Thursday, July 22, 2010

Return to country

Back yesterday mid afternoon from delivering my paper last night in Armidale on An Exploration of New England's Aboriginal languages. I was as nervous as a kitten because of the likely audience, including members of the local Aboriginal community and linguists.

By accident, Jen (my Aboriginal mentee) was in Armidale on business, her first trip there, so we were able to have a review session over lunch and then I showed her a little of the city. She was actually surprised by the size of the visible Aboriginal presence in Armidale. Jen wanted to come to the evening session, so that guaranteed me one friendly face.

One of the distinctive things about Armidale lies in location; within a few days walk of the present city can be found no less than six distinct Aboriginal language groups.

Anaiwan or Nganyaywana was the local language. To the north, Anaiwan merged into the other main Tableland language group, the Ngarabal. To the east, the big coastal languages Gumbainggir (from the Clarence River down to and including the Nambucca Valley) and Dainggati (Macleay River Valley) came close to Armidale. In the far south, the Biripi or Gadhang (Hastings and Manning Valleys) adjoined Anaiwan. Then on the west, the very big Kamilaroi or Gamillaraay language group  ran the entire length of Anaiwan and then beyond.

The relationships between local Anaiwan speakers and the other groups was affected by just where you lived. While very little Anaiwan has survived, I think it clear that the dialects within Anaiwan were affected by the exact relationships with adjoining language groups. Armidale's modern Aboriginal community includes people who can trace their ancestry to all the main adjoining language groups; this can create some interesting tensions!

Welcome to Country was given by Steve Widders (Anaiwan) in part in Anaiwan. I am not sure that the wording was exactly the same, but this is an example from a Welcome to Country given by Steve at the University of New England.   

Yugga danya Ngawanya
(I am a Man of the Anaiwan people.)
Roonyahra tanya tampida Ngawanya
(This is the ancestral land of the Ngawanya.)
Ootila tanya yoonyarah
(I welcome you to this land.)

In his welcome, Steve recognised the other groups. Among those attending were Hazel Green who is, I think, the grand daughter of Frank Archibald (Gumbainggir), who was a leading Aboriginal elder in Armidale. Hazel had a magazine article on her family that I did not have time to read. However, you will find a little about Frank in this edition of Dawn.

Frank was born in 1885 and knew his grandfather who was born around 1808, significantly before the Europeans arrived. I think that he married a Dainggati woman from Walcha, so if I have the family tree right Hazel has ancestry from both.

Another who attended was Tom Briggs (Gumbainggir). Tom is the councillor for Northern NSW on the NSW Aboriginal Land Council and is the NSWALC Deputy Chair. He had been to a language course and had his course material with him, although again I did not have the time (I was also to nervous) to look.

Dianne Roberts, OAM, (Dainggati), the former Director and Principal Minimbah Aboriginal Pre- and Primary School also attended. When I was showing Jen a little of Armidale, we drove past the new school. It has around 67 pupils at present, a bit over 90% Aboriginal, but also with 5% international students. You will find a little of Dianne's remarkable life here.    

   Among the non-Aboriginal audience was Margaret Sharpe who, among other things, is a linguist who has written on Bundjalung, another of the Northern languages.

You can see why I was nervous, for as a non-linguist I was presenting on the story of Aboriginal languages across the broad New England to an audience including both linguists and and Aboriginal people with their own histories and family knowledge. In fact, both were kind. Indeed, Margaret has offered to help me with my pronunciation!

As I was researching the paper, I thought what a remarkable role the University of New England and its staff and students has played in researching, presenting and preserving the Aboriginal history and culture of Northern NSW. Writing in 1978 in the Introduction to Records of times past. Ethnohistorical essays on the culture and ecology of the New England tribes (Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 1978, p3).

Much of this historical material (settler records etc) is known only a the local level; its very preservation is a tribute to the devotion of local historians. Very little of it has been published. Searching out this elusive source material has been vital for the knowledge of this particular region. The detailed ethnohistorical  sources in Australia tend to belong to the periods and places of first contact ... Northern NSW was settled to late to share this historical record of detail, yet too early to be able to benefit from the beginnings of serious anthropological at the end of the century. The region was largely neglected in the anthropological literature of the late nineteenth century ... due partly to the complete, rapid, and early disintegration of Aboriginal culture after settlement in the region, partly perhaps to its isolation and its sense of separate identity from the intellectual life of the state's capital.

Had the University of New England not been founded, it seems likely that large slabs of the history of New England and especially that of the history and culture of its Aboriginal peoples including language would have been lost. The fact that we know so much now is one of the University's enduring legacies.  

I was eighteen when I went on my first archeological survey with Isabel McBryde. I was twenty-one when I wrote my honours thesis as part of Isabel's first prehistory honours group. I was thirty three when Records of Times Past was published, including a chapter based on my honours work. Now, many years later, there is a sense of enduring satisfaction that I am not only carrying the legacy forward, but also in so doing recording the work done by others.

There is also a sense of satisfaction that in so doing I am at least trying to give New England's Aboriginal peoples' greater access to their own past.

I suppose the thing that stands out to me here is not so much how much has been lost, but actually how much has been saved.

New England's Aboriginal history now stalks across my mind not as a series of abstracts, not as a series of disconnected facts, but as a flow, an increasingly connected story. While I am conscious of how little I know, I see the story as a flow of life against a landscape.

As a person and historian, I work at a personal level.

Back in January 2007, Malcolm Calley, Anthropology and Australia's Aborigines attracted interesting comments from a commenter who variously described herself as lefty or just c. I met c. in Armidale, she actually gave the vote of thanks!

In conversation, Caroline explained how she had put a Dainggati-English dictionary into her school library. The school has a lot of Dainggati kids. One boy commented that it was the best thing he had found in the library because it had words that he used!

I think that one of the best things that we can do for Aboriginal kids is to give them back their history. Not the generalised history you often see, but the actual specific local, regional and language group history.         

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