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Home Signs: Indigenous Sign Language in Cape York | Language, Mepla, Sign, Deaf, Signing, Indigenous, Thempla, It’s | FATSILC, Fed. Aboriginal Torres Strait Island Languages and Culture
Home Signs: Indigenous Sign Language in Cape York PDF Print E-mail

Home Signs
Irene Salee
Young Indigenous Writers Initiative

This story has been written with the support of the Young Indigenous Writers Initiative, a mentoring program run by FATSIL that helps young Indigenous writers to develop their writing skills and get their work published. The aim of the program is to foster and promote the new generation of Indigenous writers in Australia. Irene (Kindau) Salee, from Injinoo, a community on the tip of Cape York, is our Young Indigenous Writers Initiative participant and Voice of the Land contributor for this issue.

Special thanks to ‘The Towards a Just Society Fund’ for supporting this initiative. If you are an Indigenous person between the age of 16 and 25,have a passion for writing and interest in language and culture, you are eligible to apply for the Young Indigenous Writers Initiative. Please email This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it to register your interest.

My name e Kindau. I from Injinoo and I 18 years old. I speak Creole.When I bin small I bin sit down whe my Aka and I bin learn ‘lip read’ out from em, cause em be deaf. Today I understand any signing or the way all tok and body language for anybody.

E bin gad Alma, Barbara, Priscilla, Virginia, Sue, and Patty from Cairns Indigenous deaf community there Balkanu. Mepla bin sit down outside there Balkanu and mepla be kasa yarn bout thempla life style growing up deaf. E bin gad nice goop and e no bin too hot. I bin asking thempla, wanim e bin like when all be deaf and when thempla be grow up, and thempla signing langus.

All can understan but only all bin deaf. Well, the same day when mepla be sit down, when thempla bin talk bout thempla lifetime, and thempla be sound happy. My name is Kindau. I’m from Injinoo, and I’m 18 years old. My language is Creole.

When I was young I learnt lip reading from my deaf Grandmother. Now I understand signing and can communicate with people who do that. Alma, Barbara, Priscilla, Virginia, Sue, and Patty all sat outside at Balkanu (Cape York Development Corporation) and talked about growing up deaf. It was a nice group and it wasn’t too hot.

“...people sort of
naturally signed in their
communities anyway...”

I asked them what it was like to be deaf, grow up deaf, and about their signing language. They all understood what I was asking them. We sat around and they sounded happy with their lives.

Sue: I lived in Badu as a child and my family didn’t sign. It was more like acting, like Islander signs, and we wouldn’t write notes and things like we do here in the city. We would do lots of acting out and sign language and facial expressions. When we came down to Cairns and they tried to fit us with hearing aids we hated that, and then they tried to make us hear with hearing aids but we said ‘we can’t hear’ and we would throw our hearing aids away and we were so happy to be deaf. Patty: yeah, I used to throw my hearing aids away all the time.

Sue: that’s what happened when we were little. We’d throw them out. And my mother and father would say ‘don’t you want to hear?’, and I’d say, ‘no, it doesn’t sound right, it’s all really noisy and horrible sounds’. Then eventually they (my parents) said to me, ‘we’re going to put you in a special school in Cairns and that’s where you’re going to learn signed English’. And then I went back and I showed them the sign for mum and dad and all these different signs, and suddenly they just went, ‘what are you doing?’ and that was it, that was the beginning of a different language for me then.

Patty: I can remember feeling very sad and depressed and thinking, ’why do I sign and hearing people don’t sign?’. But then I eventually realised that there were different groups of people. But I really felt that Aboriginal and Islander language out on the communities was just easier to understand than white English language, and that people sort of naturally signed in their communities anyway.

It’s a really visual language, and you just grow up, out in that community, and you know that it’s normal because everyone does it, not just your parents. And when you become older, you realise that it’s a cultural language, and it’s a very old language going way back to even before white people came.

Kindau: I no bin find em different cause I bin grow up where hand signing. Up ya Injinoo mepla bin use hand signing for em long time, and waa, everybody do em too. E nor bin too different when I bin yarn gad them mob.  Thempla bin go school for them kind. I no bin. I be feel
comfortable…alright, little bit different, but can understand. Just normal thing. We use em ebery day, ebery minute. We no have to talk, we can just use signing or body language. E normal to anybody. Even my small balla ere, e learn.

Kindau: I didn’t find it difficult communicating with them since I grew up hand signing. In Injinoo everybody uses hand signing all the time. It wasn’t so different communicating with them, although they went to school to learn signing. I felt comfortable, a little bit different perhaps, but I understood everything. It was just normal. We use hand signing every day, every minute. We don’t even have to talk, just use signing or body language. Its normal for everybody, even my little brother does it.

Priscilla: There are different sign languages. We have Indigenous sign language. Often if we’re talking to Indigenous people we’ll do fully signed Indigenous sign language and mime and things like that and use facial expression and body language expression. Then Auslan is communication with all Australian deaf people. It’s really the language of the Australian deaf people. Its good for teaching deaf kids as their main language. And last is signed English, which is taught in schools. There are those 3 types that we do and they’re all a
bit different. White people often don’t know the backgrounds of deaf people and they’re confused about what Auslan is.

They don’t understand that Auslan has a different grammar to English, and that deaf people have a different culture as well. And then we have our own culture on top of that as well.

Alma: Indigenous sign language, I feel, is really comfortable for all of us, and we were really like ‘oh, we can’t be bothered with white sign language’. And we would say ‘why are you forcing us to do signed English, or white sign language?’, and we were really confused and felt really uncomfortable about it. But we were always very patient and we knew that we’d have to go out and meet different people in the normal
deaf community. And we’d have to change. It took about five years to change to Auslan signing. But lucky because I was very flexible, maybe because I already had Indigenous sign language, I was able to learn it. We go from Auslan to Indigenous sign language and then if we meet someone who is really strict with signed English we have to change back to that to, but that’s really hard. When we’re signing here, like home signs, we feel really comfortable.

“...I realised about the
importance of language,
and it’s always there
throughout your life and
you never give it up.”

Virginia: Different communities have different signing. Because I’m so Aboriginal, when I see these Islanders talking, often I don’t know what they’re talking about because I come from a different community. I can talk in Aboriginal sign language and that’s really easy, but I remember before looking at the Islanders signing and going, ‘what are they talking about?’ So I asked people like Alma and Sue ‘can you teach
me Island sign language?’ and I noticed that there were some similarities, but there were also differences. Eventually I learnt to sign in Islander too, but it took me a long time.

Sue: Indigenous sign language was there in the olden days, and they did pass it through the generations, the same as the spoken language. I mean, I know that my language is my own language that I’ve inherited from my parents, and I understand that other Indigenous people have their own language as well, that they’ve learnt from their parents too. And when we talk to each other, we like to learn each other’s language, definitely. But we do know that they’re all different.

Barbara: My grandmother from Weipa, she’s deaf, she’s 92, and she couldn’t sign. Her name is Alma Bosen. She didn’t  have sign language and she didn’t know English either, but she used gesture language. And that was from Moa (Island), from a long time ago. It’s a very cultural sign and we know that it’s the Islander signing that she’s doing. Before, she wasn’t allowed to do any sort of sign language, and then eventually it was accepted. And I have taught her a few signs to, like ‘thankyou’.

Kindau: In Injinoo mepla tok mepla langus. Anybody can understand mepla. When mepla sit down, mepla can just tok mepla own langus and them other people from ere can understand us. When mepla cruise, mepla can tok anykind, e no matter wanim mepla tok. But anybody gon understand
mepla back. If mepla go give mepla own langus, mepla can’t go learn English fast as mepla own langus. Mepla go can tok the same like English.

From left: Barbara Levi, Virginia Hart (kids, Betty and Rose Hart), Priscilla Seden, Alma Waia, Patricia Reynolds, Sue Frank
From left: Barbara Levi, Virginia Hart (kids, Betty and Rose Hart), Priscilla Seden, Alma Waia, Patricia Reynolds, Sue Frank
Kindau: We have our own language in Injinoo and everybody understands each other well. I can talk to anybody and they know exactly what I mean. If our language was taken away we couldn’t learn English as well. You just can’t say the same things in English.

Patty: I remember I was with a group up in an Aboriginal community in Cape York, and it was the first time that I was involved with that community of hearing people. There were also lots of Aboriginal Elders up there too. And one very, very old man said, ‘you come here’, and I said, ‘me, you don’t need me’ and he said ‘yep, come on, come on’ and I knew that I had to respect him, and go up to him, and I didn’t know how on earth I was going to communicate with him, as I was the only deaf person there.

He was talking about fighting for the land and I really didn’t understand what he was talking about, but I knew I had to try and learn. Then he did a bit of sign and I was like ‘wow’, and said, ‘yes, yes’ and suddenly we were communicating. He just didn’t care that I was deaf. He said ‘come on, come on, I want you to learn about the culture and the land, and what we’re here for in this meeting’, and I was just so in awe, and he could sign, and it was just wonderful. Then I realised about the importance of language, and it’s always there throughout your life and you never give it up.

Kindau: If you sabe mepla, you go understand mepla, mepla way, and then when you go go, nother people house, thempla go look you and speak ‘oh yeh’ and subba youmpla way. And then youpla go yarn, you go understan wanem youpla talk about. You mix up with everyone in Injinoo.
Kindau: If you understand me, and the way I am, then you will know the rest of the community and they will know you. When you speak my language in Injinoo, other people will accept and know you.

FATSIL gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Suzy Murdoch in writing this story

“If you understand me, and the way I am, then you will know the rest of the community and they will know you.”

“If you sabe mepla, you go understan mepla, mepla way, and then when you go go, another people house, thempla go look you and speak
‘oh yeh’ and subba youmpla way.”