FEL Executive Committee member Chris Moseley

In today’s post, we introduce another member of the FEL Executive Committee.

Chris Moseley

My interest in endangered languages began in my native Australia, but formal involvement with language minorities began with my fieldwork on the Livonian language of Latvia (1987-1993). Simultaneously I worked as co-editor of the Routledge Atlas of the World’s Languages, now in its third edition (in preparation). Since 2008 I have been editor of the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, soon to become the World Atlas of Languages.

I work as Teaching Fellow in Estonian language at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London. I also teach Latvian there. Apart from that I work as a freelance translator. On the Executive Committee of FEL I have served as Treasurer, later as editor of the Ogmios newsletter, and most recently as the Advocacy and Campaigns Officer. Over the years I have helped in the preparation of annual conferences, and assessing applications for grants. I believe that our Foundation has an irreplaceable and valuable role to play, even on a relatively modest scale, in protecting the world’s language diversity.

FEL Executive Committee member Muhammad Zaman Sagar

This post introduces another member of the FEL Executive Committee.

Muhammad Zaman Sagar

I live in Islamabad, Pakistan, and work as a Senior Advocacy Officer for Forum of Language Initiatives (FLI) and Executive Director of the Gawri Community Development Programme (GCDP). I have been working on language development since 1992, and with FLI since 2004. I am a language and education activist, researcher, linguist, advocate, and mobilizer for the marginalized language communities of Pakistan. I have more than a dozen publications on language issues.

My expertise is also in the field of Mother Tongue-based Multilingual Education (MTB-MLE) and the use of the guide and tools for Planning the Future of Our Language (PFOL) developed by SIL International.

FEL Executive Committee member Joseph Osoba

In today’s post, we introduce another member of the FEL Executive Committee.

Joseph Babasola Osoba

I live in Nigeria and teach English Linguistics as an Associate Professor at the Alex Ekwueme Federal University Ndufu-Alike, Ikwo, Abakaliki, Ebonyi State. I taught at the Department of English, University of Lagos, Akoka from 1999 to 2016. I have also taught at the Elizade University, Ilara- Mokin as an Associate Professor and Acting Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and at the Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba- Akoko, Ondo State, as a Lecturer and an Adjunct Senior Lecturer. I have given a couple of lectures relating to language attitudes and preferences. For more information see here.

My current research relates to the causes of and solutions to language endangerment in Nigeria.  As a promoter of mother tongue education, I believe that indigenous languages can, when standardised, become sources of employment, commerce, and social and political advancement through their value. My slogan is: That our languages may not disappear.

FEL Executive Committee member Cassie Smith-Christmas

In today’s post, we introduce another member of the FEL Executive Committee.

Cassie Smith-Christmas

I live in Ireland and am a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Action Fellow in the Roinn na Gaeilge at the National University of Ireland, Galway. I have done  extensive research within the sociolinguistic sub-field known as ‘Family Language Policy’ and previously worked at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, the Irish Research Council, the Institute for the Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh, and Soillse, the inter-university Scottish Gaelic research network, at the University of the Highlands and Islands (more details are here).

My interest in endangered languages began when I was six or seven years old. My parents were always playing Scottish and Irish music at home, including songs in the Scottish Gaelic and Irish languages. I quickly came to love many of those songs (although saying that my favourite song in the world was ‘Fear A’ Bhàta’ certainly didn’t help me fit in with my peers at school in Virginia, USA!).  In my third year of university, I took a class with Peter Mülhäusler, University of Adelaide, during study abroad, and since then, I have studied issues related to endangered languages, particularly looking at language transmission in the family.  I am the author of Family Language Policy:  Maintaining an Endangered Language in the Home and co-editor Gaelic in Contemporary Scotland:  The Revitalisation of an Endangered Language and New Speakers of Minority Languages: Linguistic Ideologies and Practices.

I am co-editor of the FEL blog, and am keen to facilitate a space for speakers of endangered languages to share their stories, as well as create a forum for academics working on minoritised languages to share their thoughts in an accessible, engaging way.  If you have an idea for a blog post, don’t hesitate to get in touch with me!

FEL Executive Committee member Tjeerd de Graaf

In today’s post, we introduce another member of the FEL Executive Committee.

Tjeerd de Graaf

I live in the Netherlands and am associated with the Mercator Centre of the Fryske Akademy in Ljouwert (Leeuwarden). My current interest is the digitisation and description of analogue sound recordings and their use for scientific and educational purposes. Some of my own material is related to the language of the Siberian Mennonites who spoke Plautdietsch, a variety of Low German, which is related to dialects in the North of the Netherlands. 

In 2019 we finished the publication of a volume with articles on historical data for several languages in Eurasia, including Uralic languages in a book on North and East Tartary by the Amsterdam scholar Nicolaas Witsen. My work is also related to the Foundation for Siberian Cultures and the publication of Regional Dossiers on the teaching of minority languages by the Mercator Centre of the Frisian Academy. We prepared several issues in this series, such as one on the teaching of Hungarian in Slovakia, Romania, Slovenia and Ukraine, as well as of some endangered languages of Russia (Nenets, Khanty, Selkup, Udmurt). More information is available on my website at the Mercator Centre.

FEL Executive Committee member Maya David

In today’s post, we introduce another member of the FEL Executive Committee.

Maya David

I live in Malaysia and am Honorary Professor in the Asia-Europe Institute, University of Malaya. I have been examining the Sindhi Hindu community in different parts of the world. My studies show that many of this diasporic community have shifted away from the use of their ethnic language.  We now need to know the reasons for the shift and how we can revitalise the use of the language.  For my studies on minority communities in Malaysia I was awarded the Linguapax Prize in 2007.  For more information see my website.

I am involved in helping  FEL to evaluate grant applications and abstracts for the yearly conferences. I am also a member of the Linguapax Committee, another NGO that researches language choice, shift, and endangered languages.

FEL executive committee member David Nathan

In today’s post, we introduce another member of the FEL Executive Committee.

David Nathan

David is a linguist and digital specialist for the Anindilyakwa Land Council‘s  Groote Eylandt Language Centre on Groote Eylandt, Australia, where the island’s Indigenous population are first-language speakers of the Anindilyakwa language. Previously he was co-ordinator for the Centre for Australian Languages and Linguistics (CALL) at Batchelor Institute, and the Director of the Endangered Languages Archive (ELAR) at SOAS University of London, where his team developed new approaches to archiving digital language documentation and trained a generation of linguists in technologies and methods for documentary linguistics. He has 25 years experience of collaborative production of multimedia, apps, online materials and platforms supporting language maintenance, revitalization, education and publishing. He is co-author (with Peter Austin) in 1996 of the web’s first ever hypertext dictionary, for Gamilaraay, spoken in northern New South Wales, and a Founding Editor of EL Publishing. He has also taught computing, linguistics, cognitive science, and multimedia, and his publications include the textbook Australia’s Indigenous Languages and journal articles on archiving, language documentation, audio, multimedia, internet, and lexicography. Currently he is editor of the FEL website.

Meet the FEL Executive Committee

The Foundation for Endangered Languages has an Executive Committee (EC) that governs the operation of the Foundation and organises events and activities. In this and following posts we will introduce readers to the current EC members, with information about their backgrounds, interests, and links to relevant web pages.

Serena d’Agostino

I am an Italian independent researcher (graduated from University of Rome ‘La Sapienza’ in 1997) who spent many years in Quebec, Canada. I have been honoured to acquire Indigenous Knowledge and believe that this wisdom is vital for the future of our species on earth. Since 2003 I have volunteered in the field of endangered languages for FEL, Centro Editorial de Literatura Indígena, Asociación Civil (CELIAC) in Oaxaca, Mexico, and I am a founder of FEL Canada. Now back in Italy, I share what I have learnt on what First Nations people call Turtle Island, and enjoy living in my mother tongue. I am currently involved in managing the FEL Facebook page.

Welcome to the Year of Un-Indigenous Languages

Today’s blog post is by Gerald Roche , an anthropologist and Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Politics and Philosophy, La Trobe University, Australia.  His research focuses on the politics of language endangerment and revitalisation with special focus on Tibet, where he lived for eight years working as an applied anthropologist.  He is one of the co-editors of The Routledge Handbook of Language Revitalization (2018).  Gerald has also been a DECRA fellow at the Asia Institute at the University of Melbourne, and a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at Uppsala University’s Hugo Valentin Centre. 

What is an Indigenous Language?

2019 is the International Year of Indigenous Languages—but what even is an Indigenous language? Which languages are we celebrating? How would we know and why does it matter? 

It’s worth beginning with the obvious. There’s nothing in a language itself that makes it Indigenous. Indigeneity isn’t tucked away somewhere in the syntax or built into the morphology. The indigeneity of language is always located outside of it, a property of speakers rather than language. So we need to ask, then, who are Indigenous peoples? 

Since the Year was declared by the United Nations General Assembly, it might seem reasonable to begin looking there for a definition of who Indigenous people are. However, the UN has largely avoided defining Indigenous peoples, and has relied primarily on self-identification (Davis 2016). 

So if an Indigenous language is one spoken by someone who identifies as Indigenous, then all we have to do is ask, right? Unfortunately not. There are many people (and peoples) who prefer not to, or are unable to, define themselves as Indigenous people. 

This might sometimes simply be about naming preferences. In Australia, for example, many ‘Indigenous’ people prefer to be called by the name of their tribe or nation, and collectively as Aboriginal and/ or Torres Strait Islander people (Pearson 2015). This is not a rejection of indigeneity, but rather an assertion that the ‘Indigenous’ label erases important aspects of diversity. But for many communities around the world the situation is more complicated.

Un-Indigenous Languages

In some places, indigeneity is prohibited. In the People’s Republic of China (PRC), for example, there are no Indigenous people (Elliot 2015). All of the country’s ‘ethnic minorities’ and the Han majority are claimed to be equal in status, with none having rights of priority, because that would recognize colonization. By contrast, in Taiwan, the state not only recognizes 16 distinct Indigenous peoples, but also distinguishes between ‘native’ Han and those more recently arrived (Friedman 2018); the PRC, meanwhile, divides the Taiwanese population into a Han majority, and a single ‘minority’ group.  

This refusal to acknowledge colonialism and its role in creating indigeneity is not unique to the PRC. In fact, it is so widespread that it has a name: the Blue Water—or Salt Water—Thesis. This ‘theory’ suggests that unless someone crossed an ocean in a boat to get to a place, then what happened can’t be called colonialism, and therefore there cannot be any Indigenous people in that place. Many countries rely on this quasi-legal formulation to deny the existence of Indigenous peoples within their borders (Baird 2016).

And states aren’t the only ones capable of rejecting indigeneity. Sometimes, this is done for strategic reasons by peoples who might otherwise be considered Indigenous. Take the case of Tibetans, for example. Although Tibetans have selectively deployed discourses of indigeneity (Hathaway 2016) and recent trends see the term gaining more purchase in the diaspora (Dawa Lokyitsang 2017), indigeneity, and the label Indigenous, have largely been rejected by the global Tibet movement, in order to define their struggle as that of an occupied nation (Yeh 2007). So since neither the PRC state, nor the global Tibet movement, acknowledge indigeneity in the Tibetan context, none of Tibet’s dozens of languages (Roche and Suzuki 2018) can be labelled Indigenous.

The Rongwo Valley on the northeast Tibetan Plateau. Tibetans here speak at least three languages: the local variety of Amdo Tibetan, Manegacha, and Ngandehua. SOURCE: Author.

Refusing Indigeneity might be strategic in other ways too—an aspect of international relations, rather than national self-image. As Merlan (2009) notes, the ‘global’ Indigenous movement has largely been led by a handful of countries—the CANZUS bloc (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States). States that are not aligned with these countries may reject indigeneity as part of efforts to interfere in their domestic affairs, and potentially Indigenous peoples within these states may therefore need to disavow indigeneity to avoiding censure from the state, and fend off accusations of ‘foreign meddling.’

So, people are capable of distancing themselves from indigeneity for reasons of self-defense and strategy. But this also happens for other reasons that are connected to the pernicious harms of colonialism, and the way it transforms subjectivities and perceptions (Wa Thiong’o 2004; Fanon 1952). Consider, for example, the following exchange between Hawaiian and Okinawan language activists:

 “…when we [the Hawaiian activists] ask them [the Okinawan activists] what do they think of being Indigenous, they said, ‘No, we are not Indigenous.’ So I asked them… ‘…your idea of being Indigenous must be one of people who are uneducated, who are at the bottom of the ladder, economically and academically and socially.’ And they said, ‘Yes’….” (Eric Wada in Heinrich 2018: 459) 

Here, the Okinawan activists are reproducing colonial associations between indigeneity and ‘backwardness’. Wanting to distance themselves from such negative connotations, they refuse indigeneity. Dawa Lokyitsang (2017) argues that similar attitudes have tempered Tibetan attitudes towards indigeneity in India.   

So, in certain cases, a language cannot be Indigenous. Indigeneity might be forbidden by the state, hindered by nationalism, prevented by international relations, or proscribed by colonial legacy. Languages in these situations are neither Indigenous nor non-Indigenous; they are somewhere outside this distinction. They are un-Indigenous. We may ask their speakers and users if they are Indigenous, but we cannot receive an answer.

This map, showing official activities of the International Year of Indigenous Languages, has many blank spots. Are these home to un-Indigenous languages? SOURCE: https://en.iyil2019.org

Being Un-Indigenous in 2019 

What does it mean to be un-Indigenous in 2019? What does this imply for endangered languages, and those of us who work with them?

To begin with, we should note that indigeneity is not just a label or an identity. It is also a predicament. Colonialism happened, and is happening: lands seized, people dispossessed, relocated, incarcerated, inferiorized, murdered. If empires and states take the land of Indigenous people and but refuse to provide conditions which enable their languages to flourish, then those languages are, in the words of Patrick Wolfe (2006), ‘slated for elimination’. In an important sense, this is what it means to be an Indigenous language in the twenty-first century: to be considered futureless in the eyes of the state. Being un-Indigenous entails a lack of freedom to proclaim and label this predicament.  

Being un-Indigenous also means isolation from the rights of Indigenous people. These are enshrined in the UN’s Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which contains the rights to “revitalize, use, develop and transmit [language] to future generations,” to provide education “in their own languages,” and to “establish media in their own languages.” Whether these rights are actually provided by states, or are ‘merely’ aspirational, these are rights that un-Indigenous people cannot claim.  

Nor can they tap into transnational activist networks that would enable them to struggle for these rights. The project of global indigenism (Niezen 2003) now has significant institutional, symbolic, and material resources at its disposal. Having grown from grassroots efforts to combine local movements (Estes 2019), the political struggles of global indigenism underpin most language revitalization work being carried out today (Roche, Maruyama, and Virdi Kroi 2018). Since un-Indigenous people cannot partake in this ‘global’ movement, they cannot draw on its resources to help protect their languages. 

Being un-Indigenous, then, has real implications: for how a people’s predicament is labelled, for what rights can be deployed to intervene in that predicament, and for what resources are available to help secure those rights. If being Indigenous is as much about a history of oppression as it is about aspirations for the future, being un-Indigenous means alienation from the capacity to express or act on those aspirations, whilst often sharing the same history.

The Year of un-Indigenous Languages: From Celebration to Justice

So, although the International Year of Indigenous Languages is an important chance for us to celebrate the world’s Indigenous languages, it also offers us a chance to reflect on the world’s un-Indigenous languages, and the challenges they face. Doing so reveals an important and seemingly irreducible gap: between un-Indigenous languages, and the regime of Indigenous language rights which has been built up by the global Indigenist movement. This gap highlights a central paradox inherent in the nature of human rights: that they are always predicated on what Hannah Arendt (1949) called ‘the right to have rights’. 

The right to have rights—we might call that justice. Justice here isn’t simply a synonym for something good or morally desirable. The ‘justice’ we see deployed so frequently today in the well-worn phrase ‘social justice’ has its roots in a specific set of theories, which were developed to describe the shifting terrain of political movements in the 1960s and 70s (Taylor 1994, Fraser 1996), and which have broadly come to be known as identity politics (Taylor 2017). These theories focus on the idea of recognition—the capacity to openly declare and be respected for one’s identity. 

When we celebrate Indigenous languages, we are pursuing justice and engaging in the politics of recognition by helping to reverse centuries of colonial status subordination. But for un-Indigenous languages, justice involves securing the conditions where they can choose to identify as Indigenous if they wish, and participate in transnational indigenism if they want. As people who are concerned with protecting global linguistic diversity, working throughout the world, here’s how we can help with that.   

  1. Always ask communities if they consider themselves Indigenous. If they say ‘no,’ respect their decision, and be mindful that labelling them Indigenous might expose them to danger. However…
  2. If a community does not wish to be labelled as Indigenous, this does not mean they are not Indigenous. Learn to interpret silences around this issue within the political and social context. 
  3. Read the literature on linguistic justice (e.g., Piller 2016, Flores 2017, Avineri et al 2019), and consider how these concepts can be applied wherever and however you work with endangered languages.
  4. Consider the ways in which supporting endangered languages involves seeking social justice, and the ways in which this work can be informed by understandings of other social justice struggles: anti-racism, anti-colonialism, feminism, Queer struggles, the pursuit of environmental justice, and so on.


Arendt, H. (1949). “The rights of man”: What are they? Modern Review, 3(1), 24–37. 

Avineri, Netta Graham, Laura Johnson, Eric Riner, and Jonathan Rosa. 2019. Language and Social Justice in Practice. New York: Routledge.

Baird, Ian G. 2016. Indigeneity in Asia: an emerging but contested concept. Asian Ethnicity. 17.4:1-5.

Davis, Megan. 2016. Data and the United Nations declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples. Indigenous Data Sovereignty. Canberra: ANU Press:25-38.

Dawa Lokyitsang. 2017. Are Tibetans Indigenous? https://lhakardiaries.com/2017/12/27/are-tibetans-indigenous/ 

Elliott, Mark. 2015. The Case of the Missing Indigene: Debate Over a ‘Second-Generation’ Ethnic Policy. China Journal 73:186-213.

Estes, Nick. 2019. Our History is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance. London: Verso.

Fanon, Frantz, Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 1952). 

Flores, Nelson. 2017.  Developing a materialist anti-racist approach to language activism. Multilingua 36(5): 565-570. 

Fraser, Nancy. 1996. Social justice in the age of identity politics: Redistribution, recognition, and participation. The Tanner Lectures on Human Values. Utah: Tanner Humanities Center, the University of Utah

Friedman, Kerim, 2018. The Hegemony of the Local: Taiwanese Multiculturalism and Indigenous Identity Politics. boundary 2 45(3):79-105. 

Hathaway, Michael J. 2016. China’s Indigenous Peoples? How Global Environmentalism Unintentionally Smuggled the Notion of Indigeneity into China. Humanities 5(3):54, doi:10.3390/h5030054

Heinrich, Patrick. 2018. Revitalization of the Ryukyuan Languages. In Leanne Hinton, Leena Huss, and Gerald Roche (eds) Routledge Handbook of Language Revitalization. London: Routledge, 455-463.  

Merlan, Francesca. 2009. Indigeneity: Global and local. Current Anthropology 50(3): 303–33. doi.org/10.1086/597667

Pearson, Luke. 2015. Why We Will Never Find the ‘Most Appropriate’ Term to Refer to All Indigenous Australians. IndigenousX.  https://indigenousx.com.au/why-we-will-never-find-the-most-appropriate-term-to-refer-to-all-indigenous-australians/

Roche, Gerald and Hiroyuki Suzuki. 2018. Tibet’s Minority Languages: Diversity and Endangerment. Modern Asian Studies. 52(4): 1227-1278.

Roche, Gerald, Hiroshi Maruyama, and Åsa Virdi Kroik (eds). 2018. Indigenous Efflorescence: Beyond Revitalization in Sapmi and Ainu Mosir. Canberra: ANU Press, http://doi.org/10.22459/IE.2018

Taylor, Charles. 1994. The Politics of Recognition. In Amy Gutmann (ed) Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta, ed. 2017. How we get free: Black feminism and the Combahee River Collective. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Wa Thiong’o , Ngugi. 1981 [2004]. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers/ London: James Currey/ Portsmouth NH: Heinemann/ Harare: Zimbabwe Publishing House. 

Wolfe, Patrick. 2006. Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native. Journal of Genocide Research. 8(4): 387-409.

Yeh, Emily T. 2007. Tibetan indigeneity: Translations, Resemblances, and Uptake. In Marisol de la Cadena, Orin Starn (eds). Indigenous Experience Today, Oxford: Berg, 69-97.

The UN International Year of Indigenous Languages: optimism, skepticism, and unresolved tensions by Mel M. Engman and Kendall A. King

Intergenerational play at an Ojibwe family language camp

In celebration of International Mother Language Day, today’s blog post is written by Mel M. Engman (University of Minnesota; Grassroots Indigenous Multimedia) and Kendall A. King (University of Minnesota).

The United Nations has designated 2019 as the ‘International Year of Indigenous Languages.’ With this proclamation, the UN aims to draw attention to the critical loss of Indigenous languages and the urgent need to preserve, revitalize and promote Indigenous languages through national and international work. The resolution also emphasizes the role of Indigenous languages in peace building, and describes Indigenous languages as resources for speakers, but also for the world’s cultural diversity more broadly.

Key stated objectives include:

“(1) Informing about the importance of indigenous languages for social development;

(2) Creating greater awareness about the critical status of indigenous languages around the world;

(3) Stimulating intercultural debate around indigenous languages;

(4) Imparting new knowledge on the importance of indigenous languages;

(5) Shaping attitudes of relevant stakeholders about indigenous languages.”

However, few specifics on the policies, programs or funding to meet these goals are provided on the engaging, colorful website. As of February 2019, the only defined initiative was a call for papers written by practitioners and researchers on Indigenous languages to be published by UNESCO Open Access. As researchers and advocates for language revitalization, we therefore view the UN proclamation with an optimistic, but slightly skeptical eye. Like many in the field, we are encouraged and excited by this high-status body’s interest in promoting a cause that we see as critical to a socially-just world. Simultaneously, we worry about the overly broad objectives of the proclamation and we also question the absence of material and political specificity. We also wonder how work will be accomplished with unclear budget and limited identifiable programming to date. Drawing on years of experience working in support of Indigenous language revitalization efforts, we explore this skepticism in greater depth by comparing the language of the resolution and action plan with the language used by our Indigenous colleagues to describe community desires linked to language revitalization. We look for alignment between local and international efforts and we identify areas where greater connections are needed despite their politically fraught nature.

Trilingual (Spanish-English-Quichua) sign welcoming visitors to the Saraguro community of Lagunas

We look at the UN documents as university-based scholars who have studied language revitalization in communities in Latin America and the U.S., and as (non-Indigenous) allies and advocates for language rights and Indigenous sovereignty. Our experiences with Quichua-language revitalization activists (in Ecuador) and Ojibwe language reclamation experts (in the U.S.) have highlighted how language survival is intertwined with community and family well-being, to land rights, and more broadly, with economic and political justice.

We both came to research work as academically trained linguistics, initially interested in technical or cognitive phenomena of language contact and change (King) and language acquisition (Engman). Long-term engagement with communities forced our attention to the ways that these linguistic phenomena are embedded in language ideologies and social hierarchies which in turn are rooted in historical trauma and injustice. These experiences have expanded our conceptions of the relationships between Indigenous languages and numerous other spheres of life, and concomitantly, color our view of international political bodies and proclamations such as this one.

We note that there is much that seems hopeful and appropriate in the UN materials. For instance, the resolution is inclusive of many Indigenous people and perspectives. The authors also recognize that supporting Indigenous languages also supports families, education, health, and longstanding Indigenous knowledge systems. For instance, the language of the action plan shows a willingness to include Indigenous peoples (instead of making policy on their behalf) in their efforts to support and promote Indigenous languages. This is also evident in the ways that the proclamation reportedly structured its steering committees to include people who can provide a wide variety of local perspectives, and it is evident in much of the plan’s language, which points to numerous social concerns that are deeply entangled with language. For example, the materials address the intersecting and converging interests of sustaining and reclaiming Indigenous languages alongside the maintenance of longstanding cultural practices, the development and dissemination of Indigenous ecological knowledge, and the promotion of basic human rights.

These ideas are sound and decidedly non-controversial. Yet there are numerous concerns that are of critical importance to our Indigenous community collaborators and friends whose language-related work resists the legacies of dominance and erasure. Our experiences with these innovators lead us to note that key words such as ‘sovereignty’, ‘colonialism’, ‘wellness’, ‘water’, and ‘land’ are absent from the UN’s action plan. There are certainly peripheral references to some of these ideas in the resolution and plan (e.g., “a significant cross-cutting pattern of disadvantage and discrimination” refers to colonialism without using the word), but they are not stated directly despite their deep entanglements with the sustaining and restorative work of Indigenous language regeneration.

Language games at an Ojibwe tribal school

To us, as to many readers we imagine, these points of omission and tension look familiar. Furthermore, these omissions parallel the kinds of tensions we often find ourselves navigating as researchers. For many language activists, numerous pressing community threats are seen as fundamentally connected with language work. Such concerns are often social, political, and environmental, and include, for instance, land and water rights, overt racial discrimination, and self-determination. These concerns are more immediate, more linked to displacement and colonialism, and more controversial than what the UN has laid out in the action plan. They are also central to why most Indigenous languages in the world are in need of resolutions and action plans in the first place.

Several decades into this work, the sorts of validating and affirming discourses anchoring the UN’s efforts are familiar to those of us who study language and who work with communities to sustain and restore cultural and linguistic continuity. We agree that language and the attendant social phenomena described in this action plan are basic human rights, and it is easy to see the value of these ideas being recognized by the UN on such a grand scale. This is likely “easy to see” now because of the tireless efforts of Indigenous communities who have labored to educate and cooperate with the individuals and institutions who hold disproportionate amounts of power. White, English-dominant settler academics like ourselves have benefited enormously from the generous and educative thinking of our Indigenous colleagues. We also have a responsibility to elevate the ideas, entities, and practices (e.g., sovereignty, wellness, water) that are fundamental to the current realities of our Indigenous colleagues’ language work.

Wall mural in town of Saraguro woman in traditional dress

Our experiences have shown us how language work at the local level touches on other social and intellectual domains like Indigenous environmental science, political activism, and healing and wellness. The silence around some of the contentious issues associated with these concerns in a sweeping policy document means that those of us with the ability to impose listener and readership (e.g., UN resolution-drafters, policymakers, guest-bloggers) have more work to do in order to hear and promote the voices of our Indigenous friends and colleagues. An example of such efforts can be found in recent efforts by Minnesota clergy who have aligned with Indigenous-led groups to oppose a pending replacement oil pipeline in the state. This pipeline, locally known as Line 3, would run through sensitive headwaters of the Mississippi River and sacred wild rice beds. Through marching, letter-writing, and protesting, this interfaith group shows how non-Indigenous leaders can leverage their power to follow Indigenous groups’ lead for joint, sustained efforts that advocate for a host of concerns related to social justice, cultural and linguistic continuity, and environmental protection.

The UN’s annual International Mother Tongue Day, the occasion of this invited blog post, is dedicated to “promot(ing) linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism” – a generally non-controversial, humanizing goal that we can expand, extend, and unsettle in this 2019 Year of Indigenous Languages. As non-Indigenous beneficiaries of settler colonialism, we aim to follow our Indigenous collaborators’ leads. Importantly, the concerns that our colleagues identify as interlaced with community language work are not apolitical. In order to follow their lead and support their efforts, we are required to resist the status quo. When we support Indigenous land recovery programs, champion Indigenous efforts to protect clean water, or defend Indigenous sovereignty we lean into the politically charged and controversial but critical work of honoring Indigenous languages around the world.

Kendall A. King (PhD, University of Pennsylvania) is Professor of Second Language Education at the University of Minnesota, where she teaches and researches in the areas of sociolinguistics and language policy. Recent publications appear in the Modern Language JournalApplied Linguistics and the Journal of Language, Identity and Education. She has written widely on Indigenous language revitalization, bilingual child development, and the language policies that shape immigrant and transnational student experiences in the U.S., Ecuador, and Sweden. Her current research, based in Minneapolis, examines the educational policy and practices which (under)serve adolescent migrants with limited or interrupted formal schooling experiences. She is a former editor of the journal Language Policy and current Vice President (to be President) of the American Association of Applied Linguistics.

Mel M. Engman (PhD, University of Minnesota) teaches courses on applied linguistics at the University of Minnesota and she is the Administrative Director for Grassroots Indigenous Multimedia (GIM), a non-profit organization devoted to reclaiming the Ojibwe language in the Great Lakes region.   Her recent and upcoming publications can be found in the journals Language Documentation and Description, Heritage Language Journal, and Linguistics and Education.  Mel’s current research interests include Indigenous language reclamation, heritage language education, and critical approaches to language and sign in institutional contexts.