August 11, 2015

en God bin gibit wi langgus: the challenge of reconciling language policy at the Roper River Mission

For some reason, a little utterance comes to my mind every now and then, which one of the dear elders I work with in Ngukurr said on a recording back in 2011:
... en God bin gibit wi langgus. 
It means 'and God gave us (Aboriginal) language(s)'. It's such a simple, emphatic statement. I'm not religious, but I really like the sentiment. I like that, according to her, Aboriginal languages have an unshakeable, undeniable value because they were given to Aboriginal people/placed on Aboriginal land by God. 

My Country - Gertie Huddleston (2002)*

The elder who said this, did so as a quiet afterthought at the tail end of a group discussion. It was almost drowned out by others, easily dismissible, but I picked it up and it has stuck with me. The main discussion involved a bunch of elders sitting around talking about language policy at the old Roper River Mission which I'd asked them about as part of my PhD research. Another of the women contributed the most, describing in some detail the punishment and denigration that she and her peers experienced at the hands of missionaries relating to the use of traditional Aboriginal languages. She became quite passionate in describing the situation and the hurt it has caused. 

It's a common theme among their generation. They all experienced the punishment and denigration, and they've all lived through the decline of their languages until the current situation where they're now barely spoken by anyone, if it all. It has hurt them individually and as a society. It must be acknowledged however that languages disappear for a complex range of interconnected reasons. A small group of missionaries are not capable on their own of sending a bunch of languages to the metaphoric palliative care facility I work with them in. So while the Roper River Mission by and large treated Aboriginal languages very poorly, additional and greater contributing factors led to their decline. But the missionaries' direct and interpersonal disdain for traditional languages makes them the clearest symbol available to community members in Ngukurr who understandably seek something to hook their hurt on regarding the loss of language.

But it's still a challenging topic to many community members. Most are Christian, and value the church. Most have a great deal to be thankful to missionaries for - education, love and genuine care for their welfare. So I think it is difficult for the generation who were punished for speaking traditional languages to reconcile that with all the positive things that they gained from the mission time. And that utterance from the old lady - ... en God bin gibit wi langgus - also encapsulates that tension. She loves God. She's a very Christian lady. She also loves learning and speaking traditional languages and has worked tirelessly to stem their decline. She'd just listened, agreeably, to a clear description of how missionaries 'took away' their languages. But how did that happen when they were otherwise good and godly. And how could missionaries do that to her languages, when those languages were placed there by God himself.

I don't know either olgamen.

*Gertie Huddleston passed away in 2013 and was one of the mission residents subjected to language policies of the mission.