After UNESCO hosted the launch of its Year of Indigenous Languages campaign in Paris Monday, the United Nations did likewise February 1 in New York City. (Courtesy Marian Masaquiza, Kichwa Salasaka, Ecuador)
As the general assembly listened, Kanen’tó:kon Hemlock delivered the opening words in Kanien’kéha.
Hemlock was part of the Mohawk Nation at Kahnawake delegation that attended the event and spoke about the spread and energy behind revitalizing Indigenous languages that grew from such humble roots.
“The work here in Kahnawake that they’ve been doing for the past 40 years, 50 years even, was all a grassroots effort, and now the rest of the world is finally kind of waking up to it,” said Hemlock.
Many, Hemlock said, spoke to him afterwards asking for advice on how they could support his and other revitalization efforts.
“There were a lot of encouraging words from Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people for the opening that we gave, and all the work that’s being done,” said Hemlock.
UNESCO hosted its launch in Paris January 28 with the UN’s following Friday.
Representatives from the seven regions of the world (North America, Latin America, South America, Africa, Asia, Europe and the Arctic) spoke throughout the day.
Mirian Masaquiza is Kitchwa Salasaka in Ecuador spoke about the year’s promotion of Indigenous language.
“It will inspire speakers of Indigenous languages to use it in a daily life with pride,” she said. “States and other stakeholders will understand the need to include Indigenous languages into specific programs and activities to promote and protect them.”
Kenneth Deer has been working for greater Onkwehón:we representation in international circles for 32 years, and spoke about the difference in tone between last week and when he and others first approached the UN.
“It’s just like night and day,” said Deer. “When I started going in 1987, we only had one avenue into the United Nations and that was the working group on Indigenous Populations, and that was pretty low level in the UN in Geneva.”
Friday marked the third time an Indigenous person has opened a high-level plenary session at the general assembly. The previous two times Tadodaho Sid Hill gave the opening, most recently in 2017.
“It’s just mushroomed,” said Deer. “Indigenous people have access to the UN on so many levels. It was only a dream in ’87 that you would have an Indigenous person do an opening at a General Assembly of the United Nations. It was probably not even thought of back then because it was so tough.”
Though the support is positive, those who spoke Friday came back to the point that 2019 should be seen as a point on the greater journey of language revitalization and recovery.
“A lot of the speakers from governments and other organizations were saying, ‘this is a good start, but we should really push for an international decade of Indigenous languages,” said Hemlock. “I think there’s going to be a lot of governments that are going to be looking to push for that.”
Bolivian president Juan Evo Morales Ayma, the first Indigenous world leader elected in 2006, met with the local representatives, and spoke on the day.
“It was a pretty awesome experience having the opportunity to meet with Morales afterwards, it was a really quick moment, but he wanted to meet with the Indigenous people and acknowledge us, so that was pretty cool too,” said Hemlock.
Hemlock did not want to compare Kahnawake’s efforts to others, but knows that other communities earlier in their journey can count on Kahnawake for support.
“There are others that are just really starting and they’re where we were 40 years ago,” said Hemlock. “Us, as a community, we have a lot to offer to the Indigenous people around the world, who are looking at this revitalization movement.”
In addition, Friday provided a great opportunity to network with other communities that Kahnawake can learn from.
“We’ve been really supporting one another,” said Hemlock. “That’s what we need is that link and those alliances working together with other nations around because we’re all in the same boat.”
It remains to be seen what type of support states will give beyond general support. Deer highlighted Canada’s role in bringing a large delegation and being proactive in promoting the year.
“Canada has taken the lead,” said Deer. “They are one of the most vocal and pushing this year.”
Deer hopes other states will follow the UN’s promotion and Canada’s example throughout the year.
“The object is to get the world’s attention to Indigenous languages and that’s what the UN can do,” he said.
“The UN itself doesn’t have the funding or the infrastructure to directly help Indigenous languages, but what it does is it draws attention and puts pressure on states to do more to protect and enhance Indigenous languages.”
Youth highlight UNESCO-sponsored global event
When Veronique Legault decided she wanted to learn Kanien’kéha, it became a journey in self-determination.
“I’m not very fluent – I’d say I’m a beginner,” she said, “although I can read and write pretty well – maybe intermediate reading and beginner talking.”
Legault learned the language on her own, using books or whatever examples she could find circulating on social media – even repeating Kanien’kéha words she heard while playing Age of Empire III.
When 2019 was formally announced by UNESCO to be the Year of Indigenous Languages, Legault was relieved because her ancestral language would, in theory, get a generous publicity boost and legal protection from the Canadian government.
“I’m happy for such legislation because it can at last legitimize our languages into law,” Legault said. “But I hope it will go further and actually help with the revitalization.”
According to UNESCO’s official statement, the intent is to “raise global attention on the critical risks confronting Indigenous languages and its significance for sustainable development, reconciliation, good governance, and peace-building.”
Back in December, Legault – now in the midst of obtaining a Master’s degree in Applied Linguistics – received an invitation from the Quebec Indigenous Youth Network to fly to Paris as part of a delegation and steering committee overseeing some of the practical elements to follow the official launch of the International Year of Indigenous Languages.
The official launch event brought together high-ranking government officials, Indigenous peoples, academics, media, United Nations agencies, public language harmonization and documentation institutions to “provide a global forum for a constructive debate in which high-level speakers address new paradigms for safeguarding, promoting, and providing access to knowledge and information for the Indigenous language users,” UNESCO’s website reads.
But for Legault, the trip struck a satisfying work-play balance.
“It was my second time in Paris, but the first time I really had the chance to walk around and enjoy the city,” she said.
Legault was joined by three other Indigenous youth from nations throughout Quebec – Gaelle Mollen, Innu from Ekuakitshit, Charles Hervieux-Savard, Huron from Wendake, and Jemmy Echaquan Dube, Atikamekw from Manawan – to be on the launch’s steering committee and weigh in during more bureaucratic meetings ahead of the launch.
“It was a very administrative type of meeting, where they discussed how to get states to participate in funding activities and how to get their ministries involved,” she said.
According to Legault, the players also discussed the launch of their interactive website, which will allow people to add events related to language and culture preservation.
“IYIL2019 must be seized as an opportunity to further our work and lay the foundation for concrete actions that will continue for years to come,” Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, said in a statement.
With her Master’s degree, Legault hopes to specialize in second-language acquisition in children, and hopefully build a bridge between both second languages spoken in Kahnawake.
“I was really inspired by the panel discussions that were held, especially concerning our duty as youth to reclaim our languages to eventually teach them to the future generations,” Legault explained. “I’d love to see UNESCO create a youth sub-committee.”
“One thing I felt during the launch is that although it looks great on paper, I have a hard time seeing how – and if – it ill actually be applied by states and how it will empower our teachers back home,” she added.