NAIDOC: First language of Sydney key to celebration of Indigenous culture
Bujarri Gamurruwa …
That's g'day (or perhaps something more formal) in the Gadigal language of the Eora nation. We greet our readers this way to mark NAIDOC week, the annual celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, in the year of the 50th anniversary of the referendum which was the first step in recognising the rights of Aboriginal Australians.
The Gadigal inhabited the land where Sydney's CBD now stands, as well as surrounding areas to the east and south. This sweep of territory may have been called Gadi or Cadi by its Indigenous owners, although the precise meaning of that word is a subject of some doubt.
That doubt is significant. Language binds a culture together. It is not just a means of communication, but a community's entire way of thinking. When it is gone, swept away by colonisation, along with almost all the Gadigal people, much more than words is lost. Scholars can try to reconstruct the first language of the Sydney region, but it will be conjecture. The evidence comes not from living speakers, but from notebooks written down by European observers in the early years of the settlement.
Colonisers know that language has this power. Throughout history, groups who have sought to dominate others have started by banning local languages. It undermines culture, and destroys identity. Colonisers from Europe and elsewhere from ancient times to the present have worked this way. English-speaking colonisers were banning native languages throughout the world for centuries – in Ireland, America, Australia and elsewhere.
That is why, as Australia seeks to make good the damage of its colonial past, language is so important. It is absolutely right that NAIDOC week should make language its theme this year. If Australians want – as they should – to resurrect and bolster the culture of our original inhabitants, the teaching of Indigenous languages is essential. The NSW government's OCHRE strategy already recognises this, encouraging the state's various Aboriginal communities to form so-called language and culture nests, which preserve and pass on their linguistic heritage. And it will benefit everyone in the state. By strengthening the engagement of young Aboriginal people with their own culture and community through language, the thinking goes, their connection to the wider community will also be made strong.
The Gadigal language may not have survived the impact of European settlement, but other Aboriginal languages have. The government is currently developing legislation to recognise and protect the state's Aboriginal languages. The first group of students studying Aboriginal languages for the HSC is now under way.
NAIDOC week started out as a single day of protest at the marginalising of Australia's Indigenous peoples, but over time has transformed itself into something more positive – a celebration. Some may see it as an antidote to Australia Day's problematic commemoration of the First Fleet's arrival. Perhaps it is, but that role is too limiting. NAIDOC week cannot be just a reaction to a historic harm done to Aboriginal people by outsiders. It should focus completely on Aboriginal and Islander people themselves, and celebrate every aspect of their culture, ancient and modern. May it flourish this year, and every year.