The Rescue and Revitalization of the Ulwa Language in the Community of Karawala RACCS

By Leonzo Knight Julian

The Ulwa people of Nicaragua are part of the Sumu Mayagna, Panamahka and Ulwa family rooted mainly in the Karawala community, in the Rio Grande basin of Matagalpa.  This indigenous community, settled since 1853 in this small but important community, is composed of approximately 3500 indigenous peoples.  Often the Ulwa are confused with the Miskito, but they are two distinct peoples.  The reason for this confusion is mainly because almost all those who belong to this group speak Miskito in all spaces and areas of the community, in all activities and duties.  It’s  only in family meetings that, in a very isolated way, and carried out mainly by the Ulwa elders, this language is spoken.

This subordination of the Ulwa language to the Miskito language obviously has its historical, political, and social reasons, so that the Miskito language not only is used in a large number of cases, but that the language is considered dominant and prestigious, constituting itself in formal use and used in all contexts and areas.  The Ulwa language in the Karawala community has been submitted and relegated to a range of very casual and reduced contexts, such as its practice in the home.  Our language leads many of our members to act passively toward our native language, due to socio-cultural pressure that they experience, which makes them doubt the value of their own language and culture.

As a consequence of this, and in a general way, it can be pointed out that because of the ethnic claims in Nicaragua and of the official recognition of coastal languages, the attitude of some indigenous of devaluing their language has begun to change.  Now, we notice a positive valuation of its languages and cultures on an official level, which leads to a significant increase in the self-esteem of many Indigenous Peoples and communities.  The Ulwa are part of this claim, and now feel the need to take pride through the full assumption of their identity through their language.

It’s become necessary to do a review with the social and historical elements that made the Ulwa language pass from a dangerous subordination destined for extinction to a living language.  In it, the presence of the Moravian missionaries from 1857 and 1859 in the Rio Grande basin are mentioned; because they had the first contact with the indigenous Miskitos, they were given the immediate task of learning the language of this group with the purpose of evangelizing all the the rest of the groups in the Rio Grande basin in the Miskito language;  this obliged the Sumus Ulwa to master more of the Miskito in order not to remain outside of the evangelization.

This, coupled with the migrations of indigenous that were communicating mainly in Miskito as the dominant language for all types of transcendental activities ( such as trade, religion, inter-ethnic  and indigenous activities in all areas)  became the common language that caused among the Ulwa the process by which they progressively lost their mother tongue.  There are several cases in which, when a greater command of a second language is achieved, the use of the first language starts to diminish, leaving it relegated to domestic functions or those of lesser social importance, as is the case in Karawala.

It’s worth noting that, in some way, the CODIUL ( Ulwa Language Investigation Committee) has contributed to the rescue and revitalization process of the language; however, they still face problems with its rescue.  Miskito, which already had a written form thanks to the work of the Moravian missionaries, and many terms referring to reading, books, and education, needs to fill the gaps in the registration and the learning system to take advantage of modern technology.

Although the Ulwa and Rama languages have been on the verge of extinction for several years now – replaced by Creole and Miskito mainly – its speakers are creating new vocabulary to designate objects and concepts from the modern world, that form part of their daily reality, but for which they used to use Miskito or English.  Sumu-Mayagna, which twenty years ago had no written form, was left in the air but is now used as a vehicle for formal education at a primary level and for linguistic study.

In order to continue registering Ulwa, the linguistic and educational registrations of this language need to be developed in the most accurate way.  Its use should expand in the community and be taught at school as a mother tongue, giving it required revitalization from childhood.  Likewise, the creation of new words of its own, necessary to communicate in this language, should be expanded without resorting to loans from other languages.

Although there is much enthusiasm and interest in the rescue of the native Ulwa language and it’s already been pushed through CODIUL and through other media, through the teaching of the language in primary education, it still hasn’t been able to define the mechanisms, or rather the pedagogic linguistic method appropriate and functional that allows us to transmit the mastery of our language for students and other members of the community in a systematic and effective way.

It should be remembered that the writing of a language is essential for the facilitation of its teaching; developing a system to describe it and teach it from the perspective of its own people, without needing to draw from Spanish is complicated. The formation of words, as well as the organization of its own technical issues specific to languages, is important.  In spite of everything, our purpose of revitalizing our Ulwa language is imperative, and therefore it’s necessary to rely on support from diverse actors that accompany us until we have our own capacity to conduct our own revitalization process.

—Leonzo Knight Julian is from the community of Awawak in Miskitu (Karawala), of Ulwa identity, from a father of African descent and a Ulwa mother.  Since 1988 he’s worked in linguistic investigation, including in CODIUL (Ulwa Language Committee) in the community of Awawak, from where he transferred to the city of Bluefields in the year 2002 with the purpose of continuing his studies.  He finished his degree in sociology in 2005 and in 2012 earned a postgraduate degree in Multilingual Intercultural Education.