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Legal Frameworks to Protect Indigenous Languages 

The following is an excerpt of Dr. Wilton Littlechild’s (Cree) keynote address at the “Restoring and Protecting Our Native Languages and Landscapes” Conference.

Tansi, nitoteymtik, neegan ninanaskomaw kisemanito ekuk asaymina anoch esawayimkohyak mistahi - mahigan pimoteyw, nea - maskwacisik, kakanatahk ochi. I give thanks to Great Spirit. I am named “Walking Wolf'' in Cree, from Bear Hills in Canada. I was gifted in ceremony my chief's name, “Golden Eagle,” but at the Indian residential school my name was “number 65." In this borrowed language, I would like to share four brief stories with you: a background introduction, domestic and international legal framework related to Indigenous language rights, the UN Decade of Indigenous Languages, and a recent historic event.

Since the very early days of Indigenous Peoples, Tribes, and Nations’ gatherings, our languages have been a priority both in the defense of, and in, their promotion. Almost every world conference of Indigenous Peoples has expressed deep concern about the status or endangerment of our languages because of their foundation to our spirituality, identity, ways of life, and cultures.

The First World Conference on Indigenous Languages was held in 2005 in Japan, and I had the honor of attending specific to Indigenous languages. More significant, however, was the first Indigenous Caucus meeting in New York during a session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. From its humble beginnings, it soon grew to delegates from all seven geocultural regions of Mother Earth. Each year since, thanks to Richard Grounds (Yuchi and Seminole), the Global Indigenous Languages Caucus has been meeting on various elements, hearing each others’ languages; the link to sovereignty and nationhood, to lands, territories, and resources and to our sacred sites and landscapes; to our foods, feasts, and sacred and social ceremonies, and how all of these are inter and intra-linked to who we are as human beings and families.

During one of the sessions, we, the Indigenous Languages Caucus, decided on a plan to secure space on the UN Permanent Forum agenda to mainstream the topic, which eventually led, given the serious circumstances globally, to a call for an expert group meeting. One of the outcomes was identifying the need for a General Assembly resolution to call for a proclamation to declare a UN International Year of Indigenous Languages (2019). Efforts escalated in China, Norway, and Canada, and UNESCO was chosen as the lead agency. I was blessed to be a co-chair of the steering committee with the president of the Sami Parliament, Aili Keskitalo. This would not have been possible without the support of National Chief Perry Bellegarde, Grand Chief Ed John, Valerie Galley, Bobbi Herrera, Laurie Buffalo, and the UNESCO secretariat, Irmgard Kasinskaite, among others.

To begin a very brief overview of the legal framework, it should be noted there are two sources of perspectives; the paramount one, in my view, must be the Indigenous perspective. The primary foundation is our traditional laws of nature, or natural laws, which are spiritually grounded through our language, song, and sacred ceremonies. Most are only transferred by oral testimony, while at times some have been permitted through a borrowed language, for example, our seven sacred grandfather’s teachings. 

The second source, and here I list only a few: at the domestic level, the Maskwacis Declaration of Cree as the official language in our territory; the Ermineskin Constitution; and the Samson Cree Nation Constitution, which is written in our system of syllabics, phonetics, and English. Similarly is our Maskwacis education schools commission. The treaty flag song when selected leaders are sworn into office is part of the four Cree principles of leadership and a public oath or affirmation. There is a Chiefs’ Declaration, an Eagle Staff, a chiefs’ honor song; these are some traditional and customary international laws, norms, and standards that have equal legal status as [their equivalents in the] English or French language.

There are several national and international legislations protecting Indigenous Peoples’ rights to their languages. Recently in Canada, Bill C-91, an act respecting Indigenous languages, was given royal assent and an Indigenous languages commissioner with three directors was established. In Bill C-8, an act to amend the citizenship act (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s call to action number 94) in the Northwest Territories, Indigenous languages are also recognized by legislation. At the international level, the UN Human Rights Council Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’ (A/HRC/21/53) Report on “The Role of Languages and Culture in the Promotion and Protection of the Rights and Identity of Indigenous Peoples" was adopted in 2012, along with International Labor Organization Convention 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in independent countries, part vi, in particular Article 28 and preambular paragraphs 5 and 6. The international treaties numbered one to 11 between the United Kingdom and Indigenous Peoples, Tribes, and Nations are to be honored, respected, and enforced according to the original spirit and intent and as understood by Indigenous Peoples, Tribes, and Nations (four elements). Oral testimony is to be given equal legal weight as the written text.

The Committee on the Convention on the Rights of the Child held a special discussion day for Indigenous children that “stressed the need for Indigenous children to maintain their own identity, including culture and language.” This was later followed up by comment number 11 for state compliance reports and a United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples study and report on access to justice with a focus on Indigenous women and children.

While there are many international workshops and seminars on the rights of the child, specifically impacts of child apprehension on culture and language, the most recent are the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions; for example, Canada's report and the United States’ introduction of a congressional bill on truth and healing related to boarding schools. The three UN Mechanisms for Indigenous Peoples and UN resolutions have all referenced the direct assault on Indigenous languages, at times through legislated assimilation, cultural genocide, and genocide under the convention. As such, UN treaty bodies may need to compile all the complaints to date to UN treaty bodies under the sustainable development goals because our languages are critical.

This leads to a focus on the upcoming International Decade of Indigenous Languages, which was an outcome of the 2014 World Conference on Indigenous Peoples and the initial drive from the Indigenous Languages Caucus. The UN General Assembly Resolution (A/74/396, December 18, 2019) proclamation starts from 2022 to 2032 with a preparatory period from 2020 to 2021. Resolution (A/RES/74/135) invited UNESCO to serve as the lead agency in collaboration with the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs within existing resources. The International Decade of Indigenous Languages will aim, among its main objectives, to draw attention to the critical loss of Indigenous languages and the urgent need to preserve, revitalize, and promote them by taking urgent steps at national and international levels.

During the International Year in 2019, our theme was “International Languages Matter for Development, Good Governance, Peacebuilding, and Reconciliation.” The International Decade is a unique opportunity to raise awareness of the importance of Indigenous languages for sustainable development, peacebuilding, and reconciliation in our societies, as well as to mobilize stakeholders and rights holders around the world to support and promote Indigenous languages worldwide. A tremendous amount of work has gone on to prepare the Global Action Plan building on the Los Pinos Declaration (2019), making a decade of action for Indigenous languages from the high-level closing event of the international year.

Recent events in our territory that signal a very positive change. When we set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada, we issued 94 calls to action after six and a half years of the most extensive consultation of Indigenous Peoples from coast to coast. On final review, we concluded by declaring 10 principles of reconciliation. These have now been globalized by the UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and adopted by the Human Rights Council. 

Since the government of Canada adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples “without qualification” at the UN Headquarters in New York, the Organization of American States also adopted a Declaration in Washington, D.C. on June 15, 2016. We refer you to UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Articles 11–14, 25, 26, and OAS Declaration section three, Articles xiii–xvi, among others, also noting the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada calls to action on language and culture 13–17 and missing children and burial information, which led to the implementation of call to action number 80: the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to honor survivors, their families, and communities, and ensure that public commemoration of the history and legacy of residential schools remains a vital component of the reconciliation process. 

The first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation concluded on September 30. Sadly, it took new discoveries of unmarked graves to bring these issues to Canada’s attention. For me, as a former Indian residential school survivor of three institutions, and a thriver, this signals the beginning of a new era and new energy for advancing healing and true reconciliation―one of restoring respectful relationships through a resurgence of our languages and our cultures. Ninanaskomon mistahi, hai hai, thank you!


-- Dr. Wilton Littlechild (Cree) has worked with the United Nations for more than 30 years, advocating the rights of Aboriginal Peoples all over the world. He is a founding member of the Indigenous Initiative for Peace, the Chairperson for the Denver Text of the Organization of American States Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and a member and Vice President for the Indigenous Parliament of the Americas. He is currently a member of the Expert Mechanism on the Right of Indigenous Peoples and has served two years as Chairperson.


UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Articles protecting the rights to languages:
Article 13:

1. Indigenous Peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future genera- 13 tions their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures, and to designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons.

Article 14
1. Indigenous Peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning.

Article 16
1. Indigenous Peoples have the right to establish their own media in their own languages and to have access to all forms of non-indigenous media without discrimination

ILO 169 Article 28 states:

1. Children belonging to the peoples concerned shall, wherever practicable, be taught to read and write in their own indigenous language or in the language most commonly used by the group to which they belong. When this is not practicable, the competent authorities shall undertake consultations with these peoples with a view to the adoption of measures to achieve this objective.
2. Adequate measures shall be taken to ensure that these peoples have the opportunity to attain fluency in the national language or in one of the official languages of the country.
3. Measures shall be taken to preserve and promote the development and practice of the indigenous languages of the peoples concerned.



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