May 2004 - Shaun Edwards PDF Print E-mail

The Kokoberrin and their languages
Beverley Gumhole — still speaking Koko-Bera in the Gulf country

The Kokoberrin and their languages 

The Kokoberrin are the people of the Inkerman Station area, between and a bit beyond the Nassau and Staaten Rivers, in Western Cape York Peninsula,Qid. Today we are mainly found in Kowanyama and Normanton, but also in some other North Queensland communities. Kokoberrin means - "true language of the land" or Kokoberrin homeland.

In this area of North Queensland, it seems typical for the older people who still speak Aboriginal languages to speak several of them, not just one; multilingualism was the norm, not the exception. Thus too the Kokoberrin have been using several different languages.

The Kokoberrin Dictionary Project

The Kokoberrin and their languages
Kowanyama dance group
Many words in the dictionary were gathered during a project on traditional culture and customary lore that took place in the Kowanyama area from 21 September to 9 October 1998. However, since that information was far from complete, it has been extensively supplemented by Koko-Bera data that Paul Black gathered from a variety of people in 1978, including Cecil Rutland, Daniel Barnabas, Ephraim Gilbert, Gracie Cecil, Ida Martin, Kathleen Major.

We are grateful to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) for a grant that made this project possible and to Viv Sinnamon of the Kowanyama Land and Natural Resource Management Office for resources and on-going support.

Some time ago the Kokoberrin probably had their own distinctive language, perhaps the one known as Kok-Narr, Kuandhar, or Kundhar.What we know of this language was recorded in the 1960s and 1970s by people like Michael Richards,Saltwater Jack, Elsie Woomera, and Lucy Tommy, some of whom are said to have been Kokoberrin. However, nobody seems to know more than a word or two of this language today.

These same people also spoke various other languages, usually including both Kurtjar (Kurrchard) of the Gilbert and Smithburn River area and Koko-Bera (Kokvber) of the Kowanyama area.These are the two traditional languages best known to the Kokoberrin people of today. Such elders as Kenny Jimmy have knowledge of both, and to lesser degrees so do such younger people as Christo and Dylus Henry. Of the two languages Koko-Bera is more widely spoken, and indeed it's still the language used daily by Elders such as Maynie Henry.

The Kokoberrin and their languages
Homelands Map
Nowadays, of course, all of the Kokoberrin people also speak English, ranging from the Aboriginal English of the Gulf country — with such distinctive words as manta `food' and ubla 'whose' — to fairly standard Australian English.

The Kokoberrin are a fairly close group of people.

Many things have affected the ability for Kokoberrin people to continue their lifestyle eg; the impact of colonization and modern day living.

However the Kokoberrin maintain a distinct lifestyle which involves guidance and lore from the handful of Elders living today.

The Kokoberrin have been active in promoting their lifestyle and culture in many ways. In 1994 the Kokoberrin became incorporated under the Aboriginal Councils and Associations Act 1976 (the Act). They later undertook a number of research projects ranging from geographical mapping to comprehensive research on plants and medicines. In 1998 they recorded their first music CD,"Songs of the Kokoberrin". This compilation was produced at Tarrch Menang in Kowanyama and formed the basis for a new way of maintaining language for the people of Kowanyama.The recording was done on country, with recording equipment set up outside.This was a special event for the 15 singers involved, who were pleased to be recording their traditional songs in a traditional context.The CD has been a source of pride for the Kowanyama people.

The Kokoberrin and their languages
Moynie Henry stipping leaves
In 2000 the Kokoberrin began to focus more on the arts and craft and began to work on the development of their Arts and Cultural Centre.The Kokoberrin Arts and Cultural Centre became the hub for protecting art and craft with an emphasis on developing a strong relationship with galleries and the emerging Cape York Art Movement.Their first show was held in Cairns in 2000 at the Cairns Regional Art Gallery.This opened the door for traditional Elders and young Kokoberrin artists to showcase their work in a professional art space, and incorporate their language as part of the display.

The exhibition was solely curated by Kokoberrin people.This included sourcing of funds and administration.Their next exhibition was staged at the Cairns Hilton Hotel in 2002.This show was entitled "Ngerr Werr Kung" meaning old days stories. The works again resembled a visual overview of language and traditional weapons including the Pam a korum silk batiks.

In 2003 the Como Foundation in Melbourne approached the Kokoberrin Tribal Aboriginal Corporation to look at developing an ongoing relationship with the arts and crafts of the Kokoberrin women.The Foundation is currently showcasing women's jewelry in a number of international resorts in Asia.

In conclusion, the Kokoberrin people's achievement to maintain their culture, their strong sense of spirituality and relationship to the land has given them the power to mobilise themselves in all aspects of their lifestyle.This enables them to continue their existence as a people from the west coast of Cape York Peninsula.