu terms have been proofread, English has been proofread only lightly.]


From Journal of Abnormal and Social Prychology, Na. 3, 1950, Vol. 45.


THE WINTU INDIANS OF NORTHERN California have a conception of the self which is markedly different from our own. I have attempted to arrive at this conception through an intensive analysis of linguistic form and structure, as well as a consideration of bio­graphical texts and recorded mythical material. My study is incomplete, since I have no other record of actual behavior. The ethnography of the Wintu as we have it, is an account of a dead and remembered culture. As a background to the Wintu material, I present occasionally linguistic clues to our own conception of the self.

The definition of the self in our own culture rests on our law of con­tradiction. The self cannot be both self and not self, both self and other; the self excludes the other. Wintu philosophy in general has no law of contradiction. ‘Where we have mutually exclusive dualistic categories, the Wintu have categories which are inclusive, but not mutually so; that is, object A will be included in object B, but not vice versa. Out of this con­text, B can be distinguished or emphasized through various linguistic de­vices. For example, in Wintu thought, man is included in nature; natural law, timeless order, is basic and true, irrespective of man. However, in-






dependent judgment, private experience and free will are not thereby excluded, but function transiently within the framework of natural law; man actualizes and gives temporality and concreteness to the natural order upon which he impinges—through act of will and personal intent.

Again, the generic is primary to the particular and includes it; the in­dividual is particularized transiently, but is not set in opposition. And what may seem at first encounter to be suffixes of mutual exclusiveness, appear upon investigation to be different kinds of emphatics. Even the equivalents of either and or are emphatics, presupposing inclusiveness or increase.

The concept of the self forms one of these non-exclusive categories. When speaking about Wintu culture, we cannot speak of the self and society, but rather of the self in society. As a member of my society, writ­ing for readers of this cultural background, I am presenting my study from the point of view of the self and its gradually decreasing participation in society; however, I believe that this is only due to my cultural bias, and that a Wintu would have started from what for us is the opposite direction, the gradual distinguishing of the self from society.

In our own culture, we are clear as to the boundaries of the self. In our commonly held unreflective view, the self is a distinct unit, something we can name and define. We know what is the self and what is not the self; and the distinction between the two is always the same. With the Wintu, the self has no strict bounds, is not named and is not, I believe, recognized as a separate entity.

There are words which deal with the self alone. I do not include among them the ni: I, since this is completely dependent for its meaning on the conception of the self held by the speaker who is using it. There are, how­ever, verbs dealing with being or activities and other experiences of the self. For example, we have limelda: ail-I. This clearly refers to the self. But what does tutuhum limtcada: mother ail (tca ) -I, or sukuyum limtcada:

dog ail (tca ) -I refer to? Which is self and which is other here? The phrases mean, in our terms: my mother is ill, or my dog is ill; but the Wintu is not referring to a distinct, related other, but rather to an other in which he is involved. Actually, this phrasing is used only when speaking of in­timates; it is also possible—but I do not know how common—to say in so many words: my mother ails.

Our own linguistic usage through the years, reveals a conception of an increasingly assertive, active and even aggressive self, as well as of an in­creasingly delimited self. In Chaucer’s English, we find the reflection of a way of thinking where events happened to the self much more often




than our own usage implies. In Chaucer we find: “it reweth me,’ ‘thus dreamed me,’ ‘melikes” and ‘himlikode’; but we say now: I rue, I dream, I like.

Not only do we think of ourselves as actors here, but we phrase this ‘activity” as directed at a distinct other. When I say: I like him, I cast my statement into the subject-to-object-affected mold; I imply that I have done something to him. Actually, he may be totally ignorant of my liking and unaffected; only I myself am certainly and directly affected by it.

Over the years, the English language has followed an analytic and iso­lating trend and it is possible that in linguistic reference there has been an increasing separation of the self from the encompassing situation. At any rate, delimitation of the self is reflected in our increasing analysis of holistic Anglo-Saxon terms referring to bodily acts. I beckon is becoming literary or at least cultivated; I gape is being replaced by phrases such as:

with my mouth open. I say: I shake my fist, I bump my head; and how much is left of me, the self?

Our language implies not only that the self is narrowly delimited, but that it is also in control. My is the pronoun which we call possessive, whose distinguishing characteristic, we are told, is that of possession or ownership; and possession in our culture means control: mine, to do with as I wish. And my is a word very frequently used. It is difficult to say what exactly is this self which is delimited and in control. We say: my time, my life—in the sense of zoe as well as of bios—my experience, my conscious­ness, my reason, my emotions, my identity. As far as the physical aspect is concerned, there seems to be a central point to which the my refers the various fragments. We say: I lift my foot, but there is no such rela­tionship between hand and foot; I cannot say: my hand lifts its foot. The two are referred to the self; they are related only through the self and are both subordinate to the self. But the self is not identified with the physi­cal aspect of the individual. I am also in control of my body, which I dress, I adorn, I abuse.

When it comes to the non-physical aspects, we note a reflection of the dualism of mind and matter and the hierarchy which is a corollary of this. ‘Passions are considered lower: I fall in love, I fall into a passion or a rage. I delve into my unconscious, which is implicitly underneath; but I analyze my conscious, where I do not need to excavate, since it is on my level. I lose and recover my consciousness or my reason; I never fall into con­sciousness or reason. Neither do I control my will; I exercise it. The self is most nearly identified with consciousness and reason and will; and in our culture, reason and will power and consciousness—particularly self-





consciousness—spell mastery and control. So here, too, we find the im­plication that the self is in control of the other.

Wintu has no such fragmenting. When I asked my Wintu informant Sadie Marsh what the word for body was, she said kot wintu, the whole person. To the Wintu a person is holistic; he is psychosomatic, but with­out the suggestion of synthesis which this term holds. They have no word for body or corpse, and the so-called parts of the body are aspects or locations. Neither do they have a word for the self. In English, the word has a long history; and the compounds myself and yourself were in use by the fourteenth century. The Wintu language does not show the presence of a concept of an established separate self; but the Wintu can emphasize one ‘self,’ and through the use of grammatical devices he can distinguish an individual at will. The suffix ‘a added to pi: he, means he himself; yoken added to pi means he alone. The suffix ken, added to a name or other noun emphasizes the individual referred to in contrast to all other indi­viduals who have been included in the expectation. For example, Sadieken hina means: Sadie-of-all-those-expected has-come.

A study of the grammatical expression of identity, relationship and otherness, shows that the Wintu conceive of the self not as strictly delim­ited or defined, but as a concentration, at most, which gradually fades and gives place to the other. Most of what is other for us, is for the Wintu completely or partially or upon occasion, identified with the self. For ex­ample, the Wintu do not use and when referring to individuals who are, or live or act together. Instead of analyzing the we into: John and I, they say John we, using the John as a specification. Only when two individuals who are not already in relatedness are brought together, is the and used.

Quite often relatives are referred to in terms of the plural of together­ness. For example: sohapulel pel: sibling—(verb)—-together the-two: the two who sibling-together, i.e. he and his sister; sedet pel putahtchupulel bos: coyote they-two grandmother-together lived; yoqupulel: wash together or wash each other. Notice that except for the soha, the relationship pre­sented is inherently one-directional, so that the togetherness is viewed from one point of view. In the example representing an activity, the pulel can be seen as referring to mutuality; but I think that this is a concept introduced from our own culture. In most cases what we find is spatial and temporal concurrence; for example: ilawi watchupurebinte: the babies are (all) crying together (according to my hearing); bolpurun piterum tchuhpure: drink-together-while they gambled-together.

As with us, the being or existence of the self and activities of the self in process, are expressed as identical with the self; though our own usage,




which separates the person from the verb implies some separation. So in I go, the ego is separated from its own activity, go. The Wintu says harada:

I go, or we go, in one unanalyzed word, and uses ni (I) or niterum (we) only if he wishes to, by way of clarification or denotation. He uses exactly the same form when he refers to a part of the body, or even to the clothing which he has on; for example, I-go-weak legs: my legs are growing weak. A Wintu will say: face-I-am-red, where face refers to place or aspect of the whole person. He will say: you-are-ripped-clothes, or you-are-pretty-dress-striped; and nose-run-I or arm-broke-I. Unlike us, a Wintu self is identical with the parts of his body and is not related to them as other, so long as they are physically part of hint But when a hair has fallen off his head, it is his hair, when a heart has been plucked out of a man it is his heart, when a man has cut off his arm it is his arm; and when a woman is folding her dress it is her dress. When they are physically separated, they are re­lated to him.

When a Wintu performs an act whose consequences revert upon him­self, he uses a suffix, -na. He phrases holistically, what we phrase in terms of reversion to the self as a grammatical object. We say, I feel (cold) and, I feel myself (with my hands); i.e., I is stated as separate from the self. The Wintu says muteda, I-feel, and mutnada: I-feel-myself.

There are two other suffixes, which also imply a certain degree of other-ness in which the individual participates coordinately, or in which he is otherwise involved. The suffix ma represents thinking which runs counter to our own, and was very difficult for me to understand. For a long time I considered it a causative; ba, for example, I translated as to eat, and bama as to feed, to cause to eat; peru means to swallow and peruma: to fish with bait; taqiq means to hurt and taqiqmabinte means she made me hurt (I feel). This was all clearly causative. However, the weight of the accumulated obscure exceptions finally overpowered my rule. For example, I found phrases such as the following:

applum hesihamada: apples pithy-ma-am. Yet I have not caused my apples to be pithy; in fact, Sadie, who said this, had just bought the apples.

hlalmas nis ibesken: stink me you-are: (hlal means to stink and mas is the second person of ma) you think that I stink.

kot bahlmastot . . . tchuqpure: all menstruating-for-the-first-time-ma-these helped together; i.e., all the relatives of the pubescent girl helped;

this was said of the male relatives of the pubescent girl.


To make the ma comprehensible to members of our society, we have to translate it either as a causative or as adverb-forming. For example, tchala




means to be good or nice, and tchaluma means to do well or do carefully; tcaluma i! means be careful! Then, tepumas tchalumatchupumada: (my) garden nicely grow-ma-am, may be translated as: I made my garden grow nicely, or: I am doing well in respect to my garden. Primary in the mci is the implication of involvement or participation; this may be interpreted by us as a continuity of participation in another state or act (i.e., as an adverb), or as manipulative. I cannot tell whether these different mean­ings are present for the Wintu; Sadie told me that tchupumada did not necessarily imply that I was taking care of my garden. I think the implica­tion of control is absent from the suffix.

The other suffix, il, also appears to express aggressive action, at first en­counter. In our own phrasing, whereas ma could be manipulative (to get him to do), ii would be out and out aggressive; il would be translated as:

to do to. So, wer means to come, and weril, to bring; pile means to wind, and hunpilewil means bound him up. But then we also have: put tupu­wilda: him-weed-il-I. This means: I weeded with him. All similar situations which, wherever possible, we express as aggressive acts, are given as coordi­nate relationships among the Wintu. The term for what is to us possession or ownership is formed by means of this suffix, from the three kinds of to be: in a standing, sitting or lying position. I have a basket means really I live with or I sit with a basket, and is expressed with the same form as that used to say: I live with my grandmother, or I am married to Harry. The term sukil which I translated at first as to rule, actually means, to be­with-in-a-standing-position, and express the true democracy of the Wintu where a chief stood-with his people.

When the il is used as a suffix to a verb, the grammatical object of the verb is particularized for the occasion, and all pronouns and adjectives referring to it are given special suffixes reflective of the coordinate rela­tionships.

There is another suffix, me, which also we would translate as transitiviz­ing; and this, I think, even the Wintu would consider as expressive of con­trol, or at least of separation from the self. A man speaking of a man s possessions, in telling a myth, used the ii and the whole range of particular­izing suffixes; a woman telling the same myth, using the same verbs used the me instead and left the grammatical object and its attributes in its original generic form. I think the me does not contain the respect which is present in the ii; and its appearance in the texts I have recorded is not frequent.

The Wintu conception of the self then differs from our own in that it contains the total person and the activities of all its aspects, and in that




it fades out gradually and without distinct demarcation. It is not clearly opposed to the other, neither is it clearly identical with or incorporated in the other. On most occasions it participates to some extent in the other, and is of equal status to the other; where we see a one way relationship from self to other, an assertion of the self upon the other, the Wintu see a coordinate togetherness, with, at most, a stressed point of view. For ex­ample, the phrase I quoted above: put tupuwilda, I weeded with him, happens to start with the self; it might have been: nis tupuwil: he weeded with me.

This gradually fading involvement of the self in the other can be seen also in the use of the three relational pronouns which are translated in English as my. The neto refers to objects which I would not hesitate to refer to in terms of the distant or aggressive me, and which are spoken of in their generic form. Netomen is used for objects for which I am also prepared to use ii. No my, of course, is used for body parts, since these are identical with and not related to the person.

Finally, net is used for close relatives as well as acts and states of the self. When referring to close relatives, the net is inseparable from the kin­ship term. Even when referring to an unspecified father, where we would say ‘the father’ the Wintu says his-father (or her-father). When speaking of my act or my liking or my death or my destination, the Wintu separates the my from the following word. As I can say I act as well as my act, so I can also. say, I-younger-sister: I have a younger sister; and I-mother: I have a mother as well as my fathered: he who has been made into a father by me, i.e., through my being born. The relatives of this intimate group are treated in the same way as one’s acts or state of being.

Linguistic analysis further shows us a different relationship between the self and reality in general from that which is basic to our own culture. The Wintu never asserts the truth as absolute, as we do when we say it is. In one of the common stories about the German, the Frenchman and the Englishman, the first two, pointing to bread, say, ‘I call it Brot,’ and ‘I call it pain’; but the Englishman says, ‘I call it bread and it is bread.’ The Wintu never say it is bread. They say, ‘It looks-to-me-bread’ or ‘It feels-to­me bread’ or ‘I-have-heard-it-to-be bread’ or ‘I-infer-from-evidence-that-it-is-bread’ or ‘I-think-it-to-be-bread,’ or, vaguely and timelessly, ‘according-to-my-experience-be bread.’ The statement is made about the other, the bread, but with the implication that its validity is limited by the specified experience of the speaker.

For us, that which we sense or know according to man-made rules of logic, is; and that which is beyond my apprehension, beyond my sensing




or cognition, is fiction, that is, it is not. The self is the measure of all things. Art and metaphysics and religious experience are barely tol­erated on the fringes of our culture. When the fairy godfather first appeared in the Barnaby cartoon, he left a trail of cigar ashes by way of visual proof of his visit. Mysticism is defined negatively as loss of self; and no one in ecstasy is taken seriously, until he comes to his senses. Only when the self is logically and cognitively in control, is experience valid, and except in the arts and religion only that which is ultimately open to such experience is true.

To the Wintu, the cognitive experience of the self is not accorded high status. It must be always documented and is open to question. It is given always through a special derivative stem, usually with a variety of suffixes which make reference to the sensory and other sources of information. However, when the Wintu makes reference to natural necessity, to not-experienced reality beyond man’s cognition, he does not document, and he uses the primary form of the stem. Only with the derivative stem does he use assertive suffixes; but here he asserts, not truth, but analyzed ex­perience—perception, cognition, reflection, inference—which is open to question, which is limited by his being, and which need not correspond with the truth. The “mystical” referent alone is accepted without ques­tion. And this is true, independent of man’s senses and- logic.

In other ways, also, we find that with the Wintu the universe is not centered in the self, as it is with us. Take, for example, the term which we use for the individual about whom we are going to speak: ego: I. If the anthropologist wants to make a kinship chart, he starts with ego. If I conjugate, I start with I run, and having started with it, I naturally call it the first person; and rightly so, since, in present day English, the third person with its -s suffix is derivative. In Wintu, on the other hand, the third person is primary, and the first is derived. The third person may be represented by the simple stem of experience; or, if a suffix is used, this occurs in the simple stem. The first person is formed derivatively, through suffixation of -cia to the simple stem or to the suffix.

There is reason to believe, furthermore, that Wintu words are formed on the basis of an outward orientation. They are based on observation, rather than on the kinesthetic experience of the self, or on introspection. Take, for instance, the word for tick, terus. It is derived from tira; to pound to a pulp. This would mean that tira is not concerned with the pounding experience of the self, or with the experience of being pounded, but rather with the shape of the resulting mass. The word for wade which is fast disappearing among the bilingual Wintu means: to-make-a-great.




splaahing-nowe. The word tsiqoha: to-disappear-all-at-once, is derived from the stem of tsiqtca, which means to be put through a sieve; that is, to sieve is concerned merely with the observed result of the sieving.

In myths, people are described in terms of the spatial dimension of their activities, observationally. Extremely rarely is there a statement that might be called introspective; such as ‘she was furious,’ or ‘he ~vas happy’; and even here, I am not sure that this is not an observer’s state­ment. The songs the Wintu call love songs refer not at all to the sensations or emotions of love, though they do convey love to us. For example:




Oh, look-back-at-me.

The sleeping place which you and I hollowed out will remain forever.


I have recorded a tale which my informant called a love story. It de­scribes the pursuit of a man by two women who were in love with him. I present a sample of the story:


They went to the east side of the house, they ~vent around to the east side, and after that they went up the bill to the north, following him running. They went northward at a running pace over the north flat, wishing to see the man who had gone down the hill northward (the word for wish also means to try). And the man was not there but there lay his tracks going forward. And they ran, they went at a running pace, they went rapidly. And at the South-slope-climb, when they came in full view of the north, they looked northward but they did not see him.


The Wintu use of left and right, as compared with ours, shows again the difference in orientation. ‘When we go for a walk, the hills are to our right, the river to our left; when we return, the hills change and the river, while we remain the same, since we are the pivot, the focus. Now the hills have pivoted to the left of me. This has been English practice for many years, since at least the fourteenth century. To the Wintu, the terms left and right refer to inextricable aspects of his body, and are very rarely used. I think that only once the term left occurs in my texts, referring to a left­handed mythical hero; I cannot remember any occurrence of the term for the right. ‘When the Wintu goes up the river, the hills are to the west, the river to the east; and a mosquito bites him on the west arm. When lie re­turns, the hills are still to the west, but, when he scratches his mosquito bite, he scratches his east arm. The geography has remained unchanged, and the self has had to be reoriented in relation to it.

I said in the beginning of this essay that I should have written from so­ciety as the starting point, or at any rate from what we consider the not-self. I came to this conclusion partly on the basis of the material which I have presented here, partly through my experience in recording an auto­biography. When I asked Sadie Marsh for her autobiography, she told me a story about her first husband, based on hearsay. When I insisted on her own life history, she told me a story which she called, ‘my story.’ The first three quarters of this, approximately, are occupied with the lives of her grandfather, her uncle and her mother before her birth; finally, she reaches the point where she was ‘that which was in my mother’s womb,’ and from then on she speaks of herself, also.

In conclusion, I should like to state that the two different conceptions of the self need not be regarded as mutually contradictory. I believe that they can refer to the same absolute truth, and can be said to give us clues to this truth.





Lee, Dorothy. “Conceptual Implications of an Indian Language.” Philosophy of Science 5:89-102 (1938).

• “The Place of Kinship Terms in Wintu Speech.” American Anthropologist, 42:604-616 (1940).

  •“The Linguistic Aspect of Wintu Acculturation.” American Anthropologist, 45:435-440 (1943).

•“Categories of the Generic and the Particular in Wintu.” American Anthropologist, 46:362-369 (1944).

—• “Stylistic Use of the Negative in Wintu.” International Journal of Amer­ican Linguistics, 12:79-81(1946).