Indigenous language resources at the National Library of Australia

Indigenous language resources at the National Library of Australia
Illuminating Indigenous languages in the National Library's unique Manuscripts collection.
13 June 2014

Fragments of an Aboriginal language are still spoken in my home. Instead of baby my family say boori, I had an ever growing galange (cicada shell) collection and my grandparent’s tales of the Doolagah (the hairy man) and the goonges (spirits) both captivated me and ensured I did as I was told ... mostly.

My great grandmother, a Krowathunkooloong woman, could speak her language fluently yet only rarely did so. As an Aboriginal person living on a Mission during the assimilation era of the 1940s-60s, she was largely prohibited from speaking her traditional language and teaching it to her children - yet the odd word trickled down. This explains why I’ve inherited such a small and eclectic collection of words but where would I go if I wanted to learn more?

My Great grandparents' wedding at Bung Yarnda (Lake Tyers Mission) in 1940. Original image held at the State Library of Victoria, view it on Trove:

Today there are many organisations and learning programs aimed at reviving and teaching Indigenous languages. Through their unique collections, cultural institutions such as libraries play a significant role in enabling and promoting language repatriation and revival.

My graduate project aims to identify Indigenous language material held in the Library’s Manuscripts collection. This is just the first phase of a much larger project with the broad aim of increasing accessibility to Indigenous language material held by the Library, particularly to Traditional Owners.

The Pictures and Manuscripts Reading Room - the interior is Red Cedar.

I spend one day a week working amongst the wonderful Manuscripts collection. There are roughly 11,500 individual manuscript collections in the Library, so at the moment I’m just focussing on some of the more obvious sources which include the papers and records of missionaries, ethnographers, linguists and Aboriginal Protectorates. Some of the more interesting and exciting finds I’ve made so far include:

MS 7080 – The Papers of Lorimer Fison (1869-1907). Fison’s chief interest was kinship and the complexities of clan divisions. Fison had a wide reaching network of linguists and missionaries and as such collated language lists (predominantly familial terms) from all parts of Australia and the Pacific. Fison also recorded genealogical lists of families and detailed notes on individuals, including, surprisingly for me, Kitty, a relative of mine who lived at Lake Tyers.

MS 3270 –The Papers of George Thornton (1880-1899). Thornton was an early “protector of the Aborigines” who recorded word lists of Yuin place names – most of which are still visible in some form on the New South Wales coast. He noted that in Jervis Bay Ulladulla was pronounced Woorradoora and the bird he knew as the laughing Jackass was called Kookangalla.

MS 9933 - Polly McMahon (1897). One of my favourite finds so far, this manuscript was allegedly written by 17 year old Polly McMahon. The papers are her nostalgic recollections of a childhood spent in the Burragorang Valley. Included amongst the 62 words she recorded are the names for the sun, moon and stars and how to invite a lady to dance.

To weed through these manuscripts on the hunt for Indigenous language material is not a speedy process. Once I’ve retrieved a manuscript off the shelf I sit and turn page after page after page in my search for single words or word lists. Sometimes a diary of 700 pages has yielded nothing – but it is still worthwhile investigating because you can never be certain until you look.

An example of some well hidden Indigenous language material which I found tucked away in the middle of a 900 page letter book.

Other times my search has returned exhaustive pages of word lists and cultural information. It is the thrill of discovery that makes this project exciting, and the potential for connecting Traditional Owners with these collections that makes this project so important.


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To Whom It May Concern, My name is Brenten James and I’m an indigenous teacher at Wallsend Callaghan College, NSW. I am hoping to engage in a small program to bring Aboriginal languages back into our classrooms. However, before doing so, I wanted to do the right thing and meet with the appropriate councils and elders to receive permission and keep all communities aware and involved. Also, i was hoping to speak with someone regarding your own project and whether or not i might be able to help through my position at school and see my students benefit. I would like to meet with you and discuss some of the possibilities. Please feel free to contact me at any point to discuss. I will follow this email up with a phone call over the next few days. Kind Regards Brenten James
Brenten - many thanks for your comments. We’ll contact you directly soon to discuss this.
Hi Brenton, My name is Hannah, I am working on a short documentary over the next couple of months about bi-lingual Aboriginal language programs. Could you contact me at with your email address so I could email you to find out a little more about the program you are initiating?
A fantastic project Shannon. We lived in Gippsland in the 1950s and had a slight connection with Lake Tyers through a young Aboriginal man who worked for my parents on their farm. I note with interest all the army uniforms in your Grandmothers wedding picture. More evidence of the many Aboriginal people who were involved in the Australian war campaigns that until recently have remained unrecorded or acknowledged. Best wishes for you project. I will follow with interest. Christine
Thanks very much Christine. Gippsland is a beautiful place. A lot of farms owe their success to Aboriginal workers. Some of my earliest memories are of picking beans, grapes and spinach with my grandparents on the south coast. As you say, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people participated in various war campaigns, and their contributions sometimes went unrecorded or unacknowledged. Cultural institutions such as the Australian War Memorial and AIATSIS are doing terrific work uncovering and highlighting Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander involvement in the various war efforts. You might be interested in the "Indigenous Australians at War" page hosted by AIATSIS in partnership with Garth O’Connell (of the Australian War Memorial) :
Hi Shannon - my name is Anthony. I am researching some detail re Mr Lorimer Fison and in particular where he lived. Are you able to contact me at where i can provide further detail please? Many thanks.
Hi Anthony, thanks for getting in touch with us. I'll contact you directly via email shortly - Kind regards, Shannon.
Hi Shannon, I am a Documentary producer and would be interested in talking with you about Doolagah, I am working EJ Garrett on developing series on cultural beliefs., Thank you and speak soon Helen