Indigenous Languages and Governance

 In this instalment I have decided to focus on the importance of revival and protection of our indigenous languages.  I certainly don’t need to write a thesis on why we as indigenous people value our languages; this has been a constant and increasingly problematic struggle for our communities.  What is nice is that it appears that someone on the outside has taken notice and seems to be generating some positive attention.

David Harrison from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania has added an interesting angle on indigenous languages.    It seems he recognizes the centuries old knowledge and wisdom contained in our oral traditions and likens their extinction to the intellectual impoverishment of the human race. 

Facts that support this notion that bear repeating include:

-There are 7000 languages spoken in the world, about 3500 are in danger of extinction

-Each language is its own universe of conceptual thought; a unique technology refined and passed down over millennia of generations

-This represents the single greatest repository of human knowledge ever assembled

-Languages contain time tested specific pharmacological, biological, cosmological and other scientific information about our immediate environments which has yet to be “discovered” by western science

-Over 80% of the worlds languages have yet to be written down, recorded or analyzed

-The majority of the world’s 7000 languages are spoken by only 2% of the world’s population, which in turn means a significant imbalance of knowledge

-1 language is estimated to be lost every 2 weeks.  Due to globalization there is ever increasing pressure on indigenous peoples to abandon their languages.

Dr Harrison goes on to warn that the severeramifications of this cannot be comprehended or calculated.  As whole languages disappear forever, the world will never know what knowledge has been lost.  Meanwhile, as western science makes important discoveries about the world, much of it is being done in the shadow of indigenous languages which already had that knowledge.  

 It is said that the Innu have over a hundred words that describe the conditions of sea ice, my own language and many others contain the specific medicinal uses for plants unknown to western medicine.  Insights into the harvesting of traditional plants, animals, knowledge of the seasons, mathematics, physics, engineering, chemistry, spirituality, creation...the list goes on and on. 

The awareness of these treasures in our midst makes for an unusual situation when the government refers to “Capacity Building” and First Nations.    Perhaps putting more resources into reviving languages would accomplish this goal in a way that is more respectful of our communities.

The Next Gold Rush

For some wealthy developers, it can be easy to gain access to reserve lands through individuals because of poverty and the Indian Act.  Poverty, desperation and a lack of due diligence over reserve lands by government will likely always facilitate this situation.

While I am encouraged to see Mr Harrison highlighting languages as an “undiscovered frontier”, in this context I can see that it’s possible for our languages to be mined and exploited for the “gold” they contain.  (Much like our lands)  It’s certainly not beyond the realm of possibility that pharmaceutical companies might show interest in indigenous medicinal knowledge of plants.   Many have argued that this has been happening for decades without proper compensation for indigenous intellectual property rights. 

It’s understandable that many First Nations are protective of their ceremonial traditions, ecological knowledge and harvesting practices.  Not to mention, the 5 centuries of racial, cultural, spiritual, linguistic and intellectual condemnation; and that it has been only within the past few decades that there has been a shift in attitudes concerning indigenous peoples.   

Funny and Sad at the Same Time

I recently heard the comedian Russell Peters talk about this, which kind of drives home a message:

“So many people confuse race and culture....Racially I am an Indian man (South Asian) but culturally I am a Canadian.  The only thing “Indian” about me is my skin tone and my mother.”

Without our languages how many of our Peoples are in this boat?  If language is the essential link to culture, then it is also the essential link to our continued survival as Indigenous People.  There is no doubt that language diversity has much to offer the world, but what about the importance of cultural diversity, identities and integrity of the world's Indigenous People? To me this seems to be the best reason to support the revival of our languages.  Perhaps the reasons don't matter, maybe it just needs to get done because its the right thing to do.


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