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Resurrecting Indigenous language

Jonathan Hill |  01 December 2010

From the outside it looks like any other demountable. The rigid design reeks of conformity. It sits amongst a cluster of portable classrooms in a hidden pocket of the high school, nestled beside the vibrant bush land. This room however is different from the others. Within this austere structure a miracle is being made: a deceased language is being brought back to life.

Inside, the walls are adorned with photos of kangaroos, turtles, whales, wombats and a whole array of other native wildlife, each image accompanied by the corresponding vocabulary. The black board is half covered with a simple conversation that entails greetings and introductory statements. The middle of the floor is decorated with a Stepping Stone Serpent that represents the phonetic sounds of this ancient alphabet. Family posters hang from the ceiling — an assignment from term one. Each poster contains photos linked with arrows that explain the relationship between family members. Each connection is labeled in this language of the land.

Dhurga is a dead language. At my school however Dhurga is taught to every student (Indigenous and non-Indigenous) as a LOTE (Languages other than English) subject that is also part of a language revitalisation program. I teach this subject in conjunction with a local aboriginal man. The teaching material has been assembled with the help of a linguist based in Canberra. When students attain their School Certificate it will show they have undergone one hundred hours of Dhurga instruction.

In those hundred hours they will have learnt that Dhurga is a language of the Yuin nation (a body of land that encases most of the NSW South Coast) and that it is one among hundreds of aboriginal languages nationwide. They will learn to recite the alphabet and say simple sentences with correct pronunciation. They will learn about European invasion and its fatal ramifications. They will learn about the Dreaming and study creation myths relevant to the local area, including the story of Bundoola and his 13 wives.

They will learn about traditional bush foods and medicines then go on an excursion to Booderee National Park where they will interact with these plants in person whilst hearing from local aboriginal elders. They will learn the vocabulary for body parts and learn to sing the Dhurga version of 'Head and shoulders, knees and toes' ('Gabaanu, gugu, ngumung, gubidjayanga, gubidjayanga'). They will learn about traditional hunting methods and gender roles and responsibilities. In these hundred hours they will not just have learnt a language; they will have learnt about a culture, along with its customs and spirituality and its indivisible connection with the land. They will have been given a different perspective through which to view the world. If this is not a form of Reconciliation then I don't know what is.

A subject like this is quite radical in an education system that is heavily focused on churning out workers rather than thinkers. I am constantly astounded by the very fact it exists. The same government that forcibly removed children from their families has now endorsed this program that empowers all students to take pride in our aboriginal heritage. Teaching Dhurga has strengthened my belief that social justice for the first Australians can be achieved provided mainstream Australia genuinely engages with the culture it has too long oppressed.

I often wonder what our society would be like if every year 8 student in the nation undertook a similar subject to Dhurga. Not merely a unit of work that might span a few weeks, but a fully fledged subject that lasted the entire year. Prior to First Settlement this land comprised many hundreds of different aboriginal nations, each with their own distinct languages and customs. Having taught in remote parts of the Northern Territory I have had the privilege to witness some of these cultures first hand. It would certainly be possible for schools to instigate similar programs in their regions that taught students about the local aboriginal tribes. Indeed I know for a fact that there are several state schools in NSW that run similar aboriginal language programs for Wiradjuri in the Central West, to Bundjalung on the North Coast, to Awabakal on the Central Coast.

How different would our society be if all schools ran such programs?

Perhaps our politicians would have consulted Northern Territory communities a few years back before storming in and delivering the Intervention. Perhaps they would have thought twice before suspending the Racial Discrimination Act. Perhaps they wouldn't consider dumping nuclear waste in the vicinity remote communities. Perhaps Australia wouldn't have been one of the last countries to officially endorse the United Nations Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous People. Perhaps there wouldn't be such an alarming gap between the indigenous and non Indigenous citizens of this land.

Because at the end of the day, despite all our efforts thus far to achieve Reconciliation, the stark reality is that it hasn't been reached. It is no secret that Aboriginal citizens generally endure poorer living conditions bound by lackluster education, substandard healthcare and grossly inadequate housing. Accompanying this is the plethora of symptoms that characterise social dysfunction: drug abuse, domestic violence, unemployment, high infant mortality and high incarceration rates. Perhaps the most alarming indicator of aboriginal disadvantage is the decade of difference in life expectancy. These uncomfortable truths do not generally worry the mainstream, but they should; because the continued oppression of this land's first people defines us and will continue to define us until justice is met.

Fr Ted Kennedy, a tireless advocate for Aboriginal justice and the parish priest at St Vincents for almost 20 years, wholly believed in the necessity to engage with aboriginal culture. He sought to assimilate into aboriginal culture to better understand the mindset of the oppressed minority for whom he had so much love. There is a lot to learn from this approach for there are too few that follow Kennedy's lead. The massive gulf in cultural misunderstanding must immediately be addressed as it is racial ignorance above all else that ensures the first people of this land remain third class citizens.

Making it compulsory for all students to learn an aboriginal language will not appease aboriginal poverty but it will certainly accelerate the process of Reconciliation. This type of education is the antidote to the tide of ignorance that infects the modern mind. By sharing this ancient knowledge with our youth we are giving them the chance to empathise and engage with our aboriginal heritage. From this platform anything can be achieved.

A few weeks back it was the tenth anniversary of the Bridgewalk where in the year 2000 300,000 people marched in solidarity across the iconic Harbour Bridge demanding justice for the first Australians. To commemorate this event another walk was organised. Sadly less than 80 people turned up. Does this mean Reconciliation is no longer in vogue? I would like to think this isn't the case. Because for every story of hardship and wrongdoing there is a story of hope. In a small demountable classroom perched on the NSW South Coast a deceased language is being resurrected. Students are learning that the Dhurga word for 'hello' is the same as the word for 'goodbye' — walawaani. 

Jonathan HillJonathan Hill is a qualified teacher who has worked with Aboriginal communities in Ngukurr, Minyerri and Sydney. The above essay received Second Place in the 2010 Margaret Dooley Award



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Submitted comments

A great article. It's such a tricky issue though - to advocate for all Australians to learn an Australian language, when students who start school speaking an Indigenous language are denied education in their mother tongue, leading to students' language being devalued and insufficient development of Indigenous language skills and literacy. This is what's happening in the NT with the banning of bilingual education.

If we wanted to think outside the box, we could develop the language and language teaching skills of young Indigenous language speaking students and then partner them with 'sister schools' who could then learn their kin-schools language. Remote students graduating from school could become a valuable part of society - delivering Indigenous language education far and wide. It would create jobs and open the world to Indigenous language speaking young people. A big idea, but not that crazy... we just need an education system that will be creative and prepared to take a leap of faith.

Wamut 01 December 2010

Excellent article, and Wamut (my mari), an excellent comment.

Gavan Breen 08 December 2010

"Making it compulsory for all students to learn an aboriginal language will not appease aboriginal poverty but it will certainly accelerate the process of Reconciliation." This I doubt very much!

Fr John Fleming 12 December 2010

A brilliant read - when will Governments accept our people and embrace their culture, the change must start at the top. This will filter down to the public and then we may see equality for the first people of the country.

Brett Squires 15 October 2013

Les langues natives ne doivent pas disparaître. C'est une partie importante de notre patrimoine historique.
Nice Job Jonahtan !! Thx.

Rodolfo 23 December 2013

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