The United Nations declared 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages and emphasized dialogue around this topic during the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) held April 22-May 3, 2019 in New York City. Recognizing language as a global crisis has been the goal of Native American United Methodists who have been working with the UNPFII since 2001.
“Our languages are gifts from the Creator,” said Richard Grounds, research professor of anthropology at the University of Tulsa and member of the Yuchi Tribe of Oklahoma. He is also a member of Pickett Chapel United Methodist Church in the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference.
"A lot of things connect to our languages in terms of specialized Indigenous knowledge about particular medicines, about specific local environments and how to live in the world. So much of it has never been taken into colonial languages."
Grounds was a part of an 8-person delegation supported in partnership by the Office of Indigenous Ministries of the General Board of Global Ministries and the denomination’s Native American Comprehensive Plan (NACP). The group hosted a side event focused on setting up apprentice language programs within local communities. The UNPFII is a high-level advisory body which provides expert advice and recommendations on Indigenous issues to the Economic and Social Council of the UN. The Forum provides a platform to raise awareness about pressing Indigenous issues that often go unnoticed.
“As sovereign nations, our Native people have a right to speak Nation to Nation about issues we care about,” said the Rev. Chebon Kernell, executive director of the NACP. He says advocating for the preservation of language is aligned with the Church’s call to defend all of creation.
“We lose one Indigenous language every 2-and-a-half weeks worldwide. In the United States historically, faith groups have played a culpable role in the demise of languages through boarding schools,” he said.
The boarding school experience for Indian children began in 1860 with the goal to assimilate Indian tribes into the American culture. Native children were stripped of their identity and not allowed to speak their tribal language. By 1926, nearly 83-percent of Indian school-age children were attending boarding schools which were operated in concert with several denominations of the Christian Church, according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. Corbon Helton, 15, member of Salem United Methodist Church in Fon du Lac, Wisconsin, also joined the delegation for the first time and served on the UNPFII youth caucus. He is a member of the St. Croix Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.
“The time I had at the United Nation was a great way of seeing how the world solves problems,” said Helton. “It was spectacular hearing people and their issues.” Helton prepared a statement sharing how he has grown up without knowing his tribal language as a result of boarding schools his grandmothers were forced to attend. His statement, which was submitted but not read on the floor of the session, called on academic institutions to open their archives and share what knowledge they hold about Indigenous language.
“I cannot emphasize enough how important it is that we train our young leaders in our communities on the work at the UN,” said Holly Helton, Corbin’s mother and delegate to the UNPFII.
“They come with us and learn the process so that when they become older, they can continue to fight for our rights and adequately represent us because they know the system.”
Kernell says engaging young Native people in the UNPFII is one of his goals.
“Attending the meetings here allow us to learn firsthand the narrative of Native American and Indigenous communities," he said. "We don’t always hear about Indigenous issues inside the walls of Christian communities.”
Kernell encourages local United Methodist churches to support Native language preservation projects.
*Ginny Underwood is a communication consultant with ties to the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference. She is a member of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma.
Corbon Helton (left), Holly Helton, Chebon Kernell and Brian Larney were a part of the United Methodist delegation attending the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
Chebon Kernell (left), Mary Lyons, Doreen Bennett and Brian Larney wear red in honor of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women during the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
Corbon Helton, United Methodist youth delegate attends session on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.