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A holistic approach to Aboriginal languages in NSW

Image: Callum Clayton-Dixon Photograph: Supplied

New South Wales will soon be the first Australian jurisdiction to introduce Aboriginal languages legislation. The draft bill contains statements recognising Aboriginal peoples’ right to “learn and maintain” our languages, and acknowledging “the need to take action…to ensure the survival of Aboriginal languages”. Ministerial roles, the implementation of a “strategic plan”, vague references to funding grant arrangements, and the establishment of a NSW Aboriginal languages centre are also canvassed. Unfortunately, the draft bill’s content appears, as Gomeroi woman Alison Whittaker commented, “a little sparse and lofty”.

It pales in comparison to legislation passed by New Zealand’s parliament 30 years ago. The Māori Language Act affirms the official status of the Māori language, recognises guardianship of it as vesting in the Māori people, and establishes strong mechanisms to bolster Māori autonomy in decision making around language funding and policy. In conjunction with land and compensation settlements under the Treaty of Waitangi, this Act comprises a significant component of an increasingly holistic, albeit far from perfect, approach to the revitalisation of te reo.

It is a holistic approach that needs to be taken to Aboriginal languages in NSW; one that treats funding as part of a wider reparations agenda, puts self-determination at the forefront, and delivers true land justice to Aboriginal communities.

Firstly, the funds provided to support the revitalisation of Aboriginal languages should not be viewed or delivered as “government grants”, but as reparations for the devastation inflicted upon Aboriginal languages by over two centuries of colonisation. A reparations fund should be established, allocating each dialect/language group a proportionate share.

Next, instead of delegating decision-making responsibilities to the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, such powers should be vested in Aboriginal communities. This could be done via an organisation like Te Mātāwai, the statutory body established “to lead revitalisation of te reo Māori”. Our organisation’s membership could be similarly constituted, comprising delegates chosen by each dialect/language group and the various key stakeholder organisations. With all the current momentum and interest surrounding our languages, what better time for government to hand over the reins to Aboriginal people so that we can take full control of determining their future?

FGounding members of Anaiwan Language Revival Program, Bradley Widders (left) & Callum Clayton-Dixon (right). Photograph: Supplied

Image: FGounding members of Anaiwan Language Revival Program, Bradley Widders (left) & Callum Clayton-Dixon (right). Photograph: Supplied

Country gives us language, we relate to country through language, and with relationship comes custodial responsibilities. Land and language should therefore be dealt with together. If society accepts that Aboriginal people have an intrinsic right to regain knowledge of language and culture, it follows that we need to regain access to our traditional lands as well.

More effective laws should be made to ensure that Aboriginal peoples’ land rights are unimpeded wherever possible. The NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983 has returned very little land, there remains an enormous backlog of claims, and bureaucratic red tape obstructs Aboriginal communities from exercising our inherent rights and obligations on ‘returned’ lands. A three-step framework put forward by Tasmanian Aboriginal lawyer Michael Mansell offers a logical solution:

  • theoretically restore all land rights Aboriginal people had prior to colonisation;
  • exclude all that is unworkable today (e.g. freehold land); and
  • accommodate the remainder (e.g. National Parks, State Forests, Nature Reserves, Travelling Stock Routes, vacant crown land), avoiding the time-consuming and resource-heavy process currently involved in Land Rights and Native Title claims

The onus to deliver land justice to Aboriginal people does not lie only with government. Private citizens have inherited millions of hectares of stolen Aboriginal land across the state, with so many of our sacred cultural sites residing on so-called ‘private property’. Whether going to the extent of signing over land to the traditional owners, or simply guaranteeing Aboriginal people rights of land access and use, members of the general public can play an important role. Aboriginal people have cared for our country since the first sunrise, and our languages carry with them ecological knowledge essential to fulfilling this custodial obligation. Coupled with sufficiently-resourced language revitalisation efforts, true land justice will allow us to properly reinstate best-practice indigenous landcare, likely working alongside non-Aboriginal conservationists to achieve a common goal.

Nor is reparation solely the responsibility of government. Another vital stream of support is the provision of funds and resources towards the reclamation and revival our languages, no strings attached, from non-Aboriginal people and organisations. Australian universities, for example, have the means to provide sustained institutional backing for community-based and community-driven Aboriginal language revitalisation initiatives. Existing support of this nature is unfortunately rare and limited.

Yahlnaaw, a Haida activist and researcher, declares that at the heart of decolonisation sits the learning of our languages and the struggle for land. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do; fulfil obligations to country, our ancestors, and future generations. This becomes considerably easier for us when non-Aboriginal people, organisations and governments properly address and take right action on three fundamental issues – reparations, self-determination and land justice.

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