Language, Rights and Opportunities:
The Role of Language in the Inclusion and Exclusion of Indigenous Peoples
Submission on the role of languages and culture in the protection and promotion of the rights and identity of indigenous peoples to the UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
Draft Only – Not for Publication
17 February 2012
Dr Fernand de Varennes
In its resolution A/HRC/18/8 entitled Human Rights and indigenous peoples, the Human Rights Council requested the Expert Mechanism to prepare a study on the role of languages and culture in the protection and promotion of the rights and identity of indigenous peoples.
This submission presents a global overview of the role of languages historically on the rights of indigenous peoples, and how language preferences or restrictions have excluded – or in other cases used to include – indigenous peoples in various spheres of society.
This submission also considers the nature and scope of the rights of indigenous peoples as human rights, and the potential for the language rights of indigenous peoples to be used to empower them rather than to exclude them as has too often been the case in many countries.
Languages are the foundation on which cultures are created. Languages distinguish peoples, provide identity and make language speakers part of unique groups.1
The multiple creations do not invite disorder,
Nor are the many languages the enemies of humankind
But the little tyrant must mold things into one body
To control them and give them his single vision.
Yet those who are truly great
On whom time has bequeathed the gift of wisdom
Know all truth must be born of seeing
And all the various dances of humankind are beautiful
They are enriched by the great songs of our planet.2
From Africa to Asia, the Americas to Siberia, indigenous peoples throughout the world have often seen their languages and cultures disregarded, denigrated or even suppressed. The legacy of these practices remain among us even today and can be witnessed through the low retention and success rates in schools teaching in a language alien to many indigenous children, as well as the common and continued refusal of state authorities in many parts of the world to use indigenous languages in their contacts and interaction with indigenous populations. This in turn frequently results in poor communications and access to social services and health care, limited employment and advancement opportunities for indigenous peoples, and perhaps worse a view that indigenous languages and cultures are somehow less worthy or useless.
And yet, language has an tremendously important role as both gatekeeper and doorway: indigenous peoples may be excluded or disadvantaged where a government limits or refuses to allow the use of an indigenous languages within the institutions of the state and relations with the public, or a doorway can be opened in both education and advancement when the use of an indigenous language can serve to empower members of indigenous communities.
Indigenous Languages and the Legacy of History
[Italy has been] chosen by the providence of the Gods to render even heaven itself more glorious, to unite the scattered empires of the earth, to bestow a polish upon men’s manners, to unite the discordant and uncouth dialects of so many different nations by the powerful ties of one common language, to confer the enjoyments of discourse and of civilization upon mankind, to become, in short, the mother-country of all nations of the Earth.
Pliny the Elder3
Historically, the prohibition of or refusal to use indigenous languages has more often than not led to the exclusion of indigenous individuals from many facets of political and social life. The languages of conquerors and colonisers were often perceived by their speakers as civilised along the lines of Pliny’s assertion that all barbarous languages had to be subsumed to one language of civilisation and one fatherland.
This sentiment has too often prevailed historically in relation to indigenous (and often minority) languages, though until the seventeenth century there was perhaps not a great deal of focus or attempt to displace the language used by indigenous populations since “[w]hen a country was governed by a limited ruling class, it did not matter what language the masses spoke, as long as they kept their place”.4 During much of the period before the appearance of the Western European concept of the nation-state, most ancient empires and pre-modern legal and political structures that would be in contact with indigenous societies sought to a large extent to preserve the administrative, community and legal structures already in place. For example, in the vast Hellenic Empire indigenous personnel were maintained whenever possible, and as a result the language used at the local level remained largely unchanged. Chinese policy in the ninth century in its southern regions also acknowledged that a degree of local autonomy, accompanied with the use of local (indigenous) languages even in official affairs, was the appropriate route to follow. Initiated during the Tang dynasty, the Du Si system of local administration for indigenous populations even survived, with the Zhuangs, until 1929.5
During the fifteenth century however a trend started to emerge in Europe that would spread around the world and impact particularly on the languages and cultures of indigenous peoples: the rulers of centralising states and European colonial authorities began to feel the need to directly claim the allegiance of their subjects, and to link this to the idea of one uniting language – and even to some extent one national culture. Subsequent to jurists such as Marsilius holding that the ultimate source of a sovereign’s power is in the people, a ruler could use a common language as natural proof of this allegiance,6 or impose his language on his subjects in order to strengthen the bond between them.
2.1 The Increasing Marginalisation of Indigenous Peoples through Language
We have revolutionized the government, the laws, the habits, the customs, commerce, and thought; let us also revolutionize the language which is their daily instrument. Citizens! the language of a free people ought to be one and the same for all; ...free men are all alike, and the vigorous accent of liberty and equality is the same whether it comes from the mouth of an inhabitant of the Alps, the Vosges, or the Pyrenees... We have observed that the dialect called the Bas-Breton, the Basque dialect, and the German and Italian languages have perpetuated the reign of fantasy and superstition, secured the domination of priests and aristocrats, prevented the Revolution from penetrating nine Departments, and favoured the enemies of France. You have taken away from these stray fanatics the empire of saints by establishing the republican calendar; take away the empire of priests by teaching the French language... It is treason to the fatherland to leave the citizens in ignorance of the national language.7
In Europe and eventually in European colonies, as the monarch established royal authority over subjects who previously owed allegiance to their traditional or feudal rulers, differences in language (and at various times religion or culture) were increasingly perceived as both inconvenient and obstructive. A local ruler or chieftain might be able to share with the local population knowledge of the local language – be it Algonquin, Nahuatl, Kurdish or Basque – but from the fifteenth century European sovereigns begin to centralise power and rule through a bureaucracy where knowledge of local or indigenous languages gradually started to be seen as an obstacle.
Language is one of the strongest symbols of shared culture in human society, and partially for this reason it has at times been given an almost mystical aura alongside the belief that one exclusive language was needed to bond individuals to a singular political community of state or empire; as a result, language diversity gradually began to be seen as a menace, or at least an inconvenience, that would best be eradicated. Thus came into being the first clear legislative attempts to eliminate the institutional or customary use of indigenous and minority languages, including even the forced assimilation of individuals into the language privileged by the sovereign. As the power of local or indigenous rulers was broken, a process of systematic centralisation also emerged.
Along these lines, the treatment of indigenous languages in the Americas is illustrative of the evolution of the practices that were put into place in most parts of the world. Although Spain sought with a 1550 ordnance8 to impose the use of Spanish as the language of instruction of the indigenous peoples, the ordnance was opposed by Catholic missionaries relying on the conclusions of the Council of Trentino (1545-1563) which approved and even encouraged the use of indigenous languages as the preferable route to adopt in order to ensure the conversion of the pagan population. Moreover, in some cases it was easier for missionaries to learn widespread former imperial languages such as Nahuatl. For a period, the use of this indigenous language by colonial authorities and clergy, including in the area of ‘public’ education, resulted in not only in an extension of its use but also of what could be best described as educational, intellectual and even economic success for speakers of this indigenous languages. As bilingualism in practice mainly existed among members of the indigenous communities or individuals of mixed background, the de facto use of Nahuatl as a language of instruction and communication by authorities favoured the advancement of individuals who were fluent in that language and Spanish. In many parts of the Americas where indigenous languages were for a time languages used by authorities for official purposes, this meant that social and economic mobility favoured those with knowledge of indigenous languages and the European colonial tongue.
A little known yet illuminative example of how the use of indigenous languages by authorities can be inclusive can be seen in the too brief yet very successful first institution of higher education in the New World, the Real Colegio de Santa Cruz established in Tlatelolco, Mexico, in 1536.
Representation of the Real Colegio de Santa Cruz: An educational and intellectual success
The college was an educational institution for indigenous peoples and priests teaching in three languages: Castilian (Spanish), Nahuatl and Latin. It produced during its brief existence multilingual (indigenous) graduates that would shine in the religious, intellectual and social segments of society for decades, producing for example the first grammar of Nahuatl in 1547 by Andrés de Olmos three years before the first grammar for the French language.9 Thus, at least for a few decades while Nahuatl was taught and officially used as a language of education at the Colegio until 50 years after the Spanish government stopped supporting this college in 1605, the use of an indigenous language in an official capacity in one of the New World’s premium state institutions resulted in the creating well-educated indigenous intellectuals and leaders fluent in Nahutal, Castillian and Latin.
What occurred with the Real Colegio de Santa Cruz and the status and attitudes concerning indigenous languages is also illustrative of how language can be used to exclude. Even though initially in Mexico in the 16th century education and conversion were done in indigenous languages, and in the case of the Colegio this education was multilingual and tended to favour indigenous and other bilingual individuals, by 1696 Charles II adopted a first decree banning the use of any languages other than Spanish throughout the Spanish Empire. This was followed later on by various other legislative measures, all leading up finally in the Cedula Real (royal decree) of 1770 which had the clear purpose of eliminating indigenous languages in the colonies of the Spanish king. It was almost but not completely successful because many indigenous languages still survive today, though in a much weakened and precarious condition for many. Where the Cedula was highly successful was in ending almost all the teaching of and writing in indigenous languages and the “Hispanisation” of indigenous peoples – and their increasing exclusion from most areas of economic and political advancement in the Empire.10
Portrait of King Charles III, whose royal decree of 1770 clearly stated the need to eliminate indigenous languages. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Charles_III_of_Spain.jpg
Most indigenous languages in Latin America thus moved from an initial position of favour, destined to facilitate conversion efforts and the administration of territories, to an increasingly repressive situation, a phenomenon which gained speed in the 18th century in most European colonies, north and south. The use of the Tupí language in Brazil was similarly initially encouraged by the Portuguese authorities in their colony in the New World as the lingua franca. Gradually, this linguistic compromise would be replaced by mere toleration of indigenous languages until finally they could be suppressed in the 18th century.11
The only significant exception to this process of initial use of indigenous languages, followed by mere toleration and finally active suppression and refusal to tolerate any use of these languages involved the Guaraní language in Paraguay which, despite some occasional repressive measures as illustrated later in this submission, was allowed to be used and somewhat protected by the state into the modern era, thanks in part to the early efforts of Jesuit missionaries. By the mid to early nineteenth century, indigenous languages are for all intents and purposes almost completely set aside by authorities, Castilian becoming the official language of Latin American countries (except Brazil), and English the language of administration and government in North America, with a few enclaves for the French language.
As explained by Professor Sergij Vilfan:
[The march to uniformity] resulted in the consolidation of the nation-states, together with the subsequent establishment of a centralised order arising out of the middle class revolutions — centralisation appearing from the early years of the nineteenth century as the hallmark of the structure of the liberal state, the champion of the egalitarian ideal. However, the process was detrimental to the continued existence and the development of the diverse languages that had been in common spoken or written use until that time.
Political unification is indeed a process that entails the imposition of one language — defined as the national language — at the expense of all others; it is one more means of asserting the position of the nation-state to which the process leads. In addition to other philanthropic arguments, the rationalist oligarchical approach includes that of linguistic uniformity...
These ideas, of course, were to gain ground among that section of public opinion that stood to gain from the unifying process. Politico-administrative centralism and the ensuing uniformity were a widespread phenomenon in Europe and Spain was no exception.12
For indigenous peoples in the Americas, Asia, Oceania and Africa who had previously exercised sovereignty over their own political units, and thus controlled their resources and own economic, social and cultural destinies, this centralisation process often imposed through a European language was especially and extremely detrimental. Most of the political, economic and even cultural levers of authority and control came increasingly into the hands of European elites, especially where these represented a significant or proportion of the population of a colony or newly independent state. Thus former American colonies were to adopt an attitude towards the languages of indigenous communities similar to those of European nations. A Guatemalan decree issued in 1824 called for the elimination of the use of indigenous languages, and indigenous languages were banned from use in Mexican schools from 1910 through to approximately 1935.13
In other parts of the world where colonial authorities tried to settle the new territories they controlled with Europeans rather than simply rule over local populations, this unavoidably led to the measures that would tag other languages as undesirable, or even inferior. Some Australian states enacted laws which outlawed teaching in “foreign” languages, while indigenous languages were simply discounted as irrelevant during this period, but by the 1850s Australian legislation dealing with education established English as the sole language of instruction. This resulted in particularly dire consequences for aboriginal communities and their languages. By this stage, oppression and forced assimilation — partly through removing children from their parents — had led to the disappearance of 100 or so of the 250 languages which had been spoken in Australia in 1788.14 Nor has this process been completely abandoned, as Australian authorities in the Northern Territory where many indigenous Aborigines live recently legislated in 2008 to virtually end effective teaching in Aboriginal languages in public schools.15
The political will to create a new community represented by the state required common symbols, and language was considered such a symbol. Therefore, in a number of nation-states governments adopted measures to ensure conformity with the symbols chosen by the majority, but not necessarily all, of its populations:
In nineteenth-century French schools, under orders to spread the national language to that half of France which still was not francophone, teachers used punishment to suppress the students’ use of their native tongue. In the 1890s children caught using Breton were put on dry bread and water or sent to clean out the school latrine, or were made to wear a token of shame. Tove Skutnabb-Kangas labels as violent the requirement that some minority-language speakers — for example Lapps in Norway, Finns in Sweden, Kurds in Turkey, and Native-Americans in the United States — attend centralised assimilation schools that isolate children from their families and exterminate their native culture and language. She further describes Finnish and Welsh children punished for using their home languages by being made to carry heavy loads or wear collars that restrain head movement. In 1846 Welsh was allowed in classrooms only as a vehicle for teaching English; it was banned completely between 1871 and 1939. American schools were equally zealous to convert everyone to English. When the United States took the Philippines from Spain in 1898, it imposed English in the schools, together with the practice of suspending students or lowering their grades for using a non-English language.16
There was also in many parts of the world, a definite tinge of racial or cultural superiority in relation to the treatment of indigenous languages and cultures:
After the 1812 War with the United States, British colonisers no longer required aboriginal peoples as allies — or for that matter, as explorers or traders. Their value rapidly diminished, with the result that aboriginal tribes became stigmatised as obstacles to the progressive settlement of Canadian society. Moreover, by refusing to relinquish their identity and assimilate into "higher levels" of "civilisation", aboriginal peoples were dismissed as an inferior and unequal species whose rights could be trampled on with impunity... A policy of assimilation evolved as part of this project to subdue and subordinate aboriginal peoples. From the early nineteenth century on, elimination of the "Indian problem" was one of the colony's — later the Dominion's — foremost concerns. Authorities rejected extermination as a solution, but focused instead on a planned process of cultural change known as assimilation. Through assimilation, the dominant sector sought to undermine the cultural distinctiveness of aboriginal tribal society; to subject the indigenes to the rules, values and sanctions of Euro-Canadian society; and to absorb the de-cultured minority into the mainstream through a process of “anglo-conformity”. The means to achieve this outward compliance with Euro-Canadian society lay in the hands of missionaries, teachers, and law-makers.17
In the US, teachers speaking only English were employed and instructed to assimilate indigenous children into the majority-controlled society. These children were punished, at times beaten or their mouths washed out with soap, if they lapsed into their native language: “at the boarding schools many of them were forced to attend by a government which at times withheld food from parents who wanted to keep their children at home.”18
Colonialism in effect responded to very diverse and complicated language situations in a variety of manners. One example is the case of South Africa where the Afrikaners practised a policy inspired from the British:
That the British authorities saw the importance of language is apparent from the steps periodically taken to compel the public use of English. They applied pressure first in the schools: they extended it by proclamation to the courts from the late 1820's onwards, in 1853 they made English the exclusive language of Parliament, and by  they appeared to be triumphing on all fronts. By the middle 1870's the Chief Justice, J.H. de Villiers, could tell an audience that although the time is still far distant when the inhabitants of this colony will speak and acknowledge one common mother-tongue, it would come at last, and when it does come, the language of Great Britain will also be the language of South Africa...
In many cases, colonial languages such as English, French, Spanish and Portuguese and associated cultural traits acquired an economic and social value that was treasured above all else, while the languages and many of the cultural traits of indigenous peoples were devalued and often despised.19
Various methods were widely used by state authorities in countries all over the world to mould individuals belonging to minorities and indigenous peoples into the new colonial or national identity, as states intervened more and more directly into what had previously been community-oriented activities, including education:
In 1812 the government junta advised schoolteachers that Spanish was the language of the classroom and to banish Guaraní from school usage. “In school the use of Guaraní in class hours was prohibited. To enforce this rule, teachers distributed to monitors bronze rings which were given to anyone found conversing in Guaraní... [On] Saturday, return of the rings was requested and each one caught with a ring was punished with four or five lashes”.20
The Sami people in Scandinavia were submitted to many of the same techniques. For example, from the second part of the nineteenth century, Norwegian authorities carried out a policy of assimilation in education as part of the Norwegian nation-building process in which the idea of “one nation - one language” played a prominent role. This was followed by other measures involving state language preferences, which were to have a highly destructive impact on Sami language, culture and identity:
In 1902, a law was passed to the effect that state-owned land in Finnmark could be sold or hired only to Norwegian citizens who were able to speak, read and write the Norwegian language and who used this language in everyday life. This regulation was primarily directed against Finnish immigrants, but its impact on the Sami population was at least as severe.21
Before European settlement of Australia, there were approximately 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages in the continent. Approximately one third of these continue to be spoken by some people, however, many are spoken only by a handful of older individuals. Their disappearance has nothing to do with their inability to adapt to the context of a technologically driven society, but much to do with repressive, even genocidal, actions by public authorities or members of the dominant majority:
Every turn in policy of government and the practice of the non-[Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander] community was postulated on the inferiority of the Aboriginal people; the original expropriation of their land was based on the idea that the land was not occupied and the people uncivilised; the protection policy was based on the view that Aboriginal people could not achieve a place in the non-[Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander] society and that they must be protected against themselves while the race died out; the assimilationist policy assumed that their culture and way of life is without value and that we confer a favour on them by assimilating them into our ways; even to the point of taking their children and removing them from family.22
2.2 Threats to the Languages and Cultures of Indigenous Peoples: A Troubling Truth
The physical violence of the battlefield was followed by the psychological violence of the classroom. But where the former was visibly brutal, the latter was visibly gentle [...] The bullet was the means of the physical subjugation. Language was the means of the spiritual subjugation.23
Such a scenario, recurrently experienced by indigenous peoples worldwide,24 must be understood in terms of economic and political power in addition to the legal manifestations of such power: the invading population group would take control of the land from indigenous peoples in order to exploit local resources and to establish effective political power over the territory. With consolidation of power and control over recently acquired territories, the conquering authorities found it expedient at times to impose their way of life upon indigenous populations, whose traditions they often considered primitive, in order to support the legitimacy of their own claims of ownership and dominion.25
Thus, many of the policies affecting indigenous peoples were based upon the assumption by state authorities and those in control that indigenous populations, cultures and languages would eventually disappear naturally or by absorption into other segments of the population and the emerging national culture of the new state:
It was expected that the indigenous languages would disappear...in the face of the dynamism, the equality and the attraction of the official languages — international languages which were assumed to have real or imaginary advantages of all kinds, and were considered particularly suited to science, technology, art and civilisation. For that reason, no stress was laid on state plans to teach the indigenous languages or use them as languages of instruction for some of the initial phases of education. That was assumed to be contrary to the best interests of those societies and involved danger for national unity, since it was feared that it would lead inevitably to linguistic insularity and excessive social and political fragmentation.26
These policies often resulted in the elimination of indigenous languages and cultures. By forcing indigenous peoples’ children into learning in what constituted for all intents and purposes a foreign language in the educational system and environment of the dominating population group, it was “sought to achieve the so-called civilisation of these peoples including the replacement of their native tongues” and remove any threat to the unity of the state.27
The consequences today are unmistakeable: while linguistic diversity itself is threatened worldwide, most of the languages which will disappear in the next century are indigenous languages:
Indigenous peoples’ languages represent at least 4000 languages of the world’s linguistic diversity and most of the indigenous languages belong nowadays to the category of languages seriously endangered.28
Over 50% of the world’s 6,700 languages are seriously endangered and liable to be lost within one to four generations, with at least one language disappearing every two weeks, and the vast majority of these endangered languages are indigenous. While languages have come and gone throughout human history, the rate of disappearance has grown almost exponentially after the 15th Century, in large parts due to the factors previously described. In other words, while it is undeniably in the nature of languages that some will grow and others fade with time, the observable trend in the last few hundred years suggests that not all of them are dying a natural death. Languages die all the time, but what is new is the speed at which they are dying out. And it is this accelerated pace of disappearance which is not a natural phenomenon, contrary to what is sometimes suggested. Many indigenous languages appear to be disappearing because they are being systematically extinguished through the effects of government policies, according to some authors.29