Part 3: Preservation of Local Language and Culture

By Matt Oppenheim, PhD

Watershed: Ancient Paths for Planetary Survival and Resilience - Systems Change Alliance




Fellow: Society for Applied Anthropology

Prout Perspective

Prout encourages the protection and cultivation of local culture, language, history and tradition. For social justice and a healthy social order, individual and cultural diversity must be accepted and encouraged.

Neohumanist Education Perspective

“Culturally relevant “and “place-based” education need to be at the foundation of the curriculum. Instruction takes place in both the local (indigenous) language and the “languages of power.” Multiple forms of knowing are supported (embodied knowing, ancestral knowing, intuitive and contemplative knowing, narrative knowing and intergenerational knowing) to balance the current emphasis on narrow versions of reason and technical knowing.

I think of that mountain called ‘white rocks lie above in a compact cluster’ as if it were my maternal grandmother. I recall stories of how it once was at that mountain. The stories told to me were like arrows. Elsewhere, hearing that mountain’s name, I see it. Its name is like a picture. Stories go to work on you like arrows. Stories make you lie right. Stories make you replace yourself.

Keith Basso,
Western Apache Language and Culture

Identifying place as self and as community and as language has been essential to our ancestors for thousands of years. Without that anchor, we are lost; aloof from our own stories and ancestors and understanding our futures. Upon knocking on the door of an indigenous Maori elder in Aoteroa (New Zealand), he was just about to slam the door in my face, when he simply asked “what is your mountain and what is your river? Upon my answer, he said “Yes, I know your people, they are good people.”

 “Central Place” is a biological theory, essential to human evolution that is key to all life.  To exist is to have a nucleus, where creatures of all sorts replenish, give birth and nurture, find safety, and store resources, and then go out into a widening radius to collect food, fight what endangers as well as what enriches . . . to explore what is possible and provide for existence and expansion. This Central Place is still essential to balance and resilience. Think about your own life and how this theory does or doesn’t apply and what the results are.

The painting depicts fossil evidence from a micro-watershed in Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania (famous for early evidence of hominid evolution by the Leaky Family). The artist depicts what was found from evidence buried under ancient volcanic ash.  The forest at the right demonstrates the central place, where our ancestors sought shelter, prepared food, stored resources and raised their young; the savanna ecology in the middle is where resources are obtained, and the water source to the left, shows nurturance and sustenance.  The proto-humans and diverse animals demonstrate hunting and foraging.

As geographical areas expand beyond the initial central place, balanced society and ecologies are mutually supported and enhanced through decentralized socio-economics. We can feel the strength of decentralization in the diagram above, with its opposite being centralized society, or distributed, as a model for multinationals such as Walmart and their production and supply chain. Archaeologist Vernon Scarborough uses his knowledge of water and resource management from civilizations all over the planet to advocate for a return to decentralization. As a modern approach, he advocates for the creation of dispersed decentralized technological hubs, which will then attract other resources and industries.

After Civilizational Collapse, Genuine Transformation is the Only Course for the Future

When empires and large civilizations begin to fall, massive refugee populations always flood the cities, making collapse inevitable.  That is because rural regions have been depleted and often destroyed, as the growing urban populations consume rural resources, unable to produce their own. With refugees and immigrants, the first generation that arrives in alarge capital tries to sustain its language and at least part of  

its culture.  But usually within the second generation, sense of place erodes, and megacities and capitalism take over the sense of self and community.

Having worked for decades as an anthropologist with indigenous place, and then in metropolitan centers for immigration and refugees, I believe that the only way to successfully move ahead is through a transformational model of change, not just a service-based model.  Research demonstrates that when people in local communities utilize their strengths, identity, and leadership, only then is sustained change possible.  Otherwise, the system of service as well as colonization continues perpetual dependency.

A Community Rises from Genocide to Resilience

It is the worst of ironies that today, the traditionally resilient peoples are the brunt of genocide and destruction, while they also offer the only way forward.  The Maya of Guatemala persisted in a resilient rainforest practice for ten thousand years yet faced genocide when 250,000 were slaughtered between the 1970s and 1990s. Today, thousands still risk their lives to wrest control over their ancestral lands from endless multinationals with the goal of destroying their self-reliance and cultural and linguistic sustainability.

The result of our collaborative indigenous project in the village of Panimatzalam, Guatemala, as part of my PhD, developed an activist curriculum for high school students. Teachers created chapters that dealt with periods of both genocide and resilience, and then told the story of how villages freed themselves from virtual slave labor through integral development. Their story includes the revival of culture, spirituality and language.  Each chapter narrates the story of each generation and how they took charge of their futures.  The book is based on Freirian pedagogy and challenges students to seek guidance from their ancestors, so that they can carry on their work into the future.  Students graduate from this school and many attend an indigenous technology institute in the community.  Many go on to college in the capital city and other communities.  Because of this commitment to building the future, based on knowledge of the past, many become accountants, teachers, managers, or cooperative workers in the community. But ongoing violence, desecration of villages and loss of political power have made many take the life-challenging course of immigration and to seek refugee status in other countries.

I have come to realize that this community has developed the template for change which is the focus of this set of essays. Beginning with genocide, then moving into survival, then taking up the challenges of the ancestors to create a viable future, they and other communities like them, provide the activist project of transformative synthesis for our own project of AMURT/EL, Neohumanist Education/Proutist change.