IN JANUARY 2018, I sat in a hotel room in Wagga Wagga (the place of dance and celebrations) in the balang (heart) of Wiradjuri ngurambang (country). It was a Saturday night in summer, and I was full of self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy. I was fifty years old, the author of sixteen books and so many other words; a commentator; a professional speaker; a runner of marathons. But no amount of academic achievement, creative output or life in community had prepared me for learning my Wiradjuri language. I was the first in my immediate miyagan (family) to do so.
As my head throbbed, I felt my self-esteem disappear as fast as my capacity to learn. The first task to master was having to stop ‘thinking’ in English – the language I had grown up learning and relied on every day. To understand that there was a completely different grammar system. I read and re-read the relevant pages in A New Wiradjuri Dictionary, compiled by Stan Grant Snr and Dr John Rudder, but it wasn’t sinking in. On the verge of yung (tears) of disappointment and failure, I looked at the many resources lying next to me on my bed and said aloud, ‘I am never going to get this.’
I almost wanted to give up, but instead I took some time to reflect on the day I’d spent immersed in culture and language. This was thanks to Uncle Stan Grant and his Wiradjuri protégés – Lloyd Dolan, Letetia Harris and Yarri Lambshead – who collectively pass on knowledge as a means of rebuilding the Wiradjuri nation of central New South Wales. They teach the Graduate Certificate in Wiradjuri Language, Culture and Heritage, which is run at Charles Sturt University (CSU) in Wagga Wagga. Learning is done both in the classroom and outdoors on ngurambang, where we walk and talk where and how our ancestors did. I had long wanted to learn my language, but it wasn’t until I was invited to be a guest speaker in the nation-building subject of the course some years before that I saw the extraordinary impact it was having on those studying and made my own commitment to enrol.
Now, in the summer of early 2018, I had walked through cleansing smoke and been part of a welcoming ceremony that grounded me on my ngurambang. I had reunited with some of my miyagan from Tumut and Brungle. I’d made new mudyi–galang (friends) – both Wiradjuri and non-Indigenous – and I’d heard my language spoken with passion for hours on end. It was a spiritually intense moment in my life and my Budhang (Black) balang was full. I was so incredibly grateful to be there.
During the day, too, I’d found solace in the fact that I wasn’t alone in my experience of self-doubt, of the desire to learn colliding with a fear of failure. Most of us students were on the same journey; most of us had come from mayiny (people) denied the right to speak language, to pass on culture, to learn on our own lands, with and from our own mayiny. Policies and acts of protection and assimilation had always had at their core the disconnection of Aboriginal mayiny from ngurambang, culture, community and identity – and this was often overlaid with a belief, a desire, that we would eventually die out and disappear. Learning language as part of rebuilding our nation made it clear to all that we are still here and building capacity. I drifted off to sleep that night mentally exhausted, but grateful for what had led me to that place.
I woke the next ngarin (morning) hoping for some mental breakthrough that would help me understand how to use particular Wiradjuri suffixes and prefixes. What I had learnt as ‘tenses’ in verbs – past, present and future actions in English – I had to relearn in Wiradjuri as the degree of expression of the action’s qualities: not yet real action, actual or real action, intense action, beyond intense action. And each of these degrees has its own suffix. There seemed to be so much more to know and to learn in Wiradjuri than there ever was in English.
I heard the phrase ‘Yiradhu marang!’ – the Wiradjuri g’day – the minute I arrived in class. And it came with a sweep of the arm like a wave, as language comes from our body. Starting each morning that way set the tone, expectation and empowerment that would flow through our time together.
And I had my breakthrough that day. It wasn’t through those prefixes and suffixes. It wasn’t while learning to count: ngumbaay, bula, bula ngumbaay.
It was when Letetia Harris explained that knowledge would come to me when the ancestors knew I was ready for it that I accepted this was going to be a long journey. To find an absolute belief and faith in that concept led me to trust in myself. To stop doubting, to stop expecting myself to learn and know everything immediately.
Our language has been alive for tens of thousands of years; catching up with it would take a little time.
HEARING LANGUAGE IS empowering. When I acknowledge country in language and am approached by audiences afterwards – both Wiradjuri and non-Indigenous – it is clear that our language has an emotional impact. It is a strong reminder of our presence, of the richness of our culture, and of our nationhood.
As a lifetime ambassador for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation (ILF), I see firsthand the importance of reading and writing in first languages. The ILF has published over ninety books as part of their Community Literacy Projects, and many of them are in eighteen different languages from the remotest communities in Australia. These books assist some of Australia’s most disadvantaged people to become self-determining through literacy. And beautiful picture books, presented bilingually, also allow parents and children to connect through story time in a way that gives children the opportunity to have a relationship with books before they start school.
Last year’s United Nations International Year of Indigenous Languages reinvigorated the need to reclaim and maintain languages the world over. It emphasised the importance of respecting and honouring traditional languages and encouraged more Wiradjuri citizens to be part of a growing number of mob learning what our old people were denied. The CSU course does not promote itself; all its enrolments come through word of mouth, and all its graduates become proud non-official ambassadors. That’s the impact of respecting what we have been gifted through our learning.
Learning language means reclaiming my sovereignty as a Wiradjuri woman, and the experience of reclaiming this sovereignty through the program has been incredibly powerful. Learning and girling (speaking) has become part of my role in rebuilding our nation. And by finding faith in the wisdom of my ancestors, and trusting in my teachers, in their methods and their lessons, I also found a greater sense of trust in myself.
Aboriginal values are about yindyamarra (respect), marrumbang (love), ngumbadal (unity), winhangagigilanha (caring for each other). Our values are about the community, not the individual. When I look at the Wiradjuri word ngumambinya – which means trust for help – it reminds me that I need to trust that others will provide help when I need it, whether I ask for it or not. But that trust has a reciprocal value: when we trust in others, they trust in us – as in the case of Wiradjuri responsibility to community, that means giving back. To speak language, to share language and to live the values enshrined in our language.
When people talk about trust, it’s often in terms of their relationships with others – their partners, mudyi-galang, miyagan and colleagues. What’s clear to me – through ngumambinya and all the Wiradjuri words that can sing through me now as I’m learning – is that we also need to know how to trust in ourselves.
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