Colorado Environmental Law Journal > Printed > Volume 34 > Special Issue > Thoughts on the Ethics of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages

Thoughts on the Ethics of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages

aya ceeki. Wesley Leonard weenswiaani. niila myaamia.

What I just said in the myaamia language (also known as “Miami”), is very simple: I just shared my name – I said who I am, and that I am Miami. This, however, becomes a relatively big deal when you consider the history of the Miami people and of our language, which like Wampanoag was a sleeping language for a number of years and only later became reclaimed from archival documentation. I refer here to language documentation that was created for a number of purposes such as serving missionaries or for other extractive purposes, such as serving Western science – not for language reclamation. It has taken quite a bit of work to interpret that documentation and repurpose it within Miami cultural norms so it can serve our community’s needs in appropriate ways.

I approach this example from my vantage as a Miami person and as a professional linguist, and recognize that in many cases, “linguist” carries a negative connotation in Indigenous communities. I am trying to change that by emphasizing, among other things, that linguistics is not the same as Linguistics, just as anthropology is not the same as Anthropology, history is not the same as History, and so on. What I am imagining is a differentiation based on capitalization. Linguistics with a capital-L refers to the named discipline, which has a particular colonial history and operates in colonial ways; linguistics with a lower-case-l refers just to the study of language, and does not presuppose the ways in which that work is done or whose and what sorts of concerns get prioritized.

My aim is to change capital-L Linguistics by actively incorporating Indigenous ways of doing language work, thereby responding to the discipline’s colonial legacy. I note here that when I have shared this goal, some people have made inquiries to the effect of “couldn’t Linguistics just be its own academic thing and stay out of the language work that happens in tribal communities?” In response, I have emphasized, following others, that I believe the best way to do Indigenous language work is for it to be run by, for, and in Indigenous communities. This noted, particularly for communities such as my own that are interpreting archival materials created for some purpose other than contemporary community use, the disciplinary tools of Linguistics play an important role and there is a need to apply them appropriately. And moreover, I know that the field of Linguistics is going to continue to study Indigenous languages, whether Indigenous people like it or not. Therefore, I want to ensure that those interactions and the associated interventions will happen in good ways.

Although I am a linguist, I am employed as faculty in a Native American Studies program. This aligns with my belief that language work can be done, and should be done, in ways that are guided by Native needs and values – a principle that Native American Studies emphasizes as a field. My ideas on this reflect what I have observed in my own Miami community and also from my engagement with members of a number of tribes across North America, particularly smaller Indigenous communities in California. Through these experiences, I have seen benefits of applying tools and principles from linguistic science, but have also witnessed the harm that can be wrought by misguided academic interventions.

This brings me to the topic of intellectual colonialism, which often lies at the heart of problems I have observed. A recurring phenomenon, which I locate within the realm of ethics because I think it needs to be theorized around questions of what’s right or wrong, is that non-Indigenous needs, goals, and ways of engaging with language get prioritized even for projects that are ostensibly about supporting Indigenous communities. I’ll be honest in sharing my observations that even when linguists really want to support tribes – and many do – because intellectual colonialism is so strong and so embedded in academic metrics, academia often wins.

To give a particular example, the Linguistic Society of America, which is the largest professional organization for linguists in the United States, has an Ethics Statement that includes recognition that languages belong to communities, that research should benefit communities, and that intellectual contributions should be properly attributed.[2] Several related principles, though not always followed, have become increasingly accepted as best practices for Indigenous language work. Don’t be extractive. Share your materials. Respect community wishes and protocols. But these are largely framed with the assumption that the researcher is from a dominant social group, the corollary being that the ethical protocols will start from non-Indigenous norms to which particular Indigenous community ideas might then be added. Rejecting intellectual colonialism, conversely, entails creating strong structures for Indigenous needs, intellectual traditions, and sovereignty to guide language work. But how do we do this?

I’d like to tell you about the Natives4Linguistics Project, which I co-founded a number of years ago to address this issue. Natives4Linguistics is a network of linguists and related Indigenous language scholars and non-Indigenous allies who share a goal of imagining and realizing a different model of Linguistics wherein Indigenous needs, protocols, and intellectual tools provide the foundation. In this way, Natives4Lingistics rejects the assimilatory approach that is common in initiatives to “broaden participation” that take Linguistics (or another scientific field) into Indigenous communities, with the assumption that doing so will diversify the field.[3] That is, the Natives4Linguistics project is not about socializing Indigenous people to become linguists following the status quo. Rather, the project’s goal is to introduce intellectual tools and protocols from Indigenous communities into linguistic science, thereby fostering disciplinary norms that center and honor Indigenous people and our ways of being and knowing.

As I reflect on the Natives4Linguistics project with respect to how its themes relate to the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, I recognize the importance both for addressing intellectual colonialism, and for emphasizing “Indigenous” in the phrase “Indigenous languages.” I was quite critical of how the International Year of Indigenous Languages in many cases focused on languages defined as objects, as sets of grammar and vocabulary if you will, thereby featuring what people might consider “interesting sets of vocabulary” for example, while ignoring the Indigenous communities and nations that underlie those languages. I suggest that one way to avoid this harmful practice is to emphasize Indigenous definitions of language, which tend to avoid the objectification I just mentioned, and to do so in every stage of language work. I will share an example from my community. This comes from Jarrid Baldwin, who is a myaamia language teacher. I once asked him to define “language,” and he said this:

Language is how a community connects to each other and how they express themselves and their culture to each other. Language provides within the myaamia community a mapping for us to learn more about each other and ourselves.[4]

In this example, language is defined relationally, in a way that centers myaamia people. It cannot exist without us, and cannot exist without our culture. This is a general principle that I believe needs to guide the International Decade of Indigenous Languages – just as it provides a foundation for Natives4Linguistics, which as a project always positions Indigenous languages in relation to Indigenous communities.

One specific Natives4Linguistics project that builds upon this principle involves changing the norms of how professional scholars give presentations about Indigenous languages and Indigenous language issues. Current practice in Linguistics allows somebody giving a research presentation or teaching a class to go right into the language as a grammatical object, perhaps to talk about some verb structure or something akin to that. They may barely mention the people(s) who claim that language, let alone their associated nationhood, sovereignty, and so on. This is hugely problematic, but there is a relatively easy fix that Natives4Linguistics participants are engaged in promoting, which is to put the people first. Related to this, as a matter of policy, I have been working to create protocols whereby when scholars submit abstracts for conferences, those abstracts must address the social contexts and implications of the work – the critical engagement with which will in turn be part of the evaluation. I want to do the same for academic journals and other venues so that it no longer will be possible for people to operate as if “real” linguistic science is separate from community needs, or to skirt around the ways in which colonialism has positioned Indigenous communities as data for science rather than as agents of science – agents who offer our own intellectual traditions to address contemporary needs.

I like the term Indig-agency [Indigenous agency], and assert that it is essential that Indigenous peoples exercise our agency during the Decade. However, I also recognize that this is quite hard, not just because of the intellectual colonialism that is rampant across the world, but also because the United Nations does not structurally center Indigenous nations. The United Nations recognizes the United States. The United Nations recognizes Canada. But the United Nations is not directly linked to various tribal nations the way that it ideally would be, not only for the International Decade, but in general. The proposed United Nations Convention that is called for by Richard Grounds in his recent Cultural Survival article,[5] along with his proposal for an Indigenous co-facilitator for the Decade, would help. But I think that we need quite a bit more.

An additional idea outlined in Grounds’ Cultural Survival article is a 50/50 Protocol, the notion of asserting as a matter of policy that when language work is done for purposes other than directly for reclamation, half of the funding should go toward Indigenous community needs. These are the kinds of policies that I think we actually need, where it’s not so much about people wanting to do the right thing or trying to do the right thing, but rather where the right outcome happens as a matter of design because it’s embedded in the policy itself. As noted earlier, I also suggest that for purposes of language documentation, of archiving, or of featuring languages in public-facing ways, that community definitions of language be centered at all stages. Similar is the issue of ethics I mentioned earlier. If we emphasize Indigenous community ethics and protocols at every stage, we can avoid some of the problems that occur now.

I close with my response to a question posed in this conference: Do we need a Native American Languages Protection and Rematriation Act? My answer is yes. I also recognize that “rematriation” usually refers to language materials, such as documentation, and think it is important to call attention to how many materials remain inaccessible to members of the communities they come from, and that academia has a large role in this. The capacity to do good language work already exists in Indigenous communities when the needed resources are in place, but anything that has been extracted from us first needs to be returned.


mihši neewe.

  1. *Wesley Y. Leonard is a citizen of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma and an associate professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Riverside. Supported by a PhD in Linguistics and two decades of experience in community language programs, he researches Native American language reclamation and works to build capacity for reclamation and related decolonial initiatives.
  2. LSA Revised Ethics Statement, Final Version (Approved July 2019), Linguistic Society of America, (last visited Feb. 19, 2023).
  3. The Natives4Linguistics Project began as a 2018 workshop and later became a special interest group of the Linguistic Society of America. See About Natives4Linguistics, Natives4Linguistics, (last visited Feb. 14, 2023); Natives4Linguistics Special Interests Group, Linguistic Soc’y of Am., (last visited Feb. 14, 2023).
  4. See Wesley Y. Leonard, Producing Language Reclamation by Decolonising ‘Language, 14 Language Documentation & Description 15, 29 (2017),
  5. Richard A. Grounds, Making the Most of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages for Indigenous Communities, Cultural Survival Q. (Dec. 7, 2021),