Language is the main form of communication and expression between humans. But for Indigenous peoples, explains Cheryl Bellisario, an alumna of the School of Advanced Study’s MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights, it is also intimately and fundamentally intertwined with culture, approaches to life, and their very survival as a group.  

Laurence Byrne, manager of Senate House Library’s Latin American and Commonwealth Studies section, recently curated a small collection of Indigenous language dictionaries and teaching sources, which coincided with the Fulfilling Indigenous Peoples’ and Minority Rights to Culture and Language Conference on 11 October, and the 12th Annual Native Spirit Film Festival (11–21 October). I had the chance to sit down with Byrne to look through and discuss this book selection (see list below).

The collection included a book about the language and culture of the Yanomami from Venezuela, an Araucano (Mapuche) to Spanish dictionary, and a dictionary of the Barasana and Taibano languages of Colombia. Outsiders consider these two languages to be the same, but speakers firmly say they are two distinct languages. (See Ethnologue ‘Colombia: Barasana-Eduria’).

Although every title in the selection is interesting, let me focus on one book: Diccionario elemental: Miskito – Español, Español – Miskito (Essential dictionary between Miskito and Spanish) published by The Center of Investigation and Documentation of the Atlantic Coast (CIDCA).

The Miskitos, who reside along the Atlantic coast of what is now Honduras and Nicaragua, are the largest Indigenous group in Nicaragua. Although both Honduras and Nicaragua gained independence in 1821, the last Miskito king was not overthrown until 1894, as detailed in The Miskito-Sandinista Conflict in Nicaragua in the 1980s written by Philip Dennis for the Latin American Research Review, Vol. 28, No. 3, pp. 214-234.

Subsequently, the Miskitos were forced to integrate into Honduran or Nicaraguan society, and have been pummelled into submission by the state and other entities. States often seen as an oppositional nuisance that needs to be broken up.

For years, the current Nicaraguan state has made attempts to build a canal through the country to connect the Pacific and Atlantic oceans even though 120,000 Indigenous people would be directly impacted and forced off of their land (see Guardian article ‘Amnesty condemns “campaign of harassment” against Nicaragua canal critics’). Because of their intrinsic bond to their land, it is predicted that if the canal is constructed, the languages, traditions and ways of life would be completely lost, leading to the potential loss of the Miskito people as a whole.

A 2006 statement from the Queensland Indigenous Language Advisory Committee in Australia rings true for the Miskito people as well as other Indigenous peoples.

‘Language is the expression of our culture and our land. We cannot have
one without the other. We cannot describe our culture and our land if we
do not have language.’

Resources such as those published by CIDCA, are necessary for rejuvenating languages, and in turn, Indigenous peoples. Studies including the Terralingua ‘Landscape: the case for linguistic diversity’, have shown that the dramatic decrease of fluent native Indigenous language speakers (which goes hand in hand with the loss of individual and social cultural identity and traditional approaches to life) has coincided with the severe decline in Indigenous communities’ health and well-being. Mental ill-health and suicide rates within Indigenous communities are staggeringly disproportionate in comparison to non-Indigenous populations (see Suicide and suicide prevention among Inuit in Canada).

Indigenous representative leaders and organisations from around the world collaborated with UN member states painstakingly for over two decades in order to establish the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Now in its 11th year, UNDRIP is the main international legal tool that details the rights that are distinct for Indigenous peoples.

The connection of language to culture runs throughout the document with entitlements around practice of cultural traditions and customs (Art. 11), assurance of interpretation services in political, legal, and administrative proceedings (Art. 13), and educational systems (Art. 14). Another Indigenous language right laid down in Article 16 gives Indigenous peoples the power to establish media streams in their own languages. The manifestation of this can be seen in media across the world, such as Māori Television in New Zealand (launched in 2004) and ʻŌiwi TV in Hawaiʻi (launched in 2009). Others enumerated in the UNDRIP that are also consequently linked to language is seen in their right to maintain traditional health practices (Art. 24) and land rights (Art. 25–30).

Although the UNDRIP is the primary document employed on the international level for the protection of the rights of Indigenous peoples, there are various other internationally binding documents that also aim to do the same. One example is the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, currently in its 15th. It defines ‘intangible cultural heritage’ in Article 2 with five categories:

  • Oral traditions and expressions, including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage
  • Performing arts
  • Social practices, rituals and festive events
  • Knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe
  • Traditional craftsmanship.

Although language is mentioned specifically only in the first category, it is directly interwoven throughout the other categories. Article five within the Convention sets up the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage within UNESCO in order to promote adherence to the Convention, monitor implementation, and provide guidance and recommendations.

There are 370 million Indigenous people worldwide making up 5,000 unique cultures (See UNESCO ‘2019 – International Year of Indigenous Languages’. Currently 2,680 of these languages are in danger of being lost, therefore, endangering the survival of those who once spoke them. Language revitalisation has become a must for the survival of hundreds of millions of individuals and thousands of communities.

To increase awareness about the integral importance of Indigenous languages and cultures to our planet and to revitalise knowledge, the UN has declared 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages. This can lead to the increased protection of human rights.

Book collections such as those highlighted by Byrne, remind us of the importance of Indigenous languages and that states must work with communities to support revitalisation programmes.

Books included in the exhibition:

Ch’uticholtzij Maya-Kaqchikel, Vocabulario Kaqchikel – Español, Vocabulario Español – Kaqchikel (1990) by Demetrio Rodriguez Guaján, Leopoldo Tzian Guantá, and José Obispo Rodriguez Guaján

Diccionario araucano – español y español – araucano (1916) by Félix José de Augusta

Diccionario elemental, Miskito – Español, Español – Miskito (1986) by Centro de Investigación y Documentación de la Costa Atlántica (CIDCA)

Enseñanza de Lengua Indígena como Lengua Materna (2006) by Viviana Galdames, Aída Walqui, and Bret Gustafson

Jaya Mara Aru: Diccionario, Aymara – Castellano, Castellano – Aymara (1989) by Juan Francisco Deza Galindo

Lengua y Cultura Yanomami̶ – Diccionario Ilustrado Yanomami̶  – Español/Español – Yanomami̶ (2007) by Marie Claude Mattei Muller and Jacinto Serowë

Masa Ye, Gava Ye Rãca Macariatuti, Diccionario, Barasana y Taibano – Español (1990) by Faustino Benjamín L, John Fredy Benjamín L, Wen Y Paula Jones, Roberto Marín N, Jaime Reina G, y otros

Yachasun Qheswata = Aprendamos Qheswa = Learning Quechua (1995) by Segundo Villasante Ortiz

Cheryl Bellisario recently completed her MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights (Latin American Pathway) at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. Once back home in Hawaiʻi, she will work as a legislative aide during the 2019 Hawaiʻi State Legislative Session after which she will go into the field of research and policy.