Hawaiian Language Takes Center Stage at United Nations

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President Maria Espinosa of the General Assembly of the United Nations held a High-Level Meeting at the UN Headquarters in New York on Friday, Feb. 1, 2019, to launch the 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages (2019 IYIL). Hawai‘i’s Amy Kalili took to the podium to represent ʻAha Pūnana Leo’s Mokuola Honua: Center for Indigenous Language Excellence in her capacity as the Pacific Region Representative on UNESCO’s 2019 IYIL Steering Committee.

2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages Launched at UN Headquarters in New York City. Courtesy photo.

The 2019 International Year was declared by the United Nations General Assembly in order to draw attention to the critical loss of indigenous languages and the urgent need to preserve, revitalize and promote indigenous languages and to take further urgent steps at the national and international levels.

The launch of this International Year marks an auspicious occasion for international indigenous language advocates who have spent years of diplomacy and determination getting the year declared. “We come with humility as your guests to this great house to speak on behalf of 370,000,000 indigenous peoples around the world,” affirmed prominent First Nations leader of Canada, Grand Chief Edward John in addressing the United Nations General Assembly.

2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages Launched at UN Headquarters in New York City. Courtesy photo.

Hawaiʻi’s indigenous language—ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi—was once itself near the brink of extinction with less than 30 speakers under the age of 18 only a short 35 years ago. Thanks however to family- and community-driven efforts like the ʻAha Pūnana Leo and other agencies and institutions, the use of Hawaiian language is on the rise again, with an estimated 25,000+ speakers today, and the Hawaiian language movement has become a model for indigenous language revitalization.


Kalili noted that, “one of the greatest benefits of this distinguished bodies’ declaration of this 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages is the opportunity for us to come together, learn what our collective global indigenous lāhui or nation is doing to address and reverse language loss and capitalize on this platform to speak to a global community about the continued importance, relevance and capacity of our ʻōlelo ʻōiwi, our indigenous languages.”

The UNESCO Action Plan for the 2019 IYIL includes a range of activities, from hundreds of events being planned worldwide on the community level to global conferences as well as a robust communications and information platform anchored by the official website and a social media campaign around #IndigenousLanguages. For more information, go online.


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