NOTE: what follows is a lightly-edited transcript of the keynote address held as part of the 54th Algonquian Conference, University of Colorado Boulder, October 21, 2022.
Terveh teilä, hyvät rahvas!
Warmest greetings to all conference participants!
It is my pleasure to deliver these keynote remarks tonight on the occasion of the launch of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages here at the University of Colorado, an institution that indeed has the capacity and the expertise to make a difference when it comes to concrete steps in science, language documentation, and revitalization. Thank you to Dr. Andrew Cowell in the Linguistics Department and Professor Kristen Carpenter at the Law School for your introductions.
I will soon conclude my term at the United Nations (“UN”) Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, having previously served on the United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. As I reflect on my motivation for applying to these UN positions, these reflections are all or mostly about Indigenous languages.
I come from the Karelian people, an Indigenous community which resides in northwest Russia, Finland, and in Tverskaya Oblast, near Russia’s capital city, Moscow. Over the last thirty years, the Karelian people have lost around half of our language speakers and in some areas this number exceeds seventy percent. Ironically, this serious decline in language coincided with the moment of ethnic renaissance. At the brink of the collapse of the Soviet Union, policies and laws opened up for empowerment of linguistic communities and the Karelian movement launched its strong advocacy for language rights. However, simultaneously, globalization and open borders sped up the impact of ineffective language policies of the past.
When you look at the decreasing numbers of language speakers among the Karelian people or
Komi or Mari or Khakas or Nenets, one would think that nothing can be done. Perhaps we have to consider language disappearance, similar to the disappearance of biological species, as a natural process which we cannot revert or slow down. But, in fact, people’s actions matter. If negative action speeds up language assimilation and suspend their functionality, why wouldn’t positive action in favor of language revitalization or maintenance also make a difference?
Coming back to this irony – why do languages continue to suffer after the restrictions on them were lifted. Or were they actually lifted? Does intergenerational trauma prevent full-scale revival? And what can we actually do about it?
One answer is that we must restore the prestige of languages and the confidence of linguistic communities in their own Indigenous languages. Of course, the languages are important in their own right, but the young generations need affirmation that their native languages are important for their lives, careers, and futures. I see a huge role for legislators, lawyers, and language activists in this process, who should jointly introduce – they can jointly introduce – and enforce positive measures in order to balance the chances of dominant and marginalized languages.
One of the Karelian movement leaders once stated: “We should not underestimate the resilience of peoples and linguistic communities.” Once the community exists, even if small, the language can be revived. We just need to act sincerely from the bottom of our hearts and with the faith that we are not just committed to the prolongation of agony, but rather making a difference – each at our own level – to give languages resources for thriving.
Indigenous Peoples around the world do not call the languages dying, but rather under-resourced. And therefore, our role as activists, practitioners, policymakers or scientists is to provide missing resources to Indigenous languages. One of the UN studies says that States should provide at least as many resources for the language revitalization policies as have been spent on the ineffective or oppressive policies in the past. And this is not only about financial resources, but much broader human, methodological, scientific, legal, emotional and so on and so forth.
I consider that my role in the UN, and the role of many of my colleagues, is to help in generating such resources and contributing to a plan for language revitalization. We need to have a clear plan going forward. Making the plan and giving the resources is what the International Decade is all about. This is what the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues is all about. This is what the United Nations is all about.
Last April, the Global Plan of Action for the International Decade was introduced. I am glad this plan embraces languages from so many angles and perspectives. Indigenous languages are not only a means of communication, but also an important keeper of knowledge, spirituality, innovation and the worldviews of Indigenous Peoples that are considered as guardians of the world’s biological, cultural and linguistic diversity. This knowledge might contribute to climate change solutions, resolutions and reconciliation around the many conflicts, and contribute to cross-border communication, diplomacy and trade.
Languages have multiple roles and functions that all have value and have to be preserved. The fight for languages is a fight for this knowledge and for their habitat: spheres of usage that vary from the media and education to medical establishments and administration.
Most importantly, languages need to be considered from a human rights perspective. Languages are a human right. This is the topic of the article that I proudly co-authored with Professor Carpenter. The article underlines that we will never expand the spheres of the use of Indigenous languages if we do not consider all the interlinkages between linguistic rights and all the other rights of Indigenous peoples, including health, access to justice, biodiversity, environment, education, food security and many, many others. Most of them I mentioned are enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the key document for our advocacy on the international and also national level.
Distinguished Participants, the Global Action Plan sets a broad framework for action during the next eleven years. And this is actually eleven years, not ten. By mistake or by purpose, the 11 year period gives us additional time at the global level to bring attention of all parties to the crisis of linguistic diversity. The topics in the Global Action Plan vary from the role of languages in defeating hunger and strengthening gender balance to the role in peacebuilding, reconciliation and development, and to the traditional areas such as culture, education and – also currently – digitization of Indigenous languages.
The three last topics that I mentioned were actually picked by the Russian Government and the Russian steering committee for the International Decade of Indigenous Languages to be included as key priorities in Russia’s National Action Plan. So national and local actors can actually select priorities from the list in the Global Action Plan according to their own needs. The main principle, however, is that these priorities should be determined by Indigenous peoples themselves according to their own culturally appropriate ways of decision-making.
The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at its 21st session recommended several measures that would assist in the better implementation of the International Decade. One of them is data collection about the situation of Indigenous languages, in order to strengthen and support the post-2030 development agenda that will replace the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (“SDGs”) that determine our planet’s development till 2030. So currently we are already speaking at United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and more broadly at the United Nations about inclusion of Indigenous languages as an indicator in the next development agenda that will replace the SDGs.
We are currently observing the shift of paradigm in which Indigenous languages are now considered as a factor not only for Indigenous Peoples’ cultures, but also their economic development. Languages are connected to creativity and innovation that can become a core for the local Indigenous-led economies. Large companies have started to consider languages as a target for investments, not just for reputational purposes, but rather for the sustainability and security of the communities where these companies are operating. The healthier and happier the communities are, the more sustainably business can operate. This year, the Permanent Forum called on the UN and its Member States to support Indigenous Peoples’ startups and create educational programs for creative industries based on Indigenous languages, cultural heritage, knowledge and crafts.
Speaking about health, this year by listening to the Indigenous youth, the Permanent Forum encouraged the World Health Organization to consider Indigenous languages as a determinant of health and security, and the next session of the Permanent Forum will be devoted to this very important topic.
Let us bring ourselves from the global level to the ground. What can we do about creating unique language content and supporting language activists? One important thing is education. Can schools actually teach the language alone?
In my country, at least, there is no such experience, or there is no such example in which children have learned an Indigenous language in school to the extent that they can fluently speak it. Rather, schools must cooperate with the linguistic communities, language masters, and language activists, to teach the children.
There should be also a clear internal, hard-won intention to preserve the languages. One Cherokee elder once said to me, “We didn’t know that the language could disappear. We always thought the language was eternal, but only later we understood that it can be eternal only if you actually speak it and transmit to future generations by speaking.” And I am particularly glad that Cherokee and many other indigenous peoples of the world decided to fight for the future of the languages by introducing a comprehensive plan with immersion programs and language centers, digital technology, and science. All that is a practice that is critical and that needs to be promoted as a good practice to others.
One more example comes from my region, the Republic of Karelia, where the villagers of Vieljärvi established the House of the Karelian Language, which is a physical space where they can exercise different language activities such as language nests and language theaters. The language nest is an immersion program that has been run in many countries and has shown to be a very effective measure. This language house was actually constructed by Indigenous peoples who mobilized resources, organized charity events, collected money, and all participated themselves in the actual construction. It was a hard-won achievement.
And when I hear people coming to me and saying, let’s raise money for such a house in our village, I always say that this is not possible to just borrow this experience from there and construct the house in your village. It should be done through your own action, through suffering, actually, through working hard. It is one issue to build a house but on the other hand the building has to be filled with real language activism and language related activities. This is one of the many good practices that the international community should promote because it can encourage others. We need to make sure the Decade will promote concrete actions and practices, and will generate more advanced practices.
When I am asked to give an example of the effective work of the UN system, I talk about the proclamation of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages. When I am asked to give an example of how decisions taken at the UN can have a positive impact on the lives of Indigenous peoples on the ground, I speak about the International Decade. When someone asks me ten years from now how the Decade has helped Indigenous languages, I would like to have an answer to that question. I would like to give an example of legislative reforms in many countries, I want to say that development plans have been drawn up for hundreds of languages and resources have been found to implement them. I would like to answer that in these ten years, Indigenous languages have returned to many areas of application: in schools, medical organizations, courts. I want to say that for dozens and hundreds of languages, programs for the revitalization of languages have been activated. And maybe even I can say that the trend of reducing the number of native speakers is reversed. I would like to say that the number of speakers of my Karelian language has increased for the first time in recent decades, at least by ten people, and not decreased by several thousand.
Indigenous peoples are faced with an extraordinary situation where the languages are in danger of falling asleep. Language loss is an event that does not happen to the same language on a regular basis. This situation is happening here now under the pressure of globalization and as a result of incorrect, ineffective language policies in the past and also other circumstances.
Therefore, the skills of revitalization, the revival of languages could not be inherited from past generations, and these skills should be developed right now. To do this, it is important to agree on priorities and start implementing them on the ground.
Action plans should be developed not only at the level of international movement, but also on the national level and even local level, municipal level and at the level of institutions and organizations. We should pay attention to the efforts that the Indigenous peoples themselves are making: the Nganasans in Taimyr create language nests, the Shawnee people announce their tenth anniversary of the Shawnee language and organize an early language immersion program. Or the Cherokee people, who created a new language center. The Decade will be a success only if the States where Indigenous Peoples live, and other actors, will unite forces and commit to joint action.
This will, of course, require a strong message from States that languages are not a burden but a development priority. This will also require an internal cohesion among Indigenous Peoples and an internal, cross-generational commitment to preserve the languages. We do not inherit our lands from predecessors, but rather borrow this land from future generations. I think we should the same with our own native languages.
The International Decade is a product of global consensus. We all join on the same values and noble purposes to make this Decade a success. Once again, warmest greetings from the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and much success to the conference and so much thanks to the University of Colorado and all those involved in the organization of this important conference. Thank you so much.
- * Aleksei Tsykarev served as a member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues from 2020-2022 and as a member and chair of the United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples from 2013-2019. A candidate for the PhD in Linguistics at the University of Colorado, Tsykarev is Chair of the Center for Support of Indigenous Peoples and Civic Diplomacy “Young Karelia.” ↑
- See generally 2022–2032: International Decade of Indigenous Languages, UNESCO, https://idil2022-2032.org (last visited Feb. 19, 2023). ↑
- Global Action Plan for the International Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022–2023), U.N. Doc. 41 C/INF.14 (2021). ↑
- Kristen Carpenter & Alexey Tsykarev, (Indigenous) Language as a Human Right, 24 UCLA J. Int’l L. & Foreign Aff. 49 (2020). ↑
- G.A. Res. 61/295, annex, United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Sept. 13, 2007). ↑
- The Action Plan For The International Decade Of Indigenous Languages (IDIL 2022 – 2032) In The Russian Federation (Feb. 9, 2022), https://idil2022-2032.org/all-resources/national-action-plan/#1655725654578-44d0ab83-e0ee. ↑
- See generally Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Rep. on the Twenty-First Session, U.N. Doc. E/2022/43-E/C.19/2022/11 (2022). ↑
- G.A. Res. A/74/396 (Dec. 2, 2019). ↑