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.