Indigenous languages exhibition, University of Tromso
Indigenous languages exhibition, University of Tromso
© Linnea Nordström

How Arctic Indigenous Peoples are revitalizing their languages

The World’s Indigenous languages are facing challenges and many of them are at risk of extinction. The Arctic Council Permanent Participants among other Indigenous Peoples combat these challenges and support their languages through various language revitalization efforts.

Rosa-Máren Magga and IPS Chair, Dr. Ellen Inga Turi, Saami Council

Today, 96 percent of the world’s approximately 6,700 languages are spoken by only three percent of the world’s population. Indigenous Peoples make up less than six percent of the global population, but they speak more than 4,000 of the world’s languages. Globally about 40 percent of the languages spoken in the world are at risk of extinction, and a large share of those are Indigenous languages. Only a few hundred spoken languages have an established education system, and even fewer are used in the digital world. In the Arctic, between 40 and 90 Indigenous languages are spoken, depending on the methods classifying languages and dialects. Although many Arctic Indigenous languages are threatened, there’s a growing movement among Indigenous Peoples to establish initiatives that revitalize their languages.

The United Nations has proclaimed 2022-2032 the International Decade of Indigenous Languages. This announcement draws attention to the urgent need to preserve and promote Indigenous languages. It reflects a global recognition that most of the world’s languages facing extinction are Indigenous languages and the decade’s focus is on Indigenous language users’ human rights. In the words of the United Nations: “Indigenous languages add to the rich tapestry of global cultural diversity. Without them, the world would be a poorer place.”

The “Los Pinos Declaration [Chapoltepek] – Making a Decade of Action for Indigenous Languages” provides a strategic roadmap for the UN’s Decade of Indigenous Languages. It sets out the guiding principles for the international decade, including the significance of Indigenous Peoples with the slogan ‘Nothing for us without us’. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development also offers important guideposts for preserving and promoting Indigenous languages by dedicating Sustainable Development Goal Target 4.5 to ensuring equal access for Indigenous Peoples to education. Use of Indigenous languages in education and training has been put forth as an approach to meet this target. The recognition of the importance of languages and multilingualism also captions the international commitment to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and the guiding principle of “Leave No One Behind (LNOB)”.

"Indigenous languages add to the rich tapestry of global cultural diversity. Without them, the world would be a poorer place."
– United Nations

Indigenous languages exhibition, University of Tromso
© Linnea Nordström

Why is it important to preserve Indigenous languages?

According to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues: “Indigenous languages are not only methods of communication, but also extensive and complex systems of knowledge that have developed over millennia.” The languages of the Arctic Indigenous peoples sustain traditional Indigenous livelihoods and knowledge. Rich knowledge and unique cultural expression are embedded within each Indigenous language. Language is culture’s embodiment and Traditional Knowledge together with community’s relationship to the land are coded within Indigenous languages.

Traditional Knowledge, also referred to as Indigenous knowledge, is important for the well-being of the Indigenous Peoples, as Indigenous languages support traditional ways of life that contribute to Indigenous peoples’ health, cultural vitality and overall well-being. Indigenous peoples’ surroundings, homelands and relationships with nature have shaped and created their languages.

Many Arctic languages have tens or hundreds of words for their natural surroundings and weather phenomenon that are typical only in the Arctic climate. In Sámi, the number of words for snow, ice, freezing and melting easily amount to one thousand lexemes. They are all crucial for traditional livelihoods, such as the reindeer husbandry to describe the pastures and weather conditions. In this context, climate change is a real threat to Indigenous languages as the environment and weather conditions change. And when culture changes, so does the language.

Indigenous-driven projects are revitalizing circumpolar languages

The Arctic Council 2006 Salekhard Declaration mandated the Council to support Indigenous languages and led to the Arctic Indigenous Language Symposium being held two years later. The symposium brought together Indigenous Peoples from throughout the circumpolar region to build on each other’s knowledge and experience in protecting and revitalizing Indigenous languages. During Canada’s most recent Chairmanship of the Arctic Council (2013-2015), a Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG) project led by the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) called “Assessing, Monitoring and Promoting the Vitality of Arctic Indigenous Languages: Arctic Indigenous Languages Vitality Initiative” focused on assessing and promoting the vitality of Indigenous languages. The project proposal was based on recommendations of the language symposium. The project was managed with the staunch support and collaboration of the five other Permanent Participants (PPs).

I think of digitalization and the Internet as the western world’s big gift to Indigenous Peoples because it has opened so many possibilities. Aili Keskitalo

Many Indigenous institutions and organizations work hard to revitalize and pass Indigenous languages on to future generations. The Ságastallamin: Telling the Story exhibition, produced by the Arctic Council Indigenous Peoples’ Secretariat (IPS) and the University of Tromsø Library, provides background on Arctic Indigenous languages and showcases institutions working to revitalize them.

The exhibition showcases examples around the Arctic: Pinnguaq Association, Sámi University of Applied Sciences in Kautokeino, Norway, Nomadic Schools in Yakutia, Institute of the Peoples of the North, Urban Unangax Culture Camp, Giella at University of Tromsø, Ya Ne Daf Ah School in Alaska and Inuvialuit Cultural Resource Centre in Inuvik, Northwest Territories in Canada. The Arctic Indigenous languages map was created as a part of the exhibition using the language map from the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna Working Group’s (CAFF) Arctic Biodiversity Assessment (ABA) 2013 as a resource. ABA touched upon the issue on vitality of Indigenous languages in its chapter on linguistic diversity.

The knowledge and information collected for the Ságastallamin exhibition will be integrated into a follow-up project called “Arctic Indigenous languages and revitalization: an online educational resource” that commenced in January 2021. The purpose of the project is to complete a peer-reviewed comprehensive circumpolar GIS map of Arctic Indigenous languages to be used as an openly available online resource and could be used for example by Arctic SDI and the Arctic Council project on “Digitalization of the Linguistic and Cultural Heritage of Indigenous Peoples of the Arctic”, endorsed by the SDWG and co-lead by RAIPON. The digitalization project focuses on preserving and developing Indigenous languages, traditional knowledge and cultures of the Arctic Indigenous Peoples including food heritage with wide use of modern digital technologies.

The project leads of the digitalization project recognize that digitalizing Indigenous languages and knowledge can raise concerns regarding intellectual property rights for some Indigenous communities and they will work with the PPs to consider and respond to these concerns as the project progresses.

Digitalization can offer many benefits for Indigenous Peoples and languages, as the President of Sámi Parliament of Norway, Aili Keskitalo emphasized at the 6th Arctic Leaders’ Summit in Rovaniemi, Finland in 2019: “I think of digitalization and the Internet as the western world’s big gift to Indigenous Peoples because it has opened so many possibilities […]. We are now able to share our experiences with Indigenous peoples on the other side of the globe and keep [each other] updated.”

Keskitalo sees the benefits that technological development offers for Indigenous languages, for example by making distance teaching and learning possible where it was not possible before. She stated that this development has also strengthened Indigenous cooperation worldwide and provided opportunities for people to connect around the Arctic.

Indigenous Peoples aim to utilize the international decade by communicating with technology providers to build beneficial partnerships and that way solve some of the challenges that the Indigenous languages and language users are facing today: “We hope to use the Indigenous language year and possibly the Indigenous language decade as a platform to communicate to the technology providers that they need to open their solutions also for less used languages, like Indigenous languages,” said Aili Keskitalo.

Continuous work on supporting Arctic Indigenous Languages

At the Arctic Frontiers 2021 high-level panel devoted to the Artic Council’s 25th anniversary, the PP youth were asked what some of the current and emerging issues are that affect the youth, and that the Council should address. The youth representative for Aleut International Association, Darling Anderson was clear: “In my community, a huge issue has been the decrease in our native language, Unangam Tunuu. This has also been seen across the board in our Arctic Indigenous communities. As leaders, it’s all our responsibility to acknowledge this issue, its future impacts, and ways to combat it. I hope to see more efforts in future from the Arctic Council to address the dangers of losing more Indigenous languages and invest in ways to increase their use and relevance in today’s society.”

The IPS has identified Indigenous languages as one of its priority areas for its 2021-2023 work plan. SDWG has also raised the Decade of Indigenous Languages as a priority focus area for its 2021-2023 work plan. PPs continue emphasizing the Indigenous Arctic Indigenous languages is a topic of cooperation for PPs and the Arctic Council supports these Indigenous-driven language initiatives. PPs have identified Arctic Indigenous languages as one of the prioritized areas of their cooperation and the work at the Arctic Council for moving forwards.