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“Is Gaelic an Indigenous Language?”

Some time after a conversation with Makere Stewart-Harawira, Outer Hebridean Gaelic language learner and teacher Gordon Wells ventured into contentious territory on his personal blog, where a range of comments can also be found.

Is Gaelic an Indigenous Language?

“Stupid question.” That’s the short answer, tinged perhaps with weariness, perhaps indignation. “Of course it is. Next question.”

Well, there is a next question – indigenous to where? And so what? We need deeper reflection in a British/UK context, where indigenous or aboriginal status may be most loudly proclaimed by sometimes closet, sometimes open, racists of a self-styled “British nationalist” perspective affecting to speak on behalf of the “original” (read white) English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish peoples.

The Gaelic I speak is definitely Scottish – hopefully as Uibhisteach as I can get it – but I’m aware (though no historian) that in earlier times the language in Scotland was referred to in some quarters as “Erse”, perhaps pejoratively, but clearly as a marker of its Irish (and therefore not Scottish) origins or links. So how far back do you go in order to establish your indigenous/non-indigenous origins? How long is a piece of string? That really depends on who’s doing the measuring, and for what reason.

Which raises the more interesting question – why is any of this important? What’s the significance of an indigenous claim?

On her study visit to Scotland in 2008 Dr Makere Stewart-Harawira, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta (and Maori speaker), quizzed me on my apparent reluctance to use the “indigenous” label when talking about Gaelic. We had a long and interesting (to us, at least) conversation – edited “highlights” collected here: Conversations about Indigenous Languages.

My first difficulty is our local British one, referred to above. Speaking for myself, I would really want to put oceans of clear water between a Gaelic identity and the seriously wrong-headed and delusional thinking (putting it most generously) of the sort of “British nationalist” that consorts with the Ku Klux Klan. Lining up alongside them under an indigenous label could make for very unpleasant company.

But that begs another question: why should cranks or worse be allowed a free run when claiming the indigenous title? In other parts of the world, for example Canada and New Zealand, as Makere explained, the values for which many indigenous peoples speak would be very far removed indeed from the lingering white supremacist ideology behind those that are active in far right British nationalism.

Is there a sense in which Gaelic culture and Gaelic speakers hold onto an alternative set of values from the British mainstream – perhaps, for example, more respectful of the natural environment, and with a stronger sense of community and interdependence? Well, it would be nice to think so. And I can see elements of truth in such an assertion. Here in the Hebrides we no longer really live it, but we’re still not that far removed from the days of a subsistence agriculture lifestyle with communal sharing of labour, and are very conscious of the rhythm of the seasons. (The climate ensures that!) We are, almost perforce, very aware of the environment. At a cultural level the language is also under extreme pressure in the face of rising English monolingualism, which some are trying to actively resist. So yes, Gaels might well seek solidarity with the Maori and the Cree in the name of standing up for indigenous languages and cultures.

But that stands to gloss over an inconvenient historical fact – namely that plenty Gaelic-speaking Highland soldiers and other adventurers were up to their necks in the very same British (albeit Anglocentric and predominantly Anglophone) imperial venture that brought many indigenous languages and cultures across the globe to ruination. You could argue that many in the “lower ranks” were co-opted or coerced, citing for example the forced evictions of the Highland Clearances, but let’s not kid ourselves that Gaels were immune to the pervasive racial ideologies of earlier times, or universally eschewed the opportunity to play their own skin colour for what it was then worth. There were Gaelic-speaking slave owners in the American colonies.

That’s the elephant in the room when we talk about Gaelic, Maori, and Cree all in the same breath as indigenous languages, particularly if we go on to say that together they stand for distinctive cultural values. I believe there has been attitudinal change in British, including Scottish, society over my lifetime to date. I don’t think the kind of racial language that went frequently unchallenged in my own nearly all-white grammar school when I was growing up would get much of a hearing in my children’s (also nearly all-white) comprehensive school today. In terms of core cultural values, our society is the better for that, and in no small measure we have migration (and indeed the “global village”) to thank for it, by confronting the ill-informed or lazy racial stereotyping of once remote peoples through simple everyday presence and contact. That’s cause for some celebration, but not for complacency or too much self-congratulation. There are still ugly undercurrents which break surface from time to time, as recent media events have demonstrated.

So, is Gaelic an indigenous language? Not such a simple question after all, and liable to be emotive. But probably worth asking if it does make us think about fundamental human values, and who we might share them with across the globe

Originally published by Gordon Wells on his personal blog.

1 Comment

  1. Pòl MacAonghais says:

    I come to this conversation almost 10 years on it appears. I wonder perhaps if the views of the post and comments have evolved or changed?

    I disagree with the framing of this discussion and am disappointed with its tone. I’m not sure how discussing Gaelic Indigeneity and the status of the Gaelic language is assumed to be – off the bat – as synonymous with “British nationalism” and closed or open racism? To my mind, this is a lazy and dangerous assumption and speaks to a colonization of the mind. Are there nationalists who may weaponize the Gaelic language to speak to an imagined, pan-“Scottish” community or nation? Yes. Should that denigrate and nullify the actual (already endangered) status of the Gaelic language in the vernacular, or the Gaelic people and their lived experiences in local (and already threatened) communities? No. If we did, we would be generalizing and dichotomizing in a way very typical of the colonial forces which have subjected the Gaelic culture and language to genocide and linguicide for centuries.

    On the topic of nationalism, it is important to remember that nation states and governments do not decide the Indigeneity of the peoples of those lands. Remember the kingdom of Dal-riata that encompassed both Ireland and Scotland? Remember the Pictish kingdom? My point is, political boundaries and borders do not define or limit who Indigenous peoples are and what Indigenous languages are. Political borders, leaders and rulers change, Indigenous languages and peoples do not. Those peoples and languages have been there prior to political ideologies, such as nationalism, capitalism, and neoliberalism, and the nation state. The Gaels and the Picts before are an example. A politician, or a government has no right in deciding the existence or place of the peoples who have lived there in co-existence with the environment for more than a thousand years. Thinking otherwise and not validating or understanding a continued harmonic pre-existence with the land throughout time (which many Gaelic peoples still attempt to do, so I also disagree with you on that point, Indigenous peoples can be both modern, use technology etc., and “traditional”) is colonial logic in its finest form: divide and conquer. Draw a boundary and watch the people squabble and tear each other down over issues like this blog you posted, without questioning the grand machine who drew the boundary itself. Feed into the colonial narrative, become a prisoner of a colonized mind. The bigger question to ask is: To what extent have you been colonized or “educated” to think like the colonizer? The sad point here is, to my mind, many Gaels have been colonized, by force or by lack of choice, through education, processes of nation-state building, capitalism, neoliberalism, and religion.

    Another glossed-over point is: who were the Gaelic-speaking Highlanders, complicit in colonization and racist acts, answerable to? Was it a Gaelic-speaking imperial machine? Or, a system rooted and driven by English, anglocentric, imperialism? All forms of racism are inexcusable and we can find other examples of peoples from all over the globe who were complicit in processes of self-colonization and genocide. Many of these cases are traced to feeling inferior to the fundamentally wrong idea and superiority complex that the colonizer forcefully pushed down everyone’s throats: that one should aspire to be like the “educated, civilized, white man”.

    White, cognitive, and linguistic supremacy as we know it began with and is perpetrated by the colonial, English machine that draws the boundaries and borders. So, why are we not questioning that? Why are we assuming that it’s okay or a given? Let’s focus on dismantling that, the system, and not denigrating or lazily assuming that if one believes that the Gaelic language is an Indigenous language then one is enacting a form of white, far right, British nationalism and supremacy. This is the colonial logic and mind and is indeed very helpful in bringing out the extinction of the Gaelic language and its uptake. We should instead be questioning and dismantling the system which perpetuates white supremacy and promotes racial ideologies and stereotypes. This blog misses the bigger picture where we should focus on decolonizing the mind, questioning the colonial system/machine, reclaiming and reconnecting to the local community and the land (not the imagined national). Sadly, instead, it focuses on forms of colonial micro agressions, diminishes pride, and promotes negative stereotypes of the Gaelic language.

    It is important to recognize that Gaelic is an Indigenous language because it emphasizes the fundamental differences in worldviews and beliefs, the inequities, and the power imbalances between the Indigenous and the colonizer. It is important because it can help normalize and legitimize an alternative way of life and being that is local and rooted in the vernacular community and does not “sell out” to capitalism and individualism. It is important because English-speakers were not horrendously evicted from their traditional homes and lands and did not get humiliated, beaten or skulls placed around their heads for speaking their language in school. It is important because of the notion of dùthchas, for example, a word which has no equivalent in English and speaks to the interconnectedness of the Gael to ancestral, hereditary lands, nature, the community, and culture.

    Just some of the many reasons why it is important to recognize Gaelic as an Indigenous language.

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