On the pages of a small booklet are fragments of an ancient language, pieced together over almost four decades by Elders of Indigenous communities spread along the Yuin nation.
It’s an emotional moment as the next generation take their seat across from elders at a shared yarning table. As the small community group looks down at the sentences that forms before them, they see their language. A language that was once derided, devalued and stomped out, almost to the point of extinction. In these pages it flickers back to life. A dictionary of sorts, the booklet with all its words, offers up a new path, a stepping stone that could pave the way forward for younger generations, setting them on a course of learning where they might embrace and celebrate the archaic culture of the Black Duck people.
The gathering has been organised to celebrate the continuation of the Yanda Biratj group, wherein members of the local Aboriginal community are invited to join the community language lesson group. Hosted out of the Twofold Bay Aboriginal Centre on Jigamy Farm, a cultural place known to bring Indigenous and non-Indigenous people together to share stories, education of traditional practices and culture as well as hosting big events such as Giiyong Festival, the largest multi-arts Aboriginal cultural festival in the Yuin Nation. It is here, in a place rich with history, that the Yanda Biratj members have gathered, share stories, look at the words collected over time and discuss the potential of gradually introducing their language into local schools.
Seated among teachers, young leaders, fellow friends and family, Bega elder Annette Scott’s face warms, as her smile deepens and her eyes tell of the pain in her words.
“I remember the times when we were told not to speak our language and for me walking in here today, seeing how far we’ve come, makes me really emotional,” she says.
Aunty Annette explains that in her youth and for several generations after, her language had not been allowed or accepted in schools.
“As a people we’re always wanting to share but there were so many times that we were rebuffed because of who we are or because of who we identify as,” she adds.
Aunty Annette says witnessing her mother tongue being nurtured back to its former strength and seeing the younger generations embracing their culture has made her deeply proud.
“To sit here today and see the changes, where young people are getting involved in learning the language and wanting to share it with their classmates, is really special,” she says.
“I think for me today it’s about seeing how enthusiastic our young leaders are in wanting to learn and share their language.”
Smiling at a young boy across the room, Aunty Annette welcoms him forward, encouraging him to speak, recognising his enthusiasm and commitment to his culture. As Kayne Arvidson speaks, murmurs of agreement pass through the lips of those around him and so he begins to share his story about how he’d taken an interest in learning the language from an early age.
“I just felt that learning my culture, my language and being immersed in all of it, has just made me feel so much better and made me feel more brave,” he says.
Kayne says he felt honoured to join the language group and learn how to pass on language, which he says makes him feel proud of his heritage.
“I’m grateful I get to be connected to my elders and my culture by hearing everyone’s stories of what they’ve been through and seeing the change that has been made along with what is to come,” he says.
Kayne says he is also looking forward to teaching the language in his school.
“I want to be able to teach others my culture, our language, so it can just keep passing along. I don’t want to see my culture ever die,” he says.
Kayne’s interest in bringing the language into his school was shared with many in the room, with several of the Indigenous community members present that day being representatives from local schools across the Bega Valley.
From Bega Valley Public School assistant principal Michelle Scott says the learning and sharing was very important, but more than anything so too were the discussions around the importance of ownership of the language and the ways in which it would be passed along.
“It’s so important that our kids have ownership of this first, it’s something I remember Uncle BJ Cruse saying to me a few years ago, that we needed to make sure our kids knew the language first and then shared it with the wider community and that always stuck with me,” she says.
Seeing all the representatives gathered on the day, learning the language that had been collected by elders over the last 40 years, reminds her that their language had never really been lost.
“I remember someone telling me something that stuck in my mind, they said ‘we’ve never lost it, we’ve reclaimed it. It just went underground’,” she says.“Ownership over language gives you power, it gives you knowledge.”
Language teacher and member of the Yanda Biratj language group, Noeleen Lumby, travelled to Jigamy on the Far South Coast, so she could attend the meeting in person and pass on her experience in teaching. Having completed a master of Indigenous Languages Education (MILE) at the University of Sydney, Noeleen felt well equipped to help the group learn how to teach languages in schools.
“[The masters) gave me those skills to be able to go into schools and help support teachers with language, which I have now got a fair bit of experience with,” she says.
Noeleen taught the members present on the day three different methods of teaching the language, phonetically, with visual prompts and by sign language.
“When you’re engaging with three different ways of learning, you understand the language a lot quicker,” she says.
The language lesson day hosted in July was part of her week-long visit to the area. Earlier that week she had met up with Nathan Lygon from Twofold Corporation to look closely at the words collected in the language dictionary, that the Yanda Biratj group has been working on over the last decades. Over the following days Noeleen has shown the members of the group different methods of teaching that would help keep kids engaged in classrooms.
“I’m developing a 10 week lesson plan for them, so they can just walk in there and do a lesson every week,” she says.
Twofold Bay Aboriginal Corporation cultural advisor Alison Simpson has reflected on the work of former Yanda Biratj group members and the way that they collated the word over the years.
She says the language group had started off with Sue Norman who had been a coordinator of the project for more than 20 years. Initially working with a small group of elders including, Beryl Cruse, Liddy Stewart, Ossie Cruse and Shirley Aldridge they visited families along the NSW south coast to record language.
“Over the span of 30 or 40 years they have been involved in collecting the language and then Sue and Nathan worked closely to pull it together,” Alison says.
Nowadays the group consists of local community members who have a passion for sustaining the legacy of the elders in documenting and sharing the language and do so in a voluntary capacity.
“We’re fortunate to have a core group of people who are passionate about it, to continue it you know, because otherwise it’d go back to sleep,” she adds.
Alison’s eyes shares the excitement of seeing the group finally reaching the stage where they can respectfully share the language with the local community.
“Our work is about us maintaining that legacy of what the Elders have done and putting the protocols in place so that we can share the language but also protect it,” she says.
“When you speak the language the ancestors can hear you because that’s all they spoke. So when you’re speaking that language it’s like everything wakes up.
“Our culture is extremely spiritual and its deep spirituality will never die, no matter how much it was massacred, it’s still here.”
Alison said seeing her people reclaiming the language and culture was so important as she could see it strengthening people’s cultural identity and contribute to healing.
“My passion is about healing the trauma because if we heal the trauma, then we change behaviours and attitudes, which breaks the cycle and strengthens cultural identity,” she says.
“Which is why language is so important, because it’s the mother tongue you know, we used it in our ceremonies and it just connects us back to country.”
Alison says she felt nothing but elated during the language lesson day at Jigamy, seeing the community gathered again, ready to implement more positive changes.
“Sitting around and listening to everyone in the room today and hearing the enthusiasm, excitement, stories, and respect that exists within the group was amazing,” she says.
“There wasn’t one person saying they owned the language but instead everyone wanted to share it and understood that it is said a little differently in other areas, because really, our language came from our ancestors, from the earth, trees and our surroundings.”