On the first day of February 2019, a High-Level Meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations was held in New York to mark the global launch of the International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL). As I stood with an international group of Indigenous participants in the back of the grand assembly hall waiting for a photographer to capture the moment, I found myself next to the president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, who is the first Indigenous Aymara to lead Bolivia in such a high office.
Morales had just delivered a powerful opening address to the august assembly formed of representatives from both nation states and Indigenous nations who were gathered from around the world. He had clearly named the oppressive colonial processes that are so crushing for our Indigenous languages, cultures, lands, and lives. The Plurinational State of Bolivia, along with Ecuador, had co-authored the UN General Assembly resolution for the International Year, naming UNESCO as the lead agency. Those formal actions had resulted in this big moment, thrusting the urgent global crisis for our Indigenous languages onto the world stage.
I was struck by the poetic asymmetry between the small beginnings when we first started calling for an International Year of Indigenous Languages and the big results now on display at this UN launch event. Since the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues held its first session in 2002, I had been working with like-minded delegates to promote Indigenous languages. It was not until the 2016 Permanent Forum meeting on Indigenous languages that my call for an international year was joined by other language experts and picked up by influential voices on the Permanent Forum and eventually declared by decision makers at the General Assembly level. Like a pebble repeatedly dropped into the global discourse at the Permanent Forum, we kept coming back year after year to promote what was only now growing into a full wave sweeping around the globe in the form of this International Year. After 16 years, I was reminded of the well known insight from Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
The celebration of Indigenous languages on a global stage should not be allowed to obscure a clear picture of the extreme challenges for Indigenous Peoples and their languages. There can be no greater threat to the existence of a people than the eradication of their language. Dispersed in seven continents, Indigenous Peoples consist of less than six percent of the total world population, while speaking nearly 70 percent of the 6,700 languages in the world. More than 2,000 Indigenous languages are critically endangered with less than 1,000 speakers remaining. Therefore, the vigor of the language among the youth is the most critical indicator for the cultural health and political sovereignty of Indigenous nations. Our languages have been targeted for direct assault for centuries— particularly through legal structures and massive investment in boarding schools. UNESCO has estimated that a language is lost every two weeks somewhere around the world. These are not natural deaths.
And that was precisely why we had kept pushing for a special year. The call was born from this devastating crisis that so few know about, the silent implosion of Indigenous languages all around the globe. And certainly, you can’t get help with a problem if no one knows about it. The magnitude of the challenge means we will need lots of help from lots of partners and stakeholders—even as we have had lots of help descending into this present predicament. To put it in an ethical frame, the level of investment in keeping Indigenous languages alive should be commensurate to the vast sums spent by governments and churches to fund boarding school systems designed to destroy our languages. Of course, the arrival of the International Year of Indigenous Languages in 2019 is not an end in itself. It is a UN-designated calendar event that does engage some attention by UN bodies. It is up to all of us to create new partnerships and possibilities under this banner. But the Year does not arrive with additional funding to support Indigenous language work. It is only set up to be run within existing budgets of UN agencies, and it comes with familiar colonial overtones, prerequisite academic agendas, and state-dominated structures.
At the launch of the International Year at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris on January 28, we were not to be surprised when the very first session dedicated to the IYIL failed to follow its own printed agenda that called for an Indigenous ceremonial opening. Never mind that a Cree Elder and language warrior had travelled all the way from Canada to provide an opening that would have foregrounded an authentic Indigenous voice as the very first public act to begin this special Year. This is mentioned here not to rehash some mistaken oversight, but solely because it is emblematic of a larger and ongoing pattern.
The pattern is echoed in the fact that the Indigenous Year was established without an Indigenous co-chair to help insure Indigenous perspectives and leadership—despite strong recommendations from the Global Indigenous Languages Caucus. Likewise, a steering committee with Indigenous members only took shape after the action plan was already formed. Perhaps the most striking is the complete absence of intellectual self-critique, evidenced by the large lacuna in the official call for research papers “within the context” of the International Year. Organizers had failed to address the most relevant context of all: the oppressive colonialism that is choking our languages, while at the same time soaking up all the available funding—as is the nature of colonial relations.
Indeed, millions of dollars are being spent on Indigenous languages every year. Unfortunately, 99 percent of all Indigenous language funding, in my broad estimation, is going to the endless study, housing, publication, and dissection of our rich languages. This means that the longstanding pattern of funding Indigenous language work has hardly budged from the old, unquestioned arrangements set up under raw intellectual colonialism. The priority in the colonial model is always to document and collect raw Indigenous materials that can be taken away, processed in Western intellectual mills, and stored in colonial capitals rather than investing directly in living Indigenous communities and their knowledge systems.
We don’t want to end up with just another International Year for the Study of Indigenous Languages. There is little to be gained by alienating academics or other potential supporters. But the absolutely critical outcome for the Year is the growth of new language speakers within our Indigenous communities in order to ensure the life of our languages for generations to come. This is particularly urgent for our most endangered languages and will require significant funding to be directed to those language communities in greatest peril.
We must grow new culturally competent language speakers in our communities so that we will continue to have the inner capacity to restore and reinvent our traditions in ways that are healthy and life-nurturing in the face of the constant and corrosive forces of colonialism. Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano has framed the challenge negatively, “Blatant colonialism mutilates you without pretense: it forbids you to talk, it forbids you to act, it forbids you to exist; invisible colonialism, however, convinces you that serfdom is your destiny and impotence is your nature; it convinces you that it’s not possible to speak, not possible to act, not possible to exist.” Akile ch’oh, Grand Chief Edward John (Tl’azt’en Nation) pointedly stated at the UN High-level Meeting in New York, “We have voices, we should be heard. We are visible, we should be seen. We are here, we should be included.”
Indeed, there are many agendas and diverse interests represented in a global project like the International Year of Indigenous Languages. And, yes, this is what we knowingly signed up for. Now it is important for Indigenous Peoples, working together with supporters and stakeholders, to seize the moment and lay claim to the Year. It is with a genuine spirit of openness and engagement that we welcome these interminable tug of war games, as we hope to shift a little more rope to the Indigenous side of the colonial inequation. As we say in Yuchi, “gOchathla gO’wAdAnAha Ôk’ajU TahA Ôk’âfATAnô (Working together, we can move our Indigenous languages forward!).”
Desired outcomes for Keeping the INDIGENOUS in the International Year
• Promote the declaration of an International Decade for Indigenous Peoples’ Languages as proposed by Grand Chief Willie Littlechild
• Contribute to funds that target community-based language immersion programs such as the Indigenous-led Global Indigenous Languages Fund
• Support regional and global conferences to disseminate best practices for revitalizing languages and give special awards to Eminent Elders and Youth Language Warriors as role models
and to elevate public awareness and to keep the focus on Indigenous community activism
• Implement an active system of language triage that prioritizes the most endangered languages in order to keep as many individual Indigenous languages viable as possible, including dedicating a desk within UNESCO
— Richard A. Grounds, Ph.D. (Yuchi and Seminole) is chair of the Global Indigenous Languages Caucus, served as the expert for the North American Region at the UNPFII meeting on Indigenous Languages in 2016, and is executive director of the Yuchi House.
Launching the International Year of Indigenous Languages with Bolivian President Evo Morales (Aymara) at the United Nations in New York on February 1, 2019. Photo courtesy of Mirian Masaquiza Jerez.