Do we need protecting? I don’t think so.

Guest Post by Dr Uncle Stan Grant Sr AM

The NSW Government is proposing language legislation for the protection of Aboriginal Languages in NSW. Undoubtedly the intentions are positive, but there are a number of assumptions in this proposal that need to be thought about carefully.

I remember the weight of the word “protection”. It has a long painful history in NSW. I remember the 1950s and 1960s and a number of occasions when I felt humiliated because of the NSW laws that were passed to “protect” Aborigines. There was The Aborigines Protection Act of 1909, the imposition of it through the Aborigines Protection Board, (later the NSW Aborigines Welfare Board), and the extreme conditions associated with the Certificates of Exemption, which were known to us as “dog tags”. Some people may say that the past didn’t happen, it wasn’t so bad, but I am telling you, it was bad. Aboriginal people normally don’t go around with a long face about it. If it is painful we are more likely to make a joke, laugh through the pain, but I am telling you that this history is still very painful. It is important to have an understanding of this history of Government intervention in order not to repeat it.

I recall the humiliation of being refused service in hotels and the humiliation of not being able to visit my friends living on missions without the permission of the mission manager. I remember the treatment we received at school, and I remember how, when my Grandfather spoke language to me in the main street of Griffith, he was arrested. This was supposed to have been done for our protection, but it wasn’t, it was an attempt to control and regulate and assimilate almost every aspect of our identity and existence. Despite everything, we have kept our identities and languages. This was not something that was done for us, it is something we ourselves have fought hard to keep alive within our communities.

For thirty years, at the request of the Wiradjuri Council of Elders, I have worked to bring back my language, Wiradjuri. I have taught everyone who wants to learn, Wiradjuri and non Wiradjuri, Aboriginal and non Aboriginal, because Wiradjuri is the language of my Country, and because this language tells us who we are. By sharing it we will be better understood. In Wiradjuri there are words with deep meaning, bound to Country and to us, that don’t exist in English; words that give me self-respect and identity.

I travelled about all over Wiradjuri Country for years, running many workshops, teaching many hundreds of people, often for petrol money. With Dr John Rudder, we put together the Wiradjuri Dictionary and many other language resources. This grass roots spreading of Wiradjuri language is now strong. It is not academic linguist driven, it is not driven by large organisations, Government Departments or Universities. That side can come later, emerging from the communities. It is driven by the thirst from the people for the return of their language. I am concerned that the proposed legislation won’t nourish these essential roots in the community, and instead will be another taking away of what is precious to us.

This grass roots movement does need financial support, but not external regulation. There are community language teachers who are completely dedicated to sharing their language with their communities, working with next to nothing. They may or may not be connected with the NSW Education system, but they are connected to their people. Unless language lives in its community in a dynamic and real way, it is not alive. This is the priority. Language is revitalised when it is spoken and taught by its community and by creating and sharing language learning resources to support this. Whose responsibility is language? Wiradjuri language is a Wiradjuri responsibility, other languages are the responsibility of their peoples.

Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal can work together, but there is a way to do it and a way not to do it. We need time and space to succeed according to our way of doing things. In my experience, Government intervention sometimes causes more problems than it solves, on occasion giving power and resources to organisations and individuals that may be effective at speaking the language of Government, but who have limited cultural connection to the language of the communities concerned. The Aboriginal Peoples in NSW, and there are a number of us, not one, each with our own language, need to determine and manage our own futures. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples expresses this very well.

Article 13

  1. Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures and to designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons.

This right isn’t just to have access to our own languages and cultures, but for Indigenous Peoples to control the process of how language is revitalised, used, developed and transmitted. It would be a misreading of the Declaration to take it mean that the State may override these rights in order to “protect” our languages. When we have control it is our right to choose who teaches it and who has access to it. We do not need legislation, no matter how well meaning, that manages and regulates, and diminishes our ability to take on this responsibility for ourselves. Languages need to be managed by us and taught our people’s way, centred on our culture and priorities. For my people, the Wiradjuri, this is centred on a Wiradjuri way of doing things that is inseparable from the language itself. Language is much more than a linguistic exercise, it is the key to us understanding our Wiradjuri past, present and future, and maintaining our wellbeing and identity.

Dr Uncle Stan Grant Sr AM