Global Justice for Indigenous Languages (III of IV)

During the final hour of our Global Justice for Indigenous Languages Symposium, I was keeping track of the attendees who had raised their hand to ask a question or make a comment and making sure that they had the microphone—after all, one of the issues that kept coming up that day was the unethical practices of some academics and scholars who respected the endangered languages that they were studying but did not respect the speakers of those languages. How could one, then, speak of strengthening and revitalizing endangered languages without listening to and providing a platform for the speakers of those languages?

One of the gentlemen who had raised his hand was familiar—I’d seen him at the UNESCO side event on the 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages during the 17th session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII); I’d been deeply impacted by his very pertinent and prudent comments on how indigenous languages could not only be preserved, but also, more importantly, should be revitalized (but more on that in another post). At our event, he recounted an encounter with another Shawnee tribe member in a grocery store in Oklahoma, and when he’d greeted this person in their indigenous language, he saw a look of shock and fear on that person’s face, who responded in English. The indigenous communities in this country—and all over the world—have been so violently persecuted and denied the right of speaking their own languages, that decades later the trauma of this violence still keeps them from speaking their language in public spaces for fear of retribution. How could the group of scholars and activists that had gathered at this symposium provide pathways and resolutions that would make such experiences a thing of the past?

The second panel of the day, “Indigenous Languages: Strengthening and Revitalization,” presented projects and initiatives that could help with this process. The panel was exceptional (and truly inspiring) in that each of the speakers provided concrete examples of language revitalization projects and how they could be adopted by and adapted for analogous projects. Dr. Deborah Anderson of the Script Encoding Initiative(SEI), for example, in a presentation titled “Saving Indigenous Languages (Via Their Scripts)” discussed the importance of digitization as a method for revitalizing indigenous languages—the pervasiveness of social media and the ability for the youth in these communities to communicate online in their own languages presented itself as a no-brainer in the quest to strengthen these languages. Furthermore, digitization translates into more access to legal information. Finally, making the scripts of endangered languages available and accessible on mobile devices and computers can help preserve these languages. Ensuring that the script of a language, such as Nasu (that is used by a small group of Bimo priests with only a few of them being literate in their script) is added to Unicode[1], could be a right step in the direction of preserving the language—or, at the very least, its script. During Q&A, Dr. Anderson highlighted how crucial ethical behavior is to their project and stated that the SEI never approaches any of the community members; rather, if a community wants the script of their language in Unicode for preservation purposes, they approach SEI and enlist their help.

landscape hill mountain
Photo by Donald Tong on

In “A History of Contingency? The Case of Austronesian-Cham Language Survival in Southeast Asia,” Dr. William Noseworthy provided the perspective of a historian of religion and stated that the use of the Cham language can be understood in the context of “living heritage sites.” In other words, the Cham communities being characterized as a “civilization” that stretches up the coast of Vietnam allows the subtle implication (based on certain interpretations of the term ‘civilization’) that these communities are no longer living; however, their language, among other aspects of their culture, is not being studied in the manner that a bygone civilization would be. Thinking of their language, therefore, as intangible cultural heritage in the context of protecting living heritage sites could create funding opportunities to revitalize the language. Currently, revitalization projects have been undertaken with nominal permission from the Vietnamese government, and with no external funding. The Cham script has been added to Unicode. Also, a couple of websites have been launched, such as and, the former of which pushes for native fluency in the language in its production, and the latter makes new research accessible in Vietnamese and English, yet these endeavors have very low budgets and are mostly carried out by volunteer labor. He emphasized that in maintaining these websites, power differentials and the source of information is taken seriously, so each of the scholars have profiles, clarifying whom are from the Cham communities and whom are from other communities (for example, French).

The other half of the panel was dedicated to examples of how members of the indigenous communities themselves were making powerful advancements in their language strengthening and revitalization projects—for language, as Ms. Miryam Yataco declared so eloquently, is “a space [for indigenous people] to recuperate our identity.” Speaking primarily about Quechua and how she was denied the possibility of hearing her mother and grandmother speak in her ancestral language due to policies of erasure that had been in effect for centuries, she energetically stated: “Rap artists are now resurfacing the language. And all of them are less than 30 years old.” She mentioned a number of young rap artists who produce music in Mixtec, Quechua, and Aymara, such as Una Isu, Liberato Kani, and Eber Miranda, and said, “Something has gone very wrong with colonization, that’s what I think when I see these young people, and it makes me smile.” But she also cautioned that settler colonialism is still alive and kicking, and insisted that when speaking of language revitalization, we must not only discuss academic interventions, but also make policy recommendations.

adult band cap close up
“Something has gone very wrong with colonization, that’s what I think when I see these young people, and it makes me smile.” — Miryam Yataco. Photo by Pixabay on

While the panel began with Professor Tania Ka’ai’s presentation titled “My Language, My Voice, My Heritage, My Right,” I decided to end my post with her work, as her accounts of the work that is being done to revitalize the Maori language brings us full circle. Professor Ka’ai declared Maori to be central to the “cultural well-being of the community.” She mentioned that Maori language revitalization models have been so successful that they’ve been used as models for other language revitalization projects. But in order for their language revitalization projects to work, the language must be used everywhere, in homes and in public spaces. So, the first graduates of the Maori immersion schools (both primary and secondary), who are now parents, not only speak with their children in Maori at home, but they’ve also chosen careers in which they can work in the Maori language on a daily basis; careers such as filmmaking, teaching, academics, music, and so on. In describing the customary law behind their language projects, she gave a powerful frame of reference, about how the rito is never cut, and how their language revitalization laws follow this important Maori custom regarding one of their most sacred plants. In order to understand the significance of this connection between language practices and rito, I did a little research. In the January 1995 issue of Cultural Studies, Dr. Rangihiroa Panoho, in an article titled “The Harakeke– No Place for the Bellbird to Sing: Western Colonization of Maori Art in Aotearoa,” writes:

The harakeke is a very special plant for weavers. The flax leaf yields muka (inner fibre), a material used in some of our most prestigious taonga (treasures; notably kahu– cloaks – such as korowai, cloaks ornamented with black rolled cards). The plant is made up of a number of outer leaves which grow in fan-shaped formations[…], and two inner leaves. The outer leaves are called awhi ritoor matua (‘parents’) and they protect the most important component – the rito, or heart of the plant. (13)

person holding potted green leaf plant
Photo by Lisa Fotios on

In the 1911 bulletin for New Zealand’s Dominion Museum, there’s a section on “The Maori Art of Weaving” which illustrated why protecting the “heart of the plant” was so important: “In cutting for the fibre …the rito and sheath were never touched, but were allowed to grow up for subsequent use” (72). Language, then, is the heart of the community, and providing it with the space it needs to grow and expand ensures that the community that is built around this language continues to thrive; language is sacred, life-giving, and potentially fragile, if not handled by its rightful custodians. And the subsequent lines of the bulletin leave no doubt about who its rightful custodians should be: “The careful tending and cutting of the Maori offers a striking contrast to the present barbarous methods of the white man.” (Ibid)

During the first panel of the symposium, Chief Wilton Littlechild asked us, “Have you ever heard an indigenous language die?”—he had. At a UN session, an elder from an indigenous community had started his speech with a prayer, and after saying the prayer, he’d asked the audience to listen to his words, because he was the last living person who spoke his language; the elder died a month later. When an indigenous language dies, it is not merely a mode of communication that is gone; with this death comes the irrevocable eradication of identity, traditional systems of knowledge, and cultural heritage. I use the term “eradication” because these deaths are the legacy of colonial violence and continued forms of systemic oppression against the most vulnerable communities. Their voices, then, must be given priority in discussing ways to strengthen and revitalize their languages, their selves, and their modes and sites of living. They must always have the microphone.

[1]Unicode is a standardized system of encoding characters that is used globally, across different platforms and devices, and allows World Wide Web users of different languages to communicate in their language, using their unique scripts, on their computers, phones, and tablets.

Works Cited:

Panoho, Rangihiroa. “TheHarakeke– No Place for the Bellbird to Sing: Western Colonization of Maori Art in Aotearoa.” Cultural Studies, vol. 9, Issue 1, January 1995, pp. 11-25.

Te Rangi Hīroa. “On the Maori Art of Weaving Cloaks, Capes, and Kilts.” Dominion Museum Bulletin, no. 3, 1911, pp. 69-90.

By Atefeh Akbari Shahmirzadi, Graduate Research Fellow in Global Language Justice at Columbia University.  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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