Meet an Aboriginal researcher who is reawakening an ancient language

Aunty Sharon Atkinson is reawakening the ancient Yorta Yorta language, Yalka Loitjba – spoken by her great grandmother, who was a story teller and the last speaker of the language.

In community we say that a language has been sleeping and refer to it as being reawakened. When you reawaken a language, you repatriate it and bring it back. It is all a part of the grief, loss and nurturing process – reinvigorating and repatriating those things that were taken away ancestrally.

I am intrigued by the power in the body of language.  Ancient language reconnects us with our past –– it can be healing. We see language as a body that we are related to, in the same way we are related to all things, like animals, the wind, the earth etc. We don’t see ourselves as separate.

It is an oral tradition - the ancient Aboriginal Yorta Yorta language was passed down from my great grandmother, to my grandmother, to mum and me. The process of awakening of the language was called Yalka Loitjba, which means ‘talk and tea.’

My great grandmother got beaten a few times and was locked away for speaking the ancient Yorta Yorta language back in the days of the missions in the 1800s. Her children were taken away with the stolen gens except for my grandmother. She is a Dhulanyagan woman, a subtribe of Yorta Yorta nations, and was raised by Wemba Wemba elders. The Aboriginal group of singers, The Sapphires, who famously sang in Vietnam, were her children, my aunties. My grandmother was a story teller and the last speaker of the Yorta Yorta language. Over the years she passed on bits, and in 1982 began teaching language and culture at the Worawa Aboriginal College in Healesville.

In 1995 the Binjurru Regional Council contracted the Yorta Yorta nations to ‘research the dictionary,’ and that is when I began researching and revitalizing the Yorta Yorta language, learning from elders as well as my mother. I became the dictionary’s co-author and my research is a spinoff from this. I would like everyone to have access to learning the language – to have signage in the supermarkets – it’s an acknowledgement. I would be proud to be part of a community that values Aboriginal language. For Indigenous people it acknowledges their indigeneity, and for non-indigenous community, it acknowledges ancient Indigenous heritage and respects the land. Everything in our language comes from our relationship to the earth.

I was invited by Kaiela Institute to construct a pilot program to develop and evaluate Yorta Yorta language learning. Learning the ancient Yorta Yorta language raises Aboriginal people’s self-confidence and builds self-esteem – it gives them Indigeneity with integrity. It also increases the literary skills of Aboriginal people who do not read and write and gives them the confidence to stand up in front of audiences to talk. They start to develop the idea of increasing their use of the language.

When I started teaching ancient Yorta Yorta, I didn’t really expect it to be important because Indigenous people are modernised. As I walked into my first group of six participants I noticed that they were all ready with pen and paper! I asked them to put them away and said, “We are going to make a cup of tea and have a talk.” After we finished, they walked out shouting the ancient words! They really got into it, helped each other, and it all grew from strength to strength. I thought, there is something in this, I’ve got to capture this!

As an indigenous woman in academia I think there are two streams of knowing – Aboriginal and academic ways of thinking – and they don’t fit together. It is important to reflect on your Indigenous perspective and make that difference known in discussions with peer groups.

Through my research into ancient Aboriginal language, I am also trying to decode a way of research that gives Aboriginal people a voice and contributes to different ways of knowing, being, and doing. This would be closing the gap in ancestral knowledge because it is done using Aboriginal methodology in a space of cultural safety and control. Aboriginal scholars battle to separate things in study because we see everything as connected and related together. It moves into the metaphysical and is a whole different way of seeing and understanding life.

Aunty Sharon Atkinson is a PhD candidate in the College of Science Health and Engineering, at the Shepparton campus. She is a member of the Dhulanyagan clan of the Yorta Yorta people. Sharon has developed the Yalka Loitjba revitalisation and revival language program and expects to complete her PhD in 2020. She has taught at the Kaiela Institute, and has produced nine language books and two mobile apps. Sharon has advised the Moira Shire on Indigenous strategy, and sits on the board of the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for languages.

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