UN Forum: Global Justice for Indigenous Languages (I of IV)

On April 21, 2018, the GLJ initiative partnered with the United Nations to hold a symposium titled “Global Justice for Indigenous Languages.”  As 2019 is the UN-declared Year of Indigenous Languages, the event seemed fitting for something held a year in advance: a gathering of leaders in language revitalization, indigenous rights, and UN policy-makers to discuss the issues currently faced by indigenous peoples around the world.  What things are helping, and what are not?  What kinds of analysis do language issues require?  And what kind of aid can actually broach the gap between international lawmakers and local needs felt by indigenous communities?  The following series of posts on our site detail the day’s lengthy and powerful proceedings, including presentations by activists and policymakers from locales as far apart as Peru and New Zealand, Canada and India, Eastern Europe and New York City. 

This post is only the beginning.  And for its beginning, the event could not have done better.  The introductory remarks were a welcome from Chief Clara Soaring Hawk of the Deer Clan of the Ramapough Lenape tribe, whose words on indigeneity were poignant and concise. “We are indigenous to where we are at, to when are at,” she stated.  Rather than being an outlier existence for a few marginalized peoples of the world, her words implied, we were all indigenous to somewhere, sometime.  To be indigenous in this sense, simply means to be. 

From left to right: Professor Lydia Liu, Dr. Elsa Stamatopoulou, and Chief Clara Soaring Hawk

Justice, in this sense, necessarily had to be global to be justice: only when indigeneity was respected for what it was, the right to simply exist in a place and time, could any of us agree on what this justice could mean.  Far from the disconnection of belonging to nowhere and no one, a global justice for indigenous languages implies a deep sense of belonging and the interconnected of all things.

Chief Soaring Hawk’s words became a blessing to all who were present.  They are printed below to welcome others into the space she created for us:

“Love is patient, love is kind,” she intoned.  “By the love of the Great Spirit we sit here in this room.”

“I pray that you walk the path set before you, which is love, that you stand prepared, in the love of Creator, and that your love is grounded.  With his love, take inventory at the end of the day: have I done everything that I should have done?  

We ask that what you do may carry on to the next seven generations.

We are just here as stewards, as keepers of our language and as keepers of Mother Earth.

Keep those things that are indigenous to us, to our peoples, to our land.

That you leave not the same, but informed.  

We welcome you to our land, may you travel safely.”

close up of leaf
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

And so we begin. 


By L. Maria Bo, Graduate Research Fellow in Global Language Justice.  Global Justice for Indigenous Languages: A Symposium event was hosted on April 21st, 2018, organized by the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society and the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Program at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University in collaboration with UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), the Secretariat of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), and the Permanent Mission of Ecuador to the United Nations, New York.

Financial support was provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ Office of the Executive Vice President and Dean, the Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities, the Institute for Latin American Studies, the Institute for the Study of Human Rights, the Department of English and Comparative Literature, the Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures, the Department of Anthropology, the Huang and Lin Fund for the Program in Chinese Literature and Culture, the Center for Contemporary Critical Thought at Columbia Law School, the Center for Translation Studies at Barnard College, and the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. 


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