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Vanishing peoples: since the beginning of human existence there have been about 10,000 languages spoken. Today, there are still 6,000 languages in use, but 90% of them are in danger of disappearing altogether. Each lost language means that a culture somewhere has disappeared, and almost all of these vanishing peoples are Indigenous. (Indigenous Peoples--Status).

The United Nations has defined Indigenous peoples as: "... those people having an historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing in those territories or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations, their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions, and legal systems."

There are Indigenous peoples in every corner of the world who fit that description:

* The 25,000 Ainu people who live in the northern Japanese islands;

* About 400,000 Maoris, descendants of the first inhabitants of New Zealand;

* The 780,000 Native Indian and 49,000 Inuit people of Canada;

* The Penan, one of the last nomadic peoples of southeast Asia;

* The 60,000 Sami in the Arctic regions of Norway and Sweden who derive a living from large herds of reindeer;

* The 700 remaining members of the San--hunters and gatherers in the Kalahari Desert of Botswana;

* The Yanomami, who number just 7,500, live in vine- and leaf-thatched homes in the rainforests of northern Brazil and southern Venezuela.

There is disagreement about how many Indigenous people there are. The United Nations says about 350 million, roughly six percent of the world's population. But, Cultural Survival, a group that watches out for human rights violations against Indigenous peoples, claims it's more like 700 million people. Getting an accurate count is impossible. The census process in many countries is flawed, and some nations refuse to recognize the existence of certain Indigenous peoples. Turkey, for example, says the 13 million people of Kurdish descent who live in the southern part of the country are simply Turks. The Kurds define themselves as a separate people and have sought a nation of their own for decades.

It's also believed there are still some Indigenous peoples who haven't yet made contact with the outside world. Living deep in rainforests in South America and Asia, these isolated peoples are likely to be few in numbers.

Africa is the continent with the greatest number of Indigenous groups, about 2,000. Next comes Asia with 1,300 groups. Following these are: Latin America/Caribbean (800); the Pacific (750); North America (250); and, Australia/New Zealand (100). There are 135 Indigenous groups in the former Soviet Union and 50 in the Middle East.

Until quite recently, most of these peoples were described as "primitive," "backward," and "pagan." The developed world appointed itself to the task of bringing these peoples into the modern era. The process began 500 years ago as European colonizers spread out across the globe. Thousands of Indigenous cultures were destroyed in the process, some through assimilation, others through conquest.

The European colonizers and their descendants believed, often through religious faith, that their worldview was superior. They were doing the world's Indigenous peoples a favour by bringing them to "Western civilization." Many believed then, and some still believe today, that they had a sacred duty to educate the ignorant, clothe the naked, and save the souls of heathens. But, for others there were far less noble motivations; they had theft on their minds.

The Spanish got the ball rolling. In 1492, the Italian navigator Christopher Columbus, with funding supplied by the Spanish monarchy, sailed west looking for a sea route to Asia. He stumbled on the islands of the Caribbean, which he thought was the Indies.

When he got back to Spain in the spring of 1493, he wrote a report of his discoveries to King Ferdinand V and Queen Isabella of Spain.

"As I know you will be rejoiced at the glorious success that our Lord has given me in my voyage, I write this to tell you how in thirty-three days I sailed to the Indies with the fleet that the illustrious King and Queen, our Sovereigns, gave me, where I discovered a great many islands, inhabited by numberless people; and of all I have taken possession for their Highnesses by proclamation and display of the Royal Standard without opposition."

Columbus talked about finding gold and other metals and that got the interest of a lot of people. Before long, fleets of conquistadors (conquerors) were crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Drawn by stories of gold, silver, and gems, the conquistadors soon landed in Central and South America. They were amazed to find the sophisticated societies of the Incas and Aztecs, but even more astounded by their precious metals and jewels. Arrows and spears were no match for muskets and cannon and the Spanish quickly destroyed them. Also, the Europeans brought with them viruses to which the Indigenous peoples had no immunity. Tens of millions of Indians died of smallpox, cholera, influenza, measles, and other diseases in both North and South America.

Then, the plunder began. The Guinness Book of Records lists the biggest robbery in history as the removal of gold from Germany's Reichsbank following the collapse of Hitler's Nazis in May 1945. That haul has been estimated as being worth something in the region of $10 billion.

But, that was chump change compared with what the Spanish stole from the New World. In today's terms, the bullion taken from the Incas, the Aztecs, and others would have to be counted in trillions of dollars.

After the robbers came the settlers. The Indigenous people of the Americas turned over their land to the newcomers, sometimes in exchange for a few trinkets, sometimes to avoid being killed.

So many of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas had died that there was a severe labour shortage. The wealthier settlers were not keen to work the land themselves, particularly in the warmer regions. So, they sent ships to steal people. Nobody knows for sure how many Africans were taken into slavery between the 16th and 19th centuries, but the best estimates are between nine and 10 million. They, of course, were Indigenous people on their own continent.

As the plantations grew in size and more Europeans settled, Native Americans were pushed farther and farther West. Conflict was inevitable and there were some terrible fights. The Battle of Tippecanoe (Indiana) in 1811 saw an army of 6,000 Shawnee destroyed. In 1890, several hundred men, women, and children of the Sioux nation were massacred at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.

There were negotiated treaties that non-Natives tipped up as soon as something valuable, such as gold, was discovered on Native land. In 1819, the state of Georgia began trying to remove the Cherokee people from tribal lands in the southeastern United States. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that this was illegal. United States President Andrew Jackson simply ignored the court's decision and sent soldiers to remove the Cherokee by force to present-day Oklahoma. The trek westward became known as the Trail of Tears; between 1838 and 1839, almost 4,000 of the 18,000 Cherokee forced from their homes died before reaching Oklahoma.

Attempts were made to destroy languages and customs by encouraging and forcing Native people to take up European ways. For example, U.S. government regulations sought to destroy the essence of Native American culture by forbidding the practice of traditional spiritual ceremonies. Some of these bans remained in force until the 1930s. Food rations and goods were withheld to encourage attendance at Christian churches.

In Canada, Christian missionary schools were set up. Indigenous children were taken from their families and placed in these schools where they were punished if they spoke their own languages. These practices went on until quite recently. The same tactics were used in the United States, Australia, and elsewhere with the aim of driving Native culture and spirituality into extinction.

Long-time fighter for Aboriginal rights, Charles Perkins was taken from his family at the age of 10. He was put into an Anglican hostel in South Australia where he spent his childhood. The experience was the basis of his claim to be a member of a "stolen generation." He said the hostel life "washed the colour out of me."

As they lost their land and heritage Indigenous cultures all over the world declined rapidly.

The scale of the cultural loss can be measured in languages. In Canada, there were once more than 60 Indigenous languages. Today, only four Native languages (Cree, Dakota, Inuktitut, and Ojibway) are spoken by enough people to say they are not in immediate danger of extinction. In New Guinea, more than 2,000 languages are spoken; but, a quarter of these are spoken by fewer than 500 people. These tongues will die shortly; already, somewhere in the world a language is lost every two weeks.

Of the 6,000 languages remaining alive in the world today, only half are being taught to children. So, within a couple of generations, 3,000 languages will fall into disuse.

Now, it might be said that human understanding would improve if everyone spoke the same language. That might be true, but whose language would it be? Mandarin Chinese is spoken by more people (about 900 million) than any other language, so perhaps this should be the universal tongue. While we're at it, probably one religion would lead to greater world peace. Christianity is the world's biggest (1.8 billion followers), but Muslims, Hindus, Atheists, Buddhists, and others would certainly have just cause to object to a forced conversion.

Each language expresses the spirit of the culture in which it was born. It shows us a different worldview based on the experience and knowledge of its speakers. Ken Hale is a professor of languages at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He says that sacrifice of a language causes the same damage to our culture as dropping a bomb on the Louvre Art Gallery in Paris.

This is how the anthropologist Wade Davis describes the loss of Indigenous cultures in his 2001 book Light at the Edge of the World:

"The ultimate tragedy is ... vibrant, dynamic, living cultures and languages are being forced out of existence. At risk is a vast archive of knowledge and expertise, a catalogue of the imagination, an oral and written literature composed of the memories of countless elders and healers, warriors, farmers, fishermen, midwives, poets, and saints. In short, the artistic, intellectual, and spiritual expression of the full complexity and diversity of the human spirit."

The diversity of cultures can be seen as a source of strength, something that ought to be preserved. In some parts of the world this has happened. Canada's policy of multiculturalism, for example, is a recognition that tolerance and acceptance of different worldviews can be a positive thing. But that doesn't let Canada off the hook for its historically brutal treatment of it's Native people.


1. In the Spanish city of Valladolid a king's council was held in the summer of 1550. The purpose of this gathering was to discuss issues of human rights and justice that came out of the Spanish conquest of the Americas. The Spanish scholar Juan Gines de Sepulveda argued in favour of Spain having a mission to civilize the New World so long as it was done humanely. He condemned the Indian practice of human sacrifice as the work of "inhumane barbarians who thought the greatest gift they could offer God was human hearts. "He said the Indians "are inferior to the Spaniards just as children are to adults, women to men, and, indeed, one might even say, as apes are to men." A Dominican missionary who spent time with Indians, Bartolome de Las Casas, argued against the conquest. He brought an impressive collection of eyewitness reports of the conquest to the king's council. Those reports are as compelling as any testimony heard in the modern era about events in Bosnia, Kosovo, or Rwanda. Organize teams of students to research the king's council in Valladolid and to recreate the event as an exercise in human rights awareness.

2. Many Indigenous peoples are threatened with extinction. Have teams of students each pick a group from the following list for research and a brief presentation on the history and current status of the group chosen.

Amuesha (Peru), Guaymi (Panama), Hagahai (Papua New Guinea), Karen (Thailand), Ogiek (Kenya), Pima (United States), Tsimshian (Canada).

3. The following is a quotation from the International Indian Treaty Council, an offshoot of the United Nations. "The human genome (the 23 pairs of chromosomes in a human cell) determines the collective physical identity of distinct peoples. As such, it constitutes the common `property' of a people in the most basic and fundamental sense. A people's genetic material collectively belongs not only to the living community of today, but to the ancestors from which they were passed down and the children who will one day inherit them. The unique genetic imprint of a people is also inextricably tied to the water, land, plants, and animals with which that people shares its ecosystem and upon which it depends for its physical subsistence and spiritual survival. This basic component of human life, the source of a people's collective identity and genetic heritage, in the view of many Indigenous peoples has its own spirit. It cannot be sold, altered, or manipulated without potentially causing grave harm to the entire community, now and in the future." Use this quotation as the basis for a discussion.


In 1974, Ned Mandrell died. He was the last person known to speak the Manx language, which was once spoken by the inhabitants of the Isle of Man.

During the 1950s, members of several distinct Alaskan Indigenous communities, including pregnant mothers and boarding-school children, were targets of government and military medical experimentation that exposed them to radioactive pills, liquids, and injections without their knowledge or consent, in order to test if these peoples possessed an inborn resistance to the cold.

A landmark court case in the United States involved the DNA of Mr. John Moore, which had been patented without his knowledge or informed consent. The cells had a potential market value of $3 billion U.S. The California State Supreme Court decided that Mr. Moore had no ownership rights to his own cells once they were removed from his body.

Center for World
Indigenous Studies

Cultures on the Edge

Unrepresented Nations and
Peoples Organization
Australian Mandawuy
Yunupingu (lead Singer Of
Yothu Yindi) formed his band
in 1986. Through Yothu
Yindi, he says "we have been
able to make and maintain
connections with indigenous
people in north America and
other countries, sharing aspects
of our cultures that are common
to all Indigenous peoples. Over the past ten years we have toured the
world, meeting the Indigenous leaders of many cultures. Indigenous
movements around the world are linked by their ability to coexist with
Mother Earth. Taking in the natural resources that are available to
Indigenous people, we strive to survive ..."


RELATED ARTICLE: Fourth world.

Humans love to organize everything. During the Cold War (1945-1990), the phrases First, Second, and Third Worlds came into common use. The First World was said to be the capitalist, democratic nations of the West. The Second World was made up of countries that followed Communist economic theory and were, generally, not democratic. The Third World was everybody else; that is the newly independent developing states.

But, there are a lot of groups that don't fit easily into any of these categories--Indigenous peoples for example. They can't be defined by economic or political ideology, but they do share similar world views. They have similar histories and traditions passed on with their own languages. They are united through their powerful links to their land and water territories. Their struggles for self-determination are struggles to retain and/or regain cultural solidarity which unite them as a distinct people. Indigenous peoples have taken to referring to themselves as The Fourth World.

RELATED ARTICLE: The theft goes on.

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights has a sub-group called the Working Group on Indigenous Populations (WGIP). In 1998, this group reported that: "In the latter part of the twentieth century, Indigenous peoples are threatened by biotechnology as the newest form of racism, colonialism, and economic exploitation."

Apparently, scientists are gathering samples of DNA from Indigenous peoples. The scientists work for large biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies and they are collecting the genetic material for profitable ventures. Here's how the WGIP report puts it: "Cells and genetic materials generated from these samples are used in scientific experimentation as well as in obtaining commercial patents of living cell-lines. Genetic samples are `immortalized' or genetically altered to live virtually forever, and stored in commercial and government gene banks around the world, providing a perpetual source of cell-lines and genomes that can be sold for genetic research, studies, and commercial product development." In most cases, the Indigenous peoples from whom the DNA is taken are not aware of what is going on. There is a concept in our world called "informed consent." It means that before any medical procedure can be done, the patient has to give consent based on an understanding of what is to happen and any possible risks. People belonging to a tribe of hunter-gatherers who can neither read nor write, cannot be expected to give informed consent to something that is far beyond their understanding. Yet, their DNA is subjected to some very complex scientific experiments, which WGIP says includes: "Genetic engineering, cloning, germ-line (reproductive cell) gene transfers, transgenic (cross-species) genome splicing, and other experimental procedures under development."

Indigenous peoples are trying to control these experiments "in an attempt to establish international standards respectful of their sacred genetic heritage, which represents an unbroken chain of life linking us with our ancestors and our descendants. The viability of this ongoing physical and spiritual connection down through the generations is essential to the survival of Indigenous people."

RELATED ARTICLE: Biodiversity.

Scientists have identified 1.4 million different species in the world. However, many life forms that lurk deep in the rainforest or the ocean have not yet been discovered by non-Natives. Biologists think there may be between five and 10 million different species on Earth; some suggest as many as 100 million.

According to anthropologist Wade Davis in his 2001 book Light at the Edge of the World, we have witnessed "the extinction of over a million life forms in the past three decades alone." Harvard University biologist Edward O. Wilson, one of the leading authorities on biodiversity, estimates that the world could lose 20% of all existing species by the year 2020.

Startled by these numbers, the Convention on Biodiversity was established at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. More than 150 nations have signed the Treaty, which aims to protect birds, animals, insects, flowers and other life forms from extinction. However, there is no specific international agreement to protect groups of Indigenous people from becoming extinct.

RELATED ARTICLE: Localization.

Globalization is seen by its supporters as a force for bringing people together; one system is efficient and reduces conflict. "Localization" is the opposite: the belief that it's better to have many different systems--social, political, economic, religious, philosophical, etc. Each culture, language, spirituality is valid in its own way to its particular community. So, it's not surprising there are strong links between anti-globalization activists and Indigenous peoples' groups.
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Publication:Canada and the World Backgrounder
Geographic Code:00WOR
Date:May 1, 2002
Previous Article:Guardians of the land: there is a special relationship between those who live on the land that people raised in modern, urban society have lost....
Next Article:Centuries of struggle. (Indigenou Peoples--South America).

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