Voices of the Earth

Home/Our Work/Voices of the Earth

“In our homes and in the privacy of our longhouses we continue to observe the wisdom of the past. The more we learn about the old ways the more we realize that science, mathematics and social studies did not begin with the schools. For some of us it ended.”

– From The Saanich Year, by Earl Claxton and John Elliott, Saanich Indian School Board


Photo © Terralingua, 2011

Welcome to Voices of the Earth!

Terralingua’s Voices of the Earth project supports Indigenous Peoples’ efforts to document and revitalize their oral traditions. Keeping oral traditions alive contributes to strengthening indigenous identities and helps ensure that indigenous worldviews, values, beliefs, knowledge, and practices are transmitted to the younger generations. Gathering these traditions also enables indigenous communities to record their historic presence on the land and their cultural and spiritual connections with it. In many cases, this record can support Indigenous Peoples’ attempts to uphold their rights when facing development pressures that might radically alter their natural environments and their ways of life.

Why this project?

We live in an increasingly homogenized world. The many Voices of the Earth—thousands of diverse human cultures and languages—are being overpowered by just a few dominant voices that have spread their reach across the planet. Instead of achieving a vibrant unity in diversity, we’re quickly sliding into a drab sameness without unity.

Indigenous languages and cultures, which represent the largest part of our human diversity, are especially under threat. Terralingua’s Index of Linguistic Diversity shows that, just in the last 40 years, there has been a decline of over 20% in the diversity of indigenous languages. Along with the languages, indigenous cultural traditions—many of them only transmitted in oral form—also are at risk. As indigenous languages fall silent, so does the ancestral wisdom stored in the oral traditions of the world’s Indigenous Peoples.

This has profound consequences not only for Indigenous Peoples themselves, but also for humanity at large. The fewer voices can be heard, the less likely it is that we can keep our collective options alive, and the more likely it is instead that we may encounter the same “cultural blind spots”: cases in which the prevailing cultural models fail to provide appropriate solutions to the many challenges human societies face.“Every society in its own way responds to the challenges of the human spirit through oral literature in its various forms”, says Prof. George Appell, an expert in indigenous oral literatures and a Terralingua Board member. And perhaps the greatest challenge that each culture, in its own way, has had to confront is this: how to respect the Earth so that we can draw sustenance from it without compromising its capacity to sustain life.

Saanich Elder and Knowledge Keeper John Elliott at a culture camp on the Tsawout Reserve, Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, Canada. Photo © Terralingua, 2011

Saanich Elder and Knowledge Keeper John Elliott at a culture camp on the Tsawout Reserve, Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, Canada. Photo © Terralingua, 2011

Indigenous oral literatures contain a wealth of responses to this fundamental challenge of the human spirit. Oral histories, myths, legends, poems, epics, proverbs and sayings, songs, ritual chants, and more—speak of the sacredness of Mother Earth and how to care for her, so that she will care for us. It’s a story told in many voices—the Voices of the Earth.

Traditional knowledge is not just what to know about a place you live in; it’s wisdom about how to live in a place you know. This collective wisdom is vital for the survival and well-being of each and every human society and of all other species with which we share our earthly home. This is the very heart of the idea of “biocultural diversity” that Terralingua stands for. It reminds us of our inescapable interconnectedness and interdependence with all of life. It spurs us to fulfill our duty to respect nature and live in harmony with it. It warns us of the consequences if we neglect this primary duty.

Indigenous Peoples the world over are seeking to hold on or reconnect to their oral traditions, in order to maintain or rebuild their identities, their sense of place, and their ability to forge their own destiny and “walk to the future in the footprints of their ancestors”. There is a lot everyone can learn, or re-learn, from the wisdom of indigenous oral traditions. That is why Terralingua is at work to ensure that these traditions are not further depleted and that the living chorus of Voices of the Earth can still be heard loud and clear.

What we do

In the initial stages of the Voices of the Earth project, we established a partnership with two Canadian First Nations, the Saanich (W̱SÁNEĆ) People of Coastal British Columbia (BC) and the Chilcotin (Tsilhqot’in) People of the BC Interior. We provided small start-up grants to enable them to develop their own oral literature documentation projects. The resulting materials are contributing to their language and culture revitalization programs, educational curriculum, reconnection to the land and ancestral ways of life, and affirmation of their own identity and rights. We plan to continue to work with them for the long-term.

More recently, we also teamed up with the Sacred Natural Sites Initiative (SNSI) to develop a collaborative project for the documentation of oral traditions relevant to the stewardship and conservation of sacred natural sites in indigenous and local communities around the world. Sacred natural sites (such as sacred groves, caves, watercourses, lakes, mountains, and other natural features considered to be invested with special cultural and spiritual significance) are quintessential places of biocultural diversity. SNSI’s mission is to support the custodians of sacred natural sites. In turn, custodians see preserving and transmitting their languages and oral traditions as crucial to the maintenance of their peoples’ cultural identity and spirituality. In our first collaboration with SNSI, we provided partial support to the creation of two participatory community videos on sacred natural sites in Zanzibar, Tanzania, and the ancestral traditions that sustain them.

With our partners’ permission, we are beginning to share some of the results from these projects on this website. The teachings from these “biocultural stories”, which you’ll find in the next pages, are enriching and vital for us all.

Translate »