Wardaman [Northern Territory]
Wardaman country lies to the south-west of Katherine in the NT, covering the area from Scott. Creek and Flora River in the north to the Victoria River in the south-west. Nowadays, most Wardaman people live in and around Katherine, though a few have recently moved back to their traditional country.
Jessie Pulgnupiri digging a jerrin - ground oven
For the older people of this country, Wardaman is their mother tongue and the language they spoke all the time as children. Lily Gin.gina and her younger sister Queenie Ngabijiji learnt and spoke Wardaman as children.Their mother always spoke to them in "real Wardaman", as Lily puts it. Lily and Queenie's mother worked for the station manager's wife in the kitchen on Willeroo station.When Lily was old enough she helped her mother with the work.At first she didn't understand what the "missus" said to her and her mother would tell her what to do in Wardaman. It was through this translation, that Lily learned Kriol and English. Lily's cousin, Sally Winbirr, is about 20 years younger than Lily, and was only small when they lived at Willeroo. When Sally was older and moved to Manbulloo station to work, she too had to learn to communicate in Kriol.
Lily, Queenie and Sally still talk Wardaman amongst themselves and with the few other language speakers, but their children and grandchildren haven't learned it . They grew up hearing mostly Kriol and English, with Kriol now their first language. The three elders talk to their grandchildren in Wardaman sometimes, but are discouraged by the young ones, who don't understand it.
The continuation of the Wardaman language from one generation to the next has been broken, as today only a small number of old people know the Wardaman language and traditions.
The Elders' concern that at least some of their knowledge be preserved and passed on to following generations of Wardaman people, led to the development of the Wardaman Language Project.This project aims to produce materials in language that can be used by the younger people, by recording older people speaking in language, and by producing books, videos and other materials in the language.
"The project is funded by a Language Access Initiatives Program grant, and is being carried out jointly by the Wardaman Aboriginal Corporation and the Diwurruwurru-jaru Aboriginal Corporation (Katherine Regional Aboriginal Language Centre).
The project has been going over the last two wet seasons and we are building up a collection of video recordings of the old people telling stories in language. Some of the stories we are recording are dreaming stories about different places in Wardaman country.These are stories that the old people want younger Wardaman people to hear and come to know.Also we have been recording stories about traditional activities, like hunting for bush tucker, making a coolamon, and cooking in a ground oven.This is part of the story told by Lily Gin.gina about cooking in a jerrin 'ground oven'."
They used to spear game, kangaroo or cattle. They'd dig a ground oven. Then they'd get fire sticks and light it. It'd burn and they'd put in stones and throw sticks into the fire. When it had burned down, they'd take the stones out. Then they'd put the meat in the coals and put the stones on top of it.
"The old people are also telling stories about their life when they were growing up. Again we are making videos and books from these stories to help the young people learn language.These stories are also of historical significance. Stories, like the short section below told by Lily Gin.gina,give us a chance to learn about what life was like for an Aboriginal girl growing up in the NT in the 1940s"
When I was little, my mother used to take me out bush. She'd take me in the rain time. She'd take me walking for tucker.
I used to eat bush tucker. I'd eat echidna, kangaroo, short- necked turtle. Father used to get echidna for me, mother used to get cheeky yam and long yam for me.
When the rains ceased, we used to go back to the station. We'd go back to Willeroo. My mother used to work in the kitchen.
They'd cover it up with paperbark, and after the paperbark, they'd put dirt on it.
"With stories like this one we are making videos and story books with audio cassettes to help young people learn language and also about traditional Wardaman culture."
The Katherine region extends from the Gulf of Carpentaria to the Western Australian border. There are over 30 languages in this region, many of them now endangered, with only a few elderly speakers remaining in some cases. Some languages, such as Wandarang, have already gone. For most younger Aboriginal people, Kriol is now their first language, except for VVarlpiri, which is a very large language group whose territory extends almost to Alice Springs.
Lilys grandchildren Braidon, Melanie and Samantha
Loss of traditional languages has come about for reasons which are familiar to all Aboriginal groups around Australia.There were the frontier confrontations, the mission experiences and the mixing and mingling of different groups on the cattle stations.This suppression and dispersion contributed to the development of a language which could be understood across the region, a language incorporating features from English and the traditional languages. It is often expected that English will take the place of a traditional language as a person's first language when their own is under threat.This has not happened in the Katherine Region. A new Aboriginal language, Kriol, has evolved and English is often still only used in mainstream situations such as in school, at the store and for interactions with the wider community.
The Language Centre in Katherine (Diwurruwurru-jaru Aboriginal Corporation) is assisting language groups to record their traditional languages and does a lot of work with the older people to do this. Language Centre staff then work with the language groups to develop programs and workshops to get the traditional languages back into the schools and communities. It is hoped by these means that the traditional languages will remain a vibrant part of Aboriginal culture in the region.