Guided by Indigenous Voices: We Must Act Now to Keep our Languages Alive and Thriving
I didn’t drink Spanish
from my mother’s breast when I came into the world.
My language was born
among the trees, and tastes like the earth;
my grandparent’s language is my home,
If I use this language that’s not mine,
I use it as a shiny key to open doors to another world where the words have another voice
and another way of connecting to the earth.
(...) This language is only one more key
to sing the ancient song of my blood.
Excerpt from “The Ancient Song of My Blood”
by Humberto Ak’abal (Maya K’iche’)
Every 40 days, 1 language ceases to be spoken. At this rate, by the year 2080, 16 languages will go silent per year. We need to address the problem of language loss now, while our Elders are still alive and we are able to learn the language breath-to-breath. In the last century, government policies, especially in the United States, Canada, and Australia, aimed to eliminate Indigenous Peoples’ identities through boarding schools, imposing an disruption in the intergenerational transmission of the language between Elders and youth. And while in recent years the issue of language loss has received more attention than before, access to funding remains a challenge—especially funding for community-based initiatives that want to keep the languages alive at home.
Sharing Our Language Journeys
At the 21st session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in April, Indigenous delegates from the Māori, Hopi, Buryat, Yuchi, Okinawa, Zapara, Maya, Aymara, and Mohawk Peoples came together during the side event “Strategies to Revitalize our Indigenous Languages,” organized by the Global Indigenous Languages Caucus and supported by Cultural Survival. We were fortunate to gather in person for the first time since the pandemic and delighted to listen to one another’s language journeys. We came with good intentions and open hearts to listen and share our aspirations, needs, and language learning. Our goal for this event was to co-create an open, accessible, and safe space to strategize and share learning experiences, as well as mutual support for Indigenous language speakers. Additionally, we affirmed the need for collective efforts to push for an International Decade of Indigenous Languages guided by actions and Indigenous voices.
During this gathering, we heard testimonies of boarding school survivors who had to raise their children by speaking to them only in the colonial language, mainly because they did not want their children to go through the same punishment they endured. We also heard testimonies on how grandparents and parents did not pass on their language to their children because they had been indoctrinated with the belief that the colonizer’s language was the only feasible way to communicate in the new order of things. The resulting intergenerational disruption of language learning has caused a lack of exposure to languages, and by consequence, an immeasurable loss of Traditional Knowledge tied to Indigenous Peoples’ territories, spiritualities, and ways of maintaining well being.
The issue of language loss deserves urgent action because languages are the gateway to our cultures, traditions, biodiversity protection, relations, and to past and future generations. It is of great importance to keep a strong connection with all our relations by receiving the gifts of our traditions, stories, songs, ceremonies, and prayers that are passed down by our Elders, and to continue passing those gifts to our future generations as a way to give back what we have received. If that thread of reciprocity is disrupted, our communities risk losing the inextricable connection with life around us and a sense of belonging to what really matters: community and Mother Earth.
Elder Ellen Gabriel (Mohawk) reflected on the importance of connecting all aspects of Indigenous Peoples’ lives to languages, rather than seeing language as an isolated component. She said, “Language is not only a form of communication; it is a way of thinking. Our languages are based on [our] relations with nature. We need to call the spirit of the world into our languages. We should [not] separate languages from the lands and the waters.”
Our brothers and sisters shared that keeping their languages alive and strong is meaningful and helps them maintain their ways of being and knowing. Despite the homogenization of governmental and educational policies and the intergenerational trauma caused by them, we are hopeful that with culturally appropriate learning methodologies based on our cosmovisions and more funding supporting the community-based initiatives, we can continue working towards our ultimate goal: increasing the number of fluent speakers of Indigenous languages.
We Have the Right to Speak Our Languages
Hearing the testimonies from Indigenous Peoples globally makes us reflect on the challenging task of revitalizing languages. The work is complex and takes time. It requires funding and collective effort and commitment from different stakeholders, including the community itself. The fact that Indigenous languages continue to exist despite oppressive education systems and colonial culture demonstrates the resilience of our communities. The resilience of Indigenous language speakers, paired with a growing Indigenous movement advocating for the right to self-determination in language revitalization efforts, has led to the Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022–2032) and continuous efforts for implementation of the rights to Indigenous languages under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. As enshrined in Article 13 of the Declaration, Indigenous Peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop, and transmit their language, oral traditions, and writing systems and literature.
Indigenous Peoples, especially youth, are the protagonists in language revitalization conversations because they know what has been lost and want to recover it for future generations. A clear message from the participants was that Indigenous Peoples must lead language initiatives. As Dakota CrowSpreads (Blackfoot) said, “We cannot wait for the United Nations to help us. We are the United Nations here, and we are the ones to promote our languages.”
Indigenous Peoples must take an active role in speaking our languages at home again and make a greater effort when language transmission is interrupted. Learning a language requires not only time commitment, but long-term financial and non-financial support. If we want to lead the work on languages, we cannot wait for the UN and the International Decade to take the lead and revitalize our languages; we must engage and position ourselves actively to promote self-determined ways of learning.
Prioritizing Support for Language Revitalization Efforts
As part of our joint efforts, the Global Indigenous Languages Caucus with support from Cultural Survival will continue to advocate for the Tahlequah Declaration following the grassroots launch event hosted by the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma in January 2022. Among the recommendations of the Tahlequah Declaration are the need to develop and strengthen Indigenous-led partnerships among Indigenous communities globally. This is vital to counterbalance the dominant colonial structures, and we need to support each other in this work. No less important is the need to continue advocating for grassroots funding.
Participants expressed interest in learning more about the first steps other speakers have taken to become fluent and how to overcome the fear of speaking in the early stages. We were happy to see that one-third of attendees were youth, and that the majority of attendees were women. We strongly believe that bringing more grassroots activists’ voices, and more youth, will guide us in reclaiming, decolonizing, and returning to our roots. We believe that telling our stories, recognizing our ancestors’ struggles, and the power of our languages is healing, and healing is an important part of language revitalization.
Cultural Survival will continue collaborating with the Global Indigenous Languages Caucus to promote effective methodologies for language acquisition through the strengthening of networks, exchanges of language projects, and grantmaking to Indigenous-led initiatives. We look forward to learning more about efforts by Diné, Kānaka Maoli, Guna, and Zapara Peoples, who successfully passed on their languages to their next generation.
Photo: 2022 UNPFII side event on Strategies to Revitalize our Indigenous Languages. Left to right: Rev. Cornell Edmonds, Rev. Chebon Kernell (Seminole), Galina Angarova (Buryat), Avexnim Cojtí (Maya K'iche'), Adriana Hernández (Maya K'iche'), and Dr. Richard Grounds (Yuchi). Photo by Cassandra Smithies.
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