NAIDOC WEEK: Our languages matter
Talks / Lecture
Our manuscripts collection holds some of the earliest records of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander languages, written in the post-European contact period. Shannon Sutton provides a fragmentary glimpse of the diverse range of the hundreds of languages spoken in Australia before European contact.
*Speakers: Margy Burn (M), Shannon Sutton (S)
*Location: National Library of Australia
M: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the National Library of Australia for one of our NAIDOC Week events. I’m Margy Burn and I’m the Assistant Director General responsible for Reader Services and Special Collections here at the National Library, the Special Collections being a very rich source of material which documents the indigenous experience of Australia.
As we begin I acknowledge that we meet on Aboriginal land and thank the traditional custodians, elders past and present for caring for this beautiful country.
Now in this week’s NAIDOC Week our theme is Our Languages Matter and NAIDOC Week, it’s – gee, it’s been a big year this year with the anniversaries of the ’67 referendum and the Mabo High Court decision but NAIDOC Week is annual celebration of the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and it’s really important that we have these celebrations to acknowledge the unique and ongoing significant role played by Australian indigenous people, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. And of course language is a particularly important part of cultural identity, it links people to land and water, it transmits history, tradition, spirituality, story and song. And Australia had a very rich indigenous language past which has been threatened by all the events of the past so the more than 250 distinct indigenous language groups spoken across the land we now know as Australia at the time of European occupation in the late 18th century, many of them with many dialects, now there are only around 120 of those languages still spoken and many of the languages are at risk of loss.
So this afternoon we really are fortunate to have Shannon Sutton share with us some of the early records of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages in the National Library’s collection that he’s uncovered. Shannon actually trained as an archaeologist and I asked him the other day whether he missed archaeology and he said no. I think the all weather conditions are better in a library. But – so working in a library is Shannon’s second career and he began with us actually on the Library’s indigenous graduate program in 2014. But today he really enjoys being a family history reference librarian, I think Shannon loves working in family history.
Shannon is one of nine indigenous staff now working at the National Library which is really something that we’re very proud of, that we’ve now got a significant group of Aboriginal staff making a huge contribution to the Library – and Torres Strait Islander staff, sorry. I’m very good about that usually but I’ve just slipped. And we’re particularly proud that we’ve been able to recruit young indigenous people from the tip of Cape York and the Torres Strait Islands and across the mainland states to work at the Library. Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff work in Reader Services, they work as people who catalogue, describe and process collections and collection material across the full range of our collections, the published collections, physical and online and also the special collection formats, pictures and manuscripts, oral history and maps. And they play a really important role in connecting the Library and its collections with indigenous communities especially through online resources such as modules of the Library’s digital classroom offering the preparation of research guides on topics and you can also see some great videos they’ve made about the significant collections on the Library’s YouTube channel and they’re really inspiring. We were just talking beforehand about it’s so different hearing indigenous people talk about indigenous collections than people like me talking about them.
A lot of this work began with projects that they started doing during their graduate year and during Shannon’s graduate program, which is probably feeling like quite a while ago now to him, he researched fragmentary, particularly language holdings in the Library’s Manuscripts Collection so not the Daisy Bates papers where we knew about the strength of the language material or the Matthews papers, ditto but where else in the manuscripts collection might language material be found? And today he’s going to share with us what he’s found from that project so please welcome Shannon.
S: So many of you. Thank you all for coming. I’d like to begin my talk by acknowledging the traditional owners and custodians of the land on which we meet today, the Ngunnawal people, and I pay my respects to their elders past and present as well as to any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community members sitting with us here in the audience. Everyone is informed that this presentation features images of people that are deceased.
So as Margie mentioned in her lovely introduction my name’s Shannon. I work here at the library in Newspapers and Family History which is my true passion now. I’m Gunai, they’re people from Gippsland in Victoria around the Gippsland Lakes region, sort of centred around [Orbus] 6:09 Bairnsdale. And I'm from the Stewart family who come from the south coast of New South Wales around Wallaga Lake way so there’s a big mission there. So I identify for the most part as Koori.
Thank you all for joining me for my NAIDOC Week talk which this year is on languages in the Library’s Manuscripts Collection because as Margie mentioned the theme is Our Languages Matter. I’m sorry if you’ve heard this talk before, I’ve given similar talks about languages in the past, I won’t be offended if you leave but I will remember your faces especially you, Alison. Today we’ll be taking a look at just a few of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages contained within the Library’s Manuscripts Collection.
So as you might know if you’ve ever accessed the Library’s Manuscripts Collection it’s a chaotic sea of almost 12,000 organisational and personal records. This eclectic array of the brightest and sometimes the darkest thoughts of humanity includes the writings of our Prime Ministers, letters from Dame Edna, Mem Fox’s drafts of Possum Magic, false teeth, songs about clowns, the works. The apparent random nature of the Manuscripts Collection is one which is purposefully cultivated. The Library expertly curates all of these diverse works because we want our national collection to reflect who we are as a nation and of course you can’t do that without collecting material by, for and about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Since forming shortly after federation the Library has collected a range of objects, books, oral histories and manuscripts relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people however many of these collections remain broadly described in our catalogue using very sort of generic terms such as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander which means it can often be very difficult to find things concerning a specific language group or community.
In 2004 I came in as an indigenous graduate and I undertook a project to slowly weed through some of the Library’s manuscripts to search for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language material and to identify ways of more adequately describing these collections. So it was my job one day each week for a period of about five months to look through manuscripts that I considered likely to contain Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander material for language. And I only looked at manuscripts that are uniquely held by the Library because I wanted to find things that made our Library unique and special.
The ultimate aim of this project was to make language collections more visible and accessible to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and to meet our commitments and responsibilities under the National and State Libraries Australasia Position Statement, particularly that it is the right of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be informed about collections that exist relating to them, their culture and their language.
Today’s talk will be focusing a little bit on this project and on some of its outcomes and I’ll also highlight some of the Library’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language collections in manuscripts in more detail. I’ll start by saying I’m certainly not a linguist so to any linguists sitting in the audience I’m sorry, you’ll have to sit there and grind your teeth while I mispronounce things and get language group names probably completely wrong. As Margie mentioned I’d spent a few years working as an archaeologist before coming here – here’s some happy snaps. There’s me in the Torres Strait, there’s me in the lab, there’s me surveying with a cat and there I’m spitting in the face of death in [Agerryward] 10:06 which is far western sort of Victoria.
So my previous career as an archaeologist made me the ideal candidate for a project in which you spend a lot of time looking for something and only occasionally find it. Also as someone who grew up in a proudly Aboriginal family on the south coast of New South Wales I know a few scattered words of what’s commonly referred to as Koori as a language but which probably isn’t Koori at all, it’s probably some sort of Yuin like that’s spread throughout New South Wales.
Most of the words that I know are pretty bad words, words for poos and wees and most importantly offensive names to call my siblings so I know three ways of calling my brother stupid but I don’t know how to say hello. If you’re desperate to know these words so that you too can offend your family in Koori come find me at the back of the Library after the talk. But in saying that my great-grandmother was fluent in her language which was Gunai. She didn’t speak it too often because she was always told as a child not to. Even after leaving Lake Tyers mission where she grew up well into her old age she rarely spoke her language because there was a sense of shame associated with doing so. And when you don’t use it you lose it or at least your kids do.
It’s estimated that approximately 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages were spoken at the time of European settlement and here they are on Norman Tindale’s famous but contentious map. It’s contentious because boundaries by their very nature are always contentious, whether it’s an Aboriginal tribal group or your neighbour’s fence, okay? So my family are from this peach-coloured sort of blob down here, Gunai and Yuin just here on the south coast of New South Wales.
An indigenous language survey undertaken in 2012 by the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated that around 145 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are still actively spoken. At face value this figure might not seem too bad but however 67 of the 145 languages still spoken have fewer than 10 speakers so as you can imagine where there are fewer than 10 speakers there’s quite a high potential for language loss.
Aboriginal languages were a spoken language which means that the Library’s Manuscripts Collections might be the only place in the entire world where some fragments or words of some Aboriginal languages survive – sorry Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages survive - which is both fantastic and terrifying. We have a real responsibility not only to preserve these languages but also to promote them. Before we can promote them however we have to identify them which is what the project that I undertook in 2014 set out to do.
For your interest the earliest known European written recording of an Aboriginal language was in 1687 so lots of people aren’t aware of that. When Dampier was up in Broome around Dampier he met the Bardi people there and he wrote down a word which was [gardi] 13:47 which is now thought to be [gnyardi] 13:45 which means devil. I'm not terribly sure of the context of the recording. So we can’t claim to have the earliest European written record of an Aboriginal language at the Library but we do have one of the earliest.
Lots of people are also unaware that James Cook recorded an Aboriginal language list. In 1770 the Endeavour in need of repairs breached at a place known in the local language as [Wubalumbal] 14:16. Stranded for seven weeks Cook made contact with the local Aboriginal people, the [Guguyimidere] 14:23, and immediately compared them to the last indigenous people he came across in Papua New Guinea. He wrote it is very probable that they are a different people and speak a different language. For the advantage of such who want to clear up this point I shall add a short vocabulary of a few words in this New Holland language which we learnt on the Endeavour River. So he’s giving us a place where he’s recording this language.
With this succinct statement Cook highlights his role as the explorer seemingly distancing himself from any personal interest in this language by claiming that he is writing it for others who might wish to know more. In neat very legible writing he noted down about 50 [Guguyimidere] words which is a huge amount, the first of which was a word for head however was it actually the word for head or could it have been what’s this? Maybe it was a word for elbow, who knows? A legitimate problem for a linguist. And then he wrote down features of the face, presumably picking things that could easily be pointed to which can lead to a lot of mistakes when you’re recording language.
He also recorded words for objects and features of the landscape, canoes, cockleshells, things like sand. Most famously [Guguyimidere] is supposedly the language that we get the word kangaroo from. For your interest the Endeavour Journal is on permanent display in the Treasures Gallery. My favourite representation of Cook in the Library is this little wax portrait here which is affectionately known by Library staff as Caramel Cook because it’s Cook at his most delicious looking. Boom tish.
So the Europeans came to Australia and with European settlement Aboriginal people were increasingly pushed onto the fringes of society. Many Aboriginal people were moved onto church-built missions and government-run state reserves. My own family lived at this mission in Victoria called Framlingham but they were moved around a lot to various missions so Ramahyuck, Lake Tyers Mission which is now known as Bung Yarnda.
These missions and reserves attempted to abolish Aboriginal culture and to assimilate Aboriginal people into European society and they did this through instituting various methods of controls. So when Aboriginal people lived on a mission their lives were very strictly regulated, their food was rationed, whether they could live on the mission was controlled at all you know sometimes families were split up, you can live on the mission, you can’t. Who they could marry was controlled and of course one of the other things that was controlled was what language you could speak.
Augustus Friedrich Hagenauer seen here - I think he’s looking lovingly at his wife, I’m not sure – was a key figure in Victorian Aboriginal missions and reserves in the mid to late 1800s, particularly noted for establishing the Ramahyuck Mission in Gippsland. Hagenauer believed in a patriarchal mission structure viewing himself as something of an authoritarian father figure. As the man in charge of Ramahyuck he was a champion of assimilation. He forbade the use of traditional language and especially hated things like corroborees, writing I must honestly say that I have had enough of that most abominable and immoral nightly performance before ever I came to Gippsland. I then declared with all my power I would work against such an outrage on civilisation and religion and I shall continue my opposition as long as I am able to do so.
In a bizarre dichotomy, despite largely banning Aboriginal people from speaking in their own language at Ramahyuck Hagenauer appears to have quite liked the sound of at least one Aboriginal language being spoken. Travelling through Queensland he wrote I was requested to say a little about the language of the Aborigines of the north but I do not know anything about it except that I liked its beautiful, ringing clear sound. And I only found one which is the same as that of the dialect of the Wimmera district, which is in Victoria.
The bulk of Hagenauer’s papers are at the State Library of Victoria however the National Library holds two volumes of his letter books which are bound books of carbon copies of outwards correspondence so letters he’s writing to other people. His letter books contain a three-page word list which Hagenauer writes is understood in the north, the northwest and Swan Hill districts of Victoria but especially at Pine Plains which seems to suggest that the languages are from a group called [Wigia] 19:31. Although his letter books contain only a small amount of language material what he did write was incredibly detailed. His writing certainly showed a greater appreciation for grammar than most of his contemporaries and he was considered somewhat of an expert on the matter of language. He would later contribute a section on language to Brough and Smyth’s seminal publication, Aborigines of Victoria.
Another missionary operating around the same time as Hagenauer during the mid to late 1800s was a man named Lorimer Fison who looks remarkably similar to Hagenauer. It is a different person, I swear. Fison did much of his early work in Fiji and while there he became aware of the work of a man by the name of Lewis Morgan. Morgan was an American lawyer turned anthropologist who was obsessed with the Iroquois native Americans and began studying their kinship systems because he wanted to emulate their kinship systems in his frat society, which is weird. What began as a seemingly very flippant reason for studying native American kinship structures quickly became a landmark anthropological work which stretched across numerous native American tribes into southern India and through Fison into Australia and the Pacific.
Fison emulated Morgan’s study on kinship here. He saw Aboriginal people as ultimately a doomed race which would quickly be supplanted by the British which might explain his own motivations for recording information about what he viewed as a dying culture. Fison gathered information about Aboriginal people by appealing to others for help by letter-writing and through ads which he placed in various newspapers. So here’s a newspaper, he’s asking for people who are engaged with Aboriginal people, who work with them to send him information about the Aboriginal people so that he can compile it all into a landmark study and beat Morgan, I don’t know.
Fison’s letter books, the bulk of which are held here at the Library, are a wealth of information about Aboriginal kinship structures throughout Australia. He was a hugely prolific letter-writer with an incredibly wide reach. Most of his letters contain information about the kinship systems, marriage customs and the genealogies of Aboriginal people living along the eastern coast of Australia. He didn’t seem to have much success gaining contacts in Western Australia or the Northern Territory.
Much of his letters were written to a man named A W Howat who was a Victorian scientist and explorer who had dedicated his own time to recording as much information as he could about the Gunai Kurnai of Gippsland which is my Nan’s family so lucky for me. Without any particular aim. It was through correspondence with Fison that Howat’s own work found a direction in recording kinship systems. Fison together with Howat even recorded some details about my very own ancestors so his collection has some personal meaning for me.
As a child my Nan lived for a little while at Lake Tyers Mission which is in Gippsland or as it’s known in my language, Bung Yarnda. A couple of years ago my Nan visited the Melbourne Museum and then she got her hands on some copies of photos of a lady from Bung Yarnda named Kitty who’s seen here sitting in her bark canoe in Lake Tyers itself. My Nan very proudly showed me these photos of Kitty and this is one of them, the photos at the Museum of Victoria, have very similar photographs to our collection. This one’s kept at the National Library.
My Nan wasn’t sure how she was related, she just knew that she was related. This isn’t terribly uncommon with Aboriginal families which tend to be massive and convoluted. Your tenth cousin is just your cousin, not your tenth cousin. Weeks later back at the Library after being shown these photos by my grandmother and getting an explanation of Kitty I was leafing through Lorimer Fison’s manuscripts when I came across this family tree. And I was reading through it, he’s got a few little family trees in his manuscripts when right towards the bottom I spotted the name Kitty from Lake Tyers.
This motivated me to dig a little deeper and find out who exactly Kitty was and she was connected to my family so I began tracing my own family tree back until I got to my great-great-great-grandfather, George Thomas, seen here with his wife, Agnes, which is as far back as my family can trace their ancestry in Gippsland. I wanted to know who his parents were and naively thought I’d get the answer by purchasing his marriage certificate which is here. Quite a few surprises on the certificate of George Thomas, the first surprise was seeing that name of Augustus Hagenauer so there he is right there. And the other surprise was seeing Kitty listed as the mother of George and his wife. So – and I thought that’s a bit worrying. Until through my hunting around and some further digging I came across this book in the Library’s collection by a man I know as Uncle Philip Pepper, he’s a Gunai man and [testarago] 25:36.
So this gave me an explana – this book gave me an explanation of how they were all connected and Uncle Philip Pepper explained why Kitty was listed as the mother of both on the marriage certificate. George Thomas – so that’s that fellow there – was found in a log – and I know this sounds ridiculous but it’s true – orphaned as a boy by Kitty who took him back to Lake Tyers and raised him. Agnes – that’s her there – was originally from Deniliquin and had been taken to Lake Tyers by her own family where she was taken in by Kitty as well and raised by her so she’s the adopted mother of these two people. And of course there’s no way that Friedrich Augustus Hagenauer would have signed off on the marriage if they were brother and sister. Hagenauer did a lot of awful things but saying yes to this marriage was the best decision he ever made as far as I’m concerned. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here talking to you all today.
So isn’t it amazing how collections in the Library can be so connected? Family history is experiencing a bit of a boom at the moment and certainly no less so than for indigenous Australians whose family histories often exist outside of traditional European records. Oral histories from grandparents and documents such as mission records, letters and diaries might sometimes be the only places this kind of information is preserved however the only way of finding this material in a library or archive is if it’s adequately described and that takes a considerable amount of time and effort.
The papers of Raymond Specht – sorry – are a good example of the significance of a collection that’s not quite coming across in the Library’s catalogue record. The catalogue doesn’t really give any details about Specht’s interactions with Aboriginal people even at a very broad level. That’s not to say our cataloguers don’t do an excellent job because they do, we have the best cataloguers in Australia however often there is so much to capture in a manuscript collection that a catalogue entry is really an inadequate way of describing all of its many aspects.
The large collections of manuscripts we have are – we have detailed finding aids which provide expanded information on the contents of a collection however they are very time-consuming to make for smaller collections like the collection of Ray Specht. Generally small collections don’t get a finding aid. Specht, seen here having a shower, was a member of the American Australian scientific expedition to Arnhem Land on which he acted as a field botanist. He wrote copious notes on the plants he saw and he wrote his notes in three different languages, Anindilyakwa, [Gumach] 28:54 and English. In mercifully clear handwriting he also wrote down the traditional uses of each of these plants and his own scientific comparison notes.
The records of the American Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land are housed in various cultural institutions around Australia and throughout America as well. And they’re a good example of how Aboriginal people were claiming research originally intended for a nonindigenous audience. At the 60th year anniversary of the exhibition Martin Thomas, who was a research fellow at the University of Sydney - he conducted a major study on this expedition - and he wrote, indeed many Aboriginal people in the region are now taking ownership of the documentation from the expedition in various ways. This is one example of how consequences can defy intentions. When the exhibition was conceived no-one anticipated that the subject of the study might one day be beneficiaries of it.
I think this statement nicely summarises many if not all of our collections which relate to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Those who stand to benefit the most from these collections are not researchers but instead are people with some personal links to the collection, be it through language, family or their culture. I have to marvel that the journals of missionaries written in the hands of women who sought to break up traditional cultural beliefs can at the same time contain the most prolific recordings of Aboriginal culture and language which can ultimately help in its revival. James Cook would never have dreamed that one day a descendent of the [Guguyimidere] who was working at the library in manuscripts in 2012 would find information about her people in his Endeavour journal.
People like Hagenauer, Fison and Specht were all employed to work with Aboriginal people so they’re very obvious choices in our search for language material however we also have many less obvious recorders of language. Our manuscripts are all written by different people from different backgrounds and their interest in languages tend to reflect this sometimes with surprising results. In the Library’s collection is a little black notebook written by Polly McMahon who was a 17-year-old farmer’s daughter growing up in the Burragorang Valley in the late 1800s, and that’s in New South Wales. I don’t have a photo of Polly but here’s a farmhouse in Burragorang so you can imagine her inside, maybe at the window, sitting there with an abacus or churning butter or something. I don’t know what they did back then.
Polly writes to us from a distant past and her words echo down through the ages. The New South Wales speak a different language to most of the other colonies. In fact the New South Wales tribes of only 200 miles apart speak much different. My father always got along well with the blacks and could speak the languages of two or three colonies. The author herself seems to have been able to speak some language, writing when we were little we used to talk a lot of the native language. My mother could never learn very much, she could not remember it. Our schoolteacher had a lot to put up with with our broken English.
I find it quite fascinating that a European family in quite a small regional area were speaking an Aboriginal language however the Australian agricultural industry would have collapsed without the support of Aboriginal labour so it does make perfect sense that people would have had to have learned some.
I should note before closing on Polly that she’s prone to some exaggeration. She writes of blood-soaked boomerangs that return to the thrower after slicing off heads while the headless corpse stands perfectly erect, so it’s not happening. Boomerangs don’t come back once they’ve hit something unless they’re magic. Many of the words described as Aboriginal are a form of broken English. Polly writes an Aboriginal word for nap is nappo and the word for white man is whitum. Whitum.
Everyday people typically recalled the words for objects, animals and place names, morsels of language which reflect their own personal interest or random questioning. There are numerous explorers, adventurers, people on journeys who encountered Aboriginal people and wrote the odd note about them like M W Shanahan, a gold prospector wandering around Cape York who recorded a list of tribal names and described in small detail the boundaries of their country so really useful detailed information. These kind of notes might be pertinent to native title applications, for instance.
Or Frank Clune’s journal of his adventures in Arnhem. Land. Frank’s lengthy 100-page narratives contain scattered language interweaved with notes on basketmaking to the specific clothes worn by named individuals so he’s naming people and describing them, to instruction on how to mix ochre to get just the right colour which is what we have here. We also have some things lurking in the collection which are quite sinister in nature such as a journal of Henry James Emmett who describes himself in the introduction as one of the leaders of Governor Arthur’s 1830 expedition to exterminate the Aboriginal people of Tasmania.
All of these manuscripts, both wondrous and terrible, provide a tangible physical link to our shared past. By highlighting the rich diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages and cultures of this country in our collections we challenge the pervasive metanarrative of a white Australia and diminish the unavoidable Euro-centricity of the Library with its gleaming marble columns and Cook paintings.
In the end I managed to review around 60 collections I considered likely to contain Aboriginal language material. Out of those 60 collections 32 actually contained language material so I had a pass success rate. They referenced approximately 51 different language groups. So 51 out of 250’s not too bad. This Google Earth map gives a bit of an overview of the geographic spread of our language material so the bigger the dot that you can see in it the more holdings we have for that particular language group. We have pretty good national coverage. We’re a little skewed to the southeast which might reflect my own research bias, I spent most of my working life digging in fields in Victoria and gossiping with other crews so I’m very familiar with the groups there. It’s a bit blank on the eastern side but I suspect that if I looked at the collections of Daisy Bates and Robert Hamilton Matthews in the Library that this map would look a bit more even. But far smarter heads than mine are working through these rather large and significant collections as part of other projects and probably doing a lot better job than I would have being doing it such as the University of Melbourne’s digital Daisy Bates project which you can read about online.
So there were a few challenges with this project, the first being that language material can be really hard to find so if you see here. This is a magnifying glass held over a really bad photocopy of the back of an envelope which contains three words in an unprovenanced language so that’s part of our manuscript collection. So it was a bit of a job finding that one.
Sometimes I’d search through a manuscript only to find nothing. Language material could be a single word in a 400-page book. Robert [Gow] 37:16 who in 1861 travelled around Victoria on a mission to rescue the already dead [Work and Bills] 37:19, was guided by Aboriginal people during the entirety of his trip and presumably bothered talking to them on occasion otherwise he probably would have died too. Despite being guided on his journey by Aboriginal people he only wrote down a single Aboriginal word which bizarrely was one that he had heard from some Europeans.
That one word that he recorded was the name of a spirit named Mindy who’s a rainbow serpent who punished the wicked by making them sick. It’s now believed that Mindy was a way in which Victorian Aboriginal people conceptualised the spread of European diseases and their terrible impact on their societies. So again with language recordings there’s usually much broader context, why are people recording language? This one word may give us some hints about interactions between Aboriginal people and European settlers at this static point in time.
Finding language material was only really the first half of this project and while I started out with the intention of solely recording language I quickly realised as you’ve seen through this talk that most of the language had this broader context from which it was impossible to separate. I had to describe this content in a way that meets the needs of researchers but most importantly meets the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and I also had to think of ways of making this material more accessible which meant indexing what I’d found using specific language group names which isn’t something really done through our catalogue as of yet. And that’s quite a challenge.
As an example let’s have another quick look at my family because I love to talk about myself. The Gunai Kurnai people of Victoria. Now my language group are – can’t agree amongst themselves as to what their name is, there’s a few different ways of spelling Gunai, there’s Kurnai, some people believe is Gunai. They’re collectively known as the Gunai Kurnai. I identify as Gunai, some people identify as Kurnai, others identify as both Gunai Kurnai. Gunai Kurnai language has five dialects. At what level should we be recording our collections in a library? You can see why this might be a challenge for a cataloguer or an archivist who isn’t specialised in this field. When you’ve got 250 languages in Australia it can be quite tricky trying to identify where a language might be from with special collections.
Lots of people who recorded language only wrote very basic notes about the people that they recorded it from. They often didn’t use things like tribal or language group names, sometimes I’ve found references to a language group that I can find no reference of to anywhere else so I’m not sure what they were told. The might write things like we travelled three hours west of Melbourne to describe where they recorded language and how did they travel west from Melbourne? By foot, by horse, by buggy? It can be very tricky identifying the correct language group.
I’ve created a research guide for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language material in the Library’s collection which I’ll quickly show you now. I’ve got everything crossed so that the internet’s working. Oh yes. Okay so click on our research guides, browse A to Z and you can see all of our research guides so my research guide is called Australian Indigenous Language Collections and here we are.
So the front page really provides an overview of the language material I found as part of my 2014 project. The description of how to use the guide and some basic information of naming conventions of language group names which were all based on the spelling in the IATSE thesaurus because they’re the premier institute for research and study about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. And this is the same consistent approach adopted by many of the state and territory libraries as well so they’re all using these naming conventions and language group codes.
Then I’ve got a state by state breakdown of the language groups so if we go into New South Wales it’s all in alphabetical order. Of course there’s going to be some overlap with language groups and states – state boundaries tend to be linear while Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander boundaries tend to follow features of the landscape such as watercourses, maintain ranges, trees and stones. Although having a research guide is handy, there are still numerous obstacles in the way of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have accessing material. The most obvious is the tyranny of distance. I’ll just go back to my slide.
Many people also wouldn’t generally associate the National Library as a place which has Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander material although this is something that’s changing through things like the graduate projects which really do highlight and provide exposure for our Aboriginal and Torres Strait project – collections. I know I probably wouldn’t have thought that the Library had much in the way of language material especially with other cultural institution such as the museum and AIATSIS right across the pond from us, I’d go there first and maybe not necessarily come here.
Hopefully the research guide I created will help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people find material in the Library but like this project it’s really only a starting point. It’s a useful tool for engaging with communities and that’s something we’ve done through our Ask a Librarian service. It’s useful for things such as language repatriation and communicating in a more meaningful way but there needs to be some level of outreach otherwise it’s just sitting there hoping somebody stumbles across it via a Google search for a language group name.
For those interested my own 2014 project was based on the State Library of New South Wales massive language project which ran for a few years. They hired a linguist from AIATSIS called Michael Walsh, some of you might know, and they found some amazing language collections in their library. If you haven’t already I really encourage you to go take a look at their Rediscovering Indigenous Languages project because you’ll weep at its beauty. They digitised a lot of their original collection so their manuscripts and made them available online so you can actually read them. They’ve continued the work with their languages. For NAIDOC they’ve even launched an online storybook called My Weekend with Pop which is just beautiful. It’s the same story about a boy’s weekend spent camping with his grandfather written and spoken in five different Aboriginal languages including Kamilaroi, Wiradjuri, [Parkinjee] 44:53.
In 2016 so last year New South Wales Department of Education made significant headway to incorporate Aboriginal languages into its schools’ learning programs so this work with languages is really timely and it creates really useful resources for students and teachers. It goes to show that there’s all kinds of wonderful things happening out there with language at the moment, preserving languages, revitalising sleeping languages, and libraries through their collections have a big role to play in this.
Before I open up for questions I’d just like to draw attention to another NAIDOC Week talk that we’ve got on Thursday at 12:30pm by one of our indigenous staff members, Ryan Stoker, so he’ll be talking – he’ll be giving a talk titled Our Voice which is our – a talk about the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander oral history collection so definitely worth getting along to that one if you can. Does anybody have any questions, though? Yeah?
A: <inaudible> 46:13.
S: My own spelling.
A: <inaudible> 46:19.
S: Yeah, I mean that’s an issue with Aboriginal language group names, they’re oft – it’s a spoken language so they’re spelt in a variety of different ways. AIATSIS has sort of provided a structure for consistent spelling, it’s not perfect but they also ascribe each language group a specific code so Gunai Kurnai might be language code S16 which is static so unlike the language group name, that doesn’t change so it provides a sort of persistent identifier for that language group which is useful for libraries in case a traditional owner group goes no, we don’t want our language group name spelt that way which is right, they should have control over how their language group name is spelt but it can create issues for cataloguers. Yeah.
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