Across Latin American countries, individuals and groups are engaged in serious work to preserve and protect the dying culture and languages of native communities.
In February last year, an indigenous language became “extinct” in Chile, South America, when the last-known speaker of the Yamana language died at the age of 93.
After her sister’s death in 2003, Cristina Calderon of the Yagan community was the only person left with knowledge of the language, and she tried to preserve it by compiling a dictionary with Spanish translations.
Her death was widely reported, with Chile’s President Gabriel Boric acknowledging that her legacy will live on. Calderon’s story holds great significance for the vast repository of indigenous languages in Latin America, many of which are under threat of extinction.
But there may be hope yet.
Across Latin America, individuals and groups are reviving efforts to preserve and protect the culture and languages of indigenous communities, some of which are so small that only a few people remain.
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In December 2022, the President of the UN General Assembly, Csaba Korosi, made a poignant appeal to save these threatened languages.
“With each indigenous language that goes extinct, so too goes the thought: the culture, tradition and knowledge it bears. That matters because we are in dire need of a radical transformation in the way we relate to our environment,” he said as the UN launched a 10-year survival plan for such languages.
“If we are to successfully protect nature, we must listen to indigenous peoples, and we must do so in their own languages.”
UNESCO had dubbed 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages.
Today, indigenous people make up less than 6 percent of the global population but speak over 4,000 out of the 6,700 languages worldwide.
Studies indicate that an indigenous language dies every fortnight.
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Race against time
Kakan, an indigenous language of the Diaguita people, has largely become extinct in Latin America.
Research suggests the reasons for its decline are multifaceted, from the process of regional colonisation and the formation of Latin American nation-states.
According to Dr Christophe Giudicelli, Professor of Early Modern History at the Sorbonne University, the great deportation campaigns between 1659-1667 “atomised Diaguita-Calchaqui societies” in northern Argentina.
“All the people from the Valley’s villages were deported and re-localised in small groups (or even individual families) in colonial estancias or settlements where the vehicular language was not their (own),” Giudicelli tells TRT World. “Kakan probably progressively vanished this way in those settlements.”
Paula Carvajal, an author, artisan, cook and member of the indigenous Diaguita people, has been seeking to preserve aspects of Kakan.
“It’s a big challenge when it comes to reverting to speaking Kakan, as much of the information was lost over time, especially as in each territory there were different dialects, so it’s difficult to achieve a unified Kakan. However, it is a possibility. The task is to preserve what’s already there,” says the 47-year-old mother from Chile’s semi-arid Huasco Valley in the Andean mountain range.
More than 67,000 Diaguita people live in Argentina, while Carvajal is one of Chile’s estimated 88,474.
“It’s not spoken fluently, the dialect, but it is present in the concepts, in some words, in the anthroponymy (study of names) and day-to-day life,” Carvajal tells TRT World.
After sensing that the oral tradition was “being lost” due to the rising influence of technology among the youth in the traditional commune of Alto del Carmen located among the valleys of Huasco province, Carvajal embarked on a journey to preserve the tales and the language associated with it.
She began by adapting the tales her father and others from the community told her while growing up in San Felix. The process led to three books that take a “lighter approach” and “colloquial” writing style for a universal audience.
Two of them explore aspects of Kakan, touching on “nature and day-to-day life”. However, ‘Cuentos de las Abuelas Kakanas’ (Tales of the Kakan Grandmothers) explores the Diaguita oral tradition, passed down through generations, in two different chapters. The first chapter includes some of Carvajal’s life experiences while the second explores the nature and culture of the area of Chile’s mountainous ‘Huasco Alto’ – vividly brought to life with illustrations from her daughter and members of the community.
Carvajal says the book seeks to address the issue of preserving what remains of Kakan and the important notion of reconstructing your own language.
She says today, concepts from Kakan prevail but over time have been replaced by Spanish, underscoring the role of the glaciers
“If the glaciers didn’t exist in our territory, our life wouldn’t exist in the territory. We live in the most arid desert in the world. The only way to have water, to have crops, to have life and to preserve trades - the potters, textile workers, farmers etc -- they all depend on the river which is the valley’s spirit which is born from the glaciers,” Carvajal says.
“Today we call them glaciers but before us, our forefathers called them the ‘perpetual banks’ - as the concept relates to preserving fresh water (lasting) forever into the future.”
Within the community, Carvajal says, some Kakan words such as ‘chilpe’ for old clothes or rags, ‘cayapo’ for a patch on clothing and ‘Chirilaka’ to refer to a mischievous girl and ‘Chambeko’ for curly hair are commonly used.
Carvajal adds that her community has “identified” with her writings, particularly those that left the rural sectors and emigrated to cities - leaving behind their traditions, such as the importance placed on food production and exchange among the community.
“So these books reflect these old rural traditions as well, which people yearn for - mainly the elders.”
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Aided by the TransAndean Network of Diaguita Women, Ancestors of the Future – a movement of around 100 Diaguita women in Chile and Argentina – Carvajal’s books have been well received in Argentina after travelling to the provinces of Tucuman and Catamarca with copies being distributed among the community. She is a member of the network.
Dr Javier Mercado-Guerra, a director at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Education (CIIE) at the Catholic University of the North, however, says “it should be noted that the case of the Diaguita people and the recovery of their language is not the only effort of this nature that exists today.”
“The demand for linguistic rights must be understood within the framework of other demands, such as, for example, self-determination or territorial autonomy. In this sense, having their own language reinforces these other demands and strengthens aspects of identity, which are essential for indigenous movements,” Mercado-Guerra tells TRT World.
For Silena Mamondes, a museology technician, weaver and Diaguita person from Argentina’s northern province of Tucuman, “to think about Kakan only as a language, conditions one to think of a dictionary or a way of writing”.
The Diaguita community of Amaicha del Valle, from where 30-year-old Mamondes hails, is recognised among 18 indigenous peoples in Tucuman and has gained ownership of some of their collective lands while functioning autonomously.
After the pandemic, the search for identity has become more “profound” among some in the community, Mamondes says. A year ago, she joined the TransAndean Network of Diaguita Women to share the “wisdom” and the causes that unite them, such as land and water defence amid the regional threat of an expanding extractivist industry.
Despite the decline of Kakan, Mamondes has been seeking to preserve aspects of her community’s heritage, notably the ‘copla’ – a creative poetic form consisting of four verses sung to pay tribute to Pachamama or Mother Earth or to offer sociopolitical critique.
In 2018, as part of an interdisciplinary team from the Institute of Archeology and Museum (IAM) of Tucuman’s National University, Mamondes created augmented reality exhibitions. As part of the efforts to introduce indigenous culture to new audiences, the display included interviews with “artisans, ceramists, and copleros (people who sing coplas) who are tied to this legacy”.
In 2022, Mamondes secured a group grant from Argentina’s Ministry of Culture for “the investigation, preservation and sharing of the sound records” after she began to digitise testimonies, stories and music from the Amaicha del Valle community in a project entitled ‘Las Voces del Lugar: 26 Años al Aire’.
Her parents began the undertaking over 25 years ago when she was “very small,” attending different gatherings, indigenous musical festivals and assemblies across Argentina’s northwest. In the process, Mamondes says, they gathered stories, testimonies and “ancestral songs traditionally passed down orally from generation to generation” relating to nature and productive cycles to share on the local radio eventually.
The experience has resulted in her parents becoming “references” locally when recounting the community’s stories.
Mamondes says the lengthy work digitising cassettes for today’s digital age has had an influential impact on her own “perception of identity” and hopes to now widen her community’s footprint beyond radio for new media like Youtube, Spotify and podcasts.
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