Before the conquest of Native North America, it is estimated that millions of people lived in the arid deserts, stone cold mountains, wandering rivers and mist-covered seashores. For the most part, their impact on the land was local and based on lessons learned from generations of dependence on the natural environment for survival. The genocide and diseases visited on the Native peoples of this country left decimated populations on fragments of their aboriginal lands. Tribes were forcibly relocated to unfamiliar places and were punished for practicing their customs and religions and speaking their languages. Within this legacy, the struggle to preserve language, story, song and lands continues.
All around the world, as species and cultures are driven to the edge of extinction, we are finally learning the relationship between cultural and biological diversity. If we protect places we must also protect the rich cultures and their knowledge. Native peoples lose their cultural foundation as the Earth suffers from contamination and exploitation, whether from coal, oil, gold and uranium mines, or nuclear waste dumps and weapons testing.
At the same time, there are many exciting efforts to revitalize culture and reclaim ancestral lands. Master/apprentice language programs match language bearers with youth eager to learn their language and ways; video and audio ethnography is helping to teach new generations traditional arts and sciences; land acquisition projects are establishing cultural and ecological preserves where the land is protected and tended by ceremony.
Biodiversity and Cultural Diversity
Biodiversity is usually measured by the number of plants and animal species and cultural diversity is measured by the number of indigenous languages spoken. Around the world, the places with the highest biological diversity, like the Amazon rainforest, are also the places of the highest cultural diversity. These eco-cultural hotspots contain some of the rarest and most valuable ecosystems and species in the world. They are also the traditional homelands to indigenous nations who hold the knowledge of how to sustainably use and live within these unique landscapes.
Worldwide, the preservation of biological diversity is inextricably related to the preservation of cultural diversity. For native peoples, culture and environment are deeply interwoven. They are one in the same because everything comes from the Earth and the land is often where ancestors reside. Particular plants, animals and landforms are religious symbols, sources of food and healing materials, and characters in myths and stories. When the land loses its nature and the plants and animals that enliven it, the stories and the songs live in shadow, and ways of life disappear. But in some locations, land and culture are being reclaimed and revitalized.
Language Endangerment and Survival
Globalization and its homogenizing process is effective at destroying linguistic diversity through dominant national languages in schools, governments and media. The Western values of consumerism, individualism, and ethnocentrism all contribute to the loss of language diversity. English-only assimilation policies in the U.S. have been effective at decreasing the number of Native American languages from an estimated 300 at the time of contact to 153 today. The Society for Indigenous Languages classifies sixty-seven of these native languages as nearly extinct, and it is estimated that 80 per cent of indigenous languages are moribund - spoken by only a few. The languages are vanishing with the elders who are the keepers of the ancestral voice and collective memory.
Yet, many indigenous peoples resist this representation of language extinction, or dying languages. Its a fact that there are less native speakers today and, in some cases, no living speakers of some languages. But does that truly mean the language is dead? Jessie Little Doe Fermino, a Wampanoag Tribal member and linguist, shares her traditional perspective: If we do not keep our responsibility to language, we have not killed language. In fact, we do not have that much power. The spirit of language cannot be destroyed by humans; it can only be neglected and not honored.* Other native people refer to a language that has no speakers as being dormant, or as Hoskie Benally says, it is waiting there for us in the four directions.
Native languages are being awakened and recovered through Immersion schools, master-apprenticeship programs, audio and video recordings, ethnographic research, oral history documentation and ceremonial practices.
On every continent, indigenous peoples are struggling to protect their cultures and lands and to assert their rights to use and celebrate the diversity of the Earth through their traditional cultural, economic and religious expressions.
Four southwestern California tribes of Cahuilla and Chemehuevi people are purchasing 2,500 acres of desert wilderness in the Old Woman Mountains. The preserve is home to the endangered Desert Tortoise and Big Horn Sheep. This project of the Native American Land Conservancy (NALC) will be a precedent-setting project where cultural preservation and environmental protection will come together with a management plan that protects ecological processes while encouraging indigenous ritual and ceremony.
NALC contact number: 760-775-5566
More land issues in Indian country related to cultural and environmental protection:
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