Oula-Antti Labba: The decade of indigenous languages is also significant for freedom of expression

The Sámi indigenous peoples celebrate their National Day on 6 February. At the same time the decade of indigenous languages is under way. The United Nations General Assembly declared 2022-2032 the decade of indigenous languages, in resolution A/RES/74/135, to draw global attention to the critical status of many indigenous languages and to mobilise stakeholders and resources in the preservation, revitalisation and promotion of these languages.

In 2016 the United Nations Permanent Indigenous Forum (UNPFII) found that 40 per cent of an estimated 6 700 languages in the world are at risk of disappearing. Most of these disappearing languages are indigenous languages. This threatens the cultures and knowledge systems of these indigenous peoples.

In total nine Sámi languages are alive: Northern, Inari, Skolt, Lule, Southern, Kildin, Ter, Ume and Pite. Only some tens of people speak Ume, Pite or Ter Sámi as their mother tongue. The most recent language to disappear is Akkala Sámi – the last known person to speak it as a mother tongue died in the early 2000’s. The vulnerable situation of the Sámi languages has been caused by several factors, such as colonialism and the stigmas caused by that to the Sámi.

Focused work to revitalise and maintain the Sámi languages has been done and the societal circumstances related to preserving and developing languages have improved. Sámi languages are still, however, under threat and hang in the balance, especially in Russia.

Strengthening the languages of indigenous peoples is also a foundation for freedom of speech and expression. A requirement for preserving the languages of indigenous peoples is that the rights of indigenous peoples are recognised, as required by international human rights treaties.

Buori sámi álbmotbeaivvi! Happy Sámi National Day!

Oula-Antti Labba

The writer is a Sámi lawyer and a member of the Board of Finnish PEN

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