World leaves United States behind on commitment to Indigenous Peoples’ language rights

On Jan. 1, 2022, the world community embarks on the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, a ten-year commitment by all 193 countries of the United Nations to take action protecting the language rights of Indigenous Peoples. The initiative could not be more timely. Experts estimate that one of the world’s 7,000 languages dies every two weeks, and that half of the world’s languages will be gone by the next century. 

Accordingly, national and Indigenous leaders from dozens of countries including Australia, Canada, Iceland, Thailand, Ukraine, and Zimbabwe met last week in Paris to discuss the Global Action Plan of the IDIL2022-2032.Several countries announced national action plans committing to transformative language revitalization for the decade. All seem to realize that when languages cross borders, histories of oppression are shared, and innovation is both local and global, worldwide cooperation is necessary to solve this human rights issue.

All except the United States. The U.S. was not in the room for the discussions. The U.S. has no national action plan, nor any plan, for the International Decade of Indigenous Languages. While the U.S. has recently opted out of international human rights institutions for various political reasons, this absence is particularly unfortunate.

The U.S. has an incredibly rich heritage of Indigenous languages ranging from Anishinaabe to Cherokee, Navajo to Tewa. But they are almost all endangered, in part because  the U.S. spent two hundred years and $2.81 billion trying to destroy them. The infamous federal boarding schools of the 19th and 20th centuries taught English, Christianity, and manual labor, as part of a program to “assimilate” Indians into mainstream society. Lessons were enforced through violence. Some children reported teachers (or priests) sticking pins in their tongues if they spoke their own languages. After hundreds of children’s graves were discovered on school grounds in 2021, Secretary of the Interior Debra Haaland formed the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative to investigate this “troubled history.” 

The contemporary legacies are painful. Those who died at boarding schools did not transmit their languages and some survivors are still too traumatized to do so. Today, Indigenous individuals face discrimination when they try to vote, testify in court, or receive medical treatment in their own languages. The cultural impacts are also devastating. Linguists have shown that when an Indian tribe loses a critical mass of native speakers, it loses entire traditions of religion, governance, education, and science that were carried in the language.

COVID-19 has accelerated these losses, which extend beyond families and tribes. Research into the correlation between language diversity and biological diversity, along with the role of traditional knowledge in climate change adaptation, suggests that Indigenous Peoples’ languages may contain keys to humans’ ability to survive on this earth. 

The U.S. eventually abandoned its formal policy to eradicate Indigenous languages and has several federal programs supporting tribal language instruction. But the funding available under these laws isn’t enough – and the aims of the legislation are too limited — to teach most Indigenous children even the colors and numbers in their own languages. As the Cherokee journalist Rebecca Nagle has noted, the Administration for Native Americans funded only 29 percent of tribal applications for language support in 2018. 


The Biden administration has promised an additional $220 million, but even this welcome announcement stops short of the transformational change in mindset and funding necessary to heal the harm of the boarding schools and restore flourishing multilingual societies. Census data shows that of 169 Indigenous languages in the U.S., less than twenty have over 2,000 speakers.

Tribes have taken matters into their own hands. Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr., addressed the UN General Assembly on language rights in 2019 to share his tribe’s investments in tribal immersion schools, Cherokee language media, and technology putting the Cherokee syllabary on smart phones. The Shawnee Tribe has declared a Decade of the Shawnee Language, to mirror the UN’s Decade, with the goal of producing “new generations of fluent speakers.” The Wampanoag people have brought their language back from dormancy and, at the Navajo Nation, there are over 170,000 speakers using the Diné language in tribal courts, schools, and homes.

Yet tribes shouldn’t have to do it all on their own, and most cannot because they lack the resources necessary for comprehensive language revitalization. Language rights are human rights, recognized in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Accordingly, other countries are taking responsibility for their roles in destroying Indigenous Peoples’ languages and committing to broad-based initiatives to restore them. The plan is to  lay a “solid foundation” for Indigenous Peoples’ language rights by honoring the right of self-determination, focusing on Indigenous language speakers, sharing best practices globally, and integrating Indigenous languages into all domains of life.

The International Decade of Indigenous Languages starts in two weeks, the same period during which experts predict another language will die or go dormant. If the U.S. will not lead, it is at least time to join the global commitment to Indigenous Peoples’ languages.

Kristen A. Carpenter directs the American Indian Law Program at the University of Colorado Boulder. She served on the United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples from 2017-2021, as its member from North America, and is currently an Observer on the Global Steering Committee for IDIL2022-2032.


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