Greg Dickson writes:

Every popular blog has to have a Top 10 list, don’t they? Of course, such lists are subjective and a little bit arbitrary, but oh well. Just for fun, and my regular dose of Australian language advocacy, here are my “Top Ten Moments in the Sun” for Australia’s Indigenous languages.

1. Treaty – Yothu Yindi

In 1991, Yothu Yindi’s remixed version of Treaty was a dancefloor hit and reached #11 in the charts. This would be a decent accomplishment for any Aussie band but for an bunch of Yolŋu people from Yirrkala who sing in English and Yolŋu Matha, a great accomplishment indeed. Perhaps the biggest achievement was that this strongly political song, utilising traditional language, was a mainstream hit, appreciated by average Aussies as just a good song with a good beat and a good film clip. (Anyone else remember watching 90s Rage on ABC and marveling at the kids doing backflips and bum-dances?). There were probably thousands of 90s kids trying to sing along with Mandawuy Yunupingu when he switched into matha. Treaty went on to win an ARIA for Single of the Year and helped make their album Tribal Voice a Top 5 record and their follow-up single Djäpana was also a big hit.

Ten Canoes2. Ten Canoes

Aboriginal languages have been used in quite a few Australian feature films (e.g. The Tracker, We of the Never-Never, The Proposition), but it took the courage, or craziness, of director Rolf De Heer and the people of Ramingining to produce a feature-length film all in Aboriginal languages. (Some sources list the language as Ganalbingu, but I believe there are several Arnhem languages used throughout the film including Djinba and Kunwinjku). And it’s a good movie too! Ten Canoes took out 6 AFI awards, a special jury prize at Cannes and made $3.5 million at the box office (decent for an Aussie film). Oh, and although the movie version had English narration, on the DVD, you can watch it with David Gulpilil’s Yolŋu Matha narration.

3. Geoffrey Gurrumul YunupinguGurrumul

Arnhem Land scores a trifecta in my Top 10 with Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu taking his rightful place near the top after blowing away national and international audiences in recent years with his beautiful beautiful music. After playing with the Saltwater Band for several years, Gurrumul’s solo CD ‘Gurrumul’ went nuts in 2008, hitting #3 in the ARIA charts. He’s since toured overseas, been on the cover of Rolling Stone (they labeled him “Australia’s most important voice”), won awards and is now releasing his 2nd CD. All this for a quiet guy from Galiwin’ku who has been blind since birth. And he sings pretty much all his songs in Gumatj. Manymak!

4. Aden Ridgeway’s Gumbaynggirr article

Although newspaper journalism is a less popular media, massive kudos to Aden Ridgeway and the Muurrbay Language Centre in Nambucca Heads who translated his article “Language is power: let us have ours” into Gumbaynggirr which was published on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald. The article went on to win the UN Media Peace Award for Promotion of Aboriginal Reconciliation (as discussed previously on Fully (sic)). It is a great effort to be able to push Australian languages into such domains and this article was quite ground-breaking in that regard. Hopefully we’ll see it happen more.

Ngapartji Ngapartji5. Ngapartji Ngapartji

To theatre now, and anyone who’s been aware of Ngapartji Ngapartji couldn’t help but be impressed. A true collaboration between producers Big hART and Pitjantjatjara people, this project wasn’t just a theatre performance but it was music workshops and songwriting, video and documentary production, live Pitjantjatjara language lessons for theatre goers, online Pitjantjatjara language lessons, bush trips galore, community performance, youth training, social healing to address the Maralinga nuclear testing trauma and more. They really did set a benchmark for how to do community cultural development and did so with the Pitjantjatjara language smack bang in the middle of it all. (I adore my Pitjantjatjara word magnets that sit proudly on my fridge).

6. Kala Lagaw Ya version of “I Still Call Australia Home” (Qantas ad)

We can’t ignore the strength of Torres Strait Islanders in their language maintenance efforts. Those cutesy-wutesy choir kids that Qantas use on their ads may be nauseating to some but then again, the ads are well done and I’m sure have brought tears to the eyes of more than a few homesick expats or sentimental Aussies. In 2009, Qantas launched a new version of their ads that use the Peter Allen classic, this time sung in the Kala Lagaw Ya language of Mabuiag Island, Torres Strait. With then 13-year-old, Tyus Arndt leading the choir, it went down a treat and nice to see the young-uns get into a bit of language advocacy and great to see a Torres Strait language used in such a high profile media campaign.

7. Bilingual EducationBilingual Education

An education methodology that uses the language kids speak at home (e.g. Aboriginal languages) alongside English to promote good cognitive development and educational outcomes in all areas. It was pioneered in a handful of mission schools in remote Australia before the Whitlam government decided to roll it out to as many remote NT schools as possible in the 1970s. It knocked the proverbial socks off Aboriginal people in remote communities who, often for the first time, experienced the feeling of having their language valued on a par with English. Communities responded by sending dozens off for teaching training, learned how to read and write their languages, made sure their kids went to school, made hundreds of books and readers in local languages and made their schools truly a part of their communities. For a while there, the NT was leading the world in delivering innovative, quality education that respected the rights of Aboriginal people and their languages. But bilingual education has always been controversial and over the years conservative NT governments chipped away at it or on occasion tried to ban it outright. Many English-speaking urbanites tend to freak out at the idea of kids coming to school and being taught in their own language. Finally, in 2008, NT’s then Minister for Education Marion Scrymgour ended it all, enforcing that English must be the language of teaching for the first four hours of every school day in every NT school (a decision the NT Labor government has been slammed for by English teachers, community leaders and human rights advocates, among others). Ironically, the NT model of bilingual education delivery is being rolled out internationally with good success, most notably by CARE’s philanthropic work in education delivery in Cambodian villages. A sad end, yes, but bilingual education has been one of the great moments in time for Aboriginal languages.

8. Yirrkala bark petition.

Written in 1963 in response to the Australian Government allowing a bauxite mine to be developed without consent of traditional Yolŋu land owners, the Yirrkala bark petition was written and delivered to the House of Representatives as a protest. The authors were Yolŋu leaders who expressed themselves strongly, writing the petition in Yolŋu Matha then providing an English translation (to help ignorant white people in Canberra to understand the ramifications of their actions). The Yirrkala bark petition now hangs in Parliament House in Canberra and remains a powerful document, nearly 50 years on. And although the mine went ahead, the bark petition laid a foundation for the overturning of terra nullius in Australia and the establishment of the land rights movement.

9. IAD Press

Anyone who’s visited Mparntwe (Alice Springs) and stepped inside a bookshop or newsagency would probably have noticed a range of bright, beautiful and high quality dictionaries and learner’s guides for sale, covering a wide range of Central Australian languages such as Warlpiri, Arrernte, Pitjantjatjara, Warumungu, Anmatyerr and more. IAD Press is the publishing arm of the Institute for Aboriginal Development and for a few decades now, they have been publishing the fruits of amazing community language work and linguist-community collaborations. Visitors to Central Australia and especially outsiders who work in desert communities have no excuse not to pick up some local knowledge thanks to IADs awesome range of publications. They don’t just look good on the bookshelf, each book is a treasure chest of linguistic and cultural information.

Bush Mechanics10. Bush Mechanics

When ABC screened Bush Mechanics on Prime-time TV in 2001, audiences really didn’t know what to make of it. (I still remember a whole episode of Backchat dedicated to viewers’ wide-ranging feedback). Love it or hate it, what a show! A window into contemporary and traditional life of the Warlpiri people of Yuendumu, centred around the most amazingly resourceful car maintenance techniques. The Warlpiri dialogue flows thick and fast and the Warlpiri Media Association did a fantastic job with putting this together. Get the DVD and when you get over the shock of being witness to one of the most unique TV series ever, you’ll be laughing and crying along with the entire Warlpiri nation.

Special mentions

Women of the SunThis award-winning TV series from the early 80s is still really great viewing and amazingly innovative. It tells compelling stories of our colonial history through the eyes of the ‘colonised’ and much of the dialogue in the first two episodes is in Yolŋu Matha.

Kriol Holi Baibul – A mammoth task taking about 30 years, the first complete bible in an Indigenous language was completed in 2007.

Warumpi band – The first rock band to release a record with songs in an Australian language, Luritja. And we all still know their song ‘Black Fella, White Fella’.

Ephraim Bani – Not terribly famous but Ephraim Bani has the distinction of being the only linguist to publish a linguistics article in (not just ‘about’) an Australian language. Bani’s article ‘Garka a ipika: masculine and feminine grammatical gender in Kala Lagaw Ya’ was published in the peer-refereed Australian Journal of Linguistics in 1987 and written entirely in Kala Lagaw Ya.

Ken Hale – This American super-linguist toured Australia in 1960s and 70s, documenting an amazing number of languages. His legacy to the documentation of Australian languages is unparalleled but he was equally well-regarded in communities for his ability to pick up local languages so quickly.

Aboriginal Art Movement – With the explosion of the Aboriginal art industry, the general public has become so much more aware of Australian languages. Curators everywhere fumble and grasp at language words that whitefellas never used to pay much attention to.

Unselfconscious Indigenous language speakers – Go to Coles in Alice or Casuarina Mall in Darwin and when you see a happy Aboriginal couple or family confidently doing their shopping without uttering a word of English to each other, you understand that a society that allows Australia’s Indigenous languages to flourish wouldn’t be a disaster at all.

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