This is not an exhaustive list because there are so many incredible Indigenous people who are spending their days reviving language and inspiring the next generation. This list acknowledges contributions that are grassroots and contributions that have a macro impact at a policy level to make the daily contributions possible.
Kamilaroi man Russell Taylor was the Principal at AIATSIS from 2009 to 2016 and during this time he has played the key role in advancing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies through impacting policy, placing importance on not only the archiving and preservation of language records but reviving language where possible and building on resources for this to be possible.
He retired from AIATSIS at the end of 2016 with his peers and the wider community acknowledging his contribution, including being appointed as a Member of the Order of Australia in 2015. One of his key achievements was when AIATSIS’ Australian Indigenous Languages Collection was inscribed in Australia’s Memory of the World Register, part of UNESCO’s Memory of the World Program.
Gamilaraay woman and Aboriginal Education Officer at Westdale Public School in Tamworth, Julie Fuller has played a critical role in restoring pride in the Indigenous youth of her school community particularly young girls who form the ‘Westdale Gems’ and are an Indigenous dance and vocal group that is reviving dance and language.
Ms Fuller notes that the children, and indeed herself growing up, don’t know as much as they should but they’re making a concerted effort to revitalise it, stating of the children "they get heaps out of it. Our languages were basically extinct. When I grew up I didn't know any language and to see these kids now learning our Aboriginal language and keeping our culture alive is just brilliant.”
An example of getting back to basics, the young group meets in their lunch hours to choreograph and tell stories about their culture and connect and learn. Recently creating an artwork featured prominently in the school hall to consolidate what they have learnt of their language and culture.
Wiradjuri woman once too scared to speak her own language as her Uncle was removed from school for using it, Diane McNaboe is teaching children in Dubbo about Indigenous culture while they learn to speak Wiradjuri. She co-ordinates the language program around Dubbo and has spent the last 20 years pushing for change in attitudes so that Indigenous languages can be taught.
She now runs the North West Wiradjuri Language and Culture Nest in Dubbo and has more than 2,000 students enrolled in language classes across 19 schools in the Dubbo, Wellington, Mudgee, Peak Hill, Narromine, Trangie and Gilgandra areas, said the legislation was significant.
Gary Williams and the Muurrbay Aboriginal Language Centre
Gary Williams has been actively involved in language work for many years. He works with the Muurrbay Aboriginal Language and Culture Co-op as Chief Executive Officer and as a full time teacher and researcher where he teaches language classes and works with linguists and the community for the production of dictionaries and language resources.
As a language activist, Gary has presented at conferences and gave evidence to the House of Representatives Inquiry into language learning in Indigenous communities making sure that language and the provision of resources for language programs is continued.
Muurrbay is a leading regional language centre based in Nambucca Heads that provides strategic support to revitalise the languages of seven Aboriginal communities of central to north coast NSW. We work closely with Elders and local language, culture and educational organisations to conduct research, publish accessible grammar–dictionaries and develop engaging educational courses and resources.
Arrernte woman Lorrayne Gorey well known for her art has recognised a need for language classes in the Northern Territory and, among others, has stepped up to the plate to see children learning language on country without waiting for funding. The success of bilingual education is self-evident and has made the Northern Territory Government pay attention and pursue a policy of bilingual education.
Apmere Angkentye-kenhe – or A Place For Language – had been such a success, she wants the space set up on a permanent basis having starting out of a tin shed.
It is designed to be a welcoming space, where people can just drop in on their way to the Todd Mall and learn a few words or share a story around the campfire. Anyone can attend to learn Arrernte and see the joy on the community that attend and learn their language on country.
Woiwurrung language teacher Phil Cooper enthrals children at Thornbury Primary School who get to enjoy his Woiwurrung language lessons making them engaging and fun with singing and activities that solidify the linguistic knowledge. It is clear that the lessons are fun for all involved but Phil’s impact, although immeasurable, does not stop there. He has been a pivotal advocate calling for more language teachers to take Indigenous language lessons into the mainstream and immerse the future generations in culture and language and this advocacy is impacting policy.
His students range from Prep through to year 6 learning the Woiwurrung language of the Wurundjeri people and have even included local childcare centre when possible. The children have learnt creation stories, fun language games, greetings, introductions and goodbyes, topics such as family and country, parts of the body, plants, animals and foods that can be medicines.
Kaurna elder, Uncle Lewis O’Brien, has a vast career serving his people and began working in schools promoting Kaurna language and culture as well as supporting Indigenous students to complete education as a Liaison Officer for South Australian Education Department. He served as Adjunct Research Fellow, David Unaipon College of Indigenous Education and Research, University of South Australia and as a Visiting Elder at Flinders University.
Through his work he has played a pivotal role in reviving Kaurna language so that children today have an opportunity to learn and speak their language on country.
Darug artist and language activist, Jacinta Tobin has been using her voice and language to plead for its preservation and for it to be taught in order to revive it. Many Aboriginal languages were lost because up until the 1970s government policies banned and discouraged Aboriginal people from speaking their languages.
Research shows that up to 90 per cent of the world’s 7,000 languages could be lost by the end of the century and Ms Tobin has taken the task upon herself by teaching language classes and advocating to the community the import of country, culture and language.
Yolngu man who belongs to the Manggalili Clan, born in Yirrkala, North East Arnhem land, Gadj Maymuru spent most of his life migrating between Yirrkala and his homeland Djarrakpi. While growing up, he was taught the old ways from his family and his environment. He was passed on the knowledge of how to survive, as his ancestors have for thousands of years, learning to hunt and live off the land.
Gadjs' schooling incorporated 'Two Way Learning', one of his teachers was the late Dr Yunupingu. 'Two Way Learning' is a combination of western and Indigenous knowledge, placing equal value on both ways. The Sharing Culture Teaching & Learning Program has been modeled on this method of education.
Building upon his own learning, he has been heavily involved in language advocacy and founded ‘Sharing Culture’ which works with Indigenous Communities, family groups and language groups in an effort to share and educate others about Indigenous cultures and languages.
Of the Miriwoong and Gajirrabeng people, Rita Boombi is a true success story having completed Certificate III in Aboriginal Languages for Communities and Workplaces and is now using those skills to teach language to young children on country. Rita has been the chairperson of Mirima Council Aboriginal Corporation since 2010. She has also worked as an artist in Kununurra and as a senior member of the Miriwoong Community, she has been part of Master-Apprentice program of Mirima Dawang Woorlab-gerring Language and Culture Centre and various other language activities. Being a Traditional Owner of the Keep River National Park area, Rita has played a role in developing the Miriwoong Seasonal Calendar. In 2014 she joined the Miriwoong Language Nest team to teach Miriwoong to young children.
Ollie George along with the Badimia people and the Bundiyarra-Irra Wangga Language Centre have worked hard to create a new Badimaya Dictionary, to preserve culture and language that can be shared across generations.
He grew up on Kirkalocka and Wydgee Stations with his Nanna and Popa speaking Badimaya language, and learning about his traditional Badimaya culture, but now he says it's a culture that's dying out.
"Nobody spoke my language, only me. I didn’t have anyone to talk to because all my brothers and sisters had passed on. I didn’t feel right, nobody wanted to come up and talk to me," he said.
By developing the Badimaya Dictionary, Ollie says he is proud to be able to share his knowledge with future generations.
Our Languages Matter
Language is intrinsic to Indigenous identity and if this NAIDOC week has taught us anything, it is that there are many Indigenous people doing tremendous work to save languages at threat of extinction and reviving languages that have not been spoken for generations.
If you know someone doing great work in the community for languages, we would love to hear about them so please let us know!