The UTS panel for 'Bayala : Talking Culture' during the Sydney Festival. L to R: Jonathon Jones, Stan Grant Snr, Prof Michael McDaniel, Jacinta Tobin and Wesley Enoch

Posted by Jeremy Eccles | 06.02.17

Dates: 14.01.17

“Language is the one thing that underpins our culture as a race”, declared 'Uncle' Stan Grant Snr at a key talking session during the Sydney Festival. And Bayala means 'speak' in the local Sydney language bayalaed by the various groups that made up the Eora Nation in 1788 when a handful of white folks brought all their misunderstandings and disease into Sydney Harbour, managing to wipe out two-thirds of those speakers in just 5 years.

Backing up the UTS panel session were 4 other events – language classes that sold out in a matter of days, a WugulOra ceremony at dawn on Australia/Invasion Day, archival material in the State Library, and recorded readings at Dawes Point from the notebooks that the eponymous Lieut. Dawes made transcribing the precious Eora language. As far as I know, this is the only accurate source for the language – though no doubt it's closely linked to the neighbouring Darug language - and the delightful Jacinta Tobin, one of the UTS panellists, recalled that there were fluent speakers of her language just 50 years ago in Katoomba, though they were too fearful to pass it on to their kids because of the threat that they'd be 'taken away'.

This massacre of Aboriginal languages – down from 4/500 to 145 maximum, and only 20 safe enough to survive, according to 'Aunty' Fran Bodkin at the same forum, “ an open wound that all Australians should own – and heal”, she concluded.

And surely the perfect person to initiate that healing process is Wesley Enoch, the first Indigenous Director of the Sydney Festival. For he had twisted Jacinta Tobin's arm when she offered to bring song into the Festival to creating the language classes, using the argument that “as we speak language more, hopefully it will vibrate more and we can sing Sydney healthy again”. And I believe the Education Department is fully supportive in that Aboriginal language classes are increasingly being offered in schools – just as Stan Grant has been pushing for since 1999. Incidentally, he intended only to teach Wiradjuri kids, but the (still) all-important Council of Elders instructed him that he had to “teach all kids or none. And I'm glad they did that – one of my grandfathers insisted the language would be important some day”.

But when I looked around at the rest of Enoch's festival, language seemed to have gone missing. Yes, Yirrmal lifted the underwhelming concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Aboriginal Referendum with his vibrant Yolngu singing. But the two plays and the dance I saw were all language-free, celebrating Indigenous life and survival in Tassie, Melbourne and Brisbane. Indeed, at the forum, Enoch compared the mix he offered in his festival to the mix of bloods in himself – Filipino, Danish, Spanish, Rota Island and Jandai from North Stradbrook Island. But then I recalled seeing 'Waiting for Godot', Samuel Beckett's French/Irish masterpiece in the Bandjalung language during Rhoda Roberts's 1997 Olympic 'Dreaming' Festival, and wondered whether this is the sort of brave experiment that we might see at future Sydney Festivals. And of course, Ningali Lawford's self-titled play at the same festival had much in Wangkajunga to underline Ningali's recognition of the importance of the old tribal languages in defining her identity.

For there is a tendency, epitomised by Vernon Ah Kee in his solo show at the National Art School during the festival, to demean the peoples who've chosen to retain a more traditional lifestyle in The Kimberley, Arnhemland, Cape York, etc. I'd hate to think they were excluded from Enoch's thinking.

For the UTS forum showed others had great respect for the Aboriginal past. Artist Jonathon Jones – who developed such a great pan-racial historical project in his 'barrangal dyara' installation commemorating the burning of the Garden Palace in Sydney – reminded us that Australia offered “the world's oldest burial, the oldest grindstone and the oldest agriculture; but who knows?” And Professor Michael McDaniel, UTS Pro-Vice Chancellor, revealed a sideline in possum-skin cloak making – an almost lost art (and lost name), revived by Aboriginal women in Victoria - which produced what he could only call “a happiness bomb” when he presented his first example to Wiradjuri elders. “They were so full of memories, so emotionally charged – and I kept hearing the word Yindjemarra – which I learnt meant honour, respect, doing things slowly and doing them mindful of the impact of your words and deeds. I've come to love that concept – it should be written into the constitution!”.

Another word that came up at the forum was the unpronounceable Winhagaygunhanha! Jonathan Jones introduced it because he'd discovered during preparations for his Garden Palace project that it's roots lie in the word Win meaning fire in Wiradjuri, suggesting that fire wasn't just a destructive source for his people but the origins for thoughts such as remembrance, memory and Country never forgets, which is what Winhagaygunhanha means.

So, rather more Wiradjuri than Eora, partly because the readings from the Dawes Notebooks were non-functioning when I eventually found them at Dawes Point. And not much effort had gone into signposting them. So the sense I'd hoped to achieve of the young Gadigal gal, Patyegerang sharing her culture with the invading naval lieutenant was denied me – leaving me at least with memories of Stephen Page's fine dancework tackling the encounter. I've also been disappointed in obtaining the printed Dawes Notebooks – originally done by the School of Oriental & African Studies in London – where the notebooks, mysteriously, reside – but supposedly reprinted by the Darug Language group in Sydney. However, they are available online – to which, I guess they could add the Festival recordings.

Patyegerang, by the way means grey kangaroo in the Sydney language. Which is why the locals were mystified when the Poms insisted the word was 'gangaroo', which just happened to be the 'foreign' word picked up by Capt Cook on Cape York from the Guugu Yimithir people when he was repairing The Endeavour. Thus a little bit of language ended the illusion of a homogeneous (if unpeopled) New Holland.

Another illusion – that Capt Cook dismissed the Aborigines as “the most wretched people on Earth”. In fact, they only “appeared” to be such in his original report. Edited out by the nobs in Whitehall were Cook's actual observation that “they are far more happy than we Europeans, for they live in a tranquillity that's not disturbed by the inequality of condition” that this working class man obviously still resented in England.

What a shame that the sensitive Cook wasn't put in charge of events in 1788!

May you be stimulated to bayala and to speculate by the ideas coming from panellists on this forum – which ABC Radio National will re-broadcast at some date to be announced on Speaking Out with its chair, Larissa Behrendt at 9pm Sundays.


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Dr Stan Grant Snr AM in thoughful mode


Prof Larissa Behrendt, Chair of Indigenous Research at UTS, also chair of the forum.


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