Languages, Land Rights, and Education – Whose Cosmologies?

Image of Tove Skuttnab-Kangas holding a pet goat
Image Source:

by Tove Skutnabb-Kangas

Written for Jawaharlar Nehru University’s The National Multilingual Education Resource Consortium (with Minati Panda and Ajit Mohanty as directors) (

The Mother Language Day started with Bengali students’ resistance against linguistic imperialism. Indigenous resistance all over the world today is not only survival struggles and strategies against big corporations; it is is about Indigenous re-creation of the world order. This struggle is going on under the pressures of global capitalism where national elites continue violent attempts at cultural and linguistic homogenisation in most countries in the world. All quotes in the first part of my short contribution, unless mentioned otherwise, are from articles in Meyer & Maldonado’s edited book from “Latin America,” New World of Indigenous Resistance; only the name of the relevant author in the book is mentioned[1]. Much of the book is about the role of education, and mother tongues, in the struggle. This resistance has been started by “those born in the basement of our societies” (Zibechi, p. 317). It encourages everybody to follow the paths of Indigenous peoples (who have been called the world’s “moral reserve”) towards a just global society. In interviews in the book, Noam Chomsky, linguist and intellectual political activist, places education within a deconstruction of neoliberalism and neocolonialism which “use state power for the benefit of the concentration of economic power” (p. 66).

Today’s silent ethnocide and linguicide [2]—a low-intensity warfare through formal education—are part of a minimally 500-year-old Western nation-state logic and Western cosmology. Schooling was, and is, the tool par excellence for perpetuating this cosmology: it was also “the principal instrument of the state for exterminating Indian peoples” (Esteva, p. 116) [i.e. Indigenous peoples in “Latin America”]. Today, the “political function of the school is ethnocidal domination, the eradication of languages and customs of indigenous peoples by means of an interventionist army – teachers and schools” (Maldonado, p. 375). Different commentators criticize the recent goals in education, “multiculturalism” and “interculturalism”, as appreciation-oriented celebrations of other cultures and diversity as commodities, supporting the status quo, and rendering invisible the disparities of power and status between languages and cultures; as such, interculturalism is part of the effort “to preserve the privileges of the colonizer language” (Mamani, p. 287).

Image of a Bengali teacher seated on floor with young students
Image Source: World News Network

The same applies in education of Indigenous peoples (IPs) everywhere (including in India), not only in relation to English, but also in the relationship between the IP’s languages and those of official languages, be they countrywide, federal or regional. School “dispossesses [Indians] of their way of seeing and experiencing the world, of their cosmovision, in order to ‘Westernize’ them” (Esteva, p. 116). “[Formal] education is a strictly Western enterprise and it cannot be separated from the capitalist project” (ibid, p. 122). Much of what passes as “indigenous education” conforms to the dominant educational paradigm, reproducing a stratified system where “post-modernity, artificial life-styles and urban attractions […] are erected on top of peasant rural life, which is perceived as inferior and backward” (Bertely, p. 148).

What instead, then? In contrast to the education described above, Martínez Luna defines IP’s ways of relating to each other (“comunalidad”) as “a way of understanding life as being permeated with spirituality, symbolism, and a greater integration with nature. It is one way of understanding that Man [sic.] is not the center, but simply a part of this great natural world” (pp. 93-94). If the implications of this for Indigenous and community-based contextualized ways of learning and teaching were taken seriously, “they would outstrip anything we have yet conceived of as progressive, alternative education” (Meyer, p. 24). The contributors’ vision of creating a “plurinational state” strikes a chord with many struggles in a world that is abounding with “culture-killing” schools (Maldonado, p. 375).

There are, all over the world, many educational experiments with mother-tongue based multilingual intercultural education, MTB-MLE. There are also positive laws; some of them are being implemented, others not. Bolivia and Peru have, for instance, recently passed positive laws which enable MTB-MLE. Several Asian countries are in the process of both developing and evaluating MTB-MLE (see Bang in this special number). At least one of the extremely successful dual language medium programs in the USA has Indigenous Cherokee as one of the two languages. Several other IP’s in the USA are learning and/or revitalising their languages in education. A few of the Canadian IP’s and Metís have some of their education through the medium of their own languages, even if the culture and pedagogy in schools is still mainly Western, despite hard work by IPs. Hawai’i has developed their Hawaiian-medium education, from preschool to university, intensively and successfully, despite hard resistance[3]. The new educational guidelines in Odisha are a dream come true – all of us are HOPING for implementation. The National Multilingual Education Resource Consortium, with Minati Panda and Ajit Mohanty ( is a fantastic example to follow for the rest of the world.

But most IPs in the world do not have MTB-MLE. Nearly all IPs in Africa, and most other African children, regardless of whether they are majorities, minorities, or minoritised, are still getting their formal education mainly in foreign official languages or big majority language, at least after the first two or three grades, provided they attend school at all. The first Kurdish-medium school in Turkey, which started in the autumn of 2014, is struggling every day to be allowed to continue (and there are at least 15 million Kurds in Turkey). The Council of Europe criticised again (in January 2015) Sweden because next to nothing has happened to grant IPs and linguistic minorities the educational language rights that Sweden has passed laws about; they do not even get high-quality teaching of their MTs as subjects, let alone MTB-MLE (except in the very few private schools).

IP’s, all over the world, are becoming more aware of past and present oppression. Maj-Lis Skaltje, a Saami journalist, interviews in her marvellous film, Jojk, many old and young Saami who have continued or are taking back their traditional singing, yoik, at the same time as she is telling the history of her family, the racist measuring of their skulls, by researchers from the first Race Hygiene Institute in Europe, founded in Uppsala, Sweden, in 1922. (This was 5 years before a similar institute in Germany was founded, modelled on the Swedish one. It provided “arguments” for Hitler). Finns and Saami were deemed to belong to the lower races. At the same time, their languages were forbidden. The Skolt Saami (in Finland), some 300 people, have just opened their own historical Archive where the oldest written text, a contract between them and Russia, is some 400 years old. Just like in the Americas, or in Aotearoa/New Zealand (Waitangi), such contracts were invariably broken. The Skolt Saami have nominated their Archive to UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register ( Aanaar Saami in Finland (under 400 people) have experienced a fantastic revitalisation process – some 20 years ago there were only three people under the age of 20 who spoke the language – the rest were old people, over 50. Now (January 2015) there are three language nests, the whole primary school (grades 1-9) in Aanaar Saami, teachers, teachers trainers, parents who are relearning the language and speaking it already when their competence is hesitant; the old people who did not use the language for decades, are now speaking it again, to everybody; there are many cultural associations, etc. (see the book about the revitalisation by Olthuis, Kivelä and Skutnabb-Kangas) In both Asia and Africa many IPs still have their languages and cultures. States and corporations are extremely busy in homogenising these so that the message of the benefits of neoliberalism can get to every corner of the world, with Walmarts and Cokes, at the same time as they are exploiting IP’s lands and throwing them out. Arundhati Roy explains in an interview about India under the new prime minister Modi ( “What he will be called upon to do … will be to sort out what is going on in the forests, to sweep out the resistance and hand over land to the mining and infrastructure corporations … The contracts are all signed and the companies have been waiting for years… The resistance has to be crushed and eradicated. Big money now needs the man who can walk the last mile. That is why big industry poured millions into Modi’s election campaign… Now, we have a democratically elected totalitarian government.”

Analysis of what has happened and is happening is a starting point for the awareness that first resistance and then positive action are built upon. Some IPs have started with demanding linguistic and cultural rights, others are first demanding rights to land and water. Land rights, and struggles against the big mining, water, oil, tar sands and fracking corporations go hand in hand with the struggles for linguistic and cultural rights – they are not alternatives and do not compete. Both are absolutely necessary.


Meyer, Lois & Maldonado Alvarado, Benjamín (eds) (2010). New World of Indigenous Resistance: Noam Chomsky and Voices from North, South and Central America. San Francisco: City Lights Books.

[1] We used many of these quotes in our review of the book (Pérez Jacobsen, Susanne, Rao, A. Giridhar & Skutnabb-Kangas, Tove (2010). Language Policy 9, 371-374).

[2] See Skutnabb-Kangas Tove and Dunbar, Robert (2010). Indigenous Children’s Education as Linguistic Genocide and a Crime Against Humanity? A Global View. Gáldu Čála. Journal of Indigenous Peoples’ Rights No 1, 2010. Guovdageaidnu/Kautokeino: Galdu, Resource Centre for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples ( Read it as an e-book, free of charge, at [Norwegian translation 2012; Saami translation 2015].

[3] My Big Bib, over 400 pages, on these issues, contains references to everything I have mentioned here ( If you cannot find it, ask me!

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