November 10, 2007

it's alive!

Yes I'm still alive. Hi all. The last couple of months have been pretty huge... no chance of letting you in on all the goings on but here's a summary:

- Was starting to really hit the wall at Ngukurr and feeling burned out. Felt the need to think seriously about medium to long-term plans
- In the middle of that was a mammoth trip to the Indigenous languages Conference in Adelaide. Three of the guys I work with at Ngukurr came along. It was exhausting but great. We did a presentation that went very well (including a few tears and a choked up presenter... hmmm... that would be me!)
- Then i turned 30!!
- then i had a month off while my mami SN helped out with things at the Ngukurr Language Centre. Thanks mami. (You can read some of her stories on 'Finding A Voice' - click the link to the right)
- I went to Dublin to visit my sister for two weeks. Hi sis!
- Then came back to Katherine to find a tricky situation at work whereby I felt obligated to temporarily take on the Coordinator position at the Katherine Language Centre. And I'm still here! It's a huge job that I only started a week ago and I'm trying very hard not to get too overwhelmed and wrought with anxiety.
- But things are still plugging along at Ngukurr. We have a contigency plan in place and I'm off there tomorrow for a couple of days.

So wish me luck with all these goings on.

And we're advertising for the Coordinator position at the Katherine Language Centre. If anyone's interested (or if anyone's interested in doing some work at Ngukurr too), send me an email: munanga at bigpond dot com

Mah, Jaldu na.

September 07, 2007


So the other day, I was dropping all the language mob home after we'd been at Ngukurr School teaching language for the afternoon, when 5 men in the back of the troopy, our Ritharrŋu and Wägilak teachers, very quickly raised their feet off the floor saying djatam! djatam!

And this is why:

September 01, 2007

the Intervention part 2

This week was a rough week, with another community meeting held by public servants from the Intervention. This time it was to tell the community about the changes to the CDEP program.

CDEP is an employment program subsidised by the Government. It is similar to work for the dole, but slightly different in that the wage is a little higher, it isn't compulsory, it is easy for employees to receive top-up wages or do work extra work and you actually have a supervisor and manager and can build training and employment pathways into your job. CDEP has been working really well here for the past year or more providing employment to over 120 people. More than just provide employment, it helps Ngukurr provide services that we wouldn't otherwise be able to fund. The areas that rely heavily on support from CDEP employment are: creche, art centre, language centre, aged care, mechanic's workshop, builder's workshop, garbage collection, swimming pool/sport'n'rec/after school care, ranger program and more.

And so part of the Intervention plan is the scrapping of CDEP. We knew this was happening, but on Wednesday a meeting was held to tell us more. The meeting was led by two public servants from 'down south' as part of the Intervention and another who is from the Katherine Region. The first woman, Philippa Hibbert, was from DEWR in Bendigo and told us about CDEP finishing and the three steps of what would happen from there.

Part way through her speech, she was interrupted by the council's CEO because the language she was using incomprehensible to - I would guess - all of the 100 or so Aboriginal people at the meeting. She was using terms such as 'the cessation of CDEP' and 'transitioning into income support'. Did she really believe people would understand her?

And so the CEO asked me if I would interpret for her and the crowd. So, I did and I think it helped but I wasn't happy that I had to do it for free when it's actually a very difficult job requiring a lot of knowledge and skill and should be properly organised and paid for, and done by someone who is properly qualified. But for the sake of facilitating proper communication, I gave it a go.

Anyway, she talked about moving off CDEP, about looking at the current activities funded by CDEP and then attempting to move funding into to the relevant department so they can turn CDEP positions into real jobs. For those who don't move into real jobs, the only option is a STEP employment program or simply moving onto Centrelink.

Then the Centrelink rep from the Gold Coast talked about Centrelink and I interpreted for her too. Centrelink will also change as there will be no longer be exemptions for people living in remote communities with little employment opportunities - everyone who is able to work will now have to look for work and/or work for their dole.

The mood from this meeting was very different from the first Intervention meeting. This mob felt like there was nothing they could say. The decisions had been made. Nobody saw any point in arguing or complaining because they felt it would be of no consequence. It was depressing and demoralising to hear that all CDEP jobs would be in jeopardy and that it is likely most people will have to go over to Centrelink.

For anyone who's been a Centrelink client, you would know how demoralising it can be dealing with them. Before the meeting I said to the DEWR woman, how can you possibly believe that it is a good thing to move people from CDEP into the Welfare System. Surely it's a backward step. She didn't have anything to say to that except feebly reiterating the government lines about creating real jobs.

To me, it seemed like this meeting really cracked people here. There was little fight, like there was at the first Intervention meeting. The deals have been done. Nobody here knows why this is being done to them. CDEP works well here and it's being taken away, even though many people have worked very hard for years. Had some positive options been presented, then great - good riddance CDEP - but the impression given was that the only option is Centrelink. Well, I think it just broke people's spirits.

After the community meeting, I attended a closed meeting with the local council - staff and council members. It was a good chance to get more detail on the changes. One thing I was interested in was the STEP program - one of the training/employment programs the government is talking up in the face of the 'cessation' of CDEP. I was thinking, okay, what's this STEP program, I've got to try and be positive and see what Language Centre can make of this situation. After a few questions, I was still trying to work out how to get a STEP program at language centre, until the Intervention people reluctantly admitted that there wasn't actually anyone in the Katherine Region delivering this program - it is still out to tender. Everyone's jaw dropped and the public servants were visibly embarrassed.

That afternoon and the next morning, everyone I work with here was asking me 'what's going to happen', 'what will happen to our jobs', 'where will we get money'. The concerns run deep and no one is happy with the government. We will wait and see, but the scepticism that anything good will come out of this is growing and growing.

A final point: at the closed meeting, I said that the end of CDEP is more than just an economic and employment concern, that socially it will have a massive impact. I spoke of how we see stories on the news of a factory closing in Geelong and they tell us of the significance of 500 jobs going in a city of 100 000. Whereas here we have a community of just over 1,000 finding out that 120 jobs - the bulk of the community's total employment - is now in jeopardy. Socially, the impact of that is huge.

Nobody will ever convince me that the government knows what they are doing and that this Intervention is a good thing.

August 19, 2007

Mal Brough's 1st 'good work' sticker

At Ngukurr, there is a community swimming pool. It is clean, free and provides great fun for dozens of kids each day who go there after school and on saturdays to have a good time. the place is run and supervised by a team of local workers who are employed by the CDEP program. When the health dept came to look at the pool, there were no problems found - it was clean and well maintained. The benefits to the pool at Ngukurr are:

-keeping kids amused and entertained thereby giving parents and grandparents who look after big families in overcrowded houses and little bit of respite
-improving kids health - swimming in the chlorinated water keeps kids' skin clean and thereby reducing the stress on the local clinic for treating scabies, skin sores etc. which can be common problems in communities
-employment and training for local ppl on CDEP who work in the pool, many of whom now have their bronze medallion, a bit of training that comes in very handy.

So why does Mal Brough get a good work sticker? Cuz he's scrapping CDEP, which means there will be a lot fewer workers to run the pool (decreased employment). This may mean reduced opening hours. It may also mean that kids will have to pay to use the pool so that workers can be employed to work at the pool. This will reduce the number of kids using the pool, which will increase skin problems/health problems, thereby increasing the demand on the local clinic (greater health costs) and there is potential for greater boredom and less activities for kids who live in a community where there are already much fewer things to do for entertainment than there are in towns and cities. So maybe they'll just start smoking marijuana younger!

Good thinking Mal. Very wise.

Sadly, I can come up with dozens more examples of how ridiculous some of the govt. new laws are. Stay tuned for more!

August 12, 2007

"no rubber stamp"

If you would like to do *something* to voice your concerns about the legislation currently going through Parliament, GetUp! has set up a campaign where you can email comments to senators about the legislation before Tuesday's vote.

Go to:

It's not much, but better than feeling completely powerless.

August 10, 2007


The government's intervention legislation is being discussed in the senate today. I'm still disgusted and disheartened by the government's actions - mostly with the process and approach they've taken with the whole affair, but also with some of the things that they're legislating (e.g. needing to suspend the racial discrimination act to pass through the legislation... surely that's gotta raise alarm bells).

It's all pretty depressing, especially when you feel so powerless to change what's happening. And that's exactly the reason why ppl are complaining about the paternalistic approach and lack of consultation - it's leaves ppl feeling completely disempowered...

And so today, some of the most important legislation concerning Ngukurr ppl is going through the senate, but ppl here at Ngukurr are barely aware of it. It is not fair and it is not just.

August 02, 2007

The Intervention

Well, the survey team representing the government's 'intervention' came and went yesterday.

Firstly, the communication about the whole thing was poor. There were no announcements about them coming. The local council had to chase up the information themselves about when and what they were doing. Even yesterday, no one knew for sure if there would be a community meeting or if discussions would be 'behind closed doors' so to speak.

But they arrived. Norforce came first and just before lunch a team of public servants came. They first met with the local council and then held a public community meeting.

The meeting started with a representative from Darwin's FACSIA office running through the main points of the intervention: non-compulsory health checks, increased police, tying centrelink payments to school attendance, the wind-up of CDEP, removal of the permit system for the town area and emphasised that this was all in the name of protecting children and keeping them safe. This was all in English and not very plain English. An interpreter came with them but was not utilised.

After that, each public servant introduced themselves and told us what department they represented. The Norforce rep was the stand out - he spoke well and clearly said that their only role was for logistics support - to arrange travel and accommodation.

After that, it was opened up for Ngukurr residents to ask questions. There were some really good questions and points made and some a bit rambly and unfocused. Some people spoke really well. Highlights were:

Former council president DD spoke very strongly about overcrowded housing and how it needs to change and this has been an issue that has been well known for a long time and spoken about many times.

Local teacher RR spoke very strongly about the school. About the need for more facilities. About overcrowded classrooms and that if there was 100% attendance the school just was not equipped to handle it.

GD expressed her concerns about the health checks and said there was a lot of confusion - how some people thought that if children were found to be sexually active (which many teenagers are) they would be placed in foster care. She asked for a clear answer about this and this was about the only clear answer that was forthcoming from the government reps - health checks would be carried out in the same way they are carried out by the local clinic with the same processes.

These community meetings are intense affairs where everyone's deep seated concerns get a chance to bubble to the surface. And I was no different. I am deeply concerned about the changes to the permit system and was ready to pluck up the courage to say something too, but not being sure if I should, being a whitefella and all. But council president KR said it was fine so I got up to say my bit. Approaching the mic, the govt. rep looked at me apprehensively and asked 'where are you from?'. "I'm from here", i said and took the mic.

Facing 100 black faces with mic in hand was daunting, and so I uttered 'gardi!' (means 'goodness' or 'crikey') quietly and there was laughter from the Ngukurr mob who know me well. Anyway, I addressed the crowd in Kriol. In Kriol, I said i wanted to talk about permits. I said there was a review into the permit system last year and JJ from language centre made a submission with 200 signatures all saying they didn't want the permit system to change. I said the rangers also made a submission. I said, "ai nomo sabi eni blekbala la dis komyunidi hu wandim det permit system bla tjeinj" (I don't know any Aboriginal ppl in this community who want the permit system to change) and I said that there was never any report from the permit review and the government is going ahead and changing the law anyway, so that any whitefella can come to Ngukurr without a permit. Then I turned to the govt rep and said in English, "So my question to you is why is the government going ahead and changing the permit system when I don't know any Aboriginal people who want it to change?". And then I got a nice round of applause from the crowd and a wishy washy answer about there being pros and cons about changing the permit system and that was about as much as they said. One govt rep did try to say that by removing the permit system then it would be possible for a high school to be built in Ngukurr (which RR had said was badly needed) - something about service providers being able to come and do the work. This was met with a few cries of 'that's bullshit'.

The local principal (a Maori woman who has been here for 7 or so years) also spoke well, saying that the communication about their arrival was poor. That they need to inform people about what's happening much better. That this shows them respect and that if they do that then people will respect you and be more likely to support what you're trying to do. She also said that people struggle enough to look after children on centrelink payments so instead of punishing ppl whose children aren't attending, how about rewarding ppl whose children are good attenders.

As the meeting was winding up, GD (I think) asked a good question about what's going to happen from here. The answer to which was another wishy-washy one: the health survey team would be coming sometime soon but apart from that there was no information about what would happen next.

Other people spoke too and eventually the meeting wound up. After that, the public servants broke up to have smaller meeting with groups relevant to their dept. I sat in with the local people who are involved in Education who spoke to the DEET rep. He listened well to all the issues that people brought up, again discussing lack of facilities, lack of teacher housing, overcrowded classrooms, lack of training for assistant teachers. By that time it was 4 pm and by 5pm the govt people had all gone.

JJ, who I work closely with, commented that it was a good meeting, but it's a familiar story. The issues that were discussed are issues that have been around for a long time and Ngukurr ppl have brought them up again and again in similiar meetings with similar sorts of public servants. The mood from Ngukurr ppl afterwards seemed to be that they wait in sceptical hope that maybe something will come out of all of this.

Meanwhile, my adrenhalin was still pumping after having my first go at speaking at a public meeting and at public-speaking in Kriol. I was still a bit concerned at the appropriateness of me doing so, but I was thanked and praised by a number of Ngukurr people, black and white. Apparently I made the public servants 'ai kamat' (lit: eyes come out). And I hope that I showed them that it's not just a given that white people only speak English and that you can, if you try, learn to communicate in a way that makes Aboriginal ppl feel comfortable, happy and proud.

July 31, 2007

Gabmen mob kaman tumorra

The government survey mob is coming tomorrow. Woo-hoo. Or as they say in Marra, jawayiga! (Although I'm not sure how well my sarcasm translates into Marra.)

July 27, 2007

here i am

so slow with posting... sorry. so much happens and i have so much to share but so much of what happens is going by unblogged.

also, the politics (intervention etc.) is getting me down and is so overwhelming that i just don't know where to start blogging about it.

but i've had pretty good week at work. most of it has been out bush seeing places that i haven't seen before. Tuesday was a day trip to Walgundu with is a special site with rock art n lots of stories n history. The highlight was hanging out with some Alawa speakers that I used work with quite a bit and finally doing a bit of language work on Alawa again. Wednesday was in the office and the CDEP team worked so well - they're such a good team at the moment. But they're the ones pushing me to work! They made a gazillion flashcards for teaching and then we got through a fair bit of a Kriol translation job we're doing. Which is tiring but definitely not a bad thing! And Thursday/Friday was an overnight bush trip to Nyanyalindi as part of a school excursion for the high school kids. The mob I took were great company and we saw lots of country that I hadn't been to before and I helped (well, mostly watched) AP make spears and they had a bit of bunggul for the kids at night and I had fresh bream for lunch straight out of the fire. Tired but satisfied. :-)

July 06, 2007

Politics and getting on with it

I've found all the politics stuff that's been in the news lately really full on. I've been thinking about it lots and have had lots to say, but then at the same time, I don't quite know what to say and don't quite know what to think. Generally though, I find it pretty scary what the government is doing - and I think the fear comes about from the poor communication - when no one can tell you or knows what's happening, you can't really reassure yourself that everything's okay. One thing I can say though, is that the government's actions definitely have political motivations - no one can convince me otherwise of that.

I was a bit depressed about it all a week or so ago, but I sorta came to the conclusion that I'll just get on with what we're trying to do here and then the proof (of our worth) will be in the pudding.

And have we been doing some good work or what? The 4 ppl working with me on CDEP are doing really well at the moment and are a good little team. The highlight being AJ and AD learning how to digitise old recordings from cassette onto the computer. So now we have 19 short Marra texts that are 33 years old digitised and can now be burned off as audio CDs. Even better is that I've shown AD, AJ and JJ how to update the written versions of the texts into the current Marra orthography so now we have these old recording that were sitting there not doing much now coming to life - on CD and printed off in a much more readable format. So cool.

You know, when I started working in communities, I was probably no different from most linguists when they start off. Fieldwork seemed to be about documenting language from an old person and the function of community members was little more than providing oral language - all the recording, writing, analysis was then done by the munanga linguist. But what I love about my work at the moment is that the guys I work with are doing more and more of everything - transcribing, typing up stuff, uploading sound files, recording, creating materials etc. One of my 'dreams' I wrote down at the start of the year is that I wanted my role to be more of that of 'coach' (someone who trains and directs) rather than 'player' (the person doing all the footwork)... and we seem to be slowly getting there.

Good work guys!

June 26, 2007

the worst

I am really scared about what the government's doing with their 'National emergency response'. So much so, that I really just want to put my head in the sand because thinking about what might happen is terrifying, but putting my head in the sand is not going to be very helpful.

I've started reading the 'Little children are sacred' report (from the inquiry into child protection from sexual abuse) and the government's response and I'll comment as I go along.

One very important point stands out in the very first recommendation of the report - a point that Howard's government seems to have missed totally. "It is critical that both governments commit to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities."

Let me repeat that:

"It is critical that both governments commit to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities."

That recommendation has now been totally ignored by the government. Totally.

I will comment more about all this business soon, but in the meantime, I was talking briefly about the government's action with JJ, who is very concerned (as probably are all Aboriginal ppl living in communities) and I said to him 'out of all the no-good things the government has done to youmob this is the worst'. (Well, the worst in my time - fortunately I wasn't around when Aboriginal ppl were being killed, raped, removed from families, having their land taken over, punished for speaking language etc.)

June 25, 2007


Hey I'm in another article. Look here. And I don't even think I sound too silly!

June 15, 2007


Occasionally, I get asked if there's any meaning behind the names of the languages we work with here, like, if a similar thing happens here that you get on the east coast where language names are sometimes derived for the word for 'no, nothing' in that language (e.g. Gooreng gooreng (from Bundaberg area) is the word for 'no' reduplicated).

That doesn't happen here but I like to think what the languages would be called if that *did* happen here:

Marluy marluy
Mandi mandi
Gatjja gatjja
Waba waba
Waari waari

hehe... sounds funny.

But then the other day I realised that it *does* happen for one of the languages here, although only informally and in casual speech... I realised that I've regularly ppl talking about Yolŋu or Ritharrŋu / Wägilak mob and referring to them as 'yaka bayaŋu mob'. Neat!

June 13, 2007

Pidgin and creoles workshop

Last week we had a big week in town (Katherine). We had two days with Batchelor and then three days with the Education Department for a Language Revitalisation Workshop.

One of the highlights was working with Batchelor's linguistics students. They were in Katherine for a week-long workshop on Pidgins and Creoles. Their lecturer approached us to present something about the creole spoken at Ngukurr so we did a three hour session with them which was enjoyed by everyone.

Usmob really enjoyed meeting the linguistics students and finding out where they’re from. They came from all over: Torres Strait, Desert, Western NSW, Victoria, Palm Island and came from different backgrounds (but all Indigenous). And they really enjoyed meeting the guys from Ngukurr and learning a bit about Kriol. It was just one of those lovely sharing experiences, but also included lots of discussion, opining and more.

I was reflecting on why I enjoyed the session with them so much. One reason was that being linguistics students, I could use linguistics terms and be understood. Normally, I have to explain what a pronoun is, let alone more tricky things like the difference between a transitive and intransitive verb – but these guys knew it straight away which was lovely.

But it wasn’t til later that night I realised the main reason I enjoyed working with that mob. Because they’re linguists (or learning to be linguists) whose goal is the same as ours here at Ngukurr: the betterment of Indigenous languages and people. And it was comforting and refreshing. It was just so nice to be teaching like-minded people! And they warmed my heart to see what they’re learning and doing. I wish them all the best.

June 01, 2007

Marra and elan

The Marra team I work with here is just getting stronger and stronger. Their latest achievement is learning some basic skills on elan - which is a program linguists use where you can link sound to text - it helps a lot when you're transcribing and translating texts and it's good for listening to audio and reading along with it.

So JJ, AJ and AD who are all on CDEP and the language centre have all learned to use elan a little bit - selecting and playing the sound files while reading the annotated text, as well as entering in the text so that it then attaches itself to the soundfile. And the wonderful FR has been helping us with the transcriptions and translations because the rest of us are all still learning Marra.

So in the past two weeks we've transcribed and translated a 9-minute story in Marra spoken by an old lady a couple of years ago. It's been a good learning experience for me too. Here's a little bit of the story:

... wala-yurranyi na-warlja.
Guwarda-niwiyinji nana ragalunju: "buuuuuuuuuub".
"Ei! Jaw-wilanyi warlja nanggaya nyin.garr. Jawayiga!", wala-mindininya.
Yundunyuga jaw-wilanyi.
"Yundunyuga jaw-niwanji!"

Rough translation:
They used to go for dugong.
We would hear the trumpet shell: 'boooooooop'.
"Hey! They harpooned dugong, they're coming. Good-o!", they used to say.
They would harpoon sea turtle.
"We harpooned sea turtle!" (they would say).

Old languages and new technologies. Beautiful.

May 26, 2007


Okay, I'm rubbish at taking photos. I average about one a month when in reality there's thousands of things I could be taking great photos of. But here's a couple of wildlife pics. First one is 'urban' wildlife, my neighbour who is looking after a wallaby that was rescued after its mum become roadkill... so cute! The second one is a big momma Praying Mantis sitting happily on the pandanus i planted at the language centre two and a half years ago (planted from seeds, i might add... I'm very proud of my pandanus).

May 04, 2007

running roughshod over Traditional Owners

Borroloola is a town/community south-east of Ngukurr and the two places have strong ties.

The NT Govt is running roughshod over the locals and Traditional Owners who are trying to legally stop a mine expansion and the diversion of their river(!).

It's absolutely shameful.

My gagu has been writing about it on his blog. Click on the link to 'matjjin-nehen' there on the right please.

If there was something more I could suggest you do, I'd ask you to do it, but I don't know what we can do!

Very sad indeed.

April 26, 2007

hear hear

From ABC News website:


Former prime minister Malcolm Fraser says the Federal Government has ignored most of a major report on the removal of Indigenous Australians from their families.

In the lead up to next month's 10-year anniversary of the 'Bringing Them Home' report, Mr Fraser has attacked the Government's handling of Indigenous affairs, saying it has regressed.

Mr Fraser says neither the Federal Government nor the Opposition is showing any real interest in Aboriginal affairs.

He says more money needs to be spent on health, and education has gone backwards.

Mr Fraser, who is a co-patron of the Stolen Generations Alliance, says there is no stark point of difference between the two major parties on Aboriginal affairs.

He says the Federal Government should follow the Canadian Government's example.

"The Canadians have shown a very real interest in resolving these problems," he said.

"The kind of interest that hasn't come from Canberra, [from] either party.

"I don't really believe has come from either of the major parties in the state arena."

Former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) chair, Lowitja O'Donoghue, has supported Mr Fraser's stand.

She says this is the worst time in Aboriginal affairs history.

some bushman i am

The school started its bush trips again today, now that the wet seasons gone and the roads are dry (well.. dryish).

And so me n JJ gathered a few old people to go out bush and teach kids language and culture. We were a bit early so we stopped on the way and old DB started cutting wood to make boomerangs. I started helping, chopping off a branch with an axe, and next thing a bit of wood flew in my eye! It was very uncomfortable and I couldn't wash it out. By the time the other troopies came by with all the kids, I'd had enough and asked JJ to take me back to Ngukurr so I could go to the clinic. So they dropped me off and then went back to join the excursion. And me, well, standing in the waiting room, the bit of wood came out of my eye all by itself and so I walked home feeling relieved and rather silly.

April 20, 2007

I heart language revitalisation

Today we recorded my little banji reading a Marra story that goes like this:


Nana ninya manabarru.
Wagmin nana manabarru.
Wiji gana wa-jinja nana ninya.
Gana nyardin-gugi, wagmin.
Nana ninya manabarru, marluy gana ngalgi-wugi. Marluy. Guda.

These words were spoken by FR and we turned it into a little storybook that we have been using in the school program. A translation of the story is:


This is a buffalo.
The buffalo is black.
It eats grass.
It's skin is black.
The buffalo doesn't have a skin name (subsection). Nothing. That's all.

My little banji, JF, is about 12 and he read the story pretty well. It's pretty special for a 12 year old kid to be able to read that story in a language which is only spoken by a few old people.

Lots of credit to the Marra team here at Ngukurr who do a wonderful job. I heart language revitalisation.

April 19, 2007

Jidan kwait!

I learned another good word today (courtesy of AJ and old FR): Ngayab-gumi.

Ngayab-gumi is a Marra word meaning 'jidan kwait' in Kriol (lit: Sit down quiet) and it's a very useful word to use in the classroom for the Marra students who tend to get a bit restless (which is nearly all of them, nearly all of the time!).

The English translation of the Kriol phrase 'jidan kwait', isn't as straightforward as it seems. You'd be inclined to translate it literally as 'sit quietly', but I recently learned that you can be told to 'jandap en jidan kwait', which makes no sense when translated literally because you are telling someone to stand up and sit down quietly. But to 'jandap en jidan kwait' means more like 'stand up and be good/don't move/behave yourself/don't talk'. And so I think the best translation of 'jidan kwait' might be 'behave yourself'.

But anyway, I'll just embrace the Marra version, Ngayab-gumi.

April 09, 2007


This time of year there's only two ways to leave Ngukurr: either on a very small aeroplane or as shown - by a 30min/1hr boat ride up to Fomail (which is still 300kms from Katherine).

Which is what I did the other day. And now I'm having a lovely Easter in Katherine. I wonder if I'll get to drive back to Ngukurr?

April 02, 2007

yo manymak wäwa!

My wäwa, BW, rocks. Here a few reasons why. (He's the one in the middle. He gave me this photo today, it was taken last month while he was in Melbourne).

He likes to teach anyone and everyone his language Wägilak. He cleans the council office here everyday and he's been teaching the Accounts woman a few bits of Wägilak. She came up to me going 'B keeps teaching me his language but I don't know what he's saying!'. So I asked him what he's been teaching her and then I wrote it down for her, and she knows it now. So every morning when BW asks her Nhämirri nhe? (how are you?) she answers, Manymak (good).

BW has started committing himself to teaching Wägilak in our school classes and he's excellent. He has authority with the kids and is a natural gifted teacher. Today, I sat down with him and my gaburani (uncle) DW and they made a new song to teach the little kids (to the tune of london bridge is falling down):

Detuŋdja ŋay djirryuna djirryuna djirryuna
Detuŋdja ŋay djirryuna
Larruwala ŋay gapugu

(The buffalo went down, went down, went down)
(The buffalo went down)
(He was looking for water)

And after making the song, BW said the words that are magic to any linguists ears... 'yu garrim teip? ai wandi pudum la teip.' (Have you got a stereo? I want to record it).

BW is also the man who got me up dancing bunggul and showed me what to do.

Last Friday, BW got back from Melbourne. He was down there (with 2 other guys from here) performing at Federation square, with the Australian Art Orchestra, as part of the Swimming World Championships festival. He also performed at the opening of an Ngukurr Arts art exhibition. Coming home, he was even more determined to strengthen and maintain culture, dance and language here at Ngukurr. What a good man. Manymak wäwa!

March 26, 2007

last kapula weeks

Hey sorry. I haven't posted for a while. To play catch-up I'll just have to summarise the last couple of weeks, but I'm going to do it in the style of my real banji (brother-in-law), who describes things as a 'F' (big 'f') - which is a good thing and then 'f' (little 'f') - which is a not-so-good thing. Here's a summary of the last couple of weeks working here at Ngukurr:

F - an amazing session working with old MT on Marra. FR and BR were also there, creating a very rare Marra speech community. We recorded some conversation. MT *demanded* I speak Marra to her ("You've been here long enough!"), which was extremely difficult but fun. We translated and transcribed 6 minutes of Marra in 3 hours. JJ and AJ learned some basic skills on ELAN. It was pretty spectacular.
F - helping three artists with stories for their entries to the 27th Telstra Aboriginal Art Award. Not only do I love learning about the art, I also get a lot of satisfaction from knowing the stories are going to be fairly accurate cuz I have a decent level of cultural understanding. But the best part is that the artists are really happy that their stories are being written down well.
f - the rain hasn't stopped and the community is still cut off by road
F - Another workshop for the guys I work with who are enrolled in the Batchelor course for Own Language Work. They're getting through it pretty well. Especially my wawa, AG, who has come so far in two years.
f - Nobody is interested in Nunggubuyu and no one has been teaching Nunggubuyu at the school.
F - JJ gave me a present - a set of beautiful clapsticks. So lovely. (I went to Katherine and he had $350 to buy him a chainsaw. It cost $440 and I said 'don't worry about the rest, but you have to make me something now!'. And he did... hehe... I like it when humbugging works in your favour.)
f - my house in Katherine is getting mouldy and full of weeds and I'm not there to look after it
f - there's somebody in Katherine who I'm missing a bit too much
F - the Waagilak mob here are doing great. Teaching with commitment and enthusiasm. Now I just have convince them to work at language centre everyday and learn to read n write Waagilak... hehehe
F- Our territory MP Barb McCarthy came to visit last week and I had a good chat with her. She really supports what we do, which is lovely.
f - Mal Brough is still our Federal Minister. And that somebody is still PM... but maybe not for long :-)

Any questions? I can expand if you like... otherwise I'll just continue going about my business.

And I should take some photos to make this blog look lively.... hmmm...

March 06, 2007


I learned a cool new Rembarrnga word yesterday.

Me n my wawa were listening to an old recording of him telling a story and halfway, I lost what he was talking about.

"We saw two policeman", he translated for me. But I couldn't hear where he was talking about any blijiman (Kriol for policeman).

And so my wawa taught me that Rembarrnga has its own word for policeman (which is what he said on the recording):


It's my favourite new word which I'm going to use now, and say, "Nguwahjœrrœ baganh!". (There's a policeman there!).

Note: Question for further thought - What's the cultural significance of the fact that the Rembarrnga word for policeman incorporates the Rembarrnga word for 'cheeky' or 'a thing to be wary of'...

March 01, 2007

bunggul man

Last week, I danced bunggul for the first time. (Bunggul is a form of traditional dancing from Arnhem Land.) It was so fun. I loved it, but it was bloody difficult and I was feeling very self-conscious.

Bunggul is performed here for funerals and other ceremonial occasions, like when there is an opening and other things like that. Well, last week, this bloke from England was hanging around and talking to the bunggul mob about touring overseas. (They are very good dancers and musicians). And so they had a bit of a bunggul session at the school so this guy could videotape them. So it wasn’t for any big occasion, that’s why I could pluck up the courage to give it a go. And I’m glad I did.

I’ve been to watch bunggul a few times now and people keep saying to me, half-joking, half-serious, “Come on Wamut, you now!”. I’ve always wanted to have a go, but been too embarrassed. But I thought to myself, I better just do it, or else people will stop asking me and I’ll miss the opportunity. And so I got up and danced, and it was great fun. I was terrible, but was starting to get the hang of it a little bit. But all the guys there that know me were very supportive and happy that I had a go. And next time, I’ll be a little bit better. Yay. I like dancing. It’s good for the soul. And because it’s traditional dancing, that feeling was multiplied by about 1000.

February 22, 2007

Permits review - please submit something

The permit system (where you need a permit to be on Aboriginal Land) is under review and submissions are due next Wednesday! (Feb 28). All options are on the table - from no change, to removing the permit system altogether. I don't know a link that provides more info, but maybe email me or leave a comment - I'm trying to get a hold of the NLC newsletter that talks about the matter.

I urge everyone to think about making a submission. I'm against changing the system because I worry about taking away power from communities/Traditional Owners. They're oppressed enough as it is.

Any individual or organisation can send a submission. Address it to:
Greg Roche
Assistant Secretary, Land
Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination
Woden ACT 2606
Fax: 02 6282 3601
Email: greg.roche at facsia dot gov dot au

I think the government's trying to rush this through before the election and it's got me very worried.

February 19, 2007

a bit of waagilak

This one's for you mami.

My waawa BW and muluri AP were hanging around a bit today and BW asked about SN. AP translated my reply into Waagilak:

(note: i haven't checked my spelling and don't know how to put in Yolngu matha characters either. forgive!)

Banggul'yurru ngay ngulbitj dhang, ngarndimuya
(She's coming back cold season time, your mother).

Then BW and AP told me what to say next:

Barri ngay banggul'yurru babang' mirri nu
(Might be she's coming back with your father) (That is, she might be bringing back a husband)

And we all chuckled.

Then the next bit was for my privelege:

Ngarra ya yang'ngaraya nhina na baman'nu, birr
(I've stayed here for a long time now, shit.)

Ngarraya barri matha mirri nu banggul'yurru.
(I might go back speaking language.)

Too deadly eh? Thanks guys. :-)

February 17, 2007

Nagooka, Nooka and Ngukurr

[Update (Oct 2012): go here for a more recent post and video about pronouncing Ngukurr]

Before I came to Ngukurr, I already had a good idea how ‘Ngukurr’ should be pronounced (because I’m a clever linguist). I remember laughing at a story I heard long before I came here of a white person who called this place ‘Nagooka’. That’s the worst mispronounciation I’ve heard of.

Less worse, but still wrong, is what the majority of munanga say, which is ‘Nooka’. I hear some munanga say, ‘oh the g is silent’. The g isn’t silent, it’s there – it goes with the n. The ng is the same ng you get when you say ‘singing’. But in English, you don’t get the ng sound at the beginning of words, so most munanga have a very hard time hearing and saying the ng.

Secondly, the two us in Ngukurr are pronounced the same – like the u in ‘put’. But most munanga turn the second u into an ‘ah’ sound.

Lastly – the double r. It’s not silent. It’s a rolled r, we don’t get that in English either, and lots of munanga can’t roll their rs.

So even though this place is known throughout the white part of the NT as ‘Nooka’, really, it’s proper name is pronounced Ngukurr, just like it’s spelled – ng- u- k- u- rr.

I never thought about it much until last year when the principal at the school made a point of saying that munanga should show respect by trying to say Ngukurr properly. Before that, to me it was just one of those things – everybody says ‘Nooka’ and that the way it is.

But I started to take notice.

Firstly, I noticed how whenever local mob are talking to munanga, they will say ‘Nooka’, because that’s what munanga know and understand, even though everyone here knows that not how it’s really pronounced. I started to realise that this was a bit sad – the local mob are changing the way they’re speaking on white people’s behalf, and mispronouncing the name of their own community! But the reverse isn’t happening, munanga keep saying Nooka in ignorant bliss.

Secondly, I keep noticing how important it is to local mob to use and maintain the real placenames and their correct pronounciation. Last year we went camping at Lumayirrima. On the maps this place is called Lomarieum Lagoon – obviously a total bastardisation of its actual name. I jokingly suggested we graffiti the sign there to correct the name, but to my surprise the response was serious – yes, we should, it should have the proper name there.

Then the other day we were editing a story we’d written. The author had written two local placenames with their more common, but incorrect names. I wrote up the story on the board for editing and when I asked if they wanted these names or did they want the correct names to response was clear – yes, put the proper names there, properly spelled. And so ‘yellow water’ became Yawurrwarda and ‘wadjalai’ became Ngujulayi.

It seems that it is important to people here that placenames are used correctly, it’s just not being asserted.

And so lately, I’ve started saying ‘Ngukurr’ instead of ‘Nooka’, to white people as well as the Ngukurr mob. And I’m finding the response interesting. Over the phone, when I’ve said ‘Ngukurr’ to a white person, the response is always ‘where?’, and I’ve had to repeat myself and say ‘Nooka’. No wonder this mob just say Nooka, they get misunderstood enough as it is. But I’m gonna try and persist... I no longer work at the Nooka Language Centre, I’m at the Ngukurr Language Centre.

February 10, 2007


Here I was starting to wonder if my job here is becoming a bit stale.

Today was one of those not so exciting days where our main job was to scour the school roll, sorting kids into language groups and organising where, when and how to run our school classes… not really something I need my linguistic skills for, just a long-winded adminstrative task.

But it’s funny how things can just turn around.

Old F has been keen to work with these old Marra ladies (the world’s best Marra speakers) who are usually either at their remote outstation, or in Numbulwar (inaccesible this time of year). But she saw those old ladies here in Ngukurr today. And so at the end of the day, sick of my admin tasks, I went to Old F to see if she wanted to sit down with the two old ladies. And she did – she’s been hanging out to check the Marra materials she makes). So we went off to ask them.

And it was the best ever! The three of them sat for an hour, speaking Marra 80% of the time. I sat there quietly, recording every word. It was so great. I understand a good deal of the conversation, mostly because I knew what they were talking about (because they were going over Marra materials I’d helped produce). But still, it was the first time I’d heard so much Marra and the first time I’d heard Old F speak Marra in conversation. And when I had a go at using some of my basic Marra skills the response was excellent and the old ladies complemented me. Ahhhhhh. Such a good feeling and it was so wonderful to be listening to some of the last speakers of Marra in the world sit around and bust out their language like it was as ordinary as a language with millions of speakers. And for me to follow what was going on!

February 08, 2007



Has anyone looked into or had a go at contributing to Wikipedia?

It looks like there's a bit of a rigmarole, but might be worth doing?

February 07, 2007

back in Ngukurr

I got back to Ngukurr on Sunday. I actually felt like a real adventurer going deep into the wilds. I had to drive 40kms down a very soggy and muddy unsealed road until I got to 4mile boat ramp, on a very swollen Roper River. From there, a boat made the 1 hour trip up the Roper to get me and take me back to Ngukurr. And now I'm here, and I could be here for a couple of months because the roads will be cut for quite a while. So yes, I feel a bit like I'm in wild depths of Australia. (But not really, because this place is far from foreign for me now).

So I'm straight back into work. The last few weeks, some of the language mob have been working with another lady. She's not a qualified linguist, but it was good to have her around to keep things moving along in my absence. And so the language mob had to work a bit more independently. Their task was to make a book about bush medicine. And they did a great job. R and A wrote short stories for about 10 bush medicines, and F and B did the same for Marra. They did all the writing themselves and did the best they could, and they actually did really well.

However, they did get stuck with not knowing how to spell quite a few words. They decided to have a go anyway, and then wait for me to help straighten it out. And so that's what we've been doing since I got back.

But it's felt a bit funny. Really, these guys have done great work to do as much as they have and their writing is actually really good. Mistakes are inevitable. But it's felt funny to have me come in and 'correct' their work. Firstly, it feels a bit like I'm coming in saying they've done it wrong, when their work is good and they should be really proud of what they've done. Consequently, doing these corrections has made it very clear how prescriptivist linguists can be. I feel like I've come in saying: 'I know the orthography, I know the way things should be spelled, and I'm going to change how you've written your language'. It feels strange.

But I don't know how it can be different. I mean, the language mob put me in the 'expert' position themselves and they want me to make sure it's right. (But I'm still concerned that it's disempowering). And I also think that they would like to improve their skills and learn more from me, so I don't think what I'm doing is a bad thing. All the corrections I'm doing are with the language workers. I guess the worse scenario is to go off and do it all myself without them - somehow this would be easier though, in that I probably wouldn't realise how prescreptivist I'm being. But when I'm doing it in front of the language workers, it's plain as day.

Does anybody out there have any similar experiences... like a linguist working on a bilingual school program... does the linguist always end up having the final say on spelling when producing materials? (I guess that depends on the skills of the blekbala linguists too...)

January 31, 2007

not-so-hypothetical scenario

Okay, here's a scenario that happened to me a few weeks ago. I didn't know what to do. What would you do?

You're on holidays in Broome, staying at a nice resort having a relaxing time. You go to the cafe/restaurant for an afternoon coffee and you're sitting there reading a really good book. Tourist season is long gone so it's quiet - actually, you're the only one there at that point in time - so it's extra relaxing. You're into your book and enjoying your coffee. Out of the corner of your eye you notice other people coming in, so you glance up and then go back to what you were reading. When you go back to you book, you realise you've just seen the Prime Minister and his wife. You look up again and they've gone behind you to the back to sit down and have some lunch while one of their minder sits quietly and the door to the restaurant. Understandably, you're in a bit of shock, feeling nervous/excited.... what do you do next????

And so what did I do? I texted an 'ohmygod' text to my friend wondering if I should do something. But I was too freaked by being that close to someone so powerful and it was much easier to just keep reading my book. And that's what I did!

Still makes a good story though doesn't it?

January 30, 2007

getting there...

I've had a lovely long holiday and am feeling much less burnt out... I'm back at work in Katherine and it's nearly time for me to go back to Ngukurr. I don't feel quite ready (not sure if I can ever be really ready) but getting there...

I'll start posting stuff again soon, but hello to anyone reading this and hope you had a loverly Christmas and New Years.