Now you're talking . . . Pitjantjatjara

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Sep 12 12:36:06 UTC 2005

>>From The Australian,

Now you're talking . . . Pitjantjatjara

Victoria Laurie

A CITY audience is invited to learn a Central Australian language in order
to fully appreciate a theatrical production. The staff of a leading arts
festival sign up for lessons in a southwest Aboriginal language. An
Aboriginal linguist is asked to turn actors' lines into an indigenous
language from regional Victoria. Is "language" gaining favour in
Australia's cultural circles? And does it move beyond token interest into
a real conversation between black and white Australia?  Lindy Hume,
artistic director of the Perth International Arts Festival, thinks it can.
For several months, she and her staff have taken lessons in the southwest
Aboriginal language of Noongar. During last week's launch of indigenous
highlights of her 2006 festival, she put a few words of her newly acquired
vocabulary to use.

When Perth's festival begins next February, its centrepiece will be
Ngallak Koort Boodja, a large canvas painted by six artists who are among
90 Noongar elders consulted by the festival. Hume mocks her own
tongue-tied attempts at speaking Noongar, but believes that even a tiny
smattering is a proper basis for dialogue with Western Australia's
southwest indigenous culture. "For one thing, it's incredibly long
overdue," says Hume. "This festival has been sitting on Noongar land for
over 50 years and we haven't ever done something like this. So it's
something that needed to happen. Who are these people around us now and
how do they perceive their relationship to country?"

Speaking "language" is being embraced in the arts, and no longer in purely
symbolic ways. Welcome-to-country ceremonies are now an accepted gesture
at many cultural and government events. And indigenous language has long
featured in music and visual arts in song lyrics, on canvas and in
bilingual catalogues. But even the 20 most robust indigenous languages -
out of an original 250 - have made little mark on Australia's cultural
scene, perhaps unsurprising in a country that spends eight times more on
educating children to speak Indonesian than Aboriginal languages in

Now decades of indifference may be ending. Rolf de Heer's forthcoming Ten
Canoes is the first Australian film to be made entirely in an Aboriginal
language. And in Walkabout, a recent stage version of the famous 1971
film, director Richard Frankland sought out linguists to translate an
actor's lines into the Gunditjmara language of southwestern Victoria. But
a far more ambitious idea is to co-opt an entire theatre audience into
taking a short course in Pitjantjatjara language. This is the aim of
Ngapartji Ngapartji, an emerging work that will be staged in pilot form at
the Melbourne Festival in October. Created by indigenous West Australian
performer Trevor Jamieson and director Scott Rankin, the show is billed as
an attempt "to help protect, preserve and share an endangered indigenous

"There is no national indigenous language policy and that is a kind of
cultural genocide," says Rankin, adding that Australia is home to "the
most fragile" languages in the world. "We should be aghast at the way
we're letting languages go." Ngapartji Ngapartji's audience members will
be invited to take a series of language lessons via the web, or in person
through a language kiosk set up at the Australian Centre for the Moving
Image in Melbourne. Over five nights of a trial season, they will attend a
short performance by Pitjantjatjara young people and elders; next year,
the performances will be extended to a two-hour show, by which time Rankin
hopes the audience will have opted to participate in a longer online
language course. He is thrilled that this October's festival shows have
already sold out: "It shows there's a definite interest out there."

Cynics might query the point of middle-class white Australians tackling a
desert language. "It's a desire to add to one's own life experience; one
could say it's selfish, but I think it's healthy," Rankin says. The Perth
festival's close partnership with Noongar elders has been a life-changing
experience for general manager Wendy Wise. "I grew up in Noongar country
on a farm, and during those years I had absolutely no knowledge of the
culture. Aboriginal people - I didn't even know the word Noongar - lived
out of town on a reserve, but I didn't know why.

"This project has made me look at the whole community in a completely
different way. It's more unified than people give them credit for, and the
fact that we're trying to learn Noongar is a really important thing."
Almost any well-meaning use of language seems acceptable to indigenous
speakers. Events manager Sarah Bond was contacted early this year by
Melbourne's Moomba Waterfest to provide original music in an indigenous
language to accompany a gymnastics float. She happily obliged, ushering
Walkabout director-songwriter Frankland and indigenous speaker Joy Murphy
into a studio to record a song in Murphy's Woiwurrung language. Bond says
her only non-negotiable rule was that a key participant in any project
comes from the language group concerned.

Her next aim is to invite indigenous artists from across the nation to
translate into their own languages a single English verse from popular
songs such as We Have Survived by No Fixed Address and Shane Howard's
Solid Rock. Linguistic expertise is increasingly being sought by arts
agencies. In Victoria, they knock on the door of the Victorian Aboriginal
Corporation for Languages, set up in 1984 to maintain and promote
Aboriginal language.  "Quite often we are asked to give an indigenous name
to a project," says manager Paul Paton. He says Arts Victoria, Ausdance
and the National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Assocation
recently asked for help in naming a new training program for indigenous

"We'll come up with [several language] options and refer them to the
particular communities to endorse the use of their language," says Paton.
"Sometimes it doesn't get the go-ahead." Paton strongly rejects the notion
that merely naming something is a trivial use of Aboriginal words. "It
stimulates the use of language every time anyone talks about the project.
It becomes more everyday in its use." Vicki Couzens is a VACL board
member, artist and community language worker from the Western District of
Victoria. Her native language, Keerray Wurrong, was nearly silenced
forever until last-minute efforts revived it.  "We had no living speakers,
only a tape in Canberra," she recalls of the language's lowest moment. "We
referred to it as a 'sleeping' language, not a dead one. Dad researched
and retrieved it and had it published into a dictionary."

These days Couzens titles all her paintings in Keerray Wurrong; she swaps
phone calls and email messages in the language with a linguist cousin. "If
I learn a new word, I think, 'This'll challenge him'," she says gleefully.
"His son is four and is being raised bilingual, so I've got to get my
grandkids bilingual." Couzens found language sharing linked up indigenous,
migrant and refugee women in a weaving project she and another artist ran
in the southwest Victorian town of Warrnambool. "I'd say, 'What's your
word for basket?' and we'd weave the words with the fibres into the
baskets." The result, an exhibition called Woven Land, was so striking
that Craft Victoria transferred the regional exhibition to Melbourne in

Couzens is now involved in a project for the 2006 Commonwealth Games. "It
will acknowledge the 36 languages remaining in Victoria and give them some
involvement," she says. "Aboriginal people are taking back control of
their language. Language is central to identity and culture and
relationship. It's about strengthening the people.",5744,16567467%255E16947,00.html

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