NAIDOC: The importance of preserving Indigenous languages

NAIDOC: The importance of preserving Indigenous languages

Each July, celebrations take place around the nation to mark NAIDOC Week.

NAIDOC stands for National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee. Its origins can be traced back to 1920s Aboriginal groups, who sought to increase awareness in the wider community of the status and treatment of Indigenous Australians.

NAIDOC Week is a time for all Australians to celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, culture and achievements. One area that deserves particular attention – and which anchored the theme for NAIDOC celebrations in 2017 – is the resilience and richness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages in Australia.

What is the importance of preserving and revitalising Indigenous languages?

National NAIDOC Committee Co-Chair Anne Martin said languages are the breath of life for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, making it vital to raise awareness of the importance of Indigenous languages across the country.

‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait languages are not just a means of communication, they express knowledge about everything: law, geography, history, family and human relationships, philosophy, religion, anatomy, childcare, health, caring for country, astronomy, biology and food.

‘Each language is associated with an area of land and has a deep spiritual significance, and it is through their own languages that Indigenous nations maintain their connection with their ancestors, land and law,’ Martin said.

In the late eighteenth century, around 250 distinct Indigenous language groups covered the continent. Most of these languages would have had several dialects so that the total number of named varieties would have run to many hundreds.

Today only around 120 of those languages are still spoken and many are at risk of being lost as Elders pass on.

What does it mean for the Indigenous community?

There’s a pressing need to raise awareness in communities and ‘shine the spotlight’ on programs that revitalise and record Indigenous languages and ensure they are passed on to the next generation before it is too late.

NAIDOC Committee Co-Chair Benjamin Mitchell said, ‘Nationally, many place names for our suburbs, rivers, mountains and parks are Indigenous language words. Noticing and paying attention to these words will generate greater appreciation and respect for the significance of language among all Australians.

‘The preservation and revitalisation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages – the original languages of this nation – is the preservation of priceless treasure, not just for Indigenous peoples, but for everyone.’

Weaving culture through education

NAIDOC’s aims come to life through the support of universities that not only run events throughout NAIDOC Week but weave Indigenous culture into the very fabric of their organisational structure.

La Trobe’s Indigenous Education Strategy – known as ‘gamagoen yarrbat’ – is underpinned by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and Western philosophies. These include: dreaming, cultural integrity, Indigenous knowledge, flexibility, sustainability and survival, determination and empowerment, achievable goals with measurable outcomes, sharing, collegiality, evidence-based practice, and growth.

Mishel McMahon, Indigenous Student Services Officer at La Trobe’s Bendigo Campus, says that each campus has a name derived from the local Indigenous language of the area. The Bendigo Campus is named Jimbeyer Boondjhil, which means ‘to teach knowledge’.

‘Not only do we recognise our own languages, but at each campus, we have our own identity and symbols as well,’ says McMahon. ‘Recently we had a ceremony where we incorporated three Indigenous languages from different regions into the ceremony.

‘There are teachings in the Indigenous language where there is no English equivalent.’

‘Language can also bring the Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities together where we can form mutual understandings. For example, there is an Indigenous phrase for Bendigo that means “the upside-down land”, making reference to Bendigo’s gold mining past. The Indigenous language is evolving just as other languages are,’ says McMahon.

Having universities and other educational institutes actively incorporate Indigenous languages and culture into their organisation and support the work of NAIDOC through their events is needed to keep Indigenous languages and culture alive.

By connecting with our local Indigenous community and getting involved in celebrations such as NAIDOC Week we can help celebrate our local Indigenous culture and languages.

Find out more about La Trobe’s Indigenous Strategy.