When Rhonda Ashby was a young girl, she remembers listening to her grandmother from inside a closed wardrobe chanting her language.
“That moment always stuck with me. I will never forget the beautiful sounds coming from that wardrobe, like a flowing river continuing on with its journey."
Her family grew up on the fringes of the township of Walgett and settled on the reserve of the Namoi River with her Gamilaraay/Yuwaalaraay mother and Yuin father. Rhonda is a descendant of the Stolen Generations, which is why she deeply holds onto language and her Aboriginal culture.
“Language is a part of us all, it’s a part of our soul, it’s deep. Our language is not just about communication, it’s about connectedness to all living things, our identity, where we come from and our responsibility and relationships for everything and everyone. We all have gifts, we all have our own strengths and weaknesses, we are all in this together to learn to share and to live,” she says.
Now, Rhonda is the Aboriginal Language & Culture Nest Teacher at Lightning Ridge Central School, which was one of the first out of 14 regional workshops to discuss proposed legislation to recognise and protect NSW Aboriginal languages.
A group of 30 local people attended the Lightning Ridge workshop. They were treated to a cultural performance in Yuwaalaraay language presented by students from Lightning Ridge Central School and Lightning Ridge Pre-School.
Each of the five students selected had a script in language of the Acknowledgment of Country. They read it to the audience of the NSW Language Legislation Community Consultation local community meeting. Rhonda says she couldn’t have been more proud of them.
“I did not witness any shame from any one student, they all displayed respect, humility and love for what they were doing. There was also one non-Indigenous student who was willing to read out aloud her assessment task (personal profile) in language.”
Gamilaraay and Wiradjuri student, Taia Morris believes it is vital to keep their Aboriginal history alive.
"I think it's good to have a say in the future of Indigenous history and to be able to help protect our language."
Fellow classmate and Bundjalung, Gamilaraay, Waka Waka, Gunu and Wiradjuri student, Elijah Ferguson, says it's a move other states should follow.
"Everyone in Australia should be accepting of Aboriginal culture...We need to work together, to keep culture alive."
Aboriginal Affairs NSW Acting Regional Manager for the Greater Western Region, Stephen Howarth, says it was a great start to the series of workshops.
“The involvement and performances by young people set a very empowering tone for the workshops and led to some really robust discussions,” he said.
“Young people are the future and it is for them that we are working to protect and revive languages."
Mr Howarth says the proposed legislation is about the NSW Government working in partnership with Aboriginal communities.
“By listening to Aboriginal people, we learn what language means to them and how government can best support them.”
Rhonda says language is more than just words or a conversation; it is a ‘powerful tool’.
"The opportunity to learn my language gave me a light of hope and the strength to stand back on my own two feet and believe in myself to walk my own track.”
“You know I was taught when you say something, think about the timing, why you say it and its purpose and meaning, how you say it. Tone is very important [to] how you express yourself, and to whom you say it to - whether the audience are children, community, or your colleagues... So when we think about language, any language, it’s a powerful tool to use. So use it wisely. Do you want to ignite it, or put out the fire in us all?”
Despite her current enthusiam, Rhonda wasn't always leading the way as a teacher. There was a time when she was young, troubled and utilised her cultural identity to continue ‘walking in her own track’. But language turned her life around.
"I was at a very dark time in my life and along came the opportunity for me to learn my language, this gave me a light of hope and gave me the strength to stand back on my own two feet and believe in myself to walk my own track.”
Following in the footsteps of the Elders that inspired her, she now aims to share the lessons she's learnt and teach the importance of passing on knowledge to educate and empower the next generation.
The workshops have drawn praise from attendees, including Darling River Local Area Commander, Greg Moore, who said recognising Aboriginal languages and embracing cultural practices is making tangible, positive differences in community cohesion and fostering respectful relationships in local communities.
More workshops will take place across NSW during May and June:
• Fri 5 May - Moruya
• Wed 10 May - Broken Hill
• Thu 11 May - Dubbo
• Tue 16 May - Wagga Wagga
• Wed 17 May - Griffith
• Fri 19 May - Dareton
• Tue 23 May - Tamworth
• Tue 6 June - Lismore
• Wed 7 June - Coffs Harbour
• Thu 8 June – Taree