In their introduction to Indigenous Epistemologies and Education – Self-Determination, Anthropology, and Human Rights, McCarty and her team of guest co-editors presented a series of questions related to Indigenous education that they believed to be best explored by scholars. The core questions were the meaning of self-determination, the placement of Indigenous epistemologies inside and outside the classroom, how human rights are implicated in these questions and their responses, and what the field of anthropology’s contribution to Indigenous peoples might be in the present and future, given the field’s damaging role in the past. The editors acknowledged difficulty in defining some of these key terms and were careful to include the definitions they used.
I found this introduction to be insightful and educational. For instance, I did not realize that Indigenous peoples speak such a large percentage of the world’s languages. Based on the numbers cited by the editors, Indigenous peoples speak between 66 and 83 percent of the world’s languages despite only comprising 4 percent of the world’s population. That’s amazing! The editors wrote that language is important because it contains local knowledge and ways of knowing. Unfortunately, the editors also presented evidence that many of these languages are endangered because they are only spoken by older generations. Unless patterns change, these languages will be lost when the elders who speak them pass.
The topic of language loss is personally relevant to me because I am a Latino who does not speak Spanish. My Spanish-speaking parents made the choice to refrain from teaching me English because they wanted me to assimilate to the mainstream English-speaking culture. My father said he didn’t want me to be teased for speaking English improperly as he had been when he was a child. He also wanted me to do well in school, where classes were taught in English.
I wound up picking up basic Spanish by taking classes in high school and as an undergraduate in college, however, I am far from proficient. As a result, I feel disconnected from my ethnic culture, and I feel shame that I don’t speak Spanish. Not being able to communicate in Spanish makes me feel like I’m a “bad” Latino. I’m especially annoyed when I am around people speaking in Spanish and I can’t understand them or when I’m listening to a salsa song and don’t know what it means. The worst is when someone asks me if I speak Spanish (usually a fellow Latino or Latina who would like to converse with me in that language) and I have to tell that person that I don’t. It’s like being exposed and having to confess my faults.
This makes me wonder: how do Indigenous youth feel about their inability to speak the language of their parents and grandparents? Do they feel shame, as I do? Are they angry about the cultural, economic, and political forces that are causing their Indigenous languages to be lost? Has their language loss affected their cultural identity or pride? If so, in what ways and to what extent? Are these youth making or have they made any attempts to reclaim or save their language? Or, are they indifferent? What is the basis for their feelings? Given how highly diverse Indigenous peoples are, I would suspect the answers vary. I think it would be interesting to know percentages of each attitude toward language loss and perhaps see comparisons of attitudes toward language loss based on language.
McCarty, T.L. (2005). Indigenous Epistemologies and Education – Self-Determination, Anthropology, and Human Rights. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 36(1), 1-7.