Language, Our Roots, and Justice

During most of the 20th century, national states in the US continent, almost without exception, developed policies of forced assimilation of Native peoples. The “democratic” obsession with equality ended by making invisible, and in many cases, lead almost to the extinction of Native peoples’ languages, cultures, and ethnic identities. Economic inequality generated an internalized colonization as well as the idea of the need for a single identity, a false image of “national unity” that decreed countries with a single language, a single culture, a single race.

This nationalist idea is, in that sense, exclusive of everything that was different. It was until after the great wave of continental mobilization in remembrance of the 500 years of colonial domination, that at last, in 1992, the indigenous peoples ceased to be considered a “dead culture” or part of the national folklore. The indigenous struggles for the vindication of their identities, their languages, and their culture, transcended borders and drew us a colorful and diverse continental mass, multicultural, plurinational, multilingual. So we learned that Mexico has at least 68 indigenous nationalities. Guatemala preserves 20 different ethnic groups. Honduras and Panama recognize 7 each. Indigenous organizations in Colombia claim that there are still 102 nationalities. Venezuela has 44 different ethnicities. Ecuador has at least 14 nationalities and 20 indigenous identities, and 36 nationalities still have a presence in Bolivia. 17 in Paraguay. 9 indigenous peoples are recognized in Chile. Argentina admits to 30 indigenous nationalities. Canada recognizes a little more than 600 indigenous nationalities.

Reality showed us that it was not possible to build the “modernity” of the nation-state under the premise of true equality. Thus, little by little, legislative processes have been adapting to enable processes of recognition of diversities. Autonomous governments, multicultural municipalities, bilingual teachings, recognition of ancestral legal systems, and even in some countries, legislators, officials and even an indigenous President testify to the intensity of this struggle, and the size of the collective claim for rights. Today many peoples retake the path to defend not only identity, but also water, land, and territory.


Although there are at least 562 indigenous peoples and nationalities in the United States, the process of legal recognition, and the incorporation of ancestral cultures, are slowly advancing across the country. Although the creation of the indigenous reservations presupposes some autonomic process, in factit promotes the marginalization and the exclusion of the nation-state systems. Segregation prevents indigenous cultures from permeating into the national pride of what it means to be “American.” In schools, children are not taught to appreciate and respect the native peoples of this land, nor do they even give notions of indigenous culture so that children across the country can understand that it must also be the root what they should appreciate in their homeland, for it was the first Native peoples who gave birth to civilization on this side of the world.

Image: Indigenous Action Media.

The truth is that decolonizing thought is very complex, and it starts with admitting that there was never a “discovery” of America. That there were millions of inhabitants, with more than 2500 years of history on the slopes. That there were hundreds of native nationalities. Thousands of languages and linguistic variants. It is therefore very important that, even with small steps, cultural and legal triumphs are obtained to recognise the cultural diversity that gave rise to the United States of America.

For example, and we welcome this,  57 cities and the states of Alaska, Minnesota, Vermont, South Dakota and New Mexico have official recognition of Indigenous Peoples Day as October 12, leaving “Columbus Day” behind. It is relevant because it begins to visualize genocide, exclusion, and to recognize that there was no discovery, but barbarism, conquest, and subjugation of Native populations. The advancement of this type of recognition gives nationalities space in the public sphere to be present and to act as participants in the national culture.

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Source: Our Mother Tongues

It is also a significant breakthrough that the language of the O’ceti Sakowin recognized as Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota is now part of the official languages in South Dakota. The same has happened with the ʻ Ōlelo Hawai ʻ i of Hawaii, and Alaska which already incorporated the Inupiaq, Siberian Yupik, Central Alaskan Yup’ik, Alutiiq, Unangax, Dena’ina, Deg Xinag, Holikachuk, Koyukon, Upper Kuskokwim, Gwich’in, Tanaa, Upper Tanaa, Tanacross, Hän, Ahtna, Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian as official languages in the state.


When we recently spoke with Gabriela Badillo of the project 68 Voces, in Mexico, she told us that “no one can love what one does not know.” To love and respect the languages and the individual indigenous nationalities of Native peoples, we must know them, respect them, and incorporate them to the idea of homeland. Language is much more than a simple instrument of communication. Incorporating the recognition of indigenous peoples languages reinforces our social fabric, helps to build resilience in the community, helps to heal old wounds, and begins to create conditions for the indigenous citizens of this country to stop being second-class citizens and become full-fledged members of society, with full human rights.


Language is the first roots on which the wisdom of ancestral culture is watered, the diverse knowledge of the peoples, their oral tradition, their history. When our mothers breastfeed, they also give us the lullabies, spirituality, connection with Mother Earth and our ancestors. Recognizing these accents, these differences, makes us bigger, stronger, and allows to build a powerful multicultural and respectful nation that its multiethnic peoples gave birth to. To recognize each other is also wise, inclusive, and generous.

We thus celebrate with these peoples these important advances in the legislative, coexistence and the efforts of the native peoples in the construction of a diverse country, plural and beautifully drawn by their culture and respect for the different.