In Langscape Magazine Articles

One Last Offering of Oranges

July 25, 2023
The right to formal education is considered so sacrosanct that we fail to see how it can undermine our biocultural responsibilities.

Chang Liu (劉長亭)

Ngäbe schoolchildren.

Looking into the future: Ngäbe schoolchildren in La Casona Indigenous territory, Costa Rica. Photo: Gail Hewson Hull


Language is our birthright. So much of what makes us human — how we perceive, think, and communicate — is encoded in language, be it spoken, sung, signed, or written. But this extraordinary birthright entails great responsibility.

I am a second-generation Canadian. My father fled China before the nightmare of the Cultural Revolution; during the heady 1968 student strikes in Paris, he met the French woman who became my mother, and they immigrated to Canada in search of work.

My parents first settled in Montreal, where French was the majority language, so French came first for me; English jostled its way into my life only when I started going to school in Ottawa and found English-speaking playmates. I grew up proud of speaking two “world” languages — proud, that is, until I learned that the arrival of those two colonial languages on Turtle Island (what is now known as “North America”) started a dramatic unraveling of the rich tapestry of Indigenous languages, a process that language reclamation and revitalization efforts have just recently started to reverse, thread by thread.

Language loss is not alien to me. As a preschooler I spoke French with my mother and Mandarin with my father. Though proud of his language, he worried (as all immigrants do): Will my son integrate well if I let Mandarin compete with French at home? So, when I was about six my father abruptly switched to French. Very soon after, I lost my Mandarin.


Left: New immigrants: Chang as a child in 1974 with his father, Joseph Lieh, perhaps speaking in Mandarin, in Longueuil, Québec. Right: Chang’s French-speaking mother and sister, Marie-Odile and Lang, in Longueuil, Québec, 1974. Photos: Lucien Pan.

Losing Mandarin — the source of one of many gulfs between my father and me — is indeed sad but only for the two of us. Mandarin itself has over a billion speakers and numerous diasporas; it is in no danger of extinction. Not so for thousands of Indigenous languages spoken around the world.

For several decades now, Indigenous Peoples on Turtle Island have been reasserting themselves demographically, culturally, and politically. “Resilience,” that overused word, only hints at their Promethean ability to rise again after 500 years of colonial evisceration, during which colonial education systems marginalized and suppressed Indigenous languages. Linguicide — the orchestrated killing of a language for social and political control — was the primary weapon of cultural genocide, best illustrated by the harrowing history of Canada’s residential schools.

Linguicide was the primary weapon of cultural genocide.

While the loss of Indigenous languages is ongoing — ironically, most Indigenous people in Canada now discuss their imperiled languages in English or French — it is comforting to think we no longer “beat the language out” of Indigenous children. We point to the growing acceptance of Indigenous rights in general and of biocultural rights in particular. But a right unmoored from responsibility can be dangerous. And one right specifically — the right to education — is considered so sacrosanct that we fail to see how it undermines our sense of responsibility toward biocultural diversity, thereby weakening the biolinguistic bonds that evolved between Indigenous Peoples and their territories and, consequently, undermining biocultural diversity itself.

In an astonishing makeover, the blunt “linguicism” of the past — outright attempts to erase Indigenous languages — is now repackaged as “everyone’s right to education.” Taking an example I am familiar with, in Costa Rica every citizen, whether Indigenous or descended from settlers, has the right to education. In principle, this sounds democratic. In practice, this right can only be exercised in Spanish — or in English as a second language.

Education is a fundamental right, of course. Education was the “shucker” I used to pry open the world’s oyster. It worked for me because my two languages are widely spoken. But for the vast majority of Indigenous Peoples, formal education only accelerates the loss of their languages. With rampant globalization, the pressure to assimilate linguistically is stronger now than at any other time since Columbus. In its current form, then, the right to education is really a constitutionally sanctioned Trojan horse.

For the vast majority of Indigenous Peoples, formal education only accelerates the loss of their languages.

It was two Indigenous curanderos (healers) I met in 2015 in south-central Costa Rica, where I was on a forest conservation internship, who planted the first doubts in my mind about the unquestioned right to a formal education.

Don Cristino Lázaro Rojas* was eighty years old and lived in Rey Curré, the Boruca people’s territory. His grandparents and parents had taught him how to collect plants in the foothills of the Talamanca Mountain Range, which he made into medicinal teas and baths. He was one of the last partial speakers of Brunca.

*[In Spanish, the masculine title “Don” is somewhat equivalent to “Master” and conveys the respect a community accords to a man for his knowledge, wisdom, and experience. — Ed.]

Don Alejandro Palacio with Dr. Pablo Ortiz.

Don Alejandro Palacio (right), a Ngäbe curandero (healer) working at the EBAIS clinic, with Dr. Pablo Ortiz (left), clinic co-founder, La Casona Indigenous territory. Photo: Gail Hewson Hull

At age seventeen, Don Cristino decided to follow the path of plants and learn to write. “Most Boruca of my generation only learned to speak Spanish, not write it,” he told me, adding that most young Boruca today show no interest in plants. “They prefer to learn Spanish or English. New technologies have increased their desire to learn those languages.”

New technologies such as smartphones (and even old ones like books) reinforce and elevate written language above the oral histories that are a hallmark of Indigenous cultures. Don Cristino hinted at this when he said he would not teach anyone about plants unless he could do so orally “because Brunca [the Boruca’s language] was never a written language. Nowadays, not only is Spanish the mother tongue of every Boruca, but young Boruca learn very early to write everything down. That is not the original way of teaching.”

If Indigenous languages are spoken consistently and become the key to an important skill set, they can survive and thrive.

Don Alejandro Salomón Palacios, an Elder and curandero of the Ngäbe people, had a similar relationship with Spanish. He kept a medicinal garden at his home in La Casona-Coto Brus, the Ngäbe territory in southern Costa Rica, and harvested wild plants in the forested interior of the territory. Fluent in Spanish, he told me how he learned about plants in his youth: “My grandfather taught me about plants in the Ngäbere language; I also learned their Spanish names.”

Don Alejandro’s bilingualism suggests that if Indigenous languages are spoken consistently and become the key to an important skill set, they can survive and thrive alongside Spanish. For Don Alejandro, speaking Ngäbere was crucial to identifying plants and perpetuating his lineage. “By age seven, I was knowledgeable about plants. At sixteen, I felt ready to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps,” he proudly told me. “Other people do not know what to look for, or how to look. They probably trample the very plants they are seeking.”

Both curanderos faced a difficult task: to transmit a knowledge of plants that is interwoven with their Indigenous languages to youngsters who clearly prefer Spanish. Like my younger self in the 1970s, Ngäbe youth are under great pressure to forget their language; young Boruca can no longer choose. And it is clear to me that the primary vehicle for this linguicide is, ironically, the right to attend school — ¡sólo en español!

The primary vehicle for this linguicide is, ironically, the right to attend school.

As they become “educated citizens” in the eyes of the wider society, Indigenous children in Costa Rica are losing their native languages and their biocultural underpinnings. These children are, or soon will be, the first generation of Indigenous unilingual Hispanophones. In 2010, Brunca was declared functionally extinct. Nearly all Ngäbe speak fluent Spanish, and young Ngäbe increasingly speak mostly or only Spanish.

First to go are the Indigenous names of plants that parents, grandparents, and ancestors harvested and used in traditional medicine, cooking, and arts. The two curanderos clearly grasped the implications of this shift from collective responsibility to “my right to a Spanish education.” “Sometimes, young Boruca come to me after Western medicine has failed. I treat asthma with certain flowers and more serious conditions with medicinal baths and inhalations of the smoke of various plants,” explained Don Cristino, hinting at the tension between modern education and an older biocultural heritage.

The pull of formal education — without which, it must be said, few Ngäbe can ever attain the average Costa Rican’s income level — works directly against the survival of the Ngäbere language. This holds true even though large Ngäbe population centers exist in northern Panama, which ensure a constant, rejuvenating flow of living, spoken Ngäbere.

Despite the odds stacked against them, both curanderos displayed a deep-rooted sense of responsibility to their communities. Both were proud of their status as healers and Knowledge Keepers. When Don Alejandro was a young apprentice, his commitment to his community had been solemnized: “At age sixteen, I was officially presented to the community as successor to my grandfather. I have been a healer for the past fifty-seven years, and I have kept detailed notes of my plant knowledge.” He was the only Indigenous healer who worked Monday to Friday at the EBAIS (Equipos Básicos de Atención Integral en Salud) clinic in La Casona, co-founded in 1988 by Dr. Pablo Ortiz, an emergency-care physician who had begun questioning the primacy of Western medicine after witnessing several “unexplainable” cures achieved by Ngäbe healers.

The EBAIS clinic, La Casona Indigenous territory.

Pride of place for the Ngäbere language: the EBAIS clinic, La Casona Indigenous territory. Photo: Gail Hewson Hull


Ngäbe residents wait for treatment at the EBAIS clinic.

Welcomed, respected, safe: Ngäbe residents wait for treatment at the EBAIS clinic, La Casona Indigenous territory. Photo: Gail Hewson Hull


A keen sense of responsibility for this inherited body of knowledge and a strong awareness of the danger of forgetting were evident in both healers. “If one speaks daily, one develops skill at it,” Don Cristino observed. “It’s the same with plants: the less people come to consult me, the less I use my plant knowledge and the more I lose it.” He added that his youngest daughter was showing interest in plants and that he had started training her, but she was the exception: “Other young Boruca show very little interest in plants, or in the Brunca language, even though I have worked hard with the Asociacíon de Desarrollo Indígena to revive our language.”

His joking tone barely masking his sadness, Don Alejandro lamented, “Young Ngäbe prefer to play football or work so they can buy a cellphone and look good! I collect plants alone because few others know how, and nobody wants to learn. Passing on my knowledge is a problem. I used to give workshops, but no child has yet shown any interest. I am tired after so many years of trying.”

‘If I die before I pass on my knowledge, nobody will understand my notebooks.’

Staring wistfully at me, visibly hopeful that this foreign researcher who was interviewing him about Ngäbe medicinal plants and biolinguistic diversity might be his long-awaited apprentice, Don Alejandro spoke words that still haunt me: “If I die before I pass on my knowledge, nobody will understand my notebooks. I am an old orange tree, laden with one last, bountiful crop, so many ripe oranges that my limbs hang down to the earth. No one is stopping by to pick my oranges. If this tree dies and these oranges go to waste, what a pity that would be!”




With Don Alejandro’s lament ringing in my ears, I returned to Toronto, despondent at finding myself both a bystander and a product of education systems that destroy biocultural diversity. One day, I read excitedly about a project in the Peruvian Amazon: the shamans of the Matsés people had produced a 1,044-page encyclopedia of their medicinal plants, written only in Matsés and cleverly omitting scientific names and photos of plants to foil bio-prospectors. Could a similar tool help young Ngäbe fulfill their own responsibilities to language, land, and lore?

As I found out only recently, just such a project was launched a few years before I met the two curanderos (as reported by project contributors Hugh Govan and Rigoberto Carrera in Biocultural Diversity Conservation: A Global Sourcebook by Luisa Maffi and Ellen Woodley). A team of Elders and youth had produced a book of Ngäbe medicinal plants in Ngäbere and were using it to preserve and teach oral history to young Ngäbe. And the Ministry of Public Education had helped establish a written standard for Ngäbere — a positive step in transforming education from a tool of assimilation into one of biocultural recovery.

The ‘right to education’ is deeply flawed because it entrenches the very colonial structures that caused our biocultural diversity crisis.

In its current form, the “right to education” is deeply flawed because it entrenches the very colonial structures that caused our biocultural diversity crisis. Can we envision a right to an education anchored in one’s biocultural heritage and ancestral responsibilities? This would require a massive shift in national priorities and significant investments — indeed, reparations are a necessary first step. For now, formal education remains colonial: a researcher recently reported that the Costa Rican curriculum still ignores traditional practices, and non-Indigenous teachers still teach in Spanish. My own experience of losing Mandarin as a child and acquiring Thai as an adult (while training in Thai dance) shows that language loss and gain can be fluid processes. And as the Matsés and Ngäbere examples indicate, when Indigenous Peoples reappropriate their education by giving it a biocultural context, education can become a fix. Change is possible, ancestral languages can take root again, and a birthright can be reclaimed.


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Chang Liu.

Chang Liu is a translator and budding forest conservationist living in Toronto. He is half Chinese and half French (and occasionally Thai). Through his published poetry and other writings, Chang seeks to rediscover and recover a way of life grounded in nature, intuition, and harmony. He is also a member of the Toronto Thai Classical Dance Troupe. Read more from Chang Liu

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