Interview with Senator Aden Ridgeway PDF Print E-mail

Senator Aden Ridgeway
Senator Aden Ridgeway
Senator Aden Ridgeway is a Gumbaynggir man from Northern New South Wales. He has recently been elected to the position of deputy leader of the Australian Democrats, and as such is the first Indigenous person to occupy a senior leadership role in a political party in this country. In a recent interview with the Voice of the Land, Senator Ridgeway revealed his ambition to see the profile of Indigenous languages raised at a national and community level.

 

Q. Do you remember language being spoken in your family?
AR: I was always aware of my grandmother and other old people speaking in language, although one of the noticeable things I remember as a child was that when you walked into the room they'd stop talking in the lingo. I think some of those things have changed of late. But we've lost a lot of elders, and in the process we've lost powerful information about our own traditions and languages that we're now trying to rebuild.

Q.With the demands on your time in the past few years, do you manage to keep in touch with progress in the Gumbaynggir language programs?
AR: I like to be involved, and drop into the Muurbay Language Centre to see how things are moving on. I like to know that they are getting at least enough resources to keep their heads above water.That's always the hard part, because I think that languages don't rate as highly as some of the more practical issues of health, housing and education. While those things are important, there has to be an underlying `health of identity' which supersedes all the other issues. There's no doubt in my mind that if language and culture were taught as part of a cultural education curriculum, there would be ongoing improvements to quality of living.

Q.What change have you noticed in the recognition being given to indigenous languages, particularly in relation to Native Title and other areas affected by culture and heritage?
AR: Language has gained much more prominence because of the Native Title process in recent times, and the land rights process in the past, where the white man's way is required, and there is a need to show evidence of connection to land. That has often meant that in order to convey the understanding of connection, the stories and the traditional language are used. In a very pure sense they contain the values of connection. From that point of view, while the Native Title process may not be producing the results in terms of winning back land, it has become a process that's enormously important for people in remembering their past and looking after their language. They are forced to think about and care for their culture and identity for the sake of the community and its history.

I think that the process is leading to a rebuilding of culture in our societies. It's bringing it out of the archives and doing it in such a way that in the longer term, the consequences of laws like Native Title will be to benefit the identity of indigenous people more so than anything else.

Q. Is there a need for the Government to review the support it gives indigenous languages and perhaps pay more attention to their promotion in policy development in the future?
AR: There's no question in my mind that the whole issue of cultural rights and identity has become one of the major priorities in this country. I think that Australia as a nation is struggling with its own identity. It is sitting on the psychologist's couch and still trying to work out whether it's a colony of Britain or a culturally diverse nation that lives under the umbrella of multiculturalism.

If anything, its identity has to be inspired by this energy, by the sacredness of the land and the stories of the indigenous peoples and the languages that go with that.The past policies and practices of Governments essentially said that indigenous people ought to fit into the straight jacket of a monocultural society, become perhaps British or English and adopt the persona of being a white Australian without any culture and without an identity or recourse to traditional language.

I think that the broader world changes, with globalisation, will force Australians and people across the world to see the need for distinction. One of those distinctions will arise through language, and we need to get out there and make sure that is being taught in our schools.

Q.What can the individual do, whether a leader or a community member, to ensure that the position of languages is strengthened?
AR: We should be promoting the ideal that the strongest sense of identity is through language. This is what we have to impress on decision makers and leaders in this country, and particularly amongst the indigenous leaders. Too often we fall short of the game by focussing on the immediate 'here and now' issues. While they are obviously priorities, we also have to focus in now on the need for a cultural policy and a cultural dialogue, which in my view, hasn't received the attention it deserves.

Because it isn't given high priority, the resources aren't there to reflect any sense of importance about our identity for the future.
The original language of a land holds the stories, the key to identity and belonging to the land. It's the stories themselves that play a large part in the way we pass on values and customs from one generation to the next.We can't expect to have our young people sit down in a classroom setting and learn languages in the way that the white institutions might want to teach it.

It's very much about how you make languages living within the lives of every indigenous person, both the elders and the young people. If we expect that our values and the ideals that we identify with will survive in the future, then it comes down to all of us doing what we can to make sure the stories and the language are passed on.