Waiapi family, Waiapi Indigenous Reserve. (APU GOMES/Getty Images).

The International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples provides an opportunity, each year on the 9th of August, to reflect on the gifts that the world’s 370 million indigenous peoples bring to our global society and planet, what we can learn from them, and how those of us in more mainstream societies can best support indigenous peoples. 

2019 is the UN Year of Indigenous Languages, which also affords us the opportunity to consider how language shapes our lives and identity, and engage with the fact that very many indigenous languages are at risk of extinction. The UN estimates that many of the world’s approximately 6700 languages are at risk of linguicide; the majority of which are indigenous, with 2,680 indigenous languages at risk due to nationalist and imperialist values, social media, the internet, and globalisation. These at risk languages are spoken by 370 million indigenous peoples in the world today, and represent a significant part of the world’s vast cultural and linguistic diversity and heritage. Indigenous peoples possess unique knowledge systems, which are recognised by the UN as crucial for sustainable development. At the same time, systemic marginalisation of indigenous peoples is pervasive in all the regions of the world. 

As we face the deepening ecological crisis and worldwide societal malaise, we must listen carefully to the ancient wisdom of the indigenous peoples; their Traditional Ecological Knowledge cultivated over countless generations and deeply ingrained cultural values provide many clues as to how we can heal our societies, restore our ecosystems, and better relate to all our peoples; indigenous peoples can guide the global society through these times to better stewardship of nature and fairer sharing of the world’s resources.

Hotspots where indigenous languages are at risk. Picture Credit: Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages

For those of us who don’t speak an indigenous language, we can do many things to show solidarity with and support indigenous peoples. One of the first things we can do is look unflinchingly at our own language use, and equip ourselves with words we can use to pause, reflect, and push our mainstream leaders to respect the rights of the world’s indigenous peoples:

Indigenous Peoples – There is no international agreement on the definition of indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples decide whether they consider themselves to be indigenous. This is known as self-identification. Indigenous peoples take pride in their identity and are determined to maintain their distinctness as indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples use the term ‘peoples’ because it is more closely linked to the inherent recognition of their distinct identity, their possessing both individual human rights and collective rights, as well as their right to self-determination. 

Self-determination – The UN defined right to self-determination is the right of a people to determine its own destiny. In particular, the principle allows a people to choose its own political status and to determine its own form of economic, cultural and social development. This includes the right of indigenous peoples to an education that adequately reflects their culture, language and methods of teaching and learning.

Security –  Indigenous peoples are facing the destruction of their lands, territories and resources, which are essential to their survival. Many have been threatened and murdered by illegal miners, loggers, and multinational companies seeking to exploit their lands, others displaced, camped at roadsides, dying of disease and suicide, and shot when they try to re-occupy their land.

Land and Water Rights – Securing and enforcing indigenous land and water rights is a priority and prerequisite for all other rights and self-determination. 

Displacement – As well as being forcibly moved on through the violence of companies wishing to exploit their lands, indigenous peoples are also displaced by forced urbanisation due to the nature of our current economy, conflict and the climate crisis. 

Map highlighting the world’s Indigenous communities. Picture Credit: National Geographic Maps.

Marginalisation – Indigenous peoples are often treated as insignificant or peripheral, and often face discrimination within countries’ legal systems, leaving them even more vulnerable to violence and abuse. Those who speak out face intimidation and violence, which is often supported by the state. For this reason, indigenous peoples make up 15 percent of the world’s extreme poor, with higher rates of landlessness, malnutrition, and internal displacement than other groups. Indigenous people are also more likely to find themselves suspended from school and facing arbitrary incarceration.

Health – Marginalisation is exacerbated by major structural barriers in accessing health care, and institutionalised racism and discrimination within the health care system, along with a lack of cultural sensitivity and understanding. Indigenous communities have also been subject to torturous medical experiments, forced birth control and sterilisations. These impacts on the health and freedom of citizens to give birth, are part of the actions and omissions of genocidal conduct, as defined by the United Nations.  

Suicide – As well as dealing with the disproportionate violence against them, indigenous languages are in a state of loss, social cohesion, values and tradition can break down, causing despair, identity crisis, and a significant increase suicides. This intergenerational trauma also fits the category of genocide by mental harm.

Genocide The 2019 Canadian report, ‘Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls’, concludes that historical and contemporary injustices, supported by decades of policy and state indifference, amounted to UN defined deliberate acts and omisions of Genocide.

Word map highlighting the discrimination and land rights violations experienced by indigenous peoples, while the their cultures and traditions may prove vital for preserving life on earth. Picture Credit: CollaborativeJourneys.com

Cultural Hegemony – Political, economic and cultural marginalisation create the conditions where indigenous communities abandon their language in order to elevate their social status, find work or study, and therefore take on the cultural and linguistic traits of the mainstream society.

Linguicide – Linguicide is the death of a language, either from natural or political causes. According to the British linguist David Crystal, an indigenous language dies every two weeks. This linguistic erosion is caused by the use of lingua francas, principally English, the main language of the internet and globalisation, and also a great deal due to marginalisation and deliberate acts to cause linguicide and genocide. Many countries dictate a “national language” and discriminate against those who do not speak this. Furthermore, linguicide significantly endangers the collective rights of indigenous peoples.

Human and Collective Rights – Indigenous peoples have the same right to social, political and economic participation, health and education as all other humans. This is a right which they should be able to enjoy without any discrimination. These fundamental human rights and freedoms must be respected for all peoples. When indigenous communities lose their language, they also lose political recognition, and much of their ability to advocate for themselves politically as a group.

Indigenous Sign Languages – We must not forget the many indigenous sign languages spoken around the world, some spoken by just a handful of people. Last year I visited the vibrant signing community in Bengkala Village, North Bali, for the International Day of Sign Languages. There is an elementary school in the village, which does teach both the local deaf and non-signing children together; however, those able to access secondary education must board at a school that only teaches the more widely known Indonesian Sign Language and only 5 deaf villagers are literate.

Indigenous peoples’ Traditional Ecological Knowledge will be vital to stemming the Ecological Crisis. Picture Credit: UN.

Ecological Crisis – Climate breakdown, illegal logging, and environmental contaminants polluting indigenous lands and waters are forcing many indigenous peoples from their territories. Indigenous peoples live in and are guardians of the world’s most remote and biologically diverse areas and their traditional knowledge about the biodiversity of these areas is invaluable and, given the fragility of our planet and the indigenous peoples, we have a limited time frame in which to bring all our peoples and our planet to a place of safety.    

Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) – Indigenous communities have unique systems of knowledge and understanding of the world. TEK in regards to botany, medicine and philosophy is likely to prove key to stemming the Ecological Crisis we now face. 

Peacebuilding and Reconciliation – Indigenous communities have honed their abilities in negotiating with their environment and each other. Their wisdom, woven into the fabric of their language, will be essential as we seek sustainable development, investment, peace building and reconciliation.

Reparations and Redress – Some indigenous leaders and activists are now pressing for a time of healing through airing truths and for reconciliation, recognition, reparations and redress for indigenous peoples, such as the protection and return of their ancestral lands and waters. The removal of statues and monuments to those who have perpetrated genocide historically should also be removed, and there should be renaming of places still bearing racist names. The full truth must be told, in schools, museums and libraries, including of the harm done by religious missions to the indigenous peoples.

Justice – Indigenous communities’ have separate systems of justice, which are often in sharp contrast to many governments and states’ model of retribution and incarceration; rather, indigenous communities often favour restorative justice, focusing on repairing harm. Any process of reparations and redress would need to factor in giving indigenous communities control over their own justice system.

Inclusion and Diversity – Social inclusiveness improves literacy and health, reduces poverty, and builds international cooperation. Inclusion promotes mutual appreciation of cultural values, diversity and heritage and creates a rich cultural mix where our human ecosystem can thrive and grow sustainably and in peace. 

Cultural Revitalisation – Language revitalisation is vital for indigenous communities to retain their identity and cultural traditions, which are contained in language, such as songs, myths, and poetry, and which cannot be perfectly replicated in another language. It is also key to retaining their health.

2019 is the International Year of Indigenous Languages. Picture Credit: UN. 

To find out more:

  • Find out more about The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Adolescent Version), adopted by the General Assembly in 2007, which provides a starting blueprint for respectfully balancing traditional ways of living with modern life: “Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, legal, economic, social and cultural institutions, while retaining their right to participate fully, if they so choose, in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the State.”
  • Google Earth collaborated with 55 Indigenous language speakers to share traditional greetings, favourite sayings and meaningful songs. Explore and listen here.
  • Get involved in Amnesty’s movement to ensure governments implement laws and policies bring the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to life, particularly around effectively consulting Indigenous Peoples to obtain their free, prior and informed consent for decisions that affect them, maintaining their distinct cultural identities, living free from discrimination and the threat of genocide, and having secure access to the lands and resources essential to their wellbeing and ways of life. 

Are you from an indigenous community? Please consider joining us at Girls in Science to share your knowledge and experience.


Lara is a creative polymath, dancer, poet, dreamer, inventor, maker, rule-breaker, public history and board game enthusiast, and activist, who likes to spark (and grow) ideas.

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