December 04, 2011

Conferenced out but what fun! (Langfest recap Pt. 1)

After sweating it out in Katherine and Ngukurr over the past few months and doing lotsa really enjoyable and good work with the Ngukurr mob (which I haven't shared nearly enough of on this blog), I've now landed back in cold country (Canberra) just as the rain starts in the north and makes travel difficult again for a few months.

I timed my return to Canberra for Langfest - a series of linguistics conferences held by various national language and linguistics associations - and I'm sitting here tired and fatigued from five long days of stimulating linguistics presentations and the endless socialising that happens throughout these events. Despite my fatigue, it's all been really great and I'm going to attempt a bit of a recap here. I could write a minor thesis on all the talks I went to and the ideas they threw up, but I'm just going to start writing and see how I go. Maybe a reader or two will stay with me!

The first two days were for the Applied Linguistics conference (joint annual conferences of ALAA and ALANZ - the applied linguistics associations of Australia and New Zealand). It started on a great note with an excellent plenary by Andy Kirkpatrick from Griffith Uni who talked about English as a lingua franca in SE Asia. This was a topic I'd never thought about before but Andy's material was very engaging. Two tidbits from the talk stuck with me:

He talked about education in the Philippines and questioned the value of teaching in English and Filipino when most students spoke neither language, but often spoke a local language (e.g. Bohol) plus a regional language (e.g. Cebuano). Apparently the rate of students dropping out of school around year 5 is horrific which is probably a result of such an linguistically alienating education system. This resonated very strongly with me, thinking about the NT where Aboriginal languages are restricted from being the language of instruction and attendance rates are also horrific. This was comforting in a weird way - comforting to know that the crap we are dealing with in the NT isn't  unique but just what happens when Mother Tongue Education is ignored.

Andy also talked about Chinese education in SE Asia and commented on Kevin Rudd and his Putonghua ("standard" Chinese, cf. Guangdonghua and other varieties) skills. In Australia, his bilingualism was not widely respected. Andy condemned Australian attitudes towards Rudd's Chinese speaking and attitudes towards bilingualism in general, saying that many Aussies feel that "when you speak another language, then you're siding with the enemy". I was aware of this attitude, but what I, like most Australians, wasn't aware of was the Rudd's Chinese-speaking talents caused a huge ruckus in Singapore who apparently freaked out at "an Anglo speaking better Mandarin than anyone in Singapore cabinet!". Maybe if more Aussies realised that K-Rudd's Chinese gave us international cred like this example shows than fewer would have disparaged it.

I spent a lot of the Applied Linguistics conference listening to talks about Aboriginal English and work going on in education with Aboriginal and Islander kids who don't speak English the same way most of their Anglo teachers do. There are some really interesting projects going on. I particularly liked the research that Ian Malcolm discussed by Sharifian which compared the ways Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal kids retold a story. The research demonstrated that each group brings their own 'cultural schema' to the task. For example, Aboriginal kids would pay attention to details in the story like that the woman in the story was a widow but the Anglo kids would focus on other aspects. I like research on Aboriginal English that goes beyond listing grammatical and phonological features and this was a nice example.

On the other hand, I do sort of cringe at quite a bit of research on Aboriginal English. In my experience, it's not a label that many Aboriginal people feel comfortable in applying to themselves and the way they speak. There's a real danger in pigeon-holing Aboriginal people with the label, as Aboriginal English is nowhere near as prestigious as Anglo English and also many or most Aboriginal people are sophisticated code-switchers who are very competent users of more standard forms of English and are rarely if ever monodialectal. But still, it's an interesting field and sensitively-done research can be really revealing and exciting.

Okay, well I'll have to call this Part One of my conference recap as it's now 1am and I have be up and ready for Uni in a few hours!  Goodnight all. Hopefully I get around to telling you more about langfest tomorrow.

November 09, 2011

Starring on ABC

I forgot to mention on here that I was interviewed by the ABC a few weeks ago, along with BR who has been so so great in helping my with my Marra work at Ngukurr over the past 18 months.

We were interviewed for ABC Radio's Northern Territory rural report, but they also did up a really nice online article where you can hear the interview and even hear a little bit of BR and FR speaking Marra at start.

Here's the link.

October 06, 2011

Ai sabi tok Frentj na!

I wrote a post a while back about a little boy thinking I was speaking French when I was actually speaking Kriol. Well, I'm pleased to say, I speak French now!

Haha. Not quite.

I recorded old MT telling a story about one of her paintings the other day:

The painting is actually a gift for a French volunteer who has been working at the Art Centre here at Ngukurr for a few months.  So, after working with the recording in the usual way by transcribing MT's Marra and adding a Kriol translation (thanks to FR), I also added an English translation which was then translated into French!

So, for the first time, I now have a Marra recording translated into French. Maybe it's a world first!

Here's an extract of what MT told us (and yes, the French sounds clumsy sometimes because it's a fairly literal translation):

Nana ninya, warr-iwiganji "rambaramba". Nyingaya-wajurlu gunyan, ya-girriya-ni, gana ngarr-abama. Gana ngarr-abama mingi gana... warlindu mingi bigana, nana gunyan gana ngarr-uyinga.

Celui la, on l'appelle "rambaramba". Il aime le lait, des femmes, quand il le sent. Quand il le sent, apres... il y va apres, parce qu'il... sent le lait.

Yumarr! (Bien!)

Oh, and it's a good story too. It's about a type of snake called rambaramba that likes milk and as such is known to be attracted to breast milk.  Unfortunately, it's also a prime example of what can be lost when you translate from a language like Marra into English or French. In Marra, the word for milk (including breast milk) and the word for breast is one and the same: gunyan. So when you say in Marra that 'the snake likes gunyan', you're simultaneously saying 'the snake likes milk', 'the snake likes breastmilk' and 'the snake like breasts'. And you can have a giggle about it. When you put it into English you have to choose one. I went with 'milk'. Much less fun. And then you have to do a bit more cognitive work to figure out that rambaramba likes chasing after breasts.

(This is an example why being able to express yourself in your mother tongue is convenient, valuable and important! *cough cough*... NT Department of Education... )

September 29, 2011

Lovely photo - Marra mob join in the Song Peoples Sessions project

I just wanted to share this lovely photo that Ant from the Ngukurr Arts took of me working with the Ngukurr Marra gang today. We were going through some Marra songs that were recorded a couple of months ago as part of the Song Peoples Sessions project run by Winanjjikari Music Centre and Barkly Regional Arts.

It was a good session and the translations and transcriptions will be published soon, along with a collection of songs from a range of endangered languages throughout the region. One of the old ladies here had already done a great job transcribing and translating the songs a couple of months back. We're just doing a bit of a clean up. Good work team!

Lovely photo, I reckon.

And here's a blogpost about the Marra part of the Song Peoples Session project. Keep an eye for the CD when it's released!

September 05, 2011

Gani n-marranguru gana ngarl-umindini

Here's a photo of my "office" for the afternoon:

I sat down here with BR, FR and JJ to transcribe a story in Marra old MT had recorded with me last week. It's a great story about two men who encountered a submarine in the Gulf of Carpentaria while hunting for dugong but had no idea what it was. Initially, they thought it was a rainbow serpent. 

Kudos to the language mob here for their wonderful work and contributions: MTs story was great and well told and this arvo BR and FR helped me plough through the 7-minute recording in just two hours, completing a nice transcription and Kriol translation.

I have to share the bit that I loved the most, from when the army guys encountered the two Marra hunters:

"Ngarl-urrumanji Ingglish?"
Gani n-marranguru gana ngarl-umindini.

"Do you two speak English?"
Only heads were speaking. 

Inferring that they just stood there and shook their heads.  How lovely is that! :-)

September 02, 2011

Welcome to the Art Centre

So I'm in Ngukurr again and have been hanging around the Art Centre a bit. They asked me to help with getting 'welcome' messages done in language, which has been kinda fun.  MT did the Marra one first:

Ngarlarla ginya nuwu-minay ninya gana jarag-niwijujunyi waya-wayarra nuwu-minay. 

Kriol and English translations: 

Yumob gaman iya, yumob garra luk dijan weya mela meigimbat, nathakain yumob garra luk.
Come here and you will see what we’ve been making. You’ll see different kinds of things.

And then the next day, Rek-Rek did a Ritharrŋu version: 

Gayunu nhuma nhäŋu yakun'na gamunuŋgu-mala ŋuli napu djaŋ'guŋu.

Kriol and English translations:
Yumob gaman luk dijan ola peinting, weya mela bin duwum. 
You are welcome here to look at all the paintings we've been making.

Was kinda fun thinking about Ritharrŋu again! 

What's also been fun is helping the French volunteer at the Art Centre straighten out some of the Marra that old MT has been teaching her.  There's another Marra student!  She didn't know anything about Marra grammar, spelling or phonology but did her best.  Hopefully my tips have helped and she can learn a bit more.  Good on MT for being such a warhorse of Marra language maintenance.

August 25, 2011

Stirring quotes from Aboriginal educators

Today I've been working on my submission for the Federal Government's Inquiry into Language Learning in Indigenous Communities.  As part of my research for my submission, I was searching for quotes from Aboriginal educators in support of bilingual education and Indigenous language education.  When I assembled the quotes, I found it pretty much heartbreaking to see the passion that is there when at the same time Indigenous language education is being denied because of the NT Government's ridiculous Compulsory Teaching in English for the First Four Hours policy.  Here's what I found today:

What we want is both-way teaching in the school – not only for two hours a week but everyday there should be both-way teaching… That policy of speaking English only at the school is the wrong thing – it is not good for our children … they will forget their language 
- Rembarrnga speaker Miliwanga Sandy (Beswick Community) (in Gosford 2009).

I am a qualified bilingual teacher… I speak several Yolŋu matha languages and English fluently.  I have thirty-two years teaching experience… I have been told that I am not allowed to use the children’s language anymore… I already know that the children won’t understand what I’m saying, they will laugh at me, and they may even misbehave because they’ll be bored and won’t know what the lessons are about… What a strange role model I will be, a bilingual Yolŋu teacher, using only one of my languages!... The decision to make English the only important language in our schools will only make the situation for our young people worse as they struggle to be proud Yolŋu in a world that is making them feel that their culture is bad, unimportant and irrelevant in the contemporary world.
- Yalmay Yunupingu (2010: 24-25).

When a new principal comes to a Warlpiri school they are not to come and change the Bilingual Program. Never. Lajamanu school should always teach in both Warlpiri and English .
- Warlpiri Teachers at Lajamanu (1999: 54).

The children need to learn their own language… kids need to be able to read and write Tiwi because that is what they will speak forever.  Understanding in other subject areas is facilitated by covering that area in both Tiwi and English.
- People of Nguiu (1999: 17).

The task ahead is to convince the NT Department of Education and the Commonwealth Government that Yolŋu languages and our knowledge systems are as important to us as English and its ideas… The current system does not take into account our Yolŋu Garma curriculum or Yolŋu ‘both ways’ pedagogy and curriculum.  Our job as educators is to convince the people who control mainstream education that we wish to be included.  Until this happens assimilation is still the name of the game, and reconciliation is an empty word, an intellectual ‘terra nullius’ 
- Raymatjja Marika (1999: 119).

Areyonga School is a bilingual school, where we teach the children to first learn to read, write and do maths in Pitjantjatjara. Our kids do not understand much English when they start school. If we teach them only in English, they will not understand… Our children who are good at reading and writing in Pitjantjatjara are also the same ones who are good at reading and writing English… How can you tell us the teachers must use only English even if the children don’t understand what they are saying? We want our children to become literate in both English and Pitjantjatjara.  This is very imporant to us. Our bilingual program works…  
- Areyonga community (2008).

Strong words.  I hope the government hears them. (If they don't, I have plenty more quotes I can throw at them...)

Areyonga Community. (2008). Letter to the Honourable Minister Marion Scrymgour MLA. Retrieved August 25, 2011, from 

Gosford, B. (2009). Miliwanga Sandy – language is our culture, our life, our identity. Retrieved November 4, 2009, from 

Marika, R. (1999). Milthun Latju Wäŋa Romgu Yolŋu: Valuing Yolŋu Knowledge in the Education System. Ngoonjook: a journal of Australian Indigenous Issues. 16: 107-120.  

People of Nguiu (1999). The Closure of the Northern Territory Bilingual Education Program: An open letter from the people of Nguiu. Ngoonjook: a journal of Australian Indigenous Issues.16: 16-17.

Warlpiri Teachers at Lajamanu. (1999) History of the Lajamanu School Bilingual Program. Ngoonjook: a journal of Australian Indigenous Issues.16: 51-54. 

Yunupingu, Y. (2010). Bilingual Works. Australian Educator. 66: 24-25.

July 13, 2011

Federal inquiry into Indigenous languages and other good news stories

I tend to complain a lot more than celebrate when I look at how Australia as a nation treats Indigenous languages. Well, I'm pleased to share a few recent happenings that have left me feeling optimistic and a bit warm and fuzzy (for a change).

First and foremost, the Federal Government has announced a full-blown parliamentary inquiry into "Language Learning in Indigenous Communities". This took me completely by surprise and totally blew my away! I have a real sense of hope with this. As was pointed out by Frank Baarda at Yuendumu, what's really great is the tone of this inquiry, which is framed very positively. It talks of 'benefits' and 'contributions' that Indigenous languages make and that avoids ethnocentricity. Often, policy discussions of anything Indigenous can tend towards talking more of deficits, issues and problems. I've copied the blurb of the inquiry's media release at the bottom of this post.

Oh yeah, and please consider making a submission! (By August 19). Instructions on how to do so are here. It's not hard!

The other two nice little news items:

This story that aired on NT Stateline last week about a language revitalisation at Elliott school for the Mudburra language. I've been a long term critic of how the NT Education Dept treats Aboriginal languages, even though there are many within the department who work hard to support them. It's nice that some of the good work is publicised in this story. I also like the subtle messages about improved attendance and the need to resource language programs in the story that hopefully are taken up by others within NT DET.

Lastly, we now have a version of our national anthem in the Luritja language! Neat!


Media Release: New federal parliamentary inquiry on Indigenous languages

July 10, 2011

Semantic theories

This is one for the linguists... A naive question I'd like to put out there:

I really enjoy semantics: thinking and writing about word meanings, cross-linguistic translatability and all the other juicy stuff you get when you really try and pin down meanings of words, morphemes, phrases etc. which are usually tantalisingly slippery and have lovely fuzzy boundaries.


When it comes to semantic theories, I just haven't come across one that I've liked. I've looked a little bit at NSM and am now learning a bit about frame semantics, but theories like this bother me. They all seem to have quite a lot of limitations, so much so that I wonder how useful they really are. Why can't we just write detailed semantic descriptions of words/morphemes/phrases etc. and leave it at that?

This really is an issue I'm grappling with because my PhD thesis will hopefully be a lot about semantics, but I have this chip on my shoulder about semantic theories.


July 05, 2011

Nga-gin.garra na-Jidni-yurr, nga-jurra na-Balda-yurr / I'm here in Sydney and going to Boulder!

Just a quick Hi while I have a few hours to kill in Sydney Airport.

After a few great weeks out bush (that I haven't described in nearly enough detail here), I'm off on a whole different cultural experience. And believe me, compared to what I'm used to, sitting in a fancy cafe in Sydney Airport about to board a plane for America is definitely a cultural experience for me.

I'm off to Boulder, Colorado to attend the 2011 Linguistics Institute, which is a summer school held bi-annually that attracts a lot of very clever linguists who come from all over the globe to deliver short courses on specialised topics. I'm excited and a bit nervous and going in expecting it to be an awful lot of work and assignments. As my Facebook friends may already know, I was also very pleased to see that my accommodation at the uni is very close to the tennis courts, so my beloved Babolat racquet has a prized place in my suitcase. :)

But I'm also excited about being challenged and learning lots. The courses I've chosen are:
- Frame Semantics and Verb Constructions
- Intro to Morphology
- Dialectology and
- Pidgin and Creole languages: a linguistic, historical and cognitive overview

As they say in Iceland: Mjög spennandi! (Very exciting!)

June 26, 2011

Lucky me

How do I even explain how awesome, yet somehow unremarkable, last night was. Actually, I think it's unremarkable-ness is what made is so awesome...

Last night, I was treated to 90 minutes of basically a private show of the most stunning traditional songs (Manikay) sung by my three wäwa (brothers), DW, BW and RW, accompanied on yiḏaki (didj) by our uncle DW. The reason I got to experience this is because young DW asked me the other day, rather shyly, if I had a recorder because he wanted to record old RW singing some songs that he wanted to make sure he'd learn properly. I've known DW for years now and he is a bit younger than me but a really great traditional singer and has been touring with the Australian Art Orchestra for several years on the Crossing Roper Bar collaboration. I was more than happy to help and I'm glad I did.

It happened so organically - go and pick up DW, go see BW and RW. Go find the 'bambu man' (didj player). Sit down, warm up and away they went. They sung Djambarrpuyŋu Manikay about wind then followed with Wägilak Manikay about waṯa. I sat in the middle with my little recorder, surrounded by three guys belting out song cycle after song cycle with clapsticks pounding away and the didj doing its accompanying thing too. Just great. DW on the didj was awesome too - he had his mobile phone hanging around his neck and was using it to record bits of the session too! Only bad thing was they sung for so long my bum got sore and my bare feet and hands were dinner for a number of mozzies. And this music is probably wasted on me too - I like it but don't know much about it so can't fully appreciate what I'm hearing.

The session finally ended and the recording sounded pretty good (I'll listen to it properly today). We all went home back to our mundane Saturday evenings as though nothing special had just happened. But is was really pretty special if you ask me. I especially love that this great thing happened, not at my instigation but at the request of DW and that they did it all just for themselves, their families and for the maintaining of these songs. I was just the munanga that was in a position to help. Lucky me.

May 22, 2011

Heard of 'slow food'? How about 'slow fieldwork'...

My last couple of trips to Ngukurr to continue fieldwork on Marra have seen a slightly interesting development. Me and the Marra gang I work with at Ngukurr have continued our work nicely, going through old untranscribed recordings and also making new ones. What's changed on the past couple of trips is how we've been doing the transcriptions and translations.

Last year when we started, most of the time I'd play recordings and the Marra gang would listen, repeat the Marra for me and translate it into Kriol, and I would enter it straight into ELAN. This is, I guess, a fairly standard way for linguists to work, with the linguist being the scribe and generally it was efficient and rewarding.

But some sessions I'd encourage them to do the transcribing and practice/develop their Marra literacy skills. We had one long recording in particular that was perfect for this where the recording contained English translations and the Marra was only words and basic sentences. Most of the other recordings are higher level texts where the Marra comes thick and fast, so not so well suited for training purposes.

But that was last year - fast forward to this year and two of the old ladies I work most with may have invented what I could jestingly describe as 'slow fieldwork', analogous to the 'slow food' movement that gets bandied about.

On the last few trips, whenever we've gathered to do transcription, BR and FR get their books out and write down everything, no matter what the text is or how hard and fast the language is. It takes a lot longer, but it's so great that they want to do that - I don't have the heart to be a bossy, efficient time-manager and say 'No books today, just tell me what they're saying and what it means'.

On the downside, this way of working is sooooo laborious. BR and FRs Marra literacy skills are good (BRs are pretty great actually), but still, long words will throw them, consonant clusters will throw them and they concentrate so much on transcribing that sometimes they're not focused on good translation. It can really test my patience. Like, a long word comes up that I'll spell for them, then when it comes up two sentences later they sometimes act like they've never seen the word written before when they only wrote it 10 minutes ago! Haha... makes me weak. In January when the Australian Open was on, I confess, I was simultaneously on ELAN and checking the tennis scores on the internet while the Marra gang were taking ages to write to down a word or a sentence. Haha... poor things.

But, on the plus side it's great that they are so involved in the transcription process. It's great that they are using and developing Marra literacy skills and through this process, it makes the recordings and transcriptions so much more meaningful and useful because they've done it themselves. When I type it up nicely and give them a printed copy of the transcript, it's not a foreign object, it's their work.

A lot is made of the notion of linguists giving back to the community, but what constitutes 'giving back' seems rarely to be defined or discussed. Another scenario of working through these old recordings would be that I sit in my office, transcribe and translate as much as I can on my own, mark the bits I'm not sure about and then go out bush with a list of questions that will allow me to fill in my knowledge gaps. Then I could 'give back' by presenting speakers with a CD and transcript of a Marra text. I would guess they'd like it and be happy with it and interested, but because their engagement with the process was somewhat limited, their engagement with the results would assumedly be equally limited.

I like to think that with 'slow fieldwork', the engagement with the process is maximised and so community development benefits are maximised (even though my patience at times suffers greatly, as does the speed of my workflow when deadline pressures are on the horizon). But by making the most of the process, I would argue that its easier to make more out of the product. Ultimately, it's my hope that what we're doing is a good way for a linguist like me to do 'giving back'.

April 27, 2011

Why I don't care about ANZAC day

ANZAC day came and went and, yet again, I found myself not caring and not getting it and wondering what the fuss is about. I feel like I'm being very un-PC and un-Australian way to think this way.

I think the reason behind my feelings is that I question why there is so much hype and energy spent on ANZAC day - over the sporadic innocent deaths that have happened to our troops over the years - when the death and violence that was so prevalent in frontier Australia is virtually ignored. So many innocent Aboriginal people died and it's heartbreaking and unacknowledged and we are still dealing with consequences, especially here in the NT.

It didn't happen very long ago.

This arvo I again picked up John Harris' Northern Territory Pidgins and the Origins of Kriol which paints a vivid socio-historical picture of the NT when pidgin spread and Kriol developed. I'd like to share a section I hadn't read before today. It features a piece written by Robert Morice in 1885, published in the South Australian Register. Morice was the Protector of the Aboriginal for the Northern Territory but was 'got rid of for doing his duty in defence of the blacks' (SAR 23 Dec. 1885:4, in Harris 1986:219). Morice reveals violence that occurred in the Daly River region (not very far from Katherine) in retaliation for the murder of four white people in 1884. The retaliation consisted of 1) the official police party, 2) a private reprisal party and 3) another unofficial party.

Morice wrote the following to a South Australian newspaper:

While Inspector Foelsche and a police party were out securing the actual murderers, another party consisting of non-official persons, but armed and provisioned by the Government, were let loose to act as they thought best ... The men who formed this party insisted that they should be allowed to go unaccompanied by a single policeman. The Minister of Justice and Education is reported to have hesitated about giving his consent to their going, but finally yielded to the urgency of the Government Resident, who strongly pressed it. As a salve to his conscience, or to save appearances, he gave, however instructions that they were on no account to fire on he natives unless in self-defence.

What this party did has never been made public, but the officers on board the S.S. Palmerston, which was lying in the Daly River ... say that all one night they heard a constant discharge of firearms. There was good moonlight at the time. The general belief in the Territory was that they simply shot down every native they saw, women and children included. While this was going on three teamsters reported that they had been attacked by the natives at Argument Flat. The teamsters resisted, and shot five or six of them. There were three weak points in their tale. None of the teamsters were wounded; it is unusual for natives to attack in the bold way described; and, lastly, it was admitted that there were women with the natives (one of the killed was a lubra, I think). Now it is well known that natives when they mean mischief always keep their women out of the way ... The Government Resident, as soon as he heard of the affair, arranged that another non-official party should be armed and sent out to follow up the natives. They were sent out, and returned in due time, reporting that they did not fall in with any natives. Of course the party were not asked to account for the Government ammunition they took away; and a few days after some of the men were boasting over their cups that they had shot forty-seven, including women and children ... It is difficulu to say how many natives have been killed for the Daly River outrage, but from all I have heard from different sources, I should say not less than 150, an great part of these women and children ... (South Australian Register, 5 June 1885:7)

(in Harris 1986:218-9)

This is just one story of many similar stories in Harris' book, which is one of many similar books which tell tales of horrible unjust frontier violence.

On ANZAC day you'd say 'Lest We Forget'.

I don't know what I should say in relation to these stories.... sometimes it makes me sad... sometimes it just pisses me off and I want to say 'fucking redneck arsehole war criminal bastards who were never served justice for what they've done and whose descendants are probably living comfortable lives while the Aboriginal families of victims are still suffering'.

But I'm not sure what use it would be to say that, so I won't.

March 30, 2011

Intervention petition

I've been reminiscing lately and had a read through some of my blog posts from years back when I would post really regularly. (Okay, not so much reminiscing as procrastinating from study, perhaps). The blog posts that got the biggest responses were about the first community meetings after the Intervention was announced (see here and here). I still regard the Intervention as one of the nails in the coffin that caused me to burnout and leave Ngukurr after three years of successful work. It was so demoralising to have something so huge dumped on you from 'above'. And I wasn't even an Aboriginal resident!

The issue of the Intervention is ongoing. Many feel it is contributing to town-drift which is in turn leading to worsening homelessness, crappier housing situations, increased crime etc. The NT Government's silly 'Growth Towns' policy and neglect of outstations/small communities is also to blame, in my opinion. Oh, and check out Ngukurr mob talking about how they were duped into thinking the Intervention would drastically improve the housing situation at Ngukurr when they signed over a township lease to the government. This excellent piece aired on NT Stateline in Nov 2010.

Ok, to get to the petition mentioned in the post title, the UN's High Commissioner for Racial Discrimination, Navi Pillay, is visiting Australia in May. A mob have put up an online petition that you can look at here:

The wording goes:

To: UN Human Rights Commissioner

Dear Navi Pillay,

Welcome to Australia.

We are calling on you to encourage Government to end the Northern Territory Intervention and to restore the rights of Aboriginal people. The people were not consulted before the Intervention nor have they given their consent to it.

Control over land and communities must be returned to Aboriginal people. Changes to the law are urgently needed to restore and protect the rights of Aboriginal peoples in the NT to determine their own futures. We ask you for your assistance.

I'm not sure how useful petitions like these are, but hey, can't hurt to try.

March 16, 2011

Useless bank

It's been said before but life in remote communities is tough.

I've been helping the language gang at Ngukurr to establish themselves as an independent organisation to re-start the language revitalisation activities they were carrying out for years under the auspices of the now-crippled Katherine Language Centre. The Ngukurr group have held meetings and taken all the right steps to get established. Next on the list is to open a bank account. At a meeting, they decided on signatories and chose ANZ as their preferred bank (one of three major banks with branches in Katherine), all sensible and following the right processes.

So today I went to ANZ to get the account-opening process started. The good news was that the Ngukurr mob have done everything right and have everything they need. Just one "simple" step that actually wasn't simple at all and really pissed me off...

"So the signatories just need to come in to the branch and then we can set up the account".

Sounds so simple! Except that they're in Ngukurr which is 320kms away, which gets cut off by road for up to 6 months a year, which is happening now and until maybe June. Plus they're old, not always in great health and live off of Centrelink pensions.

"What's the provision for people in remote communities who can't get into town? Surely they could get certified copies of all their documentation", I asked.

"Sorry, there's nothing we can do."

"So what happens when people physically can't come to the branch? There has to be some provision for that?"

"Sorry, that's just how it is."

I'd hit a brick wall with zero compassion from the bank staff I was talking to. There was nothing I could do but just leave, displeased (to put it mildly).

Displeased and thinking what a crap policy that is. We're talking about an account for a not-for-profit community organisation here. And the bank is saying that all signatories, who are all old and live off Centrelink benefits, are required to make an impossible journey just so they can bank with no-compassion ANZ?

Talk about putting up brick walls to good people in remote communities who are just trying to do something positive.

I'm still angry.

When I got home I phoned ANZ to repeat my inquiry and I was given the same line. Which was awful, but then I asked how I can make a complaint, which I did and they now have to attend to my complaint. I'll keep you posted on how it goes.

Unless there's a change in what the ANZ is saying, the options for the group are to have another official meeting and change the bank of choice (I know Commonwealth accepts certified copies) or magically find $2200 to fly the signatories in just so they can 'present' at the bank. Or wait 2-3 until the roads clear and go to the branch that way, which is still expensive as well as a big waste of time.

It's not fair at all. A big fat thumbs down to ANZ. Boooooooooo!!!!

February 12, 2011

32 hours from Ngukurr to Katherine

Wet season travel in the Top End is never straight-forward. Ngukurr is cut off by road for 4-5 months every wet season, thanks to the Wilton and Roper Rivers rising and making crossing impossible. When it really rains hard, more crossings become impassable and it can turn into a nightmare.

I was ready to leave Ngukurr in mid-Jan after a two week trip, right in the middle of the wet season. I'd booked my 4WD on the barge, which would take me up the river, bypassing the flooded crossings, and from there it's just a 3 hour drive back home to Katherine. A 5-hour trip all up - not much longer than the 4 hour dry-season trip.

But the night before I was due to leave it rained and rained all night. Enough for me to be woken by splat.... splat... splat... near my head as the pounding rain found a way to squeeze itself ever-so-slightly through the roof. In the morning, I knew it would be touch-and-go as to whether my planned trip was achievable. After getting as much info as I could, I decided to go for it, and went through with my Roper River barge trip.

The barge trip was great and the rain was holding off (just), although the chances of flooded crossings had already been determined by the previous night's rain. At the end of the barge trip is Roper Bar Store, the only shop, fuel and accommodation for 200km when the Roper crossing is flooded. With no news about whether I could get through to Mataranka (and subsequently Katherine), I set off to test my luck.

For the next 40-60km the road is dirt and with all the wet weather, it was slushy. Go 4WD go! No problem though - I made it to the bitumen and was starting to get hopeful. Until I reached Strangways. Bloody Strangways.

The most enormous floodway I've ever seen, stretching about 500m around a corner. It was sitting on 0.6m. Too much for my Nissan Patrol? My thoughts were yes, don't cross it. Next thing, I watch a Troopy full of community mob creep through from the otherside. I talked to them and felt like I couldn't do what they had done. After some deliberations, I had to decide - Do I cross? Do I wait here, potentially overnight? Do I go back to Roper Bar Store and get a bed for the night in their basic motel? Nup. I want a bed and shower. So I drove the 90km trip back to Roper Bar Store, where I spent a very lonely night in the accommodation compound, all by myself, no phone, no internet, no TV, no company and plenty of time to wonder about what gushing Strangways might be doing in the morning.

8am Saturday, 21 hours into my trip from hell, I set off again down the slushy dirt part of the Roper Highway, which I think included a moment of lost traction and a slide to the road shoulder. (Oops... is the 4WD actually working on this thing?). By 10am, I was climbing the last rise before Strangways, wondering what I'd find. And then I found it:

Ack! It still looked like the most enormous floodway in the world, stretching way around the corner. But! It had dropped to 0.4m (well, 0.4m at the start part at least). So what to do now? It's probably passable. But it's flowing quickly. And what's my 4WD like - I've never put it in low gear before. Okay, I'll just watch it for a while, see if it's going down and wait for someone to come along so I can get some advice.

After 15 minutes, I could tell the level was dropping, ever so slowly. Great! I'll be able to get out of here today, surely. The rain is holding off, the water's dropping. I'll just wait a bit until it drops to a comfortable level and/or until someone comes along and can help me.

Waiting. After one hour, it'd dropped maybe 1cm. No one had come. Waiting. Another hour. Yep, still dropping, yep, still no one had come. Let's try walking into it. Wait, what's the grunting sound? Is there a cow stuck in a tree somewhere in the floodway? This water's flowing pretty quick - okay, maybe I won't walk into it too far. Someone will come along soon, surely.

Lunchtime now. Still waiting. Okay, breathe and relax. Make a sandwich with your last bits of food and enjoy the Iced Coffee (Territory's own Pauls Iced Coffee, of course!) I'd been saving. Someone will come. The water will go down.

Still waiting. 2pm now. Shit. No-one's come. Everyone must think it's impassable. That's not going to give me confidence to cross it.

At this point, I'm getting pretty stressed. I want to go home. I'm sick of waiting for water to go down. It's 28 hours since I left Ngukurr. I'm sunburned (forgot sunscreen, of course!). I go for a short drive and test out my 4WD low-gear driving. I go back...

Okay, it's definitely below 0.4m now. Let's walk through it...

So I walked the entire 500m stretch of flooded Strangways, not even letting the possibility of certain reptiles being there cross my mind. It was up to my knees in the deepest parts and felt strong but not too strong. The road didn't feel slippery. After 15 or so mins, I got to the other end, where I couldn't even see my 4WD waiting patiently for me. I walked back. Okay, one more hour and then you will just have to go for it.

4pm: I hear someone coming! From the other side, ever so slowly, a 4WD full of people I know from Ngukurr were coming through. I waited and watched and they made it - cautiously but without a problem. I asked, "Im rait det roud? Mi nyip ba krosim" (Is the road okay? I can't bring myself to cross it). "Im rait," came the reply. 'Just take it slow - 1st gear on low, stay in the middle, keep your position and look where you're going'. 'Okay, I'll give it a go. Can you watch me?'. They were rushing to get to Roper Bar store before it closed and really didn't have any time, but yeah, they could watch me. I was and am still so grateful. It was RR who said some words that in my state of anxiety really helped and I can't remember exactly what she said now, but her words really helped and included her telling me: "Yu garra trastim mijel" - You have to trust yourself. :-)

So I gave it a go and trundled into the water. Through the water. Through the water. Through the water. Started rounding the corner. Waved to my 'support crew' who then sped off to Roper Bar Store. Trundled through more water and yes, finally, I made it to the other side and Strangways was finally behind me.

2 hours later, I made it home. Tired, burned and traumatised. Then Bernard Tomic and Sam Stosur both lost in the Australian Open. But I was home, 32 hours after I started what was not a pleasant trip.

January 13, 2011

45 years in a day - Marra's remarkable resilience

Today was a fairly average day for my fieldwork in Ngukurr. Average, yet remarkable.

Me and the Marra mob I work here with did two sessions today and did some good work on Marra. But just in those two short sessions, we spanned a 45-year period, exemplifying that the Marra language is actually being remarkably resilient given the sociocultural situation it finds itself in.

This morning BR, JJ and FR worked with me and I encouraged them to continue some Marra literacy and transcription practice. So we used an archived recording made in 1966 by Margaret Sharpe and Stanley Roberts. It's a great recording to listen to and use for transcription training. The words and sentences aren't too fast and complex and we get to chuckle and Margaret and Old Stanley's not-quite-perfect Marra and English skills. It's also great that such an old recording is lively again.

In the afternoon session, I had a go at doing my own elicitation session with FR and MT. BR and GB where there for back-up help too. It went well and went for just over an hour. Along with going over some sentences that I was curious about for my own Marra acquisition, I wanted to test out a few distinctive Kriol words and sentences and see how the old ladies interpret them into Marra.

For example, there's a lovely Kriol idiom imin gibit mijel which is derived from the English he/she gave herself but actually means he/she scrammed/ran off quickly. The Marra equivalent?

He gave himself / Imin gibit mijel

Cool! A nice parallel Marra/Kriol idiom.

Those old ladies told me lots more cool things in Marra this afternoon and at the end, I just couldn't help thinking how nice it is to be doing this sort of work in 2011, 45 years after Margaret Sharpe and Stanley Roberts sat down and did a similar thing.

So happy that Marra language has stuck around this long.

January 11, 2011

Today's Kriol lesson

I'm still finding out new Kriol words and constructions even though I've been learning Kriol since 2004. This is exciting for me and a constant reminder of just how intricate and complex Kriol can be. It's so easy to just see the English-related surface of Kriol and miss all the juicy stuff going on behind the scenes.

So today two young guys DR and KM were starting to transcribe a recording we'd made of them and I learned a couple of things.

A new word: medrim. I'd listened to it on the recording but had no clue what the word was. The example sentence:

Kriol: Ai garra medri im tha'n
Gloss: I FUT beat+Tr him/her "that one"
English: I'll flog her.

Don't ask me where the word medrim comes from. I have no idea as of yet.

Note also the contractions and dropping of sounds that happen all the time in the normal speech of your average Roper Kriol speaker. In the above sentence, medrim gets shortened to medri and tha'n is actually a contraction of tharran which is a derivation of the English, that one.

There are lots of contractions and shortcuts being made in Roper Kriol that I'm still learning about. The new one I learned today: gitbat. It's a shortened form of gibitbat: gibit is from the English give-it and -bat is a progressive aspect marker (like -ing in English). The example sentence:

Kriol (normal speech): Yulu'im im gitbat im, ngabi.
Kriol (slow speech): Yu luk im, im gibitbat im, ngabi
English translation: Look, he's giving it to him, isn't he.

Very cool. And I just love teaching people how to transcribe their own recordings in ELAN. DR and KM had a first try today, were getting into it and I'm encouraging them to keep going. Fingers crossed.