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The United Nations’ International Year of Indigenous Languages is likely to reproduce the colonial logics that underlie dominant narratives of language disappearance and loss. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Indigenous Languages matter for development, peacebuilding, and reconciliation. Languages play a crucial role in the daily lives of people, not only as a tool for communication, education, social integration, and development, but also as a repository for each person’s unique identity, cultural history, traditions, and memory. But despite their immense value, languages around the world continue to disappear at an alarming rate. With this in mind, the United Nations declared 2019 The International Year of Indigenous Languages in order to raise awareness of them, not only to benefit the people who speak these languages, but also for others to appreciate the important contribution they make to our world’s rich cultural diversity.

2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages website

As a scholar who combines tools of linguistics, anthropology, and Native American studies to promote Native American language reclamation I appreciate the United Nations’ International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL) declaration, which provides a mechanism to address a trend that warrants more attention and intervention. However, I am concerned that IYIL will reproduce the same power structures and colonial logics that have fostered the language “disappearance” trend that it purports to counteract. Promoting a frame of “Indigenous languages” to name a movement easily leads to this becoming the unit of analysis for the programming, evaluation, and interventions of that movement—but this is the wrong approach. Particularly worrisome is the way IYIL’s rhetoric is likely to come across to the wider public.

The Miami language reclamation story

I begin by explaining what has happened in my community, the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, as my concerns about IYIL emerge from my experiences as a Miami person engaged in language efforts. Our tribal language, which is called myaamiaataweenki but referred to by many as just myaamia, originated in our Indiana and Ohio homelands, and was later also spoken in Kansas and Oklahoma after two forced removals of part of the Miami community by the US government. myaamia went out of use almost completely in the 1960s due to pressures from removals, cultural ruptures, and boarding schools, and was then mislabeled “extinct” by scientists—reinforcing settler colonialism’s central practice of relegating original peoples to the past. However, myaamia was well-documented in a large body of written records, and from these records Miami people actively started learning myaamia in the 1990s.

Influenced by my Miami grandfather’s emphasis on serving our community, I pursued training in linguistics to support these efforts. Particularly in the earlier years, but continuing to this day, a significant part of my professional work has entailed correcting the erroneous belief that myaamia was (or still is) extinct. Languages that are documented and claimed by a community are not irretrievably lost; myaamia attests to this (see Leonard 2011). Colonial ways of thinking are so pervasive, however, that some people, including several linguists, continue to label myaamia “extinct” despite the ample counterevidence: many tribal members now study myaamia and use it in select contexts; some tribal children acquire myaamia at home, and speak it alongside English and other languages.

Promoting a frame of “Indigenous languages” to name a movement easily leads to this becoming the unit of analysis for the programming, evaluation, and interventions of that movement—but this is the wrong approach.

Miami tribal members place learning and speaking myaamia within a larger story, myaamiaki eemamwiciki (the Miami Awakening), which includes economic development, cultural research and development, land acquisition, and a strong focus on coming together as a distinct and sovereign people. In the spirit of the myaamiaki eemamwiciki narrative, and especially to draw attention to how it is community driven rather than imposed by an outside entity, I have been developing a framework of language reclamation. As a decolonial intervention, language reclamation goes beyond “language revitalization,” which tends to place focus on language itself, to instead identify and intervene in the social factors and power structures that instigate language shift. Rather than assuming or pre-assigning goals such as linguistic fluency, language reclamation begins with specific community histories and needs, as determined by community agents, and situates responses accordingly. For Miami people, who are geographically scattered, language programs help tribal members develop a positive Miami identity and connect with other tribal members, tribal lands, and Miami ways of knowing. A guiding principle of these programs is the importance of relationships, whose value is captured in myaamia: the verb aweentii- means “to be related to each other,” and the corresponding derived noun, aweentioni, means “peace.”

Certainly, there are many Indigenous communities engaged in reclamation, including my own, whose members are participating in IYIL programs. For these communities, I have few concerns; IYIL programming will help them foster beneficial networks. The major social awareness effects of an “International Year” designation, however, are likely on people who are not already engaged in Indigenous language issues and newly engage with them through IYIL programming. Here, I have serious concerns. How will IYIL affect this (much larger) group? Three issues stand out in how IYIL is introduced on the United Nations website.

“Indigenous languages”

One issue is the frame of “Indigenous languages,” which is important to consider with respect to how it is likely to be understood. There are problems with a declaration that operationalizes “Indigenous” as a category without explaining and deconstructing its use for what are actually diverse peoples, connected to specific geographies and political contexts. I follow others in using “Indigenous” to collectively describe these diverse peoples, but with recognition that this categorization came to exist because of colonization, globalization, and similar forces.

Second, based on my experiences as a linguist, I am concerned that “language” will be overly understood by the wider public through prototypical global languages and the norms of their use and transmission, rather than through the cultural frames and lived experiences that inform Indigenous definitions of language. A common pattern in Indigenous communities is to think of “language” relationally; the peoples and their languages are intertwined, sometimes even the same (Leonard 2017). Will non-Indigenous stakeholders who are brought into advocacy and policymaking through IYIL adopt such Indigenous community views of “language”?

Languages as “strategic resources”

The United Nations website notes how the complex knowledges and cultures fostered by Indigenous languages “are increasingly being recognized as strategic resources for good governance, peacebuilding, reconciliation, and sustainable development.” Indeed, it is true that governments, people, and institutions are apprehending and appreciating Indigenous knowledge systems and cultural norms in this way, but missing in this statement is that this should be self-evident. It is only through the effects of various -isms, such as racism and settler colonialism, that people have come to assume otherwise. What must be identified and addressed are these -isms.

Also missing is any warning of how Indigenous community resources tend to be exploited for the benefit of dominant groups. For example, Indigenous language data is “mined” by researchers who talk about elucidating patterns from this data for “our knowledge.” (Who is this amorphous “our”? Where are Indigenous communities in these scholarly conceptions?) Similarly, while Indigenous languages are indeed part of world heritage, a problem occurs when “world” defaults to dominant groups’ categories and experiences (as with the “New World”), underscoring the common pattern of describing Indigenous languages through non-Indigenous value systems.

What if we flip this frame to instead place the focus on Indigenous communities and languages thriving?

It is true that languages are resources. This is why people strive to learn additional languages and to hone skills in those they already know. There is value in pointing this out, especially when dealing with languages or language varieties that are marginalized—which almost always applies for Indigenous languages—because some people have been socialized to assume monolingualism as a norm and ideal. Moreover, many people have negative views about Indigenous languages, and this includes members of Indigenous communities. If IYIL is able to disrupt these ideologies, it can support language reclamation. If it is able to foster community well-being, it can support reclamation.

If IYIL promotes Indigenous languages through non-Indigenous ways of knowing, describing, and valuing, it probably will not. If it overly focuses on languages’ current users rather than the future generations who can learn and use them, it probably will not.

“Disappearing” languages

IYIL is framed around an endpoint of languages “disappearing,” which is anchored by a dangerous colonial logic that erases the presence of contemporary Indigenous peoples. Beyond that issue, the use of an unaccusative verb to describe language shift is further problematic because it omits the agent––what’s needed is a transitive verb that clearly identifies the cause of this “disappearance” as the grammatical subject. Related to this, the norm in endangered language theory, as well as in language policy and planning, is a discourse of loss that first applies a narrow range of what can count within a given language category and then emphasizes the dearth within that category. For instance, enumerations of speakerhood (“[ __ language] has only 10 speakers!”) for Indigenous languages tend to count only fluent users who acquired the language as children through “natural” intergenerational transmission. Taking a prototype for a given category and describing that prototype with the name of the category, which is actually much larger, easily devolves into a “disappearing cultures” frame because it ideologically reinforces a pattern of limiting what Indigenous languages and their communities of users are allowed to be. Closely connected is an ideology of purism that defines “authentic” Native American cultures as those that align with what was (perceived to be) true historically, and by extension restricts what counts as legitimate Indigenous language practices to those that minimize influence from non-Indigenous languages.

Better still, though politically unlikely, would be a theme that directly names and addresses the agents and forces that beget cultural and linguistic ruptures among Indigenous peoples.

What if we flip this frame to instead place the focus on Indigenous communities and languages thriving? In my community, the level of myaamia use is much higher now than it was 20 years ago, and efforts in other communities are also creating new language users. myaamia reclamation efforts have fostered a stronger and more connected tribal community, which has also grown substantially as more people of Miami ancestry have officially become tribal citizens. Each tribal member brings diversity into the community, and we collectively take Miami perspectives into the world. While Miami reclamation efforts do put significant focus on renewing and maintaining historical cultural traditions and values, they are anchored in the present and situated toward the future. The myaamia language has been evolving in response to its speakers’ needs, adding new vocabulary such as kiinteelintaakani (computer, literally “thing that thinks fast”) and aacimwaapiaani (I’m using the internet).

What will IYIL’s outcomes be?

The current IYIL designation does not preclude reclamation-supporting responses. The special circumstance is that “Indigenous languages” are already so widely understood within colonial logics that activism about these languages can make things worse unless it is performed with care and thought. I join other Indigenous scholars in emphasizing that Indigenous languages themselves are already vital; they don’t need to be fixed. The problem is that many Indigenous community members lack a positive relationship with their languages, or in some cases lack access to their languages entirely. These connections, and everything that they represent, are what need to be reclaimed. Doing so entails identifying and dismantling the social structures that underlie the marginalization of Indigenous peoples.

As such, a better International Year theme might be “Indigenous Communities and Their Languages,” or just “Reclaiming Indigenous Languages.” These alternate themes could include everything within the current International Year’s scope, but shift the focus to communities—plural intended—and better capture how Indigenous languages are rooted in specific places and contexts, not in “Indigenous languages” as a category. Better still, though politically unlikely, would be a theme that directly names and addresses the agents and forces that beget cultural and linguistic ruptures among Indigenous peoples.

Regardless of how IYIL is framed by the United Nations or within any specific International Year program, its effects will extend far beyond the current year. As such, there is ample opportunity for anthropologists and others to marshal IYIL toward positive ends. Social movements for Indigenous languages are like other movements in that the details of who does what, for and with whom, guide outcomes. We must all place focus on the sociopolitical structures and beliefs that drive current trends of language shift—while also keeping in mind that language shift is not a unidirectional phenomenon. myaamiaatawiaanki noonki kaahkiihkwe (We [Miami people] speak myaamia today).

My thoughts on IYIL are greatly informed by Chickasaw linguist Jenny L. Davis’s (2017) “Resisting Rhetorics of Language Endangerment: Reclamation through Indigenous Language Survivance.” Davis provides an illuminating critique of recent rhetorics used in academic and public discussions of Indigenous language shift.

Wesley Y. Leonard is a citizen of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma and an assistant professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Riverside. Supported by a PhD in linguistics and experience in community language programs, he researches Native American language reclamation and builds capacity to support reclamation initiatives.

Cite as: Leonard, Wesley Y. 2019. “Indigenous Languages through a Reclamation Lens.” Anthropology News website, September 19, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1266