UN Proclaims International Decade of Indigenous Languages

The UN General Assembly last month proclaimed 2022–2032 the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, inviting Indigenous peoples—as custodians— to initiate ideas for preserving this endangered facet of their cultural and social life, as it adopted 60 resolutions and one decision recommended by its Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian, and Cultural).

The proclamation of a decade is strongly supported by a wide range of stakeholders. There is consensus that the decade would contribute to raising global awareness about the importance of Indigenous languages for sustainable development, peace building, and reconciliation and would mobilize further resources for the support and promotion of Indigenous languages worldwide.

Craig Ritchie, CEO of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies and co-chair of the steering committee for the organization of the International Year, noted: “As a steering committee, we have agreed to support to follow an International Decade of Indigenous Languages… But more than that, we need to give substance and focus to this agenda going forward.”

Aili Keskitalo, co-chair of the steering committee for the organization of the International Year of Indigenous Languages 2019, also emphasized how preserving and promoting Indigenous languages requires a long-term strategy and joint commitment at different levels: “Keeping our languages alive is the work of generations… Our languages are like sinews that tie us to our heritage and our ancestors; they might tear, but can be mended, with care, with love, and with lots of hard work.”

A day after addressing the United Nations General Assembly to call for action to save and strengthen Indigenous languages, Assembly of First Nations (AFN) national chief Perry Bellegarde celebrated the move: ”The International Decade of Indigenous Languages demonstrates a strong international commitment to restore, support, and strengthen Indigenous languages. Our languages are our identity, our wisdom, our worldview. They must not be lost.

“The International Year of Indigenous Languages was a good start, but one year is simply not enough when we’re talking about diverse cultural heritages facing such grave threats. Let’s continue to work together to get this important work done.”

National Chief Bellegarde was at UN Headquarters in New York City to participate in the high-level event for the closing of the 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages. The national chief addressed the full UN General Assembly that day, making him the first Indigenous leader from Canada to address the General Assembly twice in one year (National Chief Bellegarde also spoke to the General Assembly in February 2019).

National Chief Bellegarde told the General Assembly in his address that, in Canada, no Indigenous language is safe and only one in five Indigenous people is fluent enough in their language to hold a conversation. The national chief thanked and acknowledged the grand chief of the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations, Wilton Littlechild, who was attending the UN General Assembly that week, for his dedication over many years and for his role in making the International Year of Indigenous Languages and the International Decade of Indigenous Languages a reality. In 2016, the UN General Assembly proclaimed 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages.

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