Language is the prism through which we see the world. It tells what we value and what we don’t; it informs how we perceive others and shapes the way we interact with them. In doing so, language, in its innumerable, diverse varieties, defines what makes a person.
However, language is also vulnerable. Of an estimated seven thousand languages spoken in the world today, about 40% are at risk of going extinct.
It has been evaluated that in just the last few hundred years, thousands of languages have vanished, with half of all present languages projected to disappear by the end of this century. A different tongue has been found to be wiped out every two weeks with the biggest culprit being economic development.
It is significant that the majority of our seven thousand present languages are also the most vulnerable. Oral languages comprise up to half of the world’s languages and are predominantly spoken by Indigenous Peoples, whose ways of life are constantly under attack from economic development executed by the speakers of dominant, colonising languages.
Oral languages largely exist through social interaction alone, through intergenerational knowledge and stories evolving with the landscape and ecosystems that shaped their formation. With Indigenous languages spoken in areas of high biodiversity, it is no coincidence that language extinction and species extinction are linked.
Indigenous people protect 80% of the world's biodiversity.
Our teachings center our respect and connection to wildlife.
Our holy people still know the language of the animals.
Our ways of cultivation are still some of the best.
There is no saving the environment without us.
— Creator's least favorite (@SwiftbirdNDN) March 21, 2021
In light of this, there is great incentive to adopt more holistic approaches to environmentalism, paying deference to the sovereignty of Indigenous lands, which, despite making up only 20% of the Earth’s territories, have successfully protected 80% of the world’s biodiversity.
However, there is also a need for dominant languages to develop a more inclusive approach to communication that incorporates diverse, anti-colonial perspectives of personhood and leaves space for Indigenous value systems.
What Defines Personhood?
Dr Edwardo Kohn, Professor of Anthropology at the University of McGill and author of the award-winning book, “How Forests Think,” champions a definition of personhood that at its core, signals agency, describing semiosis (the creation and interpretation of signs) as the embodiment of “living thoughts:”
“Self is both the origin and the product of an interpretive process; it is a waypoint in semiosis.”
His interpretation is shaped through his interactions with the Ávila Runa of Ecuador’s Upper Amazon who perceive their natural ecosystem as a locus of “selves” with diverse perspectives. In navigating their environment, they are practised in multi-species perspective-taking:
“One man took delight in explaining to me how the giant anteater adopts the perspective of ants in order to fool them; when the anteater sticks its tongue into ant nests, the ants see it as a branch and, unsuspecting, climb on. In their interactions with animals, the Runa, in many ways, try to emulate the anteater. They attempt to capture the perspective of another organism as part of a larger whole.”
Jakob Von Uexkull, renowned Baltic German biologist, coined the term “umwelt” to describe the subjective world each living being inhabits. Spiders, for example, have recently been discovered (at least in Western science) to possess intelligence in the way of foresight, planning and learning; the web they weave is a literal expression of their thought and sensing of their environment.
Artificial intelligence reveals the secrets of the spider web: Combining experimental observations of spider webs with complex computer simulations has revealed new patterns of interest. https://t.co/h1m7TM8fLc pic.twitter.com/lyuwfkAqWH
— Cognilytica (@cognilytica) December 7, 2021
This is something that becomes clear if you observe a spider for more than a moment and has not gone unnoticed by Indigenous communities. The Anishinaabe people not only honour the intelligence of spiders in their oral culture (from which came the “dreamcatcher,” paying respect to the cognitive significance of spider-web), but incorporate the fact of their animacy into their language.
Dr Mary Ann Naokwegijig-Corbiere, Associate Professor in Indigenous Studies at the University of Sudbury and member of Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory, records variations for “spider” in Ojibwe from communities on Manitoulin Island: “sabkeshiinh” and “esbikenh”:
“These seem to be built on the word for net, sap (or sab), and mean ‘the netmaker’ … ; sab-ke means ‘he/she makes nets’.”
Dr Robin Wall Kimmerer, Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology, renowned author of award-winning book, “Braiding Sweetgrass” and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, brings to light the power of language to reflect personhood in what she calls “The Grammar of Animacy.”
In her own native tongue, Potawatomi, also an Anishinaabe language, she exemplifies how the vitality of living beings are signified in the grammar. Whilst English is comprised heavily of nouns, reducing most other-than-human beings to a taxonomy of “it,” Potawatomi reflects the grammatical animacy of its linguistic subjects.
Functioning primarily through verbs (for example, “wiikwegamaa” — to be a bay) and attributing pronouns that reflect the animacy of living beings, Dr Kimmerer explains how the way we talk about the natural world dictates our relationship with it:
“If a maple is an it, we can take up the chain saw. If a maple is a her, we think twice.”
Here are some words in Gayogo̱ho:nǫ’ (Cayuga Language) that can be used to honour the Maple, which provides us with the sap we use to make Maple syrup.
Happy Maple Season.
— Woodland Cultural Centre (@woodlandcc) March 18, 2023
In Potawatomi, Dr Kimmerer highlights the importance of “yawe,” which translates to the central verb “to be,” referring to those “possessed with life and spirit.” Thus, the inanimacy of “what” when speaking of other-than-human life, instead becomes “who”:
“of apple, we must say, “Who is that being?” And reply Mshimin yawe. Apple that being is.”
The “grammar of animacy” takes form in an infinite number of Indigenous languages across the globe.
“Itrofillmongen” describes the “tangible and intangible elements of the diversity of life,” signifying the vitality of all natural elements in the Mapudungun language that is spoken in the Mapuche territory of Chile.
From the Higaonon language, in the Northern Mindanao region in the Philippines, “Gagaw” translates to the “love of the Creator” – the universal principle that connects the Higaonon tribe to their ancestral spirits and the language and life cycle of the rainforest.
Nehluen, an Innu-aimun language borne of the Nitassinan territory spanning from the South-West of Quebec, to the North-East of Labrador, Canada, possesses a word for the inclusive pronoun “we,” “Tshinanu,” that encompasses the earth’s collective community in the context of circular, non-hierarchical thought.
Kashtin, a First Nations Canadian folk rock duo wrote a song in its name:
Before becoming a serial offender of colonial linguicide, English once even partook in the “grammar of animacy.” Respect for the “umwelt” of other-than-human beings was woven through the Old English language (c.450-1150) – specifically kennings (compressed metaphors).
The noun, “sea” takes the perspective of a whale: “hran-rad” (whale-road) thus respectfully acknowledging a shared space between human and whale. (A mindset we are thankfully making inroads into again.)
Indeed, English also once participated in honouring the animacy of a spider as a “wæfer-gange” (weaver-walker). Although, “spider” still holds a dormant animacy in its Proto-Germanic roots as “spinner.”
However, with the institutionalisation of Christianity that started to establish itself in 7th century Britain, came an intolerance for pagan worship of nature.
This disapproval of appreciation for the natural world evolved over time into a dualism between the human and natural world that culminated in the anthropocene. The English language followed suit and so, had a substantial bearing on the interpretation of personhood in modern law.
The Limitations of Personhood in Law
Currently, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) does not extend protection to the natural environment that humans are part of and sustained by.
Furthermore, as it stands, the definition of Genocide according to the United Nations (UN) and to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, is strictly limited to an “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” with a specific focus on direct, physical harm.
Dr Lauren Eichler, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oregon, emphasises the concerning fact that the UN’s international legally recognised definition of genocide is not aligned with the original definition on which theirs was founded , composed by Polish lawyer, Raphäel Lemkin in 1944.
Lemkin’s definition, according to Eichler, includes indirect acts of destruction of a group, such as:
“forcefully supplanting … the principles, institutions, and values that make that group distinct from other human groups—with the principles, institutions, and values held by another group.”
To return to Dr Kimmerer’s observation of the English language’s preference for atomised nouns, in the internationally recognised definition of genocide, there is a prioritisation of beings – human beings, to be precise – but no regard for the importance of inter-being that is so fundamental to the existence and identities of Indigenous Peoples and also to the existence of earth’s collective community.
Dr Kimmerer recalls her elders giving advice to “spend some time with those Beaver people,” to learn from their teachings and be an active member of the community. From the Potawatomi perspective, and so many others, the world is inhabited with “Birch people, Bear people, Rock people …”
From this point of view, then, international legislation is wholly insufficient in protecting people from acts of genocide.
Loss of Land = Loss of Language
Britain’s colonisation of America in its embryonic stages, gives us an idea of how ecocide exists in a mutualism with genocide.
In 1612, John Smith, notable English 17th century explorer and coloniser, published a map of the Chesapeake Bay region, Tsenacommacah (meaning “densely inhabited land” – also known as Virginia), recording Native American place names in the Powhatan confederacy such as “Kiskiack” (also known as York County) as communicated to him by the Powhatan people he encountered on his voyage.
— Shakespeare’s Globe (@The_Globe) February 24, 2016
In contrast, Smith’s 1616 map of North America, inhabited by the Algonquian peoples and redubbed, “New England,” in the words of Sarah Laskow, Senior Editor of the Atlantic, reads as “a colonial real estate ad.”
Cheap replications of English toponyms supplant Native American place names holding generations of cultural significance and knowledge; for “Accomack,” “Segoket” and “Sowocatuck,” see: “New Plimouth,” “Norwich” and “Ipswich”.
Further, at the whim of the then future King Charles, are grotesque iterations of his own name such as “The River Charles” and “Charlton.”
— Smithsonian Magazine (@SmithsonianMag) November 24, 2014
Smith’s accompanying “brochure” to his 1616 map, “Description of New England,” fragments the land into resources. He lists organisms taxonomically, “Firre, pyne, walnut, chesnut, birch, ash… ,” describing in a grammar of inanimacy, their potential use to exploitative ends that foreshadows the global capitalist impact of unrestrained consumerism on the environment: “[free] stone for building, Slate for tiling, smooth stone to make Fornaces…”
Approving the Willow Project, Biden has failed to meet his climate promises, and in the process has violated Indigenous Peoples’ rights and committed the US to more climate pollution. #StopWillow #DefendTheSacred #ProtectTheArctic pic.twitter.com/EUzajZ3B5v
— Indigenous Environmental Network (@IENearth) March 16, 2023
Vine Deloria Jr., author of the noteworthy book, “Custer Died For Your Sins,” advocate for the Native American rights movement, lawyer in the Wounded Knee Trials in 1974 and Standing Rock Lakota Citizen, states:
“indigenous means “to be of a place“.”
Considering this, Smith’s 1616 map was effectively a genocidal blueprint.
Dr Margaret Kovach, Professor of Educational Studies at the Universities of Saskatchewan and British Columbia, and enrolled member of Pasqua First Nation, explains the cultural, social and epistemological significance that a place name holds:
“[in] southern Saskatchewan, there is a well-known name-place legend of how the Qu’Appelle Valley received its name … these stories situate us in place, they localize history and maintain an oral tradition of passing on knowledge…they are located within our personal knowing and conceptual framework of the world.”
Dr Anne Waters, Professor of American Indian Philosophy and of Seminole, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Jewish descent, adds to this, bringing to light the existential ramifications of displacement:
“Loss of language meaning is a loss of conceptual ontology; it is a loss of a way of being in the world; it is a loss of ways of relating in the world; and in its concrete manifestation, it is a loss of personal, social, cultural identity, or self.”
The forced displacement of Indigenous Peoples was officially legalised in 1830 through the “Indian Removal Act,” the genocidal impact of which was even further compounded by other various legal and institutional atrocities imposed on Indigenous Peoples by Western colonisers.
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The Ongoing Legacy of Colonialism
One of the most destructive and traumatic legacies of British colonialism, came in the form of the Indian Civilization Act in 1819, that involved the “civilization process” of Native American children.
This culminated in the residential school system that saw hundreds of thousands of Native American children forcibly removed from their homes and enrolled in boarding schools. Colonel Richard Henry Pratt, who founded Carlisle school, the template for over 300 schools in the US, originated the chilling phrase: “Kill the Indian to save the man.”
The schools physically, mentally and sexually abused the children, erasing their culture and committing sacrilege through standardised uniforms, cutting their hair and forcing them to adopt Christianity. In 1887, Native American languages became legally forbidden from being spoken in schools, with teachers physically punishing students if they disobeyed.
“History needs to be told by the people who experienced it.”
Hear from five Mohawk Residential School Survivors during the Public Virtual Tour, tonight at 6PM. Register today.https://t.co/LRZwJvCIr0#IndigenousVoices #IndigenousEvents #IndigenousKnowledge #IndigenousCulture pic.twitter.com/suPvf2Ey4h
— Woodland Cultural Centre (@woodlandcc) March 15, 2023
In 1975, Congress passed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, granting tribes agency over the programs administered by the federal government, which largely marked the end of the assimilatory regime.
However, the irreparable damage was done, with the extent of these genocidal atrocities continuing to be unearthed to this day. On May 27 2021, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation of British Columbia announced that they had discovered the remains of 215 students near Kamloops Indian Residential School with more at other sites discovered since.
Rosanne Casimir, the Kúkpi7 (Chief) of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc relates that parents were not informed of their missing children: “We had a knowing in our community that we were able to verify. To our knowledge, these missing children are undocumented deaths.”
These discoveries demonstrate the level of trauma and re-traumatisation Indigenous Peoples experience as victims of colonial genocide.
Today 182 unmarked graves were found on the grounds of the Residential School that still stands there. My family all went there. The shadow of that place still haunts our family. And now in that same shadow lie 182 who never did escape from its dark shadow. #ktunaxanation
— Earl Einarson (@EarlEinarson) June 30, 2021
The result of this intergenerational severing, heavily contributed to the escalated extinction of Indigenous languages that occurred in the last couple hundred of years.
Aluki Kotierk, the President of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI), discloses that Inuit People account for 85% of the population of Nunavet with 70% of the people speaking Inuktut as their mother tongue.
However, citing the legacy of Canada’s residential schools, she reports: “all of the territory’s schools, with a student population that’s 94-per-cent Inuit, operate in English (with one French immersion exception for 85 students).”
"Inuit are 85% of Nunavut population, & 70% of us have Inuktut as our mother tongue. Yet all the schools operate in English. Greenland runs an entire government in Inuit language. They’ve had an Inuit language school system since 1979. If they can do it, we can do it. 🧵 👇🏾 pic.twitter.com/lV5sOLHw7k
— UNPFII (@UN4Indigenous) March 13, 2023
It is predicted that Inuktut-speaking people are losing their Indigenous language at a rate of 12% per decade, with a prediction of only 4% usage by 2050. Despite this, and school drop-out rates as high as 70% for Inuit children, Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez refuses to commit to helping build Inuktut schools in Nunavut to restore Inuit language and culture.
Indeed, a law passed as recently as 2019 further solidified English as the dominant language in schools, with the requirement of Inuktut-taught lessons reduced to a single course called “Inuit Language Arts,” also pushing forward the government’s deadline to incorporate Inuit languages in schools another twenty years to 2039.
Potawatomi, Dr Kimmerer’s native tongue is now, according to The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)’s database, critically endangered with only 50 speakers left.
Dr Kimmerer, despite having been robbed of her native language – “[had] history been different, I would likely speak Bodewadmimwin” – is dedicated to learning Potawatomi in an act of resistance against colonising forces and to reclaim her heritage. Championing the importance of Indigenous language revitalisation she writes:
“… to become native to this place, if we are to survive here, and our neighbors too, our work is to learn to speak the grammar of animacy, so that we might truly be at home.”
The Road to Revitalisation
According to a recent report from the First Peoples’ Cultural Council (FPCC), Indigenous language-learning is on the rise in British Columbia with about 17,000 people learning their First Nations language and with around 3,000 more current learners than in 2018.
The language revitalisation movement, whose roots lie in the Māori People’s resistance to British colonisation in the 1800s, has steadily gained momentum against the projected odds of language extinction.
With language survival dependent on intergenerational learning, the children and grandchildren of the survivors of genocidal colonial regimes such as Phil Albers, a tribal member of the Karuk “upriver” people, are dedicated to learning their stolen native languages from their elders, and passing it down, bridging the generational gap and helping reconnect their community to their Indigenous language and their land.
Linguistic momentum is occurring in a number of other ways as well: dictionaries and online databases of Indigenous languages have been and are continuing to be compiled; Indigenous Peoples of younger generations are working to document the languages spoken by their elders; elders themselves are working to preserve and pass on their native tongues and educational institutions are being opened with the specific purpose of revitalising endangered Indigenous languages.
Conservation in Conversation
The biggest threat to Indigenous languages currently ongoing is the continued usurpation and destruction of Indigenous territories. This is happening both through the corrupt forces of capitalism, but also, ironically in the name of “conservation.”
An investigation this year found that 90% of carbon offsets based on rainforest protection projects are worthless, with Indigenous Peoples once again forcibly evicted from their land.
Indigenous leaders have criticised these “carbon pirates” and their weaponisation of the English language to deceive Indigenous communities with low literacy into signing legal contracts, unwittingly depriving them of access to their own land and livelihoods.
Despite the UN’s commitment to helping revitalise endangered Indigenous languages, the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) initiative under the United Nations Framework Convention On Climate Change (UNFCCC) is complicit in severing Indigenous People’s relationships to their land as the popular methodology employed by carbon offsetters.
Further, “regenerative” agriculture and its monocultural, binary application that reinforces the ontological separation of humans from nature, are accused by Indigenous leaders of encouraging “white-washed hope.”
Indigenous leaders instead call for everything to be considered; soil health, water cycles, wildlife, income and human history:
“Among Indigenous cultures, people belong to land rather than land belonging to people. Healing of land MUST include healing of people and vice versa.”
A way to decolonise our greenwashed conservation efforts, presents itself through the One Health approach. At the core of its ethos is the idea of interbeing – the absence of which in Western methodologies, has been the source of our failure to protect the environment.
🚨 We don't have one planet for humans and another for other species 🚨
Learn more about the #OneHealth approach and healthy ecosystems in this free course from @UNESCO, with a focus on #biosphereReserves, presented by leading expert Prof. @serge_morand. pic.twitter.com/mE9XG1WvXg
— UNESCO Man and Biosphere (@UNESCO_MAB) March 14, 2023
With the collaborative efforts of multiple disciplines, sectors and strategies functioning at all different levels of power – local, national and international – One Health looks to a more optimistic and feasible overarching vision of health in its nurturing of the interconnections between humans, other-than-human beings and our environment, meeting the needs of all.
However, the paradigm is largely dominated by high-income and therefore likely Western countries, so in order to reach its fullest potential, it must adopt a more inclusive and balanced structure.
Indeed, the crucial component missing to successful language revitalization, is the work needed to be done by the dominant, colonial languages to officially recognise, safeguard and integrate Indigenous languages into the institutions of power that they are currently gatekeeping.
A start can be made, per Dr Eichler’s suggestion, by expanding the current international legal definition of genocide to include ecocide, better reflecting the diverse definitions of personhood across the globe.
In addition, Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), historically marginalised intellectual practices belonging to Indigenous communities worldwide and invaluable to environmental sustainability and in its own right, ought to be placed on an institutionally equal footing to Western science. It should also be incorporated, under the authority and jurisdiction of whom it belongs, into global development and policy.
bell hooks, lauded African-American feminist, scholar, activist and author of “Ain’t I A Woman? Black Women and Feminism,” underscores the importance of egalitarian interbeing:
“Dialogue implies talk between two subjects, not the speech of subject and object. It is a humanizing speech, one that challenges and resists domination.”
It is imperative, then, that not only Indigenous Peoples be invited into an engaged dialogue with the global institutional powers that be, but also that we bring multi-species perspectives into the conversation as well, if we are to truly achieve environmental health.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Screenshot from the short film, “Rise: From One Island to Another“ showing poets Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner and Aka Niviâna, one from the Marshall Islands and one from Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland), standing back to back. Featured Photo Credit: Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, Aka Niviâna, Dan Lin, Nick Stone, Rob Lau and Oz Go, makers of the short film “Rise: From One Island to Another.“