Lenore Grenoble and Puju Carl Chr. Olsen

Circumpolar collaboration and indigenous-drive initiatives: Arctic indigenous language vitality


Wednesday 6 November, 14.30-15.00, E0104

The present talk reports on how Arctic indigenous communities are working collaboratively and across national boundaries to change the course of indigenous language shift. We focus on the three themes around which the project is organized: assessment, language policy, and language acquisition. The circumpolar Arctic is undergoing radical climate change and equally radical cultural disruption: some communities are relocated due to coastal erosion. others are displaced due to an influx of foreign development, and changes in the plant and animal ecologies alter their traditional food sources. Language shift is an integral part of cultural disruption in this region: of the 50 or so indigenous languages spoken in the circumpolar Arctic, all but Kalaallisut (West Greenlandic; iso-639 kal) are endangered. 

An indigenous-driven project, the Arctic Indigenous Language Initiative (AILI), is working to reverse language shift through active engagement and collaboration throughout the circumpolar region. Arctic indigenous peoples are perhaps uniquely organized within the world today in a way that potentially empowers them to take action. The eight Arctic nation states are organized into the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental political council consisting of the eight member states (Canada, Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russian Federation, Sweden, and the United States). The Arctic Council includes the Permanent Participants, six indigenous organizations which represent Arctic peoples: Aleut International Association; the Arctic Athabaskan Council; Gwich’in Council International; the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC); the Saami Council; and the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON). 

The AILI is defined and determined by the Permanent Participants, stemming from 2008 when they convened to establish an action plan. This meeting laid the foundation of the AILA, a collaborative effort between researchers, representatives from Arctic Indigenous organizations and Arctic governments, language activists, and policy makers. While the long-term goal is to achieve vitality and sustainability for Arctic indigenous languages, the first measures center around assessment in three key areas: (1) Arctic language policy; (2) language acquisition; and (3) language vitality. 

The present talk outlines the project as a whole and provides specific information about how the group is addressing core elements of each of these three areas, including the creation of indigenously defined assessment metrics; the establishment of feedback mechanisms from the community, including community-based (peer) review of findings; and the role of academic linguists and community members. The work on language policy is multi-faceted and includes such diverse elements as the existence or lack of local language policies; naming policies; policies regulating the use of language in all realms of public use: legislation, media, advertisements, and so on. Critically, we explore the mechanisms for creating policy changes at all levels, and the measures needed to turn the findings of the assessment teams into action to promote Arctic indigenous language vitality. We address the challenges of working across such broad geographic territories, spanning multiple national boundaries, and the challenges of working with so many parties with such diverse interests.