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Revitalizing what? – Towards a holistic model of Indigenous language and cultural revitalization in an urban context

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Title: Revitalizing what? – Towards a holistic model of Indigenous language and cultural revitalization in an urban context
Issue Date: 03 Mar 2013
Description: Indigenous language revitalization programs remain predominantly based in rural and relatively remote traditional territories, even as Indigenous people are coming increasingly to occupy urban and semi-urban spaces. In this paper, I argue that urban and diasporic contexts for Indigenous language work necessitate a re-theorization – or at least, a re-focusing – of the concept of “revitalization”. The weakening and increased ambiguity of the construction of “community” in these spaces means that linguists may need to incorporate creative collaborations with scholars, advocates, and activists who are studying and addressing the social problems facing urban Indigenous populations.

This paper will draw on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in São Gabriel da Cachoeira, a predominantly Indigenous and extremely multilingual city in the Northwest Brazilian Amazon, in which linguists and anthropologists have had long-term involvement with language documentation and cultural revitalization programs. Their projects have made a significant positive contribution to Indigenous education programs and to the strengthening of Indigenous identity, especially in the surrounding rural Indigenous communities. At the same time, other academic researchers, religious organizations, and community activists have been engaging with the challenges of finding culturally appropriate solutions to predominantly urban health and social problems – including disproportionately high rates of alcoholism and drug abuse, domestic violence, and youth suicide. In this paper, I will argue that a deep ideological division can be observed within the city between those who are focusing on each of these issues, and that, as a result of these separate paths, many have come to feel skeptical of existing language revitalization projects as ignoring or even perpetuating these negative patterns.

This context illustrates the ideological challenge – but also the pragmatic necessity – of linguists and anthropologists theorizing “revitalization” in a holistic manner, incorporating not only language, traditional knowledge, and cultural practices, but also the community itself and the individuals within it. In contrast to the disciplinary compartmentalization that has characterized work thus far, such a holistic model may prove more ideologically appropriate for the Indigenous people of the region. As the highly diverse, multilingual city continues to experience a rapid rate of shift toward a few regional lingua francas and Portuguese, expanding the conversation to include health care practitioners and researchers, social workers, and spiritual leaders, as well as deepening the role of educational professionals in this work, is necessary to addressing both the social and cultural wounds that are visible within the city.
Rights: Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Appears in Collections:3rd International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC)

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