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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.

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