Re-Storying Biocultural Diversity:
Wisdom from Young Indigenous Leaders
Langscape Magazine Volume 8, Special Double Issue
Summer/ Winter 2019
“We, the Indigenous Peoples, walk to the future in the footprints of our ancestors.”
So begins the Kari-Oca Declaration and Indigenous Peoples’ Earth Charter, a landmark Indigenous document drawn up nearly thirty years ago.
In 1992, shortly ahead of the historic UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED, informally known as the “Earth Summit” or “Rio Conference”), Indigenous Peoples from all over the world gathered at Kari-Oca, a sacred site near Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the World Conference of Indigenous Peoples on Territory, Environment and Development. In their Declaration, they not only laid out their demands for environmental, cultural, land, and human rights, which they later presented to the leaders of the world’s countries at UNCED. They also expressed their collective vision and intentions for the future: a future of dignity, harmony, and respect, grounded in self-determination and the wisdom of their ancestors. That wisdom, the Declaration’s opening words made clear, was the compass by which they could find their way toward the future while following the course charted by previous generations.
Rarely had the idea of intergenerational transmission of biocultural knowledge been expressed more poetically and poignantly than in those powerful opening words: transmission not as a static repeat of the past, but as a dynamic path laid out by the wisdom of the elders, along which younger generations can move forward with confidence and creativity, feeling strong and secure in their cultural identities, their spiritual values, and the continuity of their ways of life. And those words still resonate today.
Just ask Vova Yadne, a sixteen-year-old Nenets from northwestern Siberia, Russia, about his own path. “I want to keep the past and bring it into the future,” says the gifted young artist without a hint of hesitation. Or ask We’e’ena Tikuna, a multi-talented young member of the Tikuna people of Brazil. In all her creative endeavors, she affirms, she works “with an eye to our ancestry, but also with an eye to our future.” Or Skil Jaadee White, a young Haida “language warrior” from Canada: “I’m a chain link toward a stronger future,” she proclaims. Ask Edna Kilusu, an eighteen-year-old Maasai student from Tanzania with a fondness for listening to her aunt’s telling of traditional lore. She muses: “How do we move forward without forgetting our past?” The words of these bright Indigenous youth — all of them contributors to this issue of Langscape Magazine — uncannily echo those of the Kari-Oca Declaration.
And they’re not alone. All around the world, young Indigenous people are leading the way toward harmonious and respectful living on Earth. Recognizing that their languages, cultures, and homelands bear the wisdom of generations of ancestors, these young Indigenous leaders are stepping up to carry that wisdom forward — and not just in their own communities, but for the benefit of people everywhere. Their experiences are priceless gifts full of much-needed inspiration for the rest of the world.
That’s why last year, as we at Terralingua were thinking of a special project and a special issue of our magazine to celebrate the 2019 UN Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL 2019), we quickly zeroed in on the younger generations of Indigenous Peoples as agents of both change and continuity. We also knew right away that we couldn’t just focus on languages. In Indigenous worldviews, language, culture, and land are interconnected and inseparable — you can’t think or talk of one without the others. That’s the essence, too, of the idea of biocultural diversity that Terralingua stands for and that we seek to make alive through this magazine. Our focus had to be holistic: Indigenous youth and their efforts to affirm and revitalize not only their ancestral languages, but also their cultural and spiritual traditions, their ways of life, and their links to the land. And we would reach out to these courageous and creative young people not only as doers, but also as storytellers, engaged in both restoring and re-storying their diverse biocultural heritages.
Out of that brainstorm was born our Indigenous Youth Storytellers Circle Project (IYSC). Launched in early 2019, and soon officially recognized as an IYIL 2019 project, the IYSC began to gather stories by Indigenous youth worldwide, with the idea of publishing them online as they came along, here on our website and here on Medium. And along they did come, from around the globe, delivering an inspiring wealth of perspectives and insights on what it means to be young and Indigenous and proud of it today. Whether engaged in revitalizing their languages, reconnecting with and reasserting their cultural identities and traditions, or reclaiming traditional ecological knowledge and stewardship of their lands and marine environments, these young people are strong, determined, and have stories to tell!
We’re now delighted to introduce them to you and share their stories in this special double issue of Langscape Magazine. Complementing the stories we assembled as a part of the IYSC is a small selection of other stories written or co-written by young Indigenous persons for past issues of the magazine. We felt that those earlier pieces would both enrich the mix and be enriched by being presented in the company of other Indigenous youth’s stories. Based their main focus, we grouped the stories under three headings: Language, Culture, and Environment — that is, the three core components of biocultural diversity — even though that’s largely an arbitrary classification: these three components are part of a single, complex whole, and to a greater or lesser extent each story touches on all three.
The Language section opens with a witty and refreshingly candid account by Abraham Ofori-Henaku (Akan) of growing up in Ghana without knowing his ancestral language — a situation many Indigenous youth find themselves in today. He honestly shares his regrets, but his infectious zest for learning Twi makes us think he will get there someday! No one doubts how difficult it is to learn a language, however. As an example, Manju Maharjan and Yuvash Vaidya, young members of the Newar people of Nepal, relate their challenging yet fulfilling experiences in trying to master Ranjana, a special script for their native language.
From the windswept reaches of Tierra del Fuego in southern Chile, Cristina Zárraga reminds us that “if a language can die, many times it can also be re-born in generations down the line.” She and her grandmother, Cristina Calderón, widely known as the last fluent speaker of the Yagan language, are hard at work to make that happen, by documenting the language and the cultural knowledge it conveys. Coming to us from Kenya, Hellen Losapicho and Magella Hassan Lenatiyama introduce us to an even more challenging situation: their language, El Molo, has lost all of its fluent speakers. Undaunted, young El Molo people are using participatory video — a technique whereby community members shoot and produce their own visual accounts on topics that matter to them — to create a “video dictionary” of their language and their oral traditions.
Language revitalization and the role of the younger generations in it are the main focus of interviews with three exceptional First Nations youth from Canada: Jordan Brant (Mohawk), Skil Jaadee White (Haida), and Gisèle Maria Martin (Tla-o-qui-aht), whom we met at the HELISET TŦE SḰÁL “Let the Languages Live” conference in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada in June, 2019. After listening to them speak with passion and commitment about learning their ancestral languages, reconnecting to their cultural traditions, and becoming active in language and culture revitalization, and seeing how deeply they shared a sense of a mission that went well beyond their individual selves, we just had to follow up with them and conduct the interviews we present here!
Also at “Let the Languages Live,” we caught up with SX̱EDŦELISIYE (Renee Sampson) (W̱SÁNEĆ, Canada), a former Language Apprentice turned Language Immersion Teacher. We had met her almost a decade ago when she was taking the first steps in learning her ancestral language. She had written about her experiences for Langscape Magazine back in 2012. Hearing her speak fluently in her language and knowing she’s now passing the language on to younger W̱SÁNEĆ, we were compelled to ask her to write an update on her journey. We’re publishing that update here next to her words from 2012, to show how far along she’s come since then.
The stories in the Culture section variously illustrate the point that language, culture, and the environment intertwine in many Indigenous worldviews. The experience of Edna Kilusu, the young Maasai student from Tanzania, shows this on a very practical level: going to and from her aunt’s home, where most nights she eagerly listens to tales of the ancestors, she must literally sprint in the dark across the boma, hoping that no potentially dangerous animals are out and about! Yet, even so she retains her sense of humor and her craving for stories. Fauzi Bin Abdul Majid, a young member of Indonesia’s Palu’e people, is also eager: eager to understand the Pati Karapau ceremony that plays such an important role in communal thanksgiving and in maintaining balance with Mother Nature among the Palu’e. He goes to considerable effort to travel back to his people’s home island to witness and document the ceremony.
Like many other young Indigenous leaders around the world, Eusebia Flores, a Yaqui from Mexico, is using modern technology to connect to her own and to other Indigenous communities. In her story, she speaks eloquently of how empowering and liberating participatory video can be to Indigenous Peoples whose voices have too often been muted or outright silenced by outsiders. Strengthening Indigenous cultures, protecting the land, and addressing language loss are recurring themes for the communities with which she works.
Dely Roy Nalo, a young woman of Vanuatu and Kiribati descent, focuses on revitalizing the manifold artistic expressions and “wisdom practices” of the linguistically (and culturally) mega-diverse Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. Her TEKS project, described in words co-written with Thomas Dick of Vanuatu’s NGO Further Arts and richly illustrated with photos by Cristina Panicali, Sarah Doyle, and others, seeks to bridge Vanuatu’s distinct cultural traditions as well as promote mutual understanding with foreign cultures through the arts. Artistry may be part of every young Indigenous person’s being, but rarely does it come to the foreground so exuberantly as in the life of We’e’ena Tikuna. This remarkable young woman is a pioneering university graduate, successful fashion designer, singer, lecturer, and writer — and her Indigeneity is up front and center in all she does.
Sean Anthony Dagondon Rusiana of the Bagobo-Tagabawa people of Philippines shares his own journey to get a university education, with all the difficulties of the academic work itself and of adjusting to being away from home — common themes in the life of most young persons. The dream of getting a higher education is even more challenging when you come from an Indigenous group that is systematically disrespected by mainstream society. That is the challenge Somnath Dadas has risen to as a member of the nomadic Dhangar people of India: his journey (as told with Kanna K. Siripurapu) is one of overcoming cultural prejudice and material hardship to finally arrive at self-discovery. The story of Marie Michelle Hirwa, a Batwa from Rwanda, is also one of courage and perseverance in the face of prejudice and discrimination. The hardships she has endured will be familiar to many young Indigenous people — and so will her resilience and her determination to get an education and seek to make a better life for herself and her son.
In a moving dialogue between an Indigenous and a non-Indigenous person who meet on the metaphorical banks of a river in the Amazon forest of Colombia, Walter Gabriel Estrada Ramírez, a Siriano youth, and Juan Manuel Rosso Londoño, a young Colombian researcher, listen to each other—and see themselves and each other reflected in the “river-mirror.” Their dialogue is a tribute to finding both their respective identities and their common humanity through a shared interest in “bee-cultural” diversity and the role of bees in Siriano culture.
This section concludes with a poignant and inspiring set of four short interview-stories of young Indigenous artists in the Russian Arctic: Katrina Trofimova (Even), D’ulus Mukhin (Even), Khadri Okotetto (Nenets), and Vova Yadne (Nenets). Their unvarnished stories, as told to Arctic explorer, artist, and photographer Galya Morrell, speak in different ways of a similar experience: the challenges they faced as members of Russia’s minority groups — challenges they overcome by sheer courage and artistic vision. Their words ring with an eloquence that is authentic and immensely powerful.
The Environment section spotlights the Indigenous lands and seas that cradle these young authors and nourish their dreams for the future. The Western Lesser Caucasus mountains along the Georgia–Turkey border are one of the world’s pre-eminent centers of biocultural diversity — a variety that Ceren Kazancı (Laz) and her partner Soner Oruç embrace and explore with infectious enthusiasm. Together, the pair roam this area, home to the Laz people and numerous other ethnolinguistic groups, with open minds and hearts, gathering and supporting the life stories and traditional environmental knowledge of its hardy inhabitants.
Lisba Yesudas and Johnson Jament, both hailing from the Trivandrum Mukkuvar community in Kerala, India, deliver an impassioned appeal for India and the world to recognize the ancestral wisdom of their forefathers in the fishing communities of Kerala’s southern coast, who for generations have safeguarded the marine environment (Mother Sea to them) on which their lives, well-being, and happiness depend. They propose that biocultural diversity should become a basic feature of India’s educational curriculum, with traditional knowledge at its core. Joakim Boström, Anna-Märta Henriksson, and Marie Kvarnström tell of their fight to preserve the traditional fishing practices of the remote Kalix communities of far northern Sweden—local communities that are culturally distinct and speak a divergent Swedish dialect. The obstacles they struggle with include new fishing regulations imposed by the Swedish government as well as significant adverse changes in the environment itself. In the state of Yucatán, Mexico, Yolanda López-Maldonado, a young Yucatec Maya, combines the Western science of her academic background with the Mayan science of her forefathers in her work to save the biologically unique and culturally significant cenotes: limestone sinkholes that deliver precious groundwater while providing cultural and spiritual connections to ancestors.
Like several others in this issue, the next two authors use video-based storytelling to convey their message. Kewekhrozo (Peter) Thopi and Tshenyilou (Lele) Chirhah, both Chakhesang Naga from India, are partnering with community members to film participatory videos that document Naga traditional foodways and the connections of food with their people’s cultural and spiritual values and traditional knowledge. Laissa Malih, a young Laikipian Maasai filmmaker from Kenya, focuses on the Ewaso Ng’iro Camel Caravan, a yearly five-day journey organized by the region’s Indigenous communities, with youth in leadership roles. The event seeks to promote climate change resilience and adaptation and peaceful co-existence among the troubled region’s peoples.
Environmental activism, coupled with language activism, also fires up Beñat Garaio Mendizabal, a young Basque from the Spanish side of Basque Country. Reflecting on what’s happening in his homeland today, he calls for environmental and language activists to join forces. Linking “green” struggles and language struggles, he argues, can help stave off the rapid changes that, in the name of “modernity,” are threatening the biocultural uniqueness and integrity of his beloved home by both destroying the landscape and jeopardizing the continuity of the Basque language.
Hēmi Whaanga and Priscilla Wehi delve into their Māori oral traditions in search of gems of ecological and cultural wisdom in ancestral sayings, whose meaning had become lost to the younger generations. As it re-emerges, that meaning offers clues from the past to illuminate the future. The wisdom of their ancestors suggests that, at a time in which “humankind is at a cultural, linguistic, biological, and spiritual crossroads,” we must resort to all forms of knowledge in all languages to address our real-life problems. “As Indigenous Peoples have realized,” they argue, “all parts of the story matter.”
We hope that the words of all these bright young Indigenous leaders will be inspiring to our readers, and especially to other Indigenous youth who may be interested in learning their languages, reconnecting to their cultures, and protecting their lands. We dedicate this issue of Langscape Magazine to Indigenous young people all around the world.
With this issue, we also wish to honor the life and work of Michael Krauss, pioneering champion of endangered languages, who passed away in 2019. A dedicated and respected fieldworker and teacher who focused on Alaskan Native languages — back when most of his linguist colleagues were enamored of abstract theory — Michael was convinced that small languages matter. He led the way in bringing language endangerment to the attention of both academic peers and the general public. And he knew that the future of Indigenous languages rests squarely with younger generations. By both documenting Indigenous languages and raising awareness about their importance, he helped foster the conditions that make it possible for Indigenous youth today to embrace and learn their ancestral languages and absorb the wealth of cultural knowledge those languages convey.
Like the two of us, Michael was present at the “birth” of Terralingua. Sitting with us at a dinner table in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1995, during the “Shift Happens” symposium on language loss and public policy, he brainstormed with us on the need for an organization to research, educate on, and advocate for diversity in nature and culture. He helped us co-found Terralingua, and encouraged and supported us along the way. He didn’t live to see this issue of Langscape Magazine in print, but we believe he would have enjoyed it immensely. Michael, we won’t forget you. This one is for you.
Luisa Maffi and David Harmon, Co-editors