In 1994, the United Nations General Assembly decided that the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People be observed on August 9 every year. The day recognizes the contributions of the world’s 370 million Indigenous people who live in more than 90 countries. The date is celebrated around the world and marks the day of the first meeting of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations in 1982.
This year’s theme is Indigenous languages and will focus on the current situation of Indigenous languages around the world within the framework of the 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages. The aim is to highlight the critical need to preserve and promote Indigenous languages.
It is estimated that more than half of the world’s languages will become extinct by 2100. Linguistic diversity is being threatened around the world, and this threat is acutely felt by Indigenous peoples.
Fewer children are learning Indigenous languages the traditional way — from their parents and elders. Even when the parent speaks the Indigenous language, they do not necessarily pass it on to their children. In an increasing number of cases, Indigenous languages are used only by elders.
Article 13 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that “Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their languages, oral traditions, writing systems and literatures”. It says that States can “take effective measures to protect this right, including through interpretation in political, legal and administrative proceedings”. Articles 14 and 16 state Indigenous peoples’ rights to establish their educational systems and media in their own languages and to have access to an education in their own language.
Some Indigenous peoples are successfully revitalizing and developing their languages through their own initiatives. Native Hawaiians have promoted Hawaiian language medium education — public schools where the curriculum is taught entirely in Hawaiian — to revitalize their language, which was on the brink of extinction in the 1970s. It was re-established as an official language of the State of Hawaii in 1978.
The Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska has fewer than 15 fluent HoChunk language speakers left and is working to revitalize its language through a program designed to teach young people. The Lakota Waldorf School near Kyle, South Dakota, teaches Lakota youth their culture and language and offers Native parents an alternative to the public school system.
An ongoing and growing Salish language revitalization and preservation effort by the Flathead Nation has attracted attention of members from the Chickasaw Nation. They recently journeyed from Ada, Oklahoma, to the Flathead Reservation to learn about the salvation effort of the Salish language.
Darrick Baxter, a member of the Ojibway Nation and president of Ogoki Learning, creates American Indian language learning tools for tribes in Canada and the U.S. He wants to help other tribes revitalize and pass on their ancestral teachings for generations.
At the University of Oregon, teams of Native researchers are building digital archives containing historical documentation to make language knowledge available to their communities. Meanwhile, Marie Wilcox, an 81-year-old great-grandmother and the last fluent speaker of the Wukchumni language, took it upon herself to revive the language. She learned to use a computer and in just seven years wrote the first ever Wukchumni dictionary. The Wukchumni are believed to have numbered 50,000 before colonizer contact, but there are now only 200 left in the San Joaquin Valley of California.