Friday, December 17, 2021

Saving the farm – recognising Indigenous languages is part of salvaging community

The end of the year – after a bumper 24 months of disasters – is a time of closure. Many things have changed and many more will change – hopefully mainly for the better. In particular people who have made major contributions to Australia's creativity and culture are moving on from their roles to take up new interests or interests they have been too busy to pursue. This is particularly the case in the arena of First Nations languages, where the recognition amongst Australians generally of the importance of languages and culture is part and parcel of salvaging community – for everyone.

As the end of the year approaches rapidly, after two solid years of bushfires followed by pandemic, many other things are also drawing to a close. A few weeks ago I found myself sitting in my car outside my local surgery, waiting for a routine medical appointment while trying to take part in a Zoom session on my tiny tablet. The reason for the Zoom event was to farewell Faith Baisden after decades as the face of First Languages Australia, the national body advocating for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages in Australia. 
 
A panel of community languages talent at 'Jarrak: Our languages journey', an event presented by First Languages Autralia in 2019 - Veronica Dobson, Dana Ober, Trevor Buzzacott and Eve Fesl, in conversation with Paul Paton.
 
Faith is leaving First Languages Australia to pursue her many other interests, particularly involving childhood education and music. Like all the other community languages folk I’ve met, she is a quiet over-achiever, building bridges and producing miracles wherever she turns. I’m sure she will keep doing it in a new area. 
 
Amongst a raft of breakthroughs, persuading the ABC to include radio station call signs in the local Indigenous language for each part of Australia stands out for me – but the list is far to long to even begin to compile it. Most recently the organisation played a leading role in finally having languages included as part of the Closing the Gap strategy of the Australian Government. Along with the inclusion, $22.8m extra funding was allocated to languages maintenance and revival.

‘These community efforts offer a clue to what all Australian communities could do to preserve and protect their heritage and culture as part of living, contemporary, everyday experience – especially in a rapidly changing, globalised world, where Australian culture itself is under threat.’

It was good to be able to be part of Faith’s farewell, even if only briefly. It made me think again about all the years we worked together – her in community and me in Government. For more than a decade I’ve watched the First Nations community languages movement grow and grow. Despite a personal history that keeps on bumping against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, I’m just an external observor, who became involved with the languages movement almost by accident.

It all started after I found myself responsible for more years than I can appreciate for the Australian Government program that supported community efforts to maintain and revive Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages. Many years after leaving that role I remain fascinated because these community efforts offer a clue to what all Australian communities could do to preserve and protect their heritage and culture as part of living, contemporary, everyday experience – especially in a rapidly changing, globalised world, where Australian culture itself is under threat.

Culture in the community
I started my career in arts and culture in community arts in South Australia and absolutely loved the whole spirit of it and the focus on the importance of culture in the community. A lot of that focus originally came from the connection to local Indigenous cultural organisations. Decades later, when I met all the languages workers, I felt as though I had come home. While I was always interested in languages, I didn’t know much about Australia’s own languages until I met all the language workers. Luckily I did know something about Government, so had something to contribute. As far as languages was concerned, with me it was a case of ‘it’s not what you know or even who you know but who you know who knows what you need to know’.

‘For me, this is one of the great untold good news stories of grass roots community action to create a better future for Australia. It shows how every community could organise to achieve the things that are important to them.’

What First Languages Australia and its precursors achieved over the last three decades is miraculous. It completely changed the public profile of Indigenous languages. Much of it was on Faith’s watch. As Victor Hugo supposedly said, ‘nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come’. Peter Shergold, former Head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, once pointed out that funding community organisations was a cheap and effective way of getting results and delivering Government priorities and he was absolutely right. For me, this is one of the great untold good news stories of grass roots community action to create a better future for Australia. It shows how every community could organise to achieve the things that are important to them.

A whole universe revealed
Even though first and foremost it was so important to Indigenous communities, it was also crucial to Australian culture more generally. When I was growing up in Tasmania, you wouldn’t have known that Tasmanian Aboriginal communities still existed. Discovering this many decades later was like seeing a whole extra dimension of Australia – suddenly seeing black and white photos in colour. As Australia grows up and recognises that everyone has to learn to live well in this land, all the work on First Nations languages will pay off more generally. A whole universe that underpins the living contemporary heritage of Australia has been revealed – it’s now up to Australians to recognise and appreciate that.

‘It’s no exaggeration to say in many cases involvement in arts and cultural activity changes lives – I’ve seen it myself many times. Sometimes it can even save lives.’

When I was in the public service I kept saying that what’s often missing in all the analysis of economic and social problems in all communities – not only regional and remote ones and not only Indigenous ones – is the importance of culture. Tenacious social problems flourish when morale is virtually non-existent – and morale depends on a positive sense of self and community which involvement in arts and culture provides. It’s no exaggeration to say in many cases involvement in arts and cultural activity changes lives – I’ve seen it myself many times. Sometimes it can even save lives.

Involvement in arts and cultural activity often has powerful flow on social and economic effects. By building self-esteem and generating a sense of achievement, by developing a stronger sense of community, by increasing skills and capabilities through involvement in engaging activities relevant to modern jobs and thereby increasing employability, and by helping to generate income streams, however small, cultural activity can have profound long-term effects. The work of First langages Australia and Faith reflected all that. That is why I think their achievements are a stellar example to all communities, Indigenous and non-Indigenous.

Rescuing histories from thin air

As I said in ‘The hidden universe of Australia’s own languages’, the article I wrote just after I left the Australian Government at the beginning of 2014, ‘I was deeply impressed by the Indigenous languages activists I encountered, labouring away day after day, determined to succeed, with their dictionaries and wordlists and grammars, rushing to interview Elders who may be the last living speakers of a language, before it is too late. They are digging language out of the ground, rescuing histories from thin air. If Earth was ever threatened by an alien invasion from another planet, with its languages at risk, these are the people I’d want in my corner.’

For me personally all the work we did together was really important to me and one of the high points – possibly the high point – of my working life. Above all, though it was fun. I really enjoyed working with all the languages workers because they were so tremendous and when I think about them, I still smile.

‘I was deeply impressed by the Indigenous languages activists I encountered….They are digging language out of the ground, rescuing histories from thin air. If Earth was ever threatened by an alien invasion from another planet, with its languages at risk, these are the people I’d want in my corner.’

There are many Faiths in many communities out there, all doing their bit in their own way to save Australia’s own unique languages. I’ve met many of them, but there are far more of them than I’ll ever know. I wish all of them the best for the future and will continue to keep in touch with those I do know. Like Faith, they are all terrific and serious over-achievers. Personally Faith also managed to be a quiet over-achiever – rather than promoting herself she just got on with things and made them happen. Lots of them.

See also

Always was, always will be – a welcome long view in NAIDOC week
‘Being involved with Australian culture means being involved in one way or another with First Nations arts, culture and languages – it’s such a central and dynamic part of the cultural landscape. First Nations culture has significance for First Nations communities, but it also has powerful implications for Australian culture generally. NAIDOC Week is a central part of that cultural landscape’, Always was, always will be – a welcome long view in NAIDOC week. 
 
Updates on creativity and culture an email away
‘After many decades working across the Australian cultural sector, I have been regularly posting to my suite of blogs about creativity and culture, ever since I first set them up over 10 years ago. You can follow any of the blogs through email updates, which are sent from time to time. If you don’t already follow my blogs and you want to take advantage of this service, you can simply add your email address to the blog page, and then confirm that you want to receive updates when you receive the follow up email. If you want to make sure you don’t miss any of my updates, simply select the blogs you are interested in and set up the update by adding your email’, Updates on creativity and culture an email away.  
 
‘indefinite article’ on Facebook – short arts updates and commentary
‘Short arts updates and irreverent cultural commentary about contemporary Australian society, popular culture, the creative economy and the digital and online world – life in the trenches and on the beaches of the information age’, 'indefinite article' on Facebook.

An everyday life worth living – indefinite articles for a clean, clever and creative future
‘My blog “indefinite article” is irreverent writing about contemporary Australian society, popular culture, the creative economy and the digital and online world – life in the trenches and on the beaches of the information age. Over the last ten years I have published 166 articles about creativity and culture on the blog. This is a list of all the articles I have published there, broken down into categories, with a brief summary of each article. They range from the national cultural landscape to popular culture, from artists and arts organisations to cultural institutions, cultural policy and arts funding, the cultural economy and creative industries, First Nations culture, cultural diversity, cities and regions, Australia society, government, Canberra and international issues – the whole range of contemporary Australian creativity and culture’, An everyday life worth living – indefinite articles for a clean, clever and creative future

Beyond a joke – surviving troubled times
‘We live in troubled times – but then can anyone ever say that they lived in times that weren’t troubled? For most of my life Australia has suffered mediocre politicians and politics – with the odd brief exceptions – and it seems our current times are no different. Australia has never really managed to realise its potential. As a nation it seems to be two different countries going in opposite directions – one into the future and the other into the past. It looks as though we’ll be mired in this latest stretch of mediocrity for some time and the only consolation will be creativity, gardening and humour’, Beyond a joke – surviving troubled times

Contemporary Indigenous fashion – where community culture and economics meet
‘The recent exhibition 'Piinpi', about contemporary Indigenous fashion, has a significance for Australian culture that is yet to be fully revealed. The themes covered by the exhibition are important because they demonstrate the intersection of the culture of First Nations communities with creative industries and the cultural economy. In attempting to address the major issue of Indigenous disadvantage, for example, it is critical to recognise that one of the most important economic resources possessed by First Nations communities is their culture. Through the intellectual property that translates it into a form that can generate income in a contemporary economy, that culture is pivotal to jobs and to income. It may not be mining but it mines a far richer seam – authentic and rich content that has already been recognised internationally for its high value, just like our iron and coal. At a time when First Nations communities are talking increasingly about gaining greater control over their economic life, this is highly relevant’, Contemporary Indigenous fashion – where community culture and economics meet.

After a fashion – creative industries from First Nations culture
‘When I first heard that Victorian regional gallery, Bendigo Art Gallery, was planning an exhibition about contemporary Indigenous fashion I was impressed. The Gallery has had a long history of fashion exhibitions, drawing on its own collection and in partnership with other institutions, notably the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It is fascinating to consider how a leading regional Australian museum and an internationally renowned museum on the global stage, while in many ways so different, have so much in common. The exhibition is far more than a single event in a Victorian regional centre – it is an expression of a much broader contemporary Indigenous fashion phenomenon nation-wide. It hints at the potential of the creative economy and creative industries to build stronger communities. Both the economic importance and the community and social importance of creativity and culture are tightly interlinked because of the way in which creativity and culture are integral to everyday life and the essential activities that make it up’, After a fashion – creative industries from First Nations culture.

Out of sight, out of mind – building knowledge on sustaining the creative and cultural sector in regional and remote Australia
‘Creative organisations and artists often collect information and research in order to report to funding bodies about how grant funding has been used. Apart from the need to report on funding or to make a case to government, or society in general, the creative and cultural sector also needs evidence and understanding for its own purposes. While government funding bodies might need the sort of information collected from funded organisations, the organisations need it far more – for their planning and to report to their Boards and their communities. They need it to know whether what they are doing is effective and worthwhile – or whether they should be doing something else.’ Out of sight, out of mind – building knowledge on sustaining the creative and cultural sector in regional and remote Australia.
 
Growing up across many worlds – the daily life of ‘In My Blood it Runs’
‘An important new film about Dujuan, a young Aboriginal boy living in Alice Springs in the centre of Australia, is both engaging and challenging, raising major issues about growing up Aboriginal in modern Australia. ‘In my blood it runs’ is a film for our troubled times, that tackles the challenges of a culturally divided country, but also finds the hope that this cultural diversity can offer us all for our overlapping futures’, Growing up across many worlds – the daily life of ‘In My Blood it Runs’.
 
Changing the landscape of the future – a new focus on cultural rights
‘The arts and culture sector has spent far too many years pressing the case for why Australian culture is crucial to Australia’s future, without seeming to shift the public policy landscape to any great degree. Perhaps a proposed fresh approach focusing on cultural rights may offer some hope of a breakthrough. What makes this approach so important and so potentially productive is that it starts with broad principles, linked to fundamental issues, such as human rights, which makes it a perfect foundation for the development of sound and well-thought out policies – something that currently we sadly lack’, Changing the landscape of the future – a new focus on cultural rights.
 
Songlines – an ancient culture for a contemporary world
‘What interests me in exhibitions about Aboriginal Australia is what they mean for Australians generally, even if most Australians won’t ever see them. After a mere 220 years, in many ways we are still only part way through making our home here. We haven’t yet figured out how to navigate this land properly. When I was at school we learned about so many doomed explorers misinterpreting the country, unable to find their way. Burke and Wills were the perfect examples, undone because they were unable to learn simple lessons offered by the local people on how to make edible the vast supplies of food surrounding them. They starved to death in a field of plenty. It made me realise that we can gain a much richer grasp of Australia through recognising that First Nations culture and heritage is part and parcel of our own Australian heritage’, Songlines – an ancient culture for a contemporary world.

History all around us – the long term practical impact of cultural research
‘Cultural research has long term impacts in terms of our developing body of knowledge which stretch far into the future. Researchers are finding stories in our major cultural collections that were never envisaged by those originally assembling them – a process that will continue long into the future. The collections of our major cultural institutions are becoming increasingly accessible to the very people the collections are drawn from and reflect. In the process they are generating greater understanding about some of the major contemporary issues we face’, History all around us – the long term practical impact of cultural research.

The language of success ­– recognising a great unsung community movement
‘What is especially significant about the Prime Minister, in his Closing the Gap address, recognising the importance of Indigenous languages is that this is the first time a Liberal leader has expressed such views. It’s exciting because for progress to be made it is essential that there is a jointly agreed position. This moment arises from the tireless work over many decades of hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language revivalists – surely one of the great positive unsung community movements in Australian history. By their hard work they have managed to change the profile of Indigenous languages in Australia. Unfortunately the address reinforced the tendency of government to overlook the success stories that are already happening in local communities and look for big institutional solutions. I hope it doesn’t turn out to be a missed opportunity’, The language of success – recognising a great unsung community movement.

Unfinished histories – encountering ‘Encounters’
‘A single exhibition can sum up many things. By bringing together so many histories, stories and objects – particularly long-absent ones from the British Museum – the 'Encounters' exhibition at the National Museum presented a snapshot of the ongoing living history of Australia. Many strands ran through it, reflecting the complexity of the realities it tried to express. By successfully reflecting on the pressing issues it raised we have some hope of getting beyond the vision of the Great South Land of 18th and 19th Century ambition towards a truly great nation of the 21st Century’, Unfinished histories – encountering ‘Encounters’.

Literature and languages – inaugural Indigenous literary festival sign of things to come
‘The inaugural Victorian Indigenous literary festival Blak & Bright in February 2016 was a a very important event for Australian cultural life. It aimed to promote and celebrate a diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices. It raised important questions about how the movement to revive and maintain Indigenous languages – surely one of the great positive unsung community movements in Australian history – is related to ‘Australian literature’. Australian culture as a whole is also inconceivable without the central role of Indigenous culture – how would Australian literature look seen in the same light?’, Literature and languages – inaugural Indigenous literary festival sign of things to come.

When universes collide – ‘Encounters’ exhibition at National Museum of Australia
‘The Encounters exhibition at the National Museum of Australia, a once in a lifetime event, makes you realise that astoundingly all this earth-shattering history happened only a few generations ago, so much so that descendants of the Gweagal, those first people Cook encountered, still talk about that encounter in 1770 as though it was yesterday. Despite the continuing concerns about the vast holdings of mostly looted cultural artefacts, the return of these objects, however briefly, will serve to emphasise how recently the British came to Australia, how much more we need to do to be fully at home in this country and how much part of a living, contemporary tradition Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are’, When universes collide – Encounters exhibition at National Museum of Australia.

Land of hope
‘There were times in our past when Australia was seen as the great hope of the world – when it offered a vision of a new democratic life free from the failures of the past and the old world. It seems we have turned from our history, from the bright vision of the nineteenth century and the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow – mean and weak-willed. For such an optimistic nation we seem to have developed a ‘half empty’ rather than ‘half full’ view of the glass – and the world. If we want to live in a land to be proud of, a fair country that truly inherits the best of Australia’s traditions, while consciously abandoning the less desirable ones, we need to change course – otherwise we will have to rebadge Australia not as the land of hope but instead as the land without hope’, Land of hope.

A navigator on a Lancaster bomber
‘Sometimes I think Australia has lost its way. It’s like a ship that has sailed into the vast Pacific Ocean in search of gaudy treasure, glimpsed the beckoning coast of Asia and then lost its bearings, all its charts blown overboard in squalls and tempests. It seems to have turned from the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow. It’s time to rediscover the Australian dream. We need a navigator – or perhaps many, one in every community – who can help us find our way, encourage us as we navigate from greed and complacency to a calmer shining ocean of generosity and optimism’, A navigator on a Lancaster bomber.

Valuing the intangible
‘We are surrounded by intangible cultural heritage – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – and often it’s incredibly important to us but we can’t seem to understand why or put a name to its importance. So many issues of paramount importance to Australia and its future are linked to the broad cultural agenda of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). In particular they are central to one of UNESCO’s key treaties, the International Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage,’ Valuing the intangible.

The Magna Carta – still a work in progress
‘You don’t have to be part of ‘Indigenous affairs’ in Australia to find yourself involved. You can’t even begin to think of being part of support for Australian arts and culture without encountering and interacting with Indigenous culture and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and individuals who make it and live it.’ The Magna Carta – still a work in progress.

Black diggers - telling war stories
‘If you are convinced you have heard all of Australia’s great stories, think again. If you consider you know something about Indigenous Australia you probably need to start from scratch. Black Diggers, “the untold story of WW1’s black diggers remembered” is a great Australian story. Why over a thousand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians left their communities in remote Australia or our regional cities or the big state capitals to travel overseas to fight and die in the European trenches far from home is part of a larger Australian story. Why they would bother when they were not even recognised as Australian citizens in their own land is a story all their own – but a story relevant to every Australian’, Black diggers - telling war stories.

Death by a thousand cuts what is happening to the Indigenous cultural programs of the Australian Government?
‘The Indigenous cultural programs of the Australian Government play a critical role in support for both Indigenous communities and for a diverse and dynamic Australian culture – what is happening to them?’ Death by a thousand cuts – what is happening to the Indigenous culture programs of the Australian Government?

The gap in Closing the Gap
‘Experience of many years of the Indigenous culture programs shows that involvement in arts and cultural activity often has powerful flow on social and economic effects.’ The gap in Closing the Gap.

The hidden universe of Australia's own languages
‘I’ve travelled around much of Australia, by foot, by plane, by train and by bus, but mostly by car. As I travelled across all those kilometres and many decades, I never realised that, without ever knowing, I would be silently crossing from one country into another, while underneath the surface of the landscape flashing past, languages were changing like the colour and shape of the grasses or the trees. The parallel universe of Indigenous languages is unfortunately an unexpected world little-known to most Australians.’ The hidden universe of Australia's own languages.

Real jobs in an unreal world
'Subsidised Indigenous arts and cultural jobs are real jobs with career paths that deliver genuine skills and employment capability.' Real jobs in an unreal world.

Like a long-lost masterpiece
‘Many decades ago when I was much younger and a student I used to march in National Aboriginal Day Observance Committee marches. They were shorthanded to NADOC marches, back in the days when Islanders hadn’t yet been included and there was no ‘I’ in the name. I realised a while back that I must have been marching under the new Aboriginal flag at its birth. I had a poster from those years which I used to cart around with me from city to city until one day when I was about to move yet again I decided to donate it to the National Library of Australia’, Like a long-lost masterpiece.

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