In the Lakota language of North America, the word “Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ” means “all is related” or “all my relatives” – both human and non-human. In Hawaiian, the phrase “ike loa” means “to see much” and describes a philosophy of lifelong learning to better understand our relationship with the world. And in the nearly extinct Nǀuu language of South Africa, the word “lgqe” refers to the life-force shared by all living things.
In the face of global challenges, from climate change to COVID-19, concepts like these offer incredibly useful insights. As stewards of the land, with a vast range of cultures, traditions and languages, indigenous peoples have impressive wisdom to draw on – but only if they are listened to.
Marked every year on 9 August, the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples is an opportunity to celebrate these communities and their knowledge. This year’s theme focuses on building a new social contract with indigenous peoples – one that is anchored in human rights and respect for cultural diversity, and leaves no one behind.
Because while indigenous peoples may be uniquely placed to guide us towards greater sustainability, they are also particularly vulnerable to the challenges of our changing world. For instance, minority groups have been more vulnerable to the impacts of COVID-19, notably due to unequal access to healthcare and public information.
Indeed, although indigenous peoples represent 6.2 per cent of the global population and speak an estimated 4,000 languages, many of these cultures and languages are now at risk of disappearing. This is why UNESCO is stepping up its work to amplify the voices of these communities in all of the fields covered by our mandate. One way we are doing this is by supporting the transmission of indigenous languages – for example, as the lead agency for the United Nations International Decade of Indigenous Languages, from 2022 to 2032.
Another way we are doing this is by highlighting the value of indigenous knowledge in addressing environmental issues – through creative exchanges as part of the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, and through the effective participation of indigenous peoples in forums such as the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services and the UNESCO Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission. Lastly, we are doing this by fostering inclusion – for instance, by partnering with indigenous youth to implement projects in response to COVID-19 in South-East Asia.
Amid global challenges, indigenous peoples offer us unique solutions to move forward. However, if the world is to learn from their wisdom, their voices must be heard. In thisspirit, UNESCO fully embraces this International Day and the will to enrich our relationships, to build resilience, and to learn to live well together.