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Protecting Indigenous Languages Is Protecting Biodiversity

With Indigenous languages, we can turn from a narrative of apocalypse—toward multispecies kinship, care, stewardship, protection, and love for the living Earth.

The United Nations has also acknowledged the connection between biodiversity and linguistic diversity. (Photo: ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

The United Nations has also acknowledged the connection between biodiversity and linguistic diversity. (Photo: ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

One million animal and plant species face extinction due to human activity, according to the United Nations. Now, think about cultural production—art and literature that we have invested to address the extinction of just a handful of species (passenger pigeon included). Quite a bit actually. The extinction of one million species feels rather abstract, beyond the comprehension of human cultural production at the moment. We do not know how to speak of the scale of such extinction, except as a mere number: one million!  

At the same time, the United Nations also warns that between 50% and 95% of the world’s languages “may become extinct or seriously endangered by the end of this century,” and that, the “majority of the languages that are under threat are indigenous languages.” The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues points out that even though “indigenous peoples make up less than 6% of the global population, they speak more than 4,000 of the world’s languages.”

Is there a connection between loss of biodiversity and loss of Indigenous languages? Or, to put another way, what significance protecting Indigenous languages might have for protecting biodiversity? 

To answer these questions, let us begin in Arctic Village, Alaska, a community of about 150 Indigenous Gwich’in residents, situated above the Arctic Circle and just outside the southern edge of the now-imperiled Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the largest national wildlife refuge in the United States. 

Over the past twenty years, I have often used this sentence in my writing and lectures: Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit. I was introduced to that articulation by Sarah James, Gwich’in elder and long-time defender of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). In June 2001, I had gone up to Arctic Village, where Sarah lives, to attend an emergency Gwich’in Gathering. Community members from all fifteen Gwich’in villages from across northeast Alaska and northern Yukon and the Northwest Territory in Canada had gathered in Arctic Village (as they did in 1988) to renew their commitment to protect the caribou and the Gwich’in way of life and defeat President George W. Bush’ attempt to open up the Coastal Plain of the Arctic NWR to oil and gas development. 

When translated from Gwich’in to English, Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit means “the sacred place where life begins.” The “sacred place” that the Gwich’in people are referring to is the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge, a biological nursery of global significance, where the Porcupine (River) Caribou Herd give birth and raise their young, as do so many other species, including polar bears, muskoxen and many bird species that migrate to the Refuge from around the world. The Gwich’in people have relied upon the Porcupine Caribou for nutritional, cultural and spiritual sustenance for millenia. 

“Caribou are not just what we eat; they are who we are,” Sarah James said. “They are in our stories and songs and the whole way we see the world. Caribou are our life. Without caribou we wouldn’t exist.”

In September 2020, the Trump administration finalized its plan to open up the Coastal Plain of the Arctic NWR to oil and gas development. The first ever oil and gas lease sales in the Coastal Plain may happen before President-elect Joe Biden assumes office on January 20, 2021, and the ecologically damaging seismic exploration may take place this winter and early spring which would disrupt the lives of denning polar bears, caribou and other species. The Gwich’in people are not idly waiting, however. They are doing all they can to stop this madness to turn a sacred nursery into an industrial wasteland. 

On September 9, 2020, the Native Village of Venetie Tribal Government, Arctic Village Council, and Venetie Village Council—the three tribal governments that served in a government-to-government capacity during the Environmental Impact Statement process—filed a lawsuit against the Trump Administration to protect the Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit. 

It is widely recognized that about 80% of Earth’s biodiversity can be found on Indigenous homelands and, Indigenous peoples around the world have been recognized as stewards of biodiversity.

How we speak about a place, an animal, a tree, a river, a mountain—is just as important as what it is that we want to speak about. This is where the significance of Indigenous languages shines in protecting biodiversity at a time of intensifying biological annihilation. With Indigenous languages, we also turn from a narrative of apocalypse—toward multispecies kinship, care, stewardship, protection, and love for the living Earth.

It is widely recognized that about 80% of Earth’s biodiversity can be found on Indigenous homelands and, Indigenous peoples around the world have been recognized as stewards of biodiversity. At the heart of that stewardship is Indigenous worldviews and, Indigenous languages are the appropriate vehicle for articulating those worldviews. 

“The traditional knowledge and practices of indigenous and local communities, indispensable for the sustainable management and conservation of biodiversity, are usually transmitted through indigenous languages,” scholar Claudia Gafner-Rojas wrote in an article “Indigenous languages as contributors to the preservation of biodiversity and their presence in international environmental law,” which was published earlier this year in Journal of International Wildlife Law and Policy. Previous research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, explored the co-occurrence of linguistic and biological diversity, which found that regions with high biodiversity “often contain considerable linguistic diversity, accounting for 70% of all languages on Earth.” 

In other words, places where there is high biodiversity, we usually find high linguistic diversity as well. 

The United Nations has also acknowledged the connection between biodiversity and linguistic diversity. “Local and indigenous communities have elaborated complex classification systems for the natural world, reflecting a deep understanding of their local environment,” a UNESCO webpage on endangered languages highlights. “This environmental knowledge is embedded in indigenous names, oral traditions and taxonomies, and can be lost when a community shifts to another language,” which in turn can have a negative impact on biodiversity conservation.

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So, what policy initiatives are being taken to protect Indigenous languages in the United States? And, in relation to that, to protect biodiversity?

Last week, at the seventh annual Native American Languages Summit, U.S. Senator Udall from my home state of New Mexico was honored with the inaugural Native American Language Legacy Organizational Leadership Award. “Throughout his career in Congress, Udall has championed efforts to expand federal support for Native American languages, including working to secure enactment of the Esther Martinez Native Languages Preservation Act in 2006 and the Native language Immersion Student Achievement Act as part of the Every Student Succeeds Act  in 2015,” Los Alamos Daily Post reported

In his acceptance speech Senator Udall said this: “Native languages hold within them the culture, history, and resiliency of their communities. Their importance—to their communities and to the nation at large—cannot be overstated. Native languages have influenced our shared American history, contributed to our understanding of environmental stewardship, and enriched the very fabric of our nation’s identity.” Native languages have indeed “contributed to our understanding of environmental stewardship”—as is evident in such articulation as Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit.

And, on November 9, Congresswoman Deb Haaland, who hails from the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives the Native American Languages Resource Center Act, a bill to create a designated resource center for the protection and stability of Native American language education. 

“The beauty of a Native language is something that has been passed down from generation to generation, but the federal government has fallen short on resources to teach these languages. I learned some Kares from my grandparents and my mom, who still speaks our language fluently, but we’re at risk of losing the language and the traditional knowledge that comes with it,” Congresswoman Haaland said.

Senator Udall and Congresswoman Haaland have both been working to protect Indigenous languages in the United States. And, both lawmakers are also our champions in the U.S. Congress to advance biodiversity legislations. 

In October 2019, Senator Udall introduced the “30x30 Resolution to Save Nature” in the U.S. Senate—a bold proposal to protect 30% of land and 30% of ocean in the United States by 2030—to help mitigate the intensifying biodiversity and the climate crises. In February 2020, Rep. Haaland introduced a companion “30x30 Resolution to Save Nature” in the U.S. House of Representatives.

This Fall, Senator Udall and I are co-hosting the UNM Biodiversity Webinar Series to bring attention to the intensifying biodiversity crisis and to help shape public policy on biodiversity conservation. The series launched on September 14 and will conclude on December 3 with the final webinar of the series, “Transforming State Wildlife Management to Protect Biodiversity in the U.S.” The series is organized by the Species in Peril project at the University of New Mexico in partnership with the Office of Senator Tom Udall, Office of Congresswoman Haaland, New Mexico BioPark Society, and the Southwest Environmental Center. 

On November 19, we hosted our third webinar, “Indigenous Kinship and Multispecies Justice” (YouTube video), which included three distinguished Indigenous panelists: Norma Kassi (Gwich’in Nation) from Yukon, Canada, Goldman Prize-winning conservationist and long-time defender of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; Professor Robin Wall Kimmerer (Citizen Potawatomi Nation), scientist and celebrated author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants and Director of the Native Peoples and the Environment at SUNY-Syracuse; and Fawn Sharp (Quinault Nation), President of the Quinault Nation and President of the National Congress of American Indians. All three panelists introduced themselves in their native language—Gwich’in, Potawatomi, Quinault—before moving onto English. The panel was moderated by Elspeth Iralu (Angami Naga), Visiting Assistant Professor of Indigenous Planning at the University of New Mexico. 

Robin Wall Kimmerer, whose first book Gathering Moss was a like a sacred text to me when I lived in the Olympic Peninsula at the edge of the Salish Sea—spoke about restoring balance. The work before us is not merely to “restore land,” professor Kimmerer said, “but it is also to heal our relationship to land.” Much of her remarks also focused on how we speak of something: “we wouldn’t say land is a natural resource, it’s a gift, it’s a gift that you care for the land.” She urged us to think of ourselves as “one member of a democracy of species,” and all the other species as “our relatives.” After pointing out that the western worldview of human exceptionalism “gives permission for an exploitative economy,” she suggested that “the beautiful, coherent, kin-centric way of Indigenous thinking—is the medicine”—to heal our relationship with land, water and nonhuman relatives. At the heart of that worldview, or more specifically how such worldviews are articulated appropriately—are Indigenous languages.

So, we may begin to acknowledge that protecting Indigenous languages is essential to protecting biodiversity. 

Let us close by returning to Alaska.

Maps have long been a potent tool of colonization. But in recent decades, Indigenous peoples have been creating maps as a tool of decolonization. One of my favorites is the “Indigenous Peoples and Languages of Alaska” map that depicts Alaska’s 20 Indigenous languages, which was produced by the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. The ANLC was established in 1972 as a center for research and documentation of the twenty Native languages of Alaska, including Gwich’in that Sarah James’s sister Lillian Garnett taught.

United States is considered to be one of the 17 mega-biodiverse countries, and a nation with high diversity of Indigenous languages. Protecting both is an ethical imperative of critical significance.

Subhankar Banerjee

Subhankar Banerjee
Subhankar Banerjee works closely with Indigenous Gwich’in and Iñupiat community members and environmental organizations to protect significant biological nurseries in Arctic Alaska. Author of "Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land" (Mountaineers Books, 2003), and editor of "Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point" (Seven Stories Press, 2013), Subhankar is currently completing two books: coeditor (with T.J. Demos and Emily Eliza Scott) of "Routledge Companion to Contemporary Art, Visual Culture and Climate Change" (Routledge, Spring 2021), and coauthor (with Ananda Banerjee) of "Biological Annihilation" (Seven Stories Press, Spring 2022). Subhankar serves as the founding Director of the Species in Peril project at UNM.

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