The language of Ngalia was spoken for centuries in the region now known as Western Australia’s Goldfields regions. It has survived famine, drought, bushfire and European settlement. But now, like so many other Indigenous languages here and abroad, it is at risk of extinction.
There are only three people left who can speak it fluently: Kado Muir and his two brothers.
He spent his childhood living in the bush and was raised fluent in both in his mother’s traditional language and English.
His father, bush explorer Peter Muir, is white and his mother Dolly Walker, was a Ngalia Elder and painter, who is now deceased.
Later in life, Mr Muir realised the precariousness of the situation and began preservation efforts.
“The loss of our languages is a direct result of colonisation and genocide,” he told NITV.
“They tried to wipe out the people and our languages.”
Indigenous languages are also profoundly threatened internationally. According to the United Nations, it is estimated every 2 weeks, an Indigenous language disappears.
Today marks the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples, and the United Nations have dedicated the observance to an 'urgent need to preserve, revitalise and promote them at both national and international levels.'
As Mr Muir sees it, a 3000-word dictionary is part of a race against time to revitalise the language before it is too late.
“This work is on the frontline of reversing the trauma of colonisation and genocide,” Mr Muir said.
“By engaging in this work there’s not just a level of personal satisfaction but you’re engaging in collective healing.”
Since then, he has started compiling audio and video recordings plus explored the possibility of developing an app or an online language course. Mr Muir has also launched a podcast series to raise awareness of his language and culture.
Sue Hanson, a senior linguist at the Goldfields Aboriginal Languages Centre, said the future of Indigenous languages is “fairly precarious” without revival efforts.
“In the Goldfields region we have six languages that are severely endangered,” she said.
“If we lose the language speakers, who are the Elders, we lose the language. Our work ensures that the language and cultural heritage along with it are preserved.
“The thing about languages is they’re not just a spoken form, they’re part of identity. It’s critical that language is preserved so that Aboriginal people have access to that part of their identity.
“We see languages like a library. They hold a huge amount of information. Losing a language is like burning down a library.”
Jakelin Troy, director of Indigenous Research at the University of Sydney, said Mr Muir’s work deserved to be acknowledged.
“It’s really important to keep languages going and to recognise the people who are keeping languages going,” she said.
“Kado’s language had almost stopped being spoken. What needs to be acknowledged is that he saved his language.
“We lose these languages if we don’t speak them, and why would we want to lose something so important?”
Less than half of the estimated 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages which have existed in Australia are still in some form of use. The majority are considered endangered.
Mr Muir believes reviving languages is one of the most important pursuits for Indigenous people can follow.
"Obviously there are cases where there’s been no recording of a language and sadly it’s quietly disappeared,” he said.
“Anyone can start that process of language revitalisation. I’d really encourage other First Nations people to just sit down at the kitchen table with their Elders.
"Even if names of places or just a few words that have been recorded there’s an opportunity to wake that language up."
But the work doesn’t stop at ‘waking up’ the language. Mr Muir said he believes the most important part of his work is sharing the knowledge.
“These are the Australian languages and it’s important for people to understand,” he said.
“Through the languages of the land we have knowledge about the hills, the rivers, the weather patterns.
“We need to share that insight with people all over the world.”
In agreement, Dr Troy said there is hope with more attention being given to language revival.
“When I started in the 80s reviving languages around Sydney it was hard to find out who the language speakers even were." she said.
“I think also now it’s easier to be a proud Aboriginal person, and language revival is part of being proud of that identity.
“I think the language revival movement is part of a wider movement to come back publicly as Aboriginal people.
“We are loud and proud.”
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