Saturday, 8 March 2014

A lesson in language

Recreation centre, Yirrkala.
As an English speaker it is far too simple to overlook the importance of other languages. We are ‘lucky’ in having English as our first language—it’s global and it’s dominant, but what are the consequences of enforcing this presumed dominance on others? And more importantly what are we missing by adopting this mindset?

Pre-colonisation, the nation, now known as Australia, was home to several hundred Indigenous Nations, each with its own language, identity and its own lore. Over the last 225 years, Australia, to its detriment, has seen a significant loss of these languages—every year more are lost and the knowledge with them. Christine Nicholls, among others, has written extensively about this – you will find some articles on The Conversation (and you can see my somewhat heated debate with an eighty-four year old man).

Language is intrinsic in gaining a deeper understanding of a given culture and being in Arnhem Land has brought this to light. I will put my hand up and state that I am a complete novice when it comes to speaking Yolngu Matha (Matha being a term to cover the variety of Yolngu languages spoken in Arnhem Land), but what I am is willing to learn. Not only would learning Yongu words allow me to understand the culture at a more significant level, it would also provide me with the skill to converse with Yolngu people and connect with them on a personal level, therefore enabling me to immerse myself in the culture more richly. Some aspects of culture and language do not translate into English and like understanding Yolngu moieties, understanding Yolngu Matha can help close this gap. Of course, there are some aspects of Yolngu Matha that I am not privy to, and nor should I be, but that doesn’t lessen the importance of understanding the traditional tongue.

There is also an element of authority and dominance in enforcing the use of English in a place where it is not necessarily the first language of many—many Yolngu people speak two, three, sometimes four languages, English being their fifth.

I hear stories of peoples’ travels to France and how unaccommodating the French are to people who butcher their language—and I think, well, why not? Why as English speaking Westerners do we presume that everyone should speak our language? Where is the harm in learning the basics, at a minimum?

I have been schooled multiple times in the past week on speaking Yolngu words properly and it is through these lessons that I have come to understand the dominant nature of English. As all readers, I put my prior understanding of letter sounds to the forefront of my mind and pronounce words with this mindset—and I couldn’t be more wrong. There are some combinations that are uncommon in English, others that have simply been written down in a poor phonetic translation and further still, others have been pronounced incorrectly to me in the first instance.

There is a skill in adopting a new language, any new language, and it has huge cognitive benefits. I have become increasingly aware of the shape and movement of my tongue when forming new, well any words, really. And, yet, there seems to be a certain level of taboo, denial and outright disrespect in learning Indigenous languages. Languages that hold a beauty as iconic as the sound of a twanging banjo; lyrical slices of cake that grab you by the gullet and can tell you so much more about this country called Australia.

A romanticised fascination is incited about learning European languages and it strikes me that at the prospect of overseas travel we will go and pick up a copy of Lonely Planet with a language guide, but we are don’t consider learning languages available in our own backyard. Odd, no?

Thursday, 6 March 2014

The Hog Shed

A mishmash of musicians jamming in shed, it doesn’t get better than this—musically speaking. You can have talent defying the four colorbond walls, shaking the foundation and sending the trees into a frenzy or you can have skill the size of my left pinky finger – it doesn’t matter – all and sundry are welcome to get up and let their soul soar through the medium of music.

The atmosphere is electric with plastic chairs and tables under the shade of native trees; buffalo horns mounted on the wall; a fridge with cartoon graffiti; locally speared succulent crayfish cooking on the barbie, drizzled with garlic butter; a gangly-legged dingo pup finding his feet amongst the staid mutts lying about; a makeshift stage as inviting as the last pub stool in the front bar. Perfection. Disharmony in Feng Shui equals harmony in the general air of bonding with and/or playing music.

Bold bluesy numbers reverberate throughout the sandy industrial lot enticing foot tapping and head-bobbing, and a merry sing-a-long, too. Classic tunes are made over and built on for the love of what musicians do and the simple power of music. And just when you think you know all the tracks echoing through the land, a gentle voiced songstress graces the stage with folk inspired renditions of past decades’ best hits. The Beatles’ tunes played solely on a flute and a guitar before someone voluntarily jumps on stage and adds a bit of bass— and why not make it a slap bass, just for the hell of it?

If in Arnhem Land – no, when in Arnhem Land –  you must visit The Hog Shed on a Sunday night; the perfect way to close your weekend and start your week fresh.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Frizzy Hair and Foggy Glasses

Yep, it’s a wee bit warm up here…and steamy; curls love it, glasses hate it. But, hey, it sure is beautiful and nothing more so than the culture of Yolngu people.

Right, week one was pretty overwhelming and we didn't stop, so this blog is a summary of induction events—I promise move detailed little episodes as this week progresses. Also check out the gallery tab and you will find many, many pictures.

Day One felt like we were dumped in the middle of an encyclopaedia series and told to swim our way clear of a new world. You cannot understand the context of North East Arnhem Land until you have seen it—and we’re still learning to walk it. Information overload it may have been, but there really was no other way and within a few days of talking and just being here it all starts to make sense. You can see the overlap of the different organisations and understand what they are working toward—and what each are working against.

Timber work from local Yolngu timber mill: traditional hunting tools, dolphin sculpture & xylophone

Australia has a long history of <cough> poor <cough> decision making, in regards to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and the consequences are often unseen by the greater population—a bubble makes a happy house in this nation….until someone bursts it…and it’s long past popping time.

(Reseach time, kids. I’ll make it easy-ish, watch First Australians, the SBS doco series and then do some reading on the Northern Territory intervention)

Day Two was a bumpy ride, geddit? Off-road defensive/safe 4WD course. Noel, like all good drill sergeants, whipped us into shape with some kindly placed teasing.
And, more importantly, I also learned that ‘I am not Claire’ and returned with the car in one piece.

Day Three was designed to embody us with a greater understanding of Yolngu culture and what a treat it was. Djawa (Timmy) Barrarwunga led us a through a discussion of Yolngu clan and moiety structure and through this we learned where in Yolngu’s incredible sense of balance we fit.

moiety  [moI I ti] — noun 
1. a half 
2. an indefinite portion, part , or share
3. Anthropology. one of two units into which a tribe or community is divided on the basis of unlineal descent

To understand moieties in terms of Yolngu social structure is to think of Ying and Yang—balance.
For Yolngu there is always a balance between Dhuwa and Yirritja; from the landscape to plants to animals to the elements to people, everything is either Dhuwa or Yirritja—they live in harmony, in balance.

I am Dhuwa.

When you hear this explanation from a Yolngu man (or woman) you can feel how reconciliation is possible and how focused this region is on creating a shared space for both balanda (white) and Yolngu people. Click here to gain a greater understanding of Yolngu moieties.

Traditional art: ochre paint
Day Four, our first day of work.
I am at Buku Larrngay Mulka, the art centre exhibiting an extraordinary number of artworks as well as the greatest archive of Yolngu history. And what exactly am I doing whilst here? Helping artists apply for passports, and any other form od identification, plus taking portraits of the artists and their families and anyone else who comes through the door and is interested. They key is to document Yolngu history and this means people.

I may well have hit the jackpot in terms of office spaces in being given Buku. I sit at a desk and no matter which way I face I look at art, buckets and buckets of art.

The Yolngu region is known for bark painting. The artists use peeled back bark that is flattened under weight and ochre paints. All materials are sourced locally and authentic—there is no acrylic paint to be seen. The designs themselves are painted with an incredibly fine brush made of hair.

I can't share the artwork, but Buku sure can: here.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

In which Qantas should provide bibs.

I can't say I remember my parents aeroplaning food into my mouth, though I have seen the state of many a child who has suffered at the hand of this failed process. Today, however, the concept was redefined; I can categorically state that eating on a Qantas Boeing 717 while bouncing through turbulence renders the same result — the only difference being I was throwing food at my own face rather than my parents having the honour. Needless to say a bib would have been handy.

A pin and two dots on a map.
Pin: Adelaide  | Blue dot: Cairns airport | Red dot: Nhulunbuy

Connect the dots in order and you will see the path I travelled to reach my final destination. And where exactly is that? The Top End of the Northern Territory in Arnhem Land, to be precise, home to Yolngu people.

It was no small task in getting here, either. Ten hours of airport hopping and meandering, thankfully, and happily, sprinkled with my favourite twitter gals whose gallant efforts definitely reduced the impact of the six-hour layover in Cairns and thus, successfully diverted my attention from just how sore my backside really was.
Sitting down all day really is torture.