The world leaves the United States behind on its commitment to Indigenous language rights


On January 1, 2022, the global community embarks on the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, a ten-year commitment by the 193 United Nations countries to take measures to protect the language rights of indigenous peoples. The initiative could not be more timely. Experts estimate that one of the 7,000 languages ​​of the world dies every two weeks, and that half of the languages ​​of the world will be extinct by the next century.

As a result, national and indigenous leaders from dozens of countries including Australia, Canada, Iceland, Thailand, Ukraine and Zimbabwe gathered last week in Paris to discuss the IDIL Global Action Plan 2022-2032.Several countries have announced national action plans committing to transformative language revitalization for the decade. All seem to realize that when languages ​​cross borders, histories of oppression are shared, and innovation is both local and global, global cooperation is needed to address this human rights problem.

All except the United States. The United States was not in the room for the discussions. The United States has no national action plan, or plan, for the International Decade of Indigenous Languages. While the United States has recently withdrawn from international human rights institutions for various political reasons, this absence is particularly regrettable.

The United States has an incredibly rich heritage of indigenous languages ​​ranging from Anishinaabe to Cherokee, Navajo to Tewa. But they are almost all endangered, in part because the United States spent two hundred years and $ 2.81 billion trying to destroy them. The infamous Federal Residential Schools of 19e and 20e centuries have taught English, Christianity, and manual labor, as part of a program to “assimilate” Indians into mainstream society. The lessons have been applied by violence. Some children reported that teachers (or priests) put language pins on them if they spoke their own language. After the discovery of hundreds of children’s graves in schools in 2021, Home Secretary Debra Haaland formed the Federal Indian Residential Schools Initiative to investigate this “troubled story”.

Contemporary legacies are painful. Those who died in residential schools did not transmit their language and some survivors are still too traumatized to do so. Today, Aboriginal people face discrimination when they try to vote, testify in court, or receive medical treatment in their own language. The cultural impacts are also devastating. Linguists have shown that when an Indian tribe loses a critical mass of native speakers, it loses entire traditions of religion, governance, education, and science that were carried into the language.

COVID-19 has accelerated these losses, which extend beyond families and tribes. Research on the correlation between linguistic diversity and biodiversity, as well as the role of traditional knowledge in climate change adaptation, suggests that the languages ​​of indigenous peoples may hold keys to the ability of humans to survive on this earth.

The United States has finally abandoned its official policy of eradicating indigenous languages ​​and has several federal programs supporting the teaching of tribal languages. But the funding available under these laws is not enough – and the goals of the legislation are too limited – to teach most Indigenous children even colors and numbers in their own language. As Cherokee journalist Rebecca Nagle said Noted, the Administration for Native Americans funded only 29% of tribal language support requests in 2018.

The Biden administration has pledged an additional $ 220 million, but even that welcome announcement stops before the transformational shift in mindset and funding needed to cure residential school ailments and restore thriving multilingual societies. Census data shows that of 169 native languages ​​in the United States, less than 20 have more than 2,000 speakers.

The tribes took matters into their own hands. Cherokee Nation Senior Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr. addressed the United Nations General Assembly on Language Rights in 2019 to share his tribe’s investments in tribal immersion schools, media in Cherokee language and technology putting the Cherokee syllabary on smart phones. The Shawnee Tribe declared a decade of the Shawnee language, to mirror the decade of the United Nations, with the aim of producing “new generations of fluent speakers.” The Wampanoag people have brought their language back from dormancy, and in the Navajo Nation there are over 170,000 speakers using the Having dinner language in tribal courts, schools and homes.

Yet tribes shouldn’t have to do it all on their own, and most can’t because they lack the resources to fully revitalize the language. Language rights are human rights, recognized in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. As a result, other countries are taking responsibility for their role in destroying the languages ​​of indigenous peoples and embarking on large-scale initiatives to restore them. The plan is to establish a “solid foundation” for the language rights of indigenous peoples by honoring the right to self-determination, focusing on speakers of indigenous languages, sharing best practices globally and integrating indigenous languages ​​in all areas of life.

The International Decade of Indigenous Languages ​​begins in two weeks, the same period in which experts predict that another language will die or go dormant. If the United States is not leading, at least now is the time to join the global commitment to the languages ​​of indigenous peoples.

Kristen A. Carpenter directs the American Indian Law Program at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She served on the United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples from 2017 to 2021, as a member from North America, and is currently an Observer on the Global Steering Committee for IDIL2022-2032.


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