Sakhalin: Promoting Language Rights on Indigenous Island

By Natalia Gonchar (Sakhalin Energy Investment Company), Sakhalin Energy
11:51 AM, July 14, 2016

Sakhalin Energy Investment Company Ltd., an operator of the Sakhalin-2 oil and gas project, performs its activities on the island of Sakhalin, home to the Nivkhi, Uilta (Orok), Evenki, and Nanai indigenous peoples. Some of the project’s assets are located near the traditional residences and economic activities of the indigenous peoples, to whom the company pays special attention and engages with directly. Since 2006 a special program – the Sakhalin Indigenous Minorities Development Plan (SIMDP) – has been implemented through a partnership between the Sakhalin government and the Regional Council of Authorized Representatives of Sakhalin Indigenous Peoples.

In addition to the SIMDP, Sakhalin Energy focuses on the preservation and promotion of the cultural and linguistic heritage of Sakhalin’s indigenous minorities. This was one of the key priorities identified by Sakhalin’s indigenous peoples during open public consultations held during the development of the SIMDP. A significant number of indigenous Sakhaliners defined language-related projects as being critically important. In addition, from the experts’ point of view, the death of a language may result in the loss of the native speakers’ ethnic identity. As all of the languages of Sakhalin’s indigenous peoples are seriously endangered, Sakhalin Energy is making efforts to preserve them and, consequently, the indigenous cultures.

It needs to be mentioned that, for many years, the natural assimilation of indigenous languages took place in Russia, due to a host of factors. Being the language of the majority, Russian serves both as a unifying factor and as an intermediary when studying foreign languages and global culture.

Certainly the government implements programs for the support and development of native languages. It is not preferable for business to overlap with state-run projects. However, business can also contribute and provide funding in the areas that for whatever reason cannot be financed by the government. In order to effectively preserve languages and culture, multi-partner efforts are vital.

Sakhalin Energy projects generally comply with the provisions of the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, which covers:
• oral traditions and expressions, including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage;
• performing arts;
• social practices, rituals, and festive events;
• knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe;
• traditional craftsmanship.

The company’s language-support projects first and foremost include the publication of books, textbooks, and dictionaries in indigenous languages. An example of this is the series of publications in the Uilta language. Until this century, the Uilta language was a completely oral language. With 295 Uilta people and just several native speakers remaining, it seemed that the Uilta language did not have a chance and that the unique heritage of these people will be irretrievably lost. But the Uilta elder people, scientists, linguists, and the company combined their knowledge and resources and after several years published The Orok-Russian / Russian-Orok Dictionary, The Uilta ABC, and The Uilta Language as Historic-Ethnographic Source Dictionary. This is not an absolute recovery, but it offers hope.

Sakhalin Energy provides funding for the publication of folklore literature, such as an unprecedented publication of The Epic Book of Sakhalin Nivkhi, prepared by a world-famous Nivkh writer, Vladimir Sangi. The Epic Book is published in Nivkh and Russian and is ranked among the famous books The Kalevala and The Song of Hiawatha.

In order to ensure the development of a social-cultural environment for language preservation, it is important to have mass media in indigenous languages. Sakhalin Energy provided support for the newspaper The Nivkh Dif, which is published in Nivkh and Russian.

There were several events supported by the company that played a significant role in the promotion of Sakhalin’s indigenous languages. The key one was the “First International Symposium in the Languages of the Indigenous Peoples of the Russian Far East,” which was arranged in the town of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Sakhalin Oblast, Russia. Next was the “International Workshop Preservation and Promotion of Cultural and Linguistic Heritage of Sakhalin Nivkhi,” which was held in the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris.

When speaking about the preservation of languages, it is equally important to mention their development as any other living language, in comparison with the dead ones, and to evaluate the process and constantly changing influences of society. The special project targeted at the preservation and development of Sakhalin’s indigenous languages was implemented jointly by Sakhalin Energy and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Russia. The project includes the translation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into the languages of Sakhalin’s indigenous peoples. Each declaration was published in a separate booklet and in a joint brochure, including as well brief information about the peoples and a CD with recordings of the texts read aloud by native speakers. According to linguists’ expertise, such an initiative gives a fresh impetus to language development, as political vocabulary can be new to indigenous languages and neologisms are created. As Vladimir Sangi, who translated both declarations into the Nivkh language, says: “I needed to invent the word ‘freedom’ in the Nivkh. Because we never needed one before. The Nivkhi had never known what ‘unfreedom’ was, so ‘freedom’ was our natural state that did not require a special name for it.”

Projects such as the translation of UN declarations into indigenous languages also increase the social prestige of the minority languages. Another relevant initiative was recently implemented when the painstaking efforts of elderly people, linguists, and the company’s employees resulted in the illustrated corporate calendar showing traditional culture and economic activities of Sakhalin’s indigenous peoples, with months’ names in their languages and explanations provided in Russian. It should be noted that months’ names in languages of the indigenous peoples are semantically related to peoples’ traditional cultures or the natural and climate characteristics of the territories. Along with the Russian national holidays, the dates important for indigenous peoples were also highlighted: August 9 as the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, February 21 as International Mother Language Day, March 30–31 as the date for the establishment of the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia, and Far East, etc. What is important to mention is that this calendar was extremely popular among both indigenous and non-indigenous stakeholders and won first prize in the All-Russian Contest of Corporate Calendars 2016.

The work on language preservation is continuing. It cannot stop until all the languages are no longer endangered – unfortunately, this is a hope for the remote future.

About the Authors
Gonchar, Natalia

 Natalia Gonchar works for Sakhalin Energy Investment Company.

Sakhalin Energy

Sakhalin Energy Investment Company Ltd. (Sakhalin Energy) is a consortium for developing the Sakhalin-II oil and gas project with corporate head office in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. The chief executive officer is Roman Dashkov. The company's principal activities are the production and export of crude oil (since 1999) and liquefied natural gas (from 2009).
Source: Wikipedia

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect CSR Manager's editorial policy.
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