At Our Voices on the Air - a first-time conference for indigenous-radio programming - representatives of 30 endangered languages connected to preserve and revitalize their native cultures.
Language experts believe that by the end of the century, 90 percent of the world’s estimated 6,000 currently spoken languages in practical terms could be extinct - unspoken and, eventually, forgotten. With them would disappear countless unique cultures and histories. Preserving them was the impetus for Our Voices on the Air: Reaching New Audiences Through Indigenous Radio, a first-ever conference held from July 31 to Aug. 2 at the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
The Smithsonian’s Recovering Voices Initiative teamed up with Cultural Survival, an indigenous rights organization, to invite aboriginal radio producers from around the world to gather and share their stories. “We were shooting to bring together a bunch of active radio producers working in endangered languages,” said Michael Mason, director of exhibitions at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. “Providing a space where they can discuss strategies and tools to help them keep their languages alive is really important.”
Our Voices on the Air was meant to be a small, intimate event focused on one-on-one time for attendees. All of the conference’s 58 delegates - hailing from Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador, Canada, Peru, Colombia, New Zealand, and the United States - were involved in language revitalization, and most were community radio producers eager to swap ideas on how to preserve their native language through radio.
“We wanted to see a lot of crosspollination and a lot of learning,” said Mark Camp, deputy executive director of Cultural Survival. “Many of the presenters were radio producers who were explaining to everyone else what they’re doing in their community.”
When a language becomes endangered it means there are very few fluent speakers; when it becomes extinct, there are none. “A lot of times,” Camp said, “the process starts with the government or some other outside force actively discouraging the language being spoken.”
The Euchee language of the Native American Euchee Tribe in Oklahoma, for example, was represented at the conference. Fewer than 50 people in the world now speak Euchee fluently. For decades, native children were removed from their families and cultures and sent to boarding schools where they were punished for speaking Euchee. There are other languages such as Cakchiquel, spoken in Guatemala, that are not yet endangered, but are deemed by the United Nations as “threatened” because the number of speakers is declining precipitously due to government intervention.
Regions like Hawaii and New Zealand have some of the greatest success stories when it comes to language revitalization, according to Mason. “Both communities,” he said, “have a significant recovery under way in terms of the numbers of speakers and the extent to which the language is used.”
Maori speakers in New Zealand, for example, have increased from just a few thousand in the 1970s to roughly 140,000 today. This was accomplished through radio and by establishing language-immersion schools for young children. “That story is very inspiring to people in other communities facing the same challenge that they faced 40 years ago,” Camp said. Mason added: “That takeaway was enormous for us, and for the participants - getting young people involved in learning language and getting them involved in radio go together.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum are countries like Guatemala, where native groups face many obstacles to making their voices heard. “There is active government intervention with native people using radio to share language and culture,” Mason said. “There are raids, and people get detained.”
Juxtapositioning the experiences of different communities around the world helped emphasize how a well-funded revitalization effort - often supported in some way by the government - is vital to preserving a language. “That insight,” Mason said, “was fresh for everybody.”
Neither Camp nor Mason can say for certain if there will be another event like Our Voices on the Air next year. Among other things, they’re debating whether to combine forces with larger, more international indigenous-radio conferences. “It might be every year,” Camp said. “It might even be more often in a regional setting and then every other year in a larger and international setting.”
While this year’s meeting worked to bridge language gaps globally, organizers had to overcome some communication barriers of their own. “The people there spoke 30 different languages, but the working languages for the conference were English and Spanish,” Camp said, “so we recruited a bunch of bilingual English/Spanish-speaking volunteers to act as interpreters.”
The conference allowed its radio-professional attendees to do what they do best: collect and distribute information. “The producers took a lot of interviews with each other,” Camp said, “and then turned them into radio programs broadcast at their stations back home.” That helped expand the reach to corners of the world that otherwise might be unreachable due to linguistic barriers.
“There were people from all over - New Zealand, Hawaii, Oklahoma, Peru, Ontario - who were all independently saying, ‘ We've got to keep in touch and build a network,’” Camp said. “‘ We've got so much to learn from each other that this conference just can’t be a standalone event.’”
Sidebar: Breakout Permanent Programming
Our Voices on the Air: Reaching New Audiences Through Indigenous Radio itself might be the beginning of a recurring radio program. “We had a goal of scouting stories for a radio program that we want to make to teach the public about language endangerment and what is lost when a language goes silent,” said the Smithsonian Institution’s Michael Mason. “The conference was a great way to get to know a bunch of communities and people who could be major voices in the stories that we want to tell to the broader American public.”
To learn more about Our Voices on the Air, visit culturalsurvival.org/our-voices-on-the-air.