• Warralgurniya, led by Uncle Peter Salmon, recently won a West Australian Music award for their song in the endangered Thiinma language, Warri Yungu, Warri Baba. (West Australian Music )Source: West Australian Music
Uncle Peter Salmon is the last speaker of the critically-endangered Thiinma language of the Upper Gascoyne region of Western Australia. He's doing everything he can to help it survive.
Karen Michelmore

The Point
5 Oct 2021 - 2:35 PM  UPDATED 5 Oct 2021 - 4:35 PM

At 87, Uncle Peter Salmon has come to music later than many.

He's wholly embraced songwriting and performing in the past few years, creating 17 songs in his Thiinma language.

He's doing whatever he can to help save the critically endangered language, from Western Australia's Upper Gascoyne region.

"Keeping the language alive - that's what it's mainly about," Uncle Peter says.

"For my relations, and for my kids. Thiinma and Warriyangga - I'll be the last speaker of those two languages, so I want it to be alive. 

"It's very important to me."

Songs, books and art

Uncle Peter been working with linguist and musician Rosie Sitorus, from the Bundiyarra-Irra Wangga Language Centre, for the past five years on a major project to revive the language.

He says he started to lose his language when he was a young stockman when he was made to speak English.

"We had to learn how to say put the saddle on a horse, or take the saddle off a horse - in language you don’t use those sorts of words," he says.

"I sort of remembered it here and there, but (there was) no one else to speak to, because I would have been talking on my own.

"When Rosie came along, we said (let's) put this together, and she started talking to me in language."


Return to Country

Last year, the pair returned to Country, with linguists, an artist, an ethnobotanist, and family, to capture Uncle Peter's memories and words.

"I felt like I was about 14 or 15 years of age, looking at my Country after all that time," he says.

"When I go out to Country, it makes me feel really happy and better, and stronger.

"I remember about the Country, things that my grandfather used to show me. This waterhole here, this is the name for that waterhole. This is the boundary. This is the name for that boundary."

The memories, and words, came back as he walked the land.

"There is two languages I've got there, my grandfather's and my stepfather's, that I was left to look after," he says.

"They showed me the country, explained the country, and this is the reason I've taken Rosie and them out there to see the country that they showed me in my young days.

"It's very important to me to show them." 


Words immortalised on paper, and in song

Linguist Rosie Sitorus, coordinator of the Bundiyarra-Irra Wangga Language Centre in Geraldton, says the information collected during the on Country visit, is being used to create a book of Uncle Peter's stories, a biology book of the local flora and fauna, as well as artworks and songs.

"The main task of this project is to record a big lot of raw data that can be used, now and into the future - so that's audio, it's video, it's artworks, it's all the knowledge about language and culture and Country that Mr Salmon has collected over eight nearly nine decades of life," she says.

"The biggest part of this project is recording all of that knowledge, and then producing things from that knowledge, as a starting point."

She says the work is important.

"Language is central to identity, in the same way that the way we communicate who we are," she says.

"What language gives to you is a connection to your family, to your past and to a future where you're not around.

"And so, without language, you lose that connection, and if you lose connection, you have nothing." 


A promising future

Ms Sitorus believes there is hope for the future of the critically endangered Thiinma language. 

"Because so much has been captured, and because of the dedication of Peter and his mother, and the rest of the family, with all this knowledge and all those desires for it to continue, is a really promising future for Thiinma," she says.

"However it lives on. No language stays the same from one generation to the next. And however it lives on, if it lives in the people, that's all you can hope for."

And so the work continues.

Uncle Peter's group Warralgurniya recently won a prestigious West Australia Music (WAM) award for one of their songs, Warri Yungu, Warri Baba.

It is about the lack of rain, and drought, on Uncle Peter's Country.

As well as being a linguist, Rosie Sitorus is also a musician and sings in the band.

"This is a way for people to reconnect with something that’s been lost," she says of the music.

"And to reclaim it, and make it theirs, and Peter is doing just that.

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"He’s bringing his 88 years of knowledge and experience and life on the land, and writing contemporary music, it’s like nothing else."

Uncle Peter says music was always a huge part of life when he was young.

"It was a big thing, just music," he says.

"Nothing else. No games of football, no games of darts - that's all we used to do, listen to a gramophone."

He's pretty chuffed by the recent WAM Song of the Year (global category) award.

"I was very, very pleased about it - so pleased about it, I just about cried," he says.

"I feel proud, very proud."

An album is now on the cards.

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The language is spoken by around 400 people on the islands of Warruwi and Weyirra (North and South Goulburn Islands), and part of the mainland nearby.

For more on this story tune into NITV's flagship current affairs program The Point at 7.30pm tonight, or later on SBS and SBS On Demand.