Talking to Religious Actors to Preserve Indigenous Languages


The resolution declared 2022-2032 the International Decade of Indigenous Languages ​​– and tasked UNESCO with leading the charge to preserve endangered indigenous languages ​​and raise awareness of the cultural diversity that these minority languages ​​bring to a global community.

However, although indigenous cultures and languages ​​have a significant interaction with their religious traditions, there was no mention of the involvement of a religious actor in the original UN resolution. As the International Decade of Indigenous Languages ​​begins this year, UNESCO should give religious communities a greater role in its work to preserve the intangible heritage of indigenous languages.

The Interplay of Indigenous Language and Religion

The interwoven nature of religion and indigenous language is evident, and this overlap makes the involvement of religious actors in this work crucial. Oral communication is common to all faiths, and much of what is considered intangible heritage has religious aspects. In some traditions, the language is considered divinely inspired. In other contexts, the language preserves unique cultural and religious traditions otherwise lost to time through symbols, iconography or oratories and religious songs.

A community’s beliefs are often told through oral histories and religious rituals, demonstrating the importance of prioritizing outreach to religious groups beyond simply inhabiting their physical spaces. Yet the history of Indigenous communities around the world is often marked by extreme oppression from outside forces, targeting both their language and their faith. Language preservation helps ensure that individuals can access the present and past of their community, while contributing to the preservation of religious heritage.

Because while language is certainly built on vocabulary and grammatical structure, the roots of a dialect also emerge from the worldview, identity and faith of its speakers – a broad conception of religion that requires a more holistic approach to its preservation.

A model of oblivion of religious actors

Since the resolution adopted in 2019 without direct reference to religious actors, UN initiatives have developed a tendency to neglect the role of religious actors and religion in the preservation of indigenous languages.

For example, while the Declaration “Los Pinos” stressed support for safeguarding language, songs, myths, puns, poetry and oral traditions, he made only a passing reference to religion. And nowhere in UNESCO Global Action Plan for the coming decade is there explicit mention of indigenous and minority religious institutions and their potential role in the preservation of indigenous languages. UNESCO acknowledges that other groups than those mentioned in the plan will be involved – referring to “other stakeholders” throughout – but the lack of vision for collaboration with faith communities is problematic. Religious communities, both priests and laity, as well as women, men and young people, could all play an active role in helping to preserve their culture and faith.

The fact that UNESCO does not include religious actors is a regrettable oversight, as it is important for peacebuilding and reconciliation – two goals noted in the plan that are often facilitated by religious actors and institutions, that either publicly or behind the scenes.

As is evident around the world, the role of religion is a factor in world affairs. Religious actors, in many contexts, play a central role in driving conflict and promoting peace. UNESCO would benefit from learning how religious actors and institutions have contributed to conflict prevention and resolution, and then reflecting on how best to engage the religious sector in the preservation of indigenous languages. USIP has documented how religious actors and their institutions provide unique access and deep motivation for peacebuilding and the preservation of their heritage.

How to Include Religious Actors in Indigenous Communities

Fortunately, it’s not too late. There are natural on-ramps to include religious actors. UNESCO’s Global Action Plan emphasizes the strengthening of relevant stakeholders alongside participating actors.

So far, these stakeholders include Indigenous youth, women and elders, which opens the door to adding religious actors. That would be smart policy. Relating to an often overlooked community, religious women have proven their skills and leadership in negotiating peace on the front lines around the world. Findings from USIP’s work show that when women use culturally or regionally specific dialogue to discuss peace, they are often respected and successful in negotiating peace. Likewise, the convergence of indigenous religion, language and culture makes clear the importance of working with religious leaders and lay people in indigenous communities.

In addition, the UNESCO plan calls on key stakeholders to organize and host events related to improving language access and preservation. Here, religious communities can also help. An entire section of the Global Action Plan is devoted to the multi-stakeholder framework. And in it, the plan lists key target groups such as duty-bearers and enablers – which the framework defines as “key actors in fulfilling their obligations and responsibilities to indigenous peoples, as they enhance the vitality of indigenous languages ​​and expand the safe space for the use of indigenous languages”. languages ​​of the public domain”. Religious actors are a missing piece of this puzzle and could provide substantial assistance to the effort at the national and international level.

For the International Decade of Indigenous Languages ​​to achieve its goal of preserving endangered indigenous languages, it is imperative to engage religious actors, both in a posture of insight and in building peace and reconciliation. UNESCO would be well advised to develop consultative bodies open to all religious communities and secular groups to advise them on how best to associate and benefit from their unique ideas and experiences. Otherwise, UNESCO’s approach risks falling prey to the same criticisms that spurred the creation of a special decade by ignoring key communities on the front lines of language preservation.

Indigenous languages ​​have existed within religious communities for ages, and the UN’s goal is to preserve these languages ​​for posterity. Wouldn’t the UN be more successful in partnering with religious actors for this important purpose? UNESCO should strive to establish partnerships with religious actors to truly succeed in the arduous task of preserving indigenous languages.

Mackenzie Miller is a research assistant with USIP’s Religion and Inclusive Societies team.


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