Six Million Indigenous


The death in 2008 of Chief Marie Smith Jones signaled her language’s death.

Mexicans speak Spanish, right? But Mexico is also home to indigenous language speakers, six million of them, as you read this. Six million speakers in Mexico, of languages not Spanish. How many languages? By one count, two hundred eighty-seven distinct languages. Four are extinct, and dozens are endangered, dying, soon to be silent and lost.

What forces commit the linguicide? Globalization, cultural imperialism, neocolonialism. Speakers switch to a language with economic power, social power. Schools switch to the language of those in control. “When a language dies,” says Robin Wall Kimmerer, “so much more than words are lost. Language is the dwelling place of ideas that do not exist anywhere else. It is a prism through which to see the world.

Here’s a poem by about the loss of a language in India:

BUNAHAN (About Not To Speak) by Laurelyn Whitt

When the last speaker of Boro
falls silent,
who will notice
the first-grown feather
of a bird’s wing? (gansuthi)
or feel how far pretending
to love (onsay) is
from loving
for the last time (onsra)?
Quiet and uneasy, in an
unfamiliar place (asusu)
no one sees her, or listens;
there is less of her
than there was.
The last speaker feels
Boro’s world fall apart,
knowledge unravels:
healing plants go
unseen; the bodies of animals
are unreadable.
With a last thought, onguboy
(to love it all, from the heart),
she leaves fragments
of the world she held in place.
We touch their husks,
about to speak and
about not to speak
(bunhan, bunahan);
awash in loss,

The idea of recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the second Monday in October  (instead of recognizing Columbus Day) has gathered steam in recent years. as many states and municipalities make the switch. It’s a good time to recognize language as a cultural richness and a cultural right. For those of us from elsewhere who have settled here in Mexico, it’s time to become aware of the rich tapestry of Mexico’s Indigenous languages.

One Response to “Six Million Indigenous

  • An important thing to consider: linguicide–never heard the word before–on this indigenous people’s day. Thanks for making me aware.

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