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Part 1: How to Skin a Porcupine

2 May 2012

Daniel Openshaw, MRG’s Publications Intern, reports back from the Expert Seminar on Indigenous Peoples’ Languages and Cultures. In the first of two blogs he discusses the importance of cultural rights and their inseparability from rights to self determination and land.

I have no idea how to skin a porcupine, but then I do not speak Innu-aimun, the language of Canada’s indigenous Innu. Innu-aimun has specific terms describing how to kill and prepare porcupine, for which there is no equivalent in other languages. Those who don’t speak Innu-aimun will be able to guess, they might hack away at the rodent, trying to avoid being pricked by one of its sharp spines until it resembles a steak, over time even cultivating methods resembling those that Innu have been using for centuries. However, there will be no efficient way of explaining these processes to others if Innu-aimun ceases to exist. This cultural wealth and ancestral knowledge will be lost…at best assigned to the history books with the useful words assimilated (‘borrowed’) into more dominant languages, at worst, forgotten.

This example highlights a recurring theme that emerged at the Expert Seminar on Indigenous Peoples’ Languages and Cultures*, organised by Dr Alexandra Xanthaki from Brunel Law School in collaboration with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights*, which I attended in March. Majority cultures have a longstanding history of dismissing and assimilating indigenous cultures and languages that are often differ radically from the mainstream.

A panel of expert speakers and OCHCR representatives gather during the Expert Seminar on Indigenous Peoples’ Languages and Cultures

Academics and indigenous representatives from around the globe attended in order to aid the development of a study by the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples at the behest of the UN Human Rights Council under resolution 18/8 of September last year. The aim of the study is to investigate the role of languages and culture* in the promotion of the rights and identity of indigenous peoples.

The seminar emphasized the importance of preserving and promoting cultural rights and also important issues standing in the way of this. Professor Elsa Stamatopoulou, former Chief of the UN Permanent Forum on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, summed up the conundrum: human rights are seen as the weak part of international law and within these rights cultural rights are seen as the weakest, as illustrated by the make-up of the ICESCR* which covers Economic rights (E) and Social rights (S) from articles 1 through to 14 and then tags on Cultural rights (C) as a vague afterthought in article 15. Things are improving with the introduction of UNDRIP*, which although legally non-binding has achieved almost universal recognition and indicates a step forward to recognizing what Professor Stamatopoulou referred to as ‘the essentiality of cultural rights’, not simply as a luxury secondary to a person’s right to food and water.

Maasai child in front of traditional hut. Credit: Kibuyu

‘If you don’t have a traditional culture or speak a traditional language then you are a slave’ – a Swahili proverb that emphasizes that the right to maintain one’s culture is fundamental to one’s right to self-determination. Lucy Mulenkei, head of the Indigenous Information Network, further illustrated this through the displacement of Maasai in Kenya.

When they are displaced, for whatever reason, it is almost certainly a non-indigenous person who has decided they must be displaced and they might be moved to areas where traditional materials are unavailable to build traditional huts in traditional ways. Perhaps without malice but definitely with indifference, decision-makers have not taken into account the cultural rights of indigenous peoples and in doing so have denied the Maasai part of their identity.

Cautious optimism did prevail at the seminar, especially because of recent developments in the recognition of cultural rights, often in conjunction with land claims. Dr Jeremie Gilbert of Middlesex University highlighted the Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ (IACHR) 2001 landmark ruling in favour of the Mayagna community of Awas Tingni, Nicaragua. Logging permits had been granted on indigenous land by the state without obtaining the free prior and informed consent of local communities. The IACHR recognized Awas Tingni land as property of the Mayagna peoples on the basis of traditional use and occupancy, equal to the social integrity of the community.

Traditional Maasai huts. Credit: J. Czliao

Dr Kristin Hauser of the British Institute of International and Comparative Law also highlighted how the Supreme Court of British Columbia had allowed traditional culture to be heard on a equal footing to anthropological and scientific evidence in the case of a land dispute involving the Tsilhqot’in first nations peoples of Canada. Given the evidence, the judge stated that 50% of disputed land should have been awarded to the indigenous community but as this was an ‘all or nothing’ claim, no land could actually be awarded. Nevertheless, the recognition has been heralded as a victory.

Furthermore, MRG has been involved in the case of the Endorois in Kenya, semi-nomadic pastoralists who were evicted from their ancestral land in the 1970s to make way for a national park. Here the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) took the rights to religion, culture and access to natural resources, together to be equal to the right to cultural integrity and used this to award the Endorois land rights and posthumous compensation; a positive step but one that two years on is yet to be implemented.

These cases illustrate the inseparable nature of cultural rights and land rights, further emphasizing the essentiality of cultural rights. This will be explored in MRG’s ‘State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples’ to be launched on June 28th, which this year focuses on natural resources and extractive industries.

However, what is striking is the lack of acknowledgment of linguistic rights in the ACHPR definition of cultural integrity. This is a cause for concern as Dr Mark Harris of Adelaide University pointed out; Aboriginal land claims in Australia are often embedded in language, a discussion that will be continued in my next blog

This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.