When serving in the Cook Islands a few years back, I enjoyed listening to speech competitions at the Catholic High School, Nukutere College. In particular, it was heartening to hear students deliver talks in Cook Islands Maori. There was something about listening to students convey ideas in their own language which heightened my sense that they took deep pride in, and enthusiastically embraced,  a very rich culture and identity with significant history and traditions.

Photo Credit: UN and RobbyRomero.com

Sadly, in some parts of the world, languages are disappearing. According to UNESCO, there are about 7,000 languages spoken worldwide, of which 2,680 are in danger of being lost, many of them indigenous. It is estimated that an indigenous language vanishes every two weeks, which jeopardizes the preservation of cultures and the transference of local knowledge.

Awareness-raising about the urgent need to revitalize, preserve and promote indigenous languages is the focus of this year’s International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, August 9.  The day’s theme, Indigenous Languages, is in keeping with the fact that 2019 is the International Year of Indigenous Languages. During the International Year, the UN is promoting indigenous languages in five particular areas:

  1. Increasing understanding, reconciliation and international cooperation.
  2. Creation of favorable conditions for knowledge-sharing and dissemination of good practices with regards to indigenous languages.
  3. Integration of indigenous languages into standard setting.
  4. Empowerment through capacity building.
  5. Growth and development through elaboration of new knowledge.

At the United Nations in New York on August 9, the UN will observe International Day of World’s Indigenous Peoples with a four-fold program. It will include a high level segment featuring the Deputy Secretary General, Amina Muhammed, and President of the 73rd Session of the General Assembly, Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garces. In addition, it will include a panel of speakers from Kenya, Canada, Bangladesh, and Peru, as well as an interactive dialogue on innovations in indigenous languages, and an innovation hub related to indigenous languages in the lobby of the UN.

According to UNESCO, there are about 7,000 languages spoken worldwide, of which 2,680 are in danger of being lost, many of them indigenous.

International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples marks the first session of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations, which took place at the UN in Geneva in 1982.

There are an estimated 350 million indigenous people in 90 countries in the world.  Many groups share common issues regarding human rights violations.  Although language will have the spotlight on International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, August 9, let’s not forget the horrific human rights violations indigenous peoples face, including grabbing of their land, kidnapping, assaults, murder, destruction of their land and resources, and more.


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