Minhe Nyana....John ‘Sandy’ Atkinson PDF Print E-mail

Uncle Sandy Atkinson is the Victorian delegate on the FATSILC board, the Chairperson of the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages and a long time activist and supporter of Aboriginal culture and language. He has worked tirelessly for Indigenous rights and the development of Koorie art and culture through his involvement with the Bangerang Cultural Centre, the Koorie Heritage Trust and the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages. Here he remembers the early years of FATSILC and presents his vision for the future.

I was born at Cummeragunja mission up on the Murray River. In those days, you know, on the mission of course, you grow up at 13 or 14 and finish school, and not long after that when you’re 16 or so you’re shearing sheep. In those days there were a lot of sheep around and my dad was a contractor around Shepparton, so that’s what I was too.

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Sandy Atkinson
I was involved in the local community through the shearing work and most of the other men were from Cummeragunja as well. We had a cultural committee as part of the community in those days, and in the 1970s during the Whitlam government, there was a new policy of self-determination that came in. We decided we wanted a place for culture, so we set ourselves up as an organization and started looking around for a building that could become our cultural museum. In the end we ended up building Australia’s first Indigenous museum - and funny thing was, I helped to design it! It was really amazing for a young man from Cummeragunja mission to get to that point and it used to be funny because people would seek out my help and say “you know what to do” and I would say “I don’t really” but I would give it a try anyway. Even with the museum I never had problems - if I wanted to know something I would just go and knock on doors and ask. Anyway the museum became the first of many things that I did because I had that confidence.

After the museum was built I started to get closely involved with the preservation of arts, language and culture. I was appointed to the Aboriginal Arts Board of Australia by the minister of the time and began travelling throughout the country meeting with Aboriginal people from all over. I went to the desert in the Northern Territory and to Western Australia and met a lot of people and began to understand how the language and culture of different places was dying.

The missions were the first place that languages were lost because people came from anywhere and everywhere to live on the mission – and of course they all had their own languages and culture from their home. But then, no one was allowed to speak their own language. You know, the government made up their minds that they were going to deny these people the opportunity to carry on their languages, and you’ve only got to look at the mission records to see that. They never recorded any language at all and the punishments for speaking language were harsh. They were very strict. And of course the first thing you lose under these conditions is your language.

I also became the first Indigenous person from Australia to be appointed to UNESCO. This meant a lot of travelling around the country and getting involved in culture and language in a very deep fashion. The different states were quite good with their language work and putting together publications and dictionaries and other things. In fact I was the first person to start up the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages (VACL). At the time there were two or three people running it, but it was going to close down. I knew how to set up organisations so I went and registered VACL and we started again. In those days when you worked hard for it, people gave you support, and we always got things going. Now it seems to be harder to get things going.

FATSILC was started in Queensland and they were good days. There was plenty of support about in languages then and we had a good team that worked together. I was asked to be the representative from Victoria because I was involved through the Arts board and in those days I was interested and knew about setting up an organisation, so you know I was able to step up. And there were representatives on the FASILC board from all over the country.

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John ‘Sandy’ Atkinson at the FATSILC forum in Launceston
Lately I have been working hard to get the people from Tasmania involved with FATSILC. We went there in 2009 for our annual general meeting and Languages Forum. The people there were really magnificent and we had a very important time together. There is a lot of healing that needs to happen there and language is part of that process. Some of the other Forum participants who were from the Kimberleys gave a special blessing to all of the traditional owners from Tasmania to support them into the future. It was very moving.

I went over to Tasmania again last year to meet them again. We went to the communities near Launceston to work with the school kids and do some workshops and give them some the boomerangs I have been making. It was really good.

My main message to people is to not give up. Aboriginal languages are ancient and some of the most important languages on the planet. I’d like to encourage the wider community at every opportunity to learn something about Aboriginal languages. We also have to find ways to make our languages relevant to people today. Maybe we can put a language down as a modern song so that even my great grand daughters can enjoy it. These are the types of things that we’ve got to put into place so that kids, even down to kindergarten level, can learn our languages and enjoy them.