One community in central west New South Wales has come up with a radical solution to reviving the Wiradjuri language – and it’s yielding some astonishing results.
By Suzi Taylor (ABC Open Albury Wodonga)
The town of Parkes is famous for the annual Elvis Festival and for its role in helping to beam astronauts onto the moon (as seen in the movie ‘The Dish’).
Something you may not know about this town is that each week over 1,000 people learn the Wiradjuri language. That’s around 10 per cent of the population. It’s taught in every primary school as well as high schools and at TAFE. As you drive into Parkes and neighbouring Forbes, you’ll pass prominent ‘Welcome to Wiradjuri country’ signs along the road. As you walk into the main building at Parkes Public Primary school, you’re greeted with a bright wall filled with Wiradjuri nouns and verbs. In the prep classroom, the colours of the rainbow are plastered around the room in language.
A few years back, Forbes North primary school won an award at the Eisteddfod music competition for singing ‘Waltzing Mathilda’ in Wiradjuri. Festival organisers were so impressed that they created a new category, ‘Songs in Aboriginal languages’. Now Forbes competes in that category with the primary schools up the road in Parkes.
Last week, a student bounded up to Wiradjuri teacher Ron Wardrop, exclaiming, “Mr Ron, I wish I was Aboriginal! Even for just for one day!” For a man who spent most of his own childhood and adolescence being made to feel ashamed of his Indigenous heritage, Ron was at a loss for words.
Parkes hasn’t always been like this. “My mother told me when she was a child at school the teachers said to her, ‘Go home and wash the dirt off your skin’. But she couldn’t wash it off, that was just her natural colour,” recalled Ron. His own memories of school are of deep divisions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. “You had the Aboriginal kids sitting up the back and the gubbas sitting up the front. The Indigenous kids just weren’t acknowledged at all.”
When Kerry Gilbert was at school, there was no Aboriginal language or culture on the curriculum. Racial taunts were part of life. “Working in the classroom, I don’t see it now. It blows me away. I think the language lessons have completely changed peoples’ views on Aboriginal people,” she said.
It seems that attitudinal change is spilling out of the classrooms and onto the streets. Former principal Bill Cox was astounded at the changes he’s seen over the years at NAIDOC. “Last year’s NAIDOC march attracted over 400 people, more than half of whom were non-Indigenous.” Previous NAIDOC marches had been attended by less than 100 people, with very few non-Indigenous people among the crowd.
When Lionel Lovett was at primary school in Parkes, he remembers pouring over a ragged old picture book that showed Aboriginal people dancing and singing in the desert, wearing lap laps. He felt no connection to the picture whatsoever. “I was seeing older Aboriginal men and women in remote areas and I really didn’t feel part of that.”
Being Aboriginal wasn’t something you’d shout from the rooftops back then. But things have changed. Lionel said, “More kids are coming in today saying, ‘I’m ABORIGINAL Mr Lovett!’ and this is wonderful, knowing that they’re attaching themselves to the language…it makes them feel proud and it makes me feel proud too.”
Bill Cox can attest to this too. “When I first came to Parkes in 1988, the number of children of Aboriginal descent was something like 8 per cent. The number now has grown to something like 23 per cent of people in the school community who are claiming Aboriginal heritage.” Bill believes that the Wiradjuri language classes are helping to engender within Indigenous kids a strong sense of identity and self-respect. And he believes the results are clear to see. “By bringing forward their self-esteem and their self-respect, it’s made them feel as though they can compete on a level playing field with children from other backgrounds,”‘ he observed. “Many children who’ve gone through the program are achieving well in literacy and numeracy.” All the Wiradjuri teachers have noticed that truancy and behavioural issues amongst Indigenous students have decreased since the language program began.
Like any great social movement in history, this story was knitted by a small group of dedicated people working hard at a grassroots level to bring about change. Wiradjuri elder Stan Grant Senior worked with linguist Dr John Rudder to document the Wiradjuri language, creating a dictionary which drew together old anthropological word lists and the rich repository of vocabulary that still existed within Grant’s own family. In 2005 Grant and Rudder ran a four day language course for the community. It just so happened that teacher Michele Herbert was on the look-out for a new challenge at that time. So too was Geoff Anderson. They both found themselves learning Wiradjuri nouns, verbs and greetings, and it changed the course of their lives.
“As soon as I walked into that first classroom with Stan Grant Senior, I knew exactly what it was that was missing. There was always that void in my life and it was partially filled that day,” recalled Geoff Anderson. “After that, I just hungered for more. I thought, ‘This is how much good it’s done for me, let’s get it out there into the community, let’s get other kids and adults to experience it.’ I tell people, that they will feel in 6 or 7 weeks, something will change within them, once they connect to the language.”
Michele has felt the shift that Geoff describes. “I feel like I’ve got a sense of belonging to the land now, I feel connected to all these different people and this Indigenous country. It just feels like this is the right pathway to be on.”
What happened next changed the course of history in Parkes and Forbes. Michele was so inspired by the course that she introduced the Wiradjuri language at her school in Forbes. She then developed units of work for the Board of Studies as part of the newly introduced Aboriginal Languages Curriculum and organised training and employment for four Indigenous tutors to run the classes.
Meanwhile, Bill Cox and Geoff Anderson worked together to consult with the community and build support for the Wiradjuri language program across schools in Parkes. Geoff now coordinates the Wiradjuri program, mentors teachers throughout the region and is an advisor on the board of the Eastern States Aboriginal Languages Group.
Bill Cox is pragmatic about his reasons for getting Wiradjuri into the classroom. He’d trialled Indonesian and Japanese at his school but they hadn’t caught on. They didn’t have any Asian students at the school. In contrast, Michele’s school had 30 per cent Aboriginal enrolments at the time she introduced Wiradjuri. It seemed like a no-brainer. “If the whole community of Parkes learned Indonesian, very few people would ever use it,” explained Bill, “but if you learn Wiradjuri, you’re re-gaining esteem, an understanding of local culture and a removal of racism.”
Ron Wardrop was quiet for a while when I asked him why language mattered to him. “We need to keep the languages strong,” he said. “Like a river, the water tells a story, it just keeps flowing on and on, like generations of people telling stories. If that river dries up, then that knowledge and that flow of language and culture – which gives people a strong sense of connection to self and country – is going to die away. And that would be a sad thing.” Ron understands all too well what’s at stake when language and culture is lost. “If the kids don’t feel they have a sense of belonging, self, Aboriginality, then they feel they don’t have anything. And that’s exactly how I felt when I was a kid.”
It is difficult to describe what it feels like to witness a school principal addressing an assembly in Wiradjuri language, or a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous kids sitting together in front of an Aboriginal flag, belting out a song in Wiradjuri language at the top of their lungs.
“It really touches a chord being able to speak what my mum couldn’t speak,” said Kerry, her eyes welling a little. “It was taken away from us and now we’re getting it back.”
To watch the short ABC Open film on the Wiradjuri program in Parkes, click here.
The Wiradjuri language is the largest language in New South Wales and the second largest in Australia. The boundary of the Wiradjuri Nation extends from Gilgandra in the north, straddling the Great Dividing Range down to the Murray River and out to western NSW. It includes the townships of Dubbo, Condobolin, Orange, Bathurst, Wagga Wagga, Narrandera and Griffith.