November 12, 2005

back at Hodgson Downs

I didn't go to Hodgson Downs last week. I was too worn out and too demoralised by what was happening with the school program. Here's a story which contrasts the week before the language program was cut in half, and then the week after.

Week before:

Friday after smoko - Alawa class. We continued revising the first few song cycles from the ceremonial songs the old people has taught a few weeks ago, and that I'd recorded, transcribed and burned on to CD for use in the classroom and at home (I did this at the elders/community request). The boys and girls separated into their own groups and listened to the recordings with old people and other community members encouraging and helping them. They also had the transcriptions of the songs as a written prompt. After an hour or so, the boys and girls recombined to show the other group how they were going.

The songs the students are learning are part of the circumcision ceremony. In some neighbouring communities, this ceremony is not performed anymore and may not ever be performed again. At Hodgson Downs, elders still hold this ceremony and parents from neighbouring communities look to them to perform it so that their boys can still go through the ceremony. Elders and community members at Hodgson Downs are very concerned that after the most senior elders pass away, no one will be able to hold the ceremony anymore. They are wanting to teach and record as much of the songs as they can and that's why we started working on this in the school program.

The students understand how important this is and understand that they have a responsibility to learn these songs and contribute to the survival of the ceremony for future generations. However, learning language and culture is not popular and most students are reluctant participants. For many, even though they are aware of their responsibility, it is just too great and/or they don't have the confidence to think they can learn the songs. For a few of the students, they realise the importance and responsibility and are trying to make the most of the opportunity.

Week after:

Friday after smoko - no Alawa class:

With the Alawa class cancelled, the secondary teachers, still upset that the language program they worked hard on is in trouble, are asked by their students if they have Alawa today. They say, 'no', to the relief of the students. The teachers ask if the students would like to join the primary school children to sing christmas carols. They say yes and for the next hour or so they are singing songs like 'hark the herald angels sing'. The teachers who are critical of the Alawa Language Program are pleased to see the high schools students joining in enthusiastically with the rest of the school.


Interesting story, no?

Not only does it show that we are still very much in a colonial (as opposed to post-colonial) environment, it also shows how huge the issues of maintaining minority languages and cultures are in the face of such a dominant other culture, and how deep it goes and how it manifests in the attitudes of young people caught in these changes.

And yesterday, when I was telling this story to one of the senior elders, his comment was something that hadn't occurred to me before. He said something like, 'and where will those teachers be at christmas time? they won't be here, they'll be on holidays'.


Darcy said...

Hi I found your blog after a little surfing. I can understand your problems with schools from a couple of perspectives - I taught at Minyerri with my wife (she was the head teacher) between 1982-3 and I'm still a teacher but in a rather different context.

Even then there were very few Alawa speakers with Kriol being spoken and all the instruction happening in English. Margaret Sharpe had done a lot of work in documenting the language but with only the older men and women speaking it fluently made developing curriculum materials in it just about impossible.

I was interested to hear you talk about the Minyerri mob keeping the traditions alive. During our time at Minyerri there was one very big circumcision ceremony that took place. It was probably the most exciting and important thing to happen in the Alawa country for many years.

I'll keep an eye on your blog and if your interested in knowing more about our experiences I can post some more comments.

When you go back there do give everyone best wishes from Jane and Darcy - especially to that old man Barney.

Expand your WORLD said...

Hello, I know this is a very old entry but I was searching online to find out information about the Alawa language. I stumbled upon this and was very fascinated by your work at the Hodgson Downs program. I am a undergraduate student at UCLA in Los Angeles, CA and I am doing research on the nearly extinct language, Alawa. If you could contact me back at I would be so appreciative. Thank you for your time.