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Looking, listening, learning


Sharlene King
17 May 2019

By Sheldon Harrington, a Widjabal Wiyabal man, and Professor Norm Sheehan, Director of Gnibi Wandarahn (College of Indigenous Australian Peoples) at Southern Cross University.

Today I sat with Uncle Roy Gordon and we spoke about Bundjalung language. Uncle Roy is a powerful man; he has, as he says, a 100-acre voice. In this the year of Indigenous languages, through the Dungarimba Wandarahn, his words and the words on his Elder Aunty Irene Harrington will fill the community space at The Quad in Lismore. The gentle and genuine way that Aunty Irene has shared her story is inspirational. The truth she shares calls on us to stand up and be responsible as the truth always does.

Dungarimba Wandarahn was shown from May 23 to 26, 2019 in Lismore.

Aunty Irene tells of growing up forbidden to speak her language in public, not openly forbidden but told to keep it quiet and close to family because if the mission authorities or anyone else heard her speak then the family would suffer. This subtle control existed because children could be removed to ‘save’ them from their culture. This violence was possible because Aboriginal identity was deemed to be a contamination from a primitive past in the new white Australia.

Bundjalung Elder Aunty Irene Harrington at the site of the former Lismore High School.

Uncle Roy says loudly “ours is an oral culture”; every word is significant and so important for Aboriginal people because a word is much more than just a name. Uncle Roy goes on to say how the word for a person or a place is more than just a noun in Bundjalung; each name connects people to family and Country because this is the way Aboriginal culture operates.

These connections also mean that the language remained concealed and protected in families for generations. There, safe “under the rug” as Aunty Irene says, Widjabal Wiyabal Bundjalung outlasted the prejudice.

The way Aunty Irene holds and communicates her story, her endurance and her survival is evidence of the simple and effective way her family did language and cultural protection for generations. This doing is significant because it worked and also because this doing is Aboriginal Knowledge in operation.

Doing is explaining – Doing explains everything.

Our Knowledge has grown over a lifetime and continues to grow as Aboriginal Knowledge is alive, living and moving within the environment that it belongs to. It is difficult for a Western culture to articulate and comprehend this understanding and sometimes it is near impossible to translate because the nature of our knowledge is more fluid and direct. It uses the action of ‘doing’ to teach rather than a written description. By showing and sharing knowledge through action to the younger generations they are required to respond by acting/doing in their way and so they are more likely to hold this knowledge and utilise it as it is meant to be used.

Aboriginal Knowledge is a ‘Layered Learning’ - layering knowledge is shared among families; starting with the youngest through basic interactions and patterns with dance, art, language and everyday usages. Slowly revealing more layers of knowledge through older stages, progressing once the understanding is recognised by doing more and being more involved. This gentle doing approach also helps with a more meaningful emersion for individuals and families that have had little cultural grounding.

At Gnibi Wandarahn through the leadership of our Elders we are adapting to write and present these ‘ways of doing’ in a form that utilises approaches that respect how Country operates teaching and interacting with its people while also achieving higher education objectives for all students. We showcase and celebrate the hard times our ancestors have been through to keep our culture, languages and identity alive. Our Knowledge is much like the water systems, like water is it is alive and not confined to certain shapes or constructs, it is fluid as it moves and moulds to its surroundings. Meaning it is key to the survival of our culture. Understanding the past to work in the present and making sure our culture is sustained and alive in the future.

When Aboriginal people do things sometimes it means very little, other times there is great significance in doing. Usually the difference between these doings is not easily discernible. Our way of understanding shows in the response of Aboriginal people to the violence of colonisation, assimilation and social exclusion as a profound example of cultural strength. We did not listen to what politicians, overseers and white Australians said we listened to what they did.

Understanding the great power of doing is recognising how my doing this now will play out over time, over a lifetime, over a generation, or nine generations. We are constantly listening to what Australians do and the outcomes apparent in this doing. Australians rarely see what we have done let alone what we do now.

Many people came together to contribute to this project and they have done beautiful things to honour the language and culture Aunty Irene holds. We see in this doing that Dungarimba Wandarahn may play out well for us all, maybe for a long way into the future.