Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Language Protection as Human Rights Promotion

“Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures…”
                Article 13, The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

It is estimated that more than 6,000 languages exist in the world today. It is also estimated that more than half of these languages will disappear in this century. The loss of undocumented and unwritten languages carries a great loss to human diversity as well as the cultural and ancestral knowledge that has been developed through centuries.

For over 100 years, the Wampanoag people of Massachusetts had no fluent speakers of their traditional language. However, in a truly inspiring story, when Jessie Little Doe committed herself (along with others) to revitalizing the Wampanoag language, she discovered many old documents written between the Wampanoag and the English immigrants, giving strong translation tools. A translation of the Bible was included in these old documents, and was a tremendous resource for rediscovering and revitalizing the Wampanoag language. As documented in the film "We Still Live Here" (the story of Jessie Little Doe and the revitalization of the Wampanoag language), the daughter of Jessie Little Doe is now the first fluent speaker in over 100 years.

The Kogi representatives singing songs in their
own language (Pastor Juan Carlos is in the front)
With all of the above in mind, I wanted to write about an event last Sunday night, the 18th of January, held to celebrate the completion of the translation of the New Testament into the Kogi language. After some 36 years of work, the translation has been completed and released, creating a great tool for guarding the Kogi language into the future.

Many great stories were told comparing traditional Kogi stories to those in the Bible, how they can complement each other, and what they have to learn from and teach to each other. Songs were sung both in Spanish and in Kogi, as well as a reading from the Kogi translation. The event was full of excitement and accomplishment as the story of the translation project was told.

The Kogi language did not have a written system, making efforts to learn how to write the language the first step. Now, after 36 years of work, the New Testament is finished and published in the Kogi language. During the process, some Kogi individuals were granted opportunities to pursue university degrees, especially in education. This has worked to further promote the school in the Kogi community which IELCO accompanies, and strengthen the teaching of the language to future generations.

This picture includes Lynda Gawthorne (left side), the missionary who has worked for the last 36 years to complete the translation, Kogi representatives in white, and members of IELCO involved in the accompaniment of the Kogi community
Surrounded by the dominant Spanish speaking Colombian society, it is easy to imagine the Kogi language being slowly chipped away from its people. In order to communicate with the government, with businesses, with NGOs, with churches, with many other actors in society, they need to know Spanish. As has been witnessed around the world, this situation leads to the loss of the local and traditional language of a people, further promoting loss of culture and identity. This is why the translation of the New Testament has such a significant role to play in defending against the loss of language. 
The New Testament in the Kogi language
Similarly, a goal this year for the human rights program, in its accompaniment of the Kogi community, will be to translate the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into the Kogi language, and to publish and distribute it throughout Kogi communities in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. This is a project I am very excited about as it will greatly complement the human rights training and development projects planned for the year.