U.N. Calls For ‘Culturally And Linguistically Appropriate’ Education for Indigenous People

A school boy and his mother, dressed in traditional Kuna indigenous clothing, wait for start of the first day of school in Panama City CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ARNULFO FRANCO
A school boy and his mother, dressed in traditional Kuna indigenous clothing, wait for start of the first day of school in Panama City CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ARNULFO FRANCO

On the International Day of the Worlds Indigenous Peoples, senior U.N. officials are calling to close the education gap between indigenous and non-indigenous populations. A key component of that, they emphasize, is providing “culturally and linguistically appropriate” education.

“ Indigenous peoples regularly face stigmatization of their cultural identity and lack of respect and recognition for their heritage and values, including in textbooks and other educational materials,” said U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in his remarks on Tuesday. “Their marginalization is often compounded by language barriers. Instruction is mainly in the national language, with little or no instruction in, or recognition of, indigenous languages.”

In order to close the education gap, the U.N. recommended that instruction in the mother tongue be provided, and if the indigenous mother language has been lost, that language revitalization programs be integrated.

According to the U.N., there are an estimated 370 million indigenous people in the world, living across 90 countries (though some sources put that number much higher). They account for 15 percent of the world’s poorest, despite being only 5 percent of the total population. In many parts of the world, disaggregated data breaking out benchmarks for indigenous populations isn’t even available, but where it is, it reveals a consistent story of disparities in education access, retention, and achievement.

In Nunavut, northern Canada, only 40 percent of school-age indigenous people are attending full time school, while in Australia, in 2013 only 60 percent of indigenous 15 to 19 year-olds were enrolled, according to the upcoming State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, Volume 3. In Latin America and the Caribbean, the number of indigenous children attending school is higher (up to 85 percent), but only 40 percent actually graduate.


Language revitalization programs are essentially not only to close the education gap — but also to retain the world’s linguistic diversity.

Indigenous populations speak an “overwhelming majority” of the world’s 7,000 languages. But by 2100, more than half of these languages may disappear, according to the National Geographic’s Enduring Voices project. Around 93 percent of Australian indigenous languages are already extinct, and according to UNESCO, the vast majority of Canada’s indigenous languages are on the brink.

Languages spoken by small populations of people get pushed out as dominant languages spread. Many indigenous languages, however, have been purposefully crushed through racist educational policies requiring indigenous children to speak the dominant tongue.

In Canada, from 1876 until 1996, when the last school closed, indigenous youth were separated from their parents and sent to boarding schools administered by the church. In the schools, many indigenous youth were physically abused and all were forced to give up their culture and language. The United States had a similar policy throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries, requiring indigenous children to be separated from their families and placed in boarding schools. They were punished for speaking their native tongues.

Languages, with no way to pass from generation to generation, began dying. Today, many languages are spoken fluently only by the elderly.


“It is a truism but each time an Elder speaker passes we lose a dictionary of words and language resources as well as an encyclopedia of cultural knowledge,” wrote Andre Cramblit, chair of the Karuk Language Restoration Committee, in Indian Country Today. Cramblit noted that Karuk, the second largest tribe in California with around 4,000 members, has less than 10 fluent speakers.

“It is another cliché, but one rooted in truth, that there are some concepts and tenets of culture that cannot be translated into English,” Cramblit wrote. “Wellness, for Native people, is based upon the inter-connectedness of the physical, intellectual, spiritual and emotional health of the people, and language is the binding agent that connects all of those into a culture.”

Language is an essential part of culture, and carries wisdom, ideas, histories, and key insights into the functioning of communication and the human mind. In many cultures, histories and insights accumulated over centuries are passed down orally. When the language dies, an entire culture is lost with it.

Translation, if possible at all, imperfectly captures the ideas. Anton Treuer, an Ojibwe Indian and professor as Bemidji State University, gave an example to the Voice of America:

“For example, in Ojibwe, our word for elder, gichi-aya’aa, literally means ‘great being.’ And our word for an elderly woman, mindimooyenh, means ‘one who holds things together’ and describes the role of a family matriarch,” he said. “We don’t have to remind youth to respect their elders because it’s built right into the language.”

Respect for indigenous languages is also bound up with respect and recognition for indigenous cultures. In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau noted that communities that retain and teach their own language and culture see “massive” decreases in youth suicide rates, currently an epidemic in Canada’s First Nations.


“This is something that we know is essential,” he said, as reported by The Toronto Star. “As an indicator of pride and identity, belonging and culture, indigenous languages are essential.”

There are some small projects aiming to preserve the embattled languages. One such program, the Lakota Language Consortium in Bloomington, Indiana, aims to teach increase the real number of speakers of Lakota by teaching it to school-age children.

Wilhelm Meya, the group’s leader and the executive producer of the film “Rising Voices,” which documents the project, told VOA that while programs like his can succeed, they can only help a small number of children, and are in constant need of funding.

“To truly be effective, we need to mainstream the whole notion of teaching all content in the target language, that is, total immersion in all the schools,” Meya told VOA. “And it’s not just in Lakota, but in dozens of languages across America that are taking their final last breaths. And unless the government applies more resources, I think we will lose them forever.”