• Horace Watson making a recording of Mrs Fanny Cochrane Smith c. 1903 - albumen print (Presented by Mrs AL Watson, 1985; Collection: Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery)
Meet two Indigenous Australians working to revive culture, tradition and language thought lost.
Alexandra Fisher

24 May 2018 - 9:51 AM  UPDATED 8 Jul 2019 - 11:32 AM

Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are advised that this episode of The Few Who Do may contain the voices and names of people who have died

About 300 different languages are spoken in homes across Australia right now. They’ve come from all over the world, from Argentina to Afghanistan, Uruguay to Uganda. But the majority, are in fact home-grown. More than 150 are Australian Aboriginal languages and Torres Strait Islander languages, according to 2016 ABS figures.

Still, there used to be a lot more. An estimated 250 languages and 800 dialects were spoken by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders around Australia at the time of European settlement in 1788 . In Tasmania alone, up to 14 languages were spoken before colonisation, according to Pakana woman and Linguistic Consultant for the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, Theresa Sainty. But as colonists uprooted Aboriginal people and forced them to learn English, these traditional languages were considered lost over time.

“With the dispersal of people because they did not have access to their Country and with the massacres, whole communities died off and so there are no living ancestors to most of those tribes who were here before invasion,” Theresa Sainty tells The Few Who Do, in episode ten.     

But language had just gone to sleep.

In episode 10 of the podcast, Theresa Sainty speaks to co-hosts Jan Fran and Marc Fennell about the mission to revive Aboriginal language in Tasmania, centuries later. Discover how languages were retrieved from old diaries of explorers and colonists — and hear the fascinating recording of a woman who lived 120 years ago. You’ll learn about how a community came together to revive palawa kani, which literally translates as Tasmanian Aborigines talk. And hear how palawa kani has spread across the state – and even made it all the way to the Venice Film Festival.

“The most important aspect of language revival is having Aboriginal people on the ground working within our community, to see that they have access to language,” Theresa Sainty says.  “It's about providing opportunities for our community to reacquaint themselves with what have become unfamiliar sounds and hard to make sounds, and re-acquaint ourselves with knowledge of our language,” she says.

In episode ten, Jan Fran and Marc Fennell are also joined by Noongar man and writer and performer Dr Richard Walley, who has continued traditionalAboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language and culture in a different way.

 “If you keep your language alive you can connect to your people and keep your ancestry alive,” Richard Walley tells The Few Who Do.

Richard grew up in WA’s south-west, where he had a strong connection to Country. Dance, music and storytelling were a big part of his family. “Those steps from dance to drama to playing instruments, to writing, to painting were slowly ingrained one step at a time,” he tells The Few Who Do.  “So taking those stories and then putting them into poetry and putting into place, I was able to adapt them into the plays that I ended up writing,” he says.

In episode ten, hear how Richard took those plays, and with four friends including Ernie Dingo, set up Middar Aboriginal Theatre in the 1970s. During that time, Richard and the group helped revive the Welcome to Country ceremony, which is commonplace at official events in Australia today, but back then was little-known outside Indigenous communities. “We found that once we started dancing more and more people wanted to join in because they wanted to touch back with their cultural. It's a cultural inheritance,” Richard says.

The Welcome is a ritual performed through speech, dancing, singing and smoke ceremonies, to recognise and pay respect to the traditional owners of the land it’s on. But Richard said the centuries-old tradition had fallen out of practice with the arrival of the British, and divisive white policy. “Them taking children away, getting people off Country. All of these disempowering legislations started to erode into cultural practice,”  he says.

In episode ten, Richard Walley reveals how his effort to revive the Welcome to Country was helped along by a performance at Miss Universe and a collapsing stage. “I think that's where the Welcomes then took off from that national level,” says Richard. 

To hear more, listen to episode ten of The Few Who Do, hosted by Jan Fran and Marc Fennell.



Introducing 'The Few Who Do'

Two hosts, one problem, two possibilities...

Presented by Jan Fran and Marc Fennell 'The Few Who Do' tackles the big questions in society and culture today.

Whose responsibility is it to make our streets safe for women? How will we support a growing population with dwindling food resources?

We’ll hear personal stories from Australians with big ambitions, entrepreneurs and small business owners advocating for change.

The Few Who Do is an SBS podcast with CGU Insurance. 

Upcoming episodes of The Few Who Do will examine:

The Melbourne to Sydney air route is the second busiest in the world. Can we open up other options to make Australia more mobile?

Only a small number of Australian companies are developing bold global innovations. How do we inspire more ambition and innovation?

How do we secure our food future?

Global population is predicted to hit 10 billion by 2050. Coupled with extreme weather patterns caused by climate change, our daily meals will look a little different.


Two Hosts, One Problem, Two Possibilities


This podcast is brought to you by CGU Insurance, who have been proudly backing the ambitions of  Aussie Small Businesses for over 165 years. Visit CGU.com.au to find out how CGU can back you.