For millennia, the Gathang language thrived as the first language for the Birrbay, Warrimay and Guringay people of the New South Wales mid-north coast.
But when Birpai woman Rhonda Radley’s great-great-grandfather George ‘Possum’ Davis died, much of the local fluency in the language went with him.
Now, Ms Radley is on a mission to ensure generations to come can call Gathang their first language.
“It’s so important to keep Gathang alive," she told The Point. "It’s about revitalising our culture through language and practices.
“I know it’s not going to be my grandchildren’s first language, but hopefully for their grandchildren, it might be their first language and that is why I do what I do.”
Growing up, Ms Radley would hear Elders and community members around her speaking in language, but she was never entirely certain of what language was being spoken.
This was due to a lot of fear circulating around her family and local community members, she explained. Fears that children would be removed and taken off Country if language was passed down.
It is something Ms Radley said she is still “very saddened over”.
“We didn’t have that opportunity for the language to be passed down through generations… because of our people being removed of their Country ... and put onto reserves,” she said.
This fear has now been overcome and Ms Radley and the local Port Macquarie language group are working to bring Gathang back into daily use in the wider Birrpay, Warimay and Garingay communities.
“We have formed a local group ... it’s about supporting the [larger] group and feeding them information about what’s happening, what the opportunities are out there and how we can support individual groups or individuals in bringing more language into their life,” said Ms Radley.
In 2010, linguist Amanda Lissarrague worked closely with the group to compile a grammar and dictionary reference book which formed the basis for all other learning and teaching resources to proceed.
After the book's launch, the group were ready to look beyond just the physical resource of language, said Ms Radley, and brought on another linguist in Julie Long to help keep the language alive and moving forward.
Ms Long continues to work with the group to help make sense of translations and grammar.
“[We also work] on word development," said Ms Long, "because there are a lot of words that aren’t a part of the language: like 'fridge'.
“There’s ways of making a word using traditional language and the word-forming technique. There’s a word for 'cold' and a tag meaning 'place'. It could be 'the cold place'… [but] that’s a group conversation [we have] to have.”
TAFE NSW has also jumped on board to assist with the revitalisation of Gathang, establishing a Certificate I and III in the language.
Ms Radley said when the course was first established in 2011, she decided to become a student of language and set out on her own personal journey to revitalise Gathang.
“When I started the course it was actually very traumatic… I think the fact was I was saddened by how much we had lost,” she said.
Eight years on, Ms Radley said she was in a "sweet space" with the language.
"It’s not just dropping a word here or there," she told The Point. "We can now actually stay immersed within language.”
A thriving culture
On top of leading the language group and teaching Gathang at TAFE, Ms Radley also heads the local female choir group, Ngarrgan Mirriiyn, which sings in Gathang. A prospect would that seemed impossible a decade ago.
Listening to the choir perform at dusk, Ms Radley explained to The Point that they were singing to their sisters.
“It’s about that deep connection women have to the mother earth, so they’re singing to all the elements,” she said.
The next morning around 20 kilometres south-west of Port Macquarie at the Wauchope Public School, students from years 3 and 4 sat cross-legged in an open-air classroom listening on intently to Aunty Maree Hutchison, the schools Aboriginal education officer.
Ms Hutchison told The Point the children are learning the “very basics” of Gathang, which includes how to introduce themselves in the language, as well as some nouns and suffixes.
As the children yelled out the Gathang translation of images Aunty Maree was holding up in front of them, Ms Radley, who accompanied The Point to the school, explained that part of the mission to revitalise Gathang also included a push to have place names in language added to public signage in the area.
This is a move in the right direction to unite the Birpai and the wider non-Indigenous local community, she said.
While the journey to bring Gathang back in its entirety may have started out as a traumatic for Ms Radley, she said she now feels confident the language can be fully restored.
“Now that I’ve started on this journey, it actually fuels my soul. It’s the reason why I get out of bed every day,” she said.
“It’s been an amazing journey of self-discovery and I just want to share that joy with other people.”
- For more stories on language revival, tune in to tonight's episode of The Point, Wednesday 8.30pm on NITV (ch34).