WCC Proposes International Year of Indigenous Languages in 2006

The World Council of Churches' (WCC) delegates have joined the “Third UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues” taking place on 10-21 May in New York. In the light of the increasing awareness of the indigenous issues from the WCC Indigenous Peoples Programme, it has called for an UN-sponsored “International Year of Indigenous Languages” in 2006.

According to UNESCO statistics, one language is lost every two weeks on average. At the UN Forum, a member of the United Methodist Church in the US, pointed out that up to 90% of the world’s 6,800 languages will fall silent by the end of this century unless something is done about it. He noted that over three-quarters of the world’s linguistic diversity is contributed by Indigenous peoples.

In a joint statement, the participants at the Indigenous Caucus made reference to the inestimable value of Indigenous languages as “the basis of our spirituality and ceremonial life, the source of Indigenous knowledge, the core of our identity as Indigenous peoples, the bearer of our unwritten histories, the source for the proper use and codification of our medicinal knowledge, the heart of our rich heritage and as a gift from the Creator”.

The WCC delegation stressed the value of languages to Indigenous cultures and the urgency of pro-active strategies for their revitalisation.

Since the 1970s, the World Council of Churches (WCC) has supported the struggles of Indigenous People through its Programme to Combat Racism (PCR) and Indigenous Peoples’ Programme (IPP), both facilitated by the Justice, Peace & Creation (jpc) Team. It has engaged in theological reflection, historical analysis, ethical debate, networking and advocacy at the UN on the inter-related issues of land, culture and spirituality, power and identity, sovereignty and self-determination.

With the accelerating deterioration of the global economic and political situation, Indigenous People are facing further exclusion and grave threats to the continuity and sustainability of their cultures and traditional way of life.

Dr Richard A. Grounds of the Yuchi nation in Oklahoma, USA, who is a member of the WCC Central Committee, explains, “An International Year of Indigenous Languages would call attention to this largely silent issue, generating both public awareness, and greater realisation on the part of Indigenous people themselves, who often are not clear about the extent of language loss within their own communities.”

The Indigenous Caucus participants have high expectation on the International Year. An International Year would “highlight the critical status of our languages, providing both education about the value of our languages and effective strategies for revitalisation” with the help of the United Nations.

The three main aspects the International Year will emphasise on are:
- The development of clear strategies for effective intervention in the process of Indigenous language loss
- Funding from states for language revitalization programmes
- To redress the oppression and legal measures that continue to be used against minority and Indigenous languages

The preparation for the approval of an International Year of Indigenous Languages is now underway. The delegation of the WCC Indigenous Peoples Programme gathered signatures of support from over 60 different Indigenous organisations attending the Permanent Forum in order to promote the initiative.

The International Year of Indigenous Languages will need to be proclaimed by the UN General Assembly. The year will be enacted if it passes through the voting process. Currently, the New Zealand government is being approached to propose the International Year to the UN in time for the activities to be programmed to begin in 2006.