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Back from the Brink
Published on: October 19, 2000 in UNESCO Sources

An innovative project in Brazil seeks to rescue the country’s vanishing indigenous languages.

Brazil’s Discovery Coast, a UNESCO World Heri-tage site, is a seemingly un-ending landscape of reddish-yellow cliffs overlooking white beaches and tidal river mouths packed with mangrove forests.

This 450 km-long sliver of land and ocean, on the south-eastern shoreline of Bahia state remains a natural, historic symbol for all Brazilians: the place where initial contact between European colonists and indigenous peoples occurred. It is also home to the some 2000 remaining Pataxó Indians, and the site of a ground-breaking pilot re-search study commissioned by UNESCO and the Brazilian Ministry of Education (MEC).

At stake is the conservation and reconstruction of the Pataxó peoples language. Where most identified indigenous populations in Brazil have a small number of fluent speakers, usually elderly women, the Pataxó have only retained fragments of their original language. Most now speak Portuguese.

“The Pataxó have been exposed to European in-fluences since contact 500 years ago. They are rapidly being assimilated into Brazilian society,” says Brianne Bicca, architect and coordinator of the Cultural and World Heritage Section for UNESCO in the national capital, Brasilia.

In May of 1999, with a small budget provided by UNESCO, Maria do Rosário Gonçalves Carvalho, a linguist from the Federal University of Bahia, began a critical study of the Pataxó language.

The research follows a fairly simple methodology. Carvalho worked with two Pataxó Indians capable of chronicling their language, and compared its characteristics with other indigenous languages found on the Discovery Coast. She also drew on previous studies of the language done in the 16th century, the 1950s and the 1970s to build on the vocabulary.

The results of her re-search will be used to develop courses for Pataxó school children in a bid to revive the language. The MEC will publish the results and produce colorful, illustrated grammar textbooks for local indigenous schools.

The study is also being considered as a practical model for a more ambitious project to revive 20 indigenous languages that have been deemed endangered but preservable, if research and education programmes are quickly implemented. For the situation of the Pataxó people is shared by many other of Brazil’s indigenous populations.

Before First Contact in 1500, almost six million indigenous peoples from 1200 nations resided throughout Brazil. By 1979, their numbers had shrivelled to a mere 250,000. From all accounts, the future survival of Brazil’s entire Amerindian culture looked bleak. Spurred by the prospect of losing their cultural roots, native Indian leaders have galvanised indigenous peoples across Brazil over the past few years in a call to preserve their myriad dialects and remarkable histories and traditions, and stressing the urgent need for linguistic and education studies of these populations.

“Their survival instinct is comparable to the Basque, Jewish and European Gypsy peoples, and was further assisted by the re-democratisation of Brazil in 1988,” said Ivette Campos, the General Coordinator of Support for Indigenous Schools. From her office within the MEC, Campos oversees indigenous education programmes throughout 25 of Brazil’s 27 states.

Today, close to 300,000 Brazilian Amerindians from 210 nations speaking 170 dialects remain. However, there are less than 100 speakers each for half of these languages. Linguists and scholars now fear that globalisation, the lack of a tradition of writing and the migration of young native Brazilians off federal re-serves into the cities, could sound the death knell for these languages.

Of the 170 indigenous languages in Brazil today, only half have been investigated by ethnologists and linguists. The lesson of the Pataxó has caught the attention of government and national and international organisations concerned with indigenous populations, who have understood that the loss of a language means the loss of a precious inheritance of generations, nations, peoples and re-gions. The loss of chapiter of our human history.

Mike Hickman, Brasilia

Extract from UNESCO Sources, October 2000

 

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