September 26, 2012


I've withdrawn my recent post about the Katherine AFL Grand Final. In writing the post, it wasn't my intention to offend anyone or inflame tensions. It seems apparent that my post did so I apologise.

September 24, 2012

Katherine's ugly football grand final (revised)

On the weekend, Katherine's regional AFL competition reached its peak with the A Grade grand final between the Katherine Camels and the Ngukurr Bulldogs. The Camels are a predominantly non-Indigenous team from town (Katherine). The Bulldogs are 100% Indigenous, from a remote community four hours drive east of Katherine. These differences shouldn't be worth noting but the game was dramatic and the post-match analyses on what happened bring up differing opinions depending on who you talk to.

The grand final is a big deal. About 200 Bulldogs supporters had made the trip from Ngukurr into Katherine to cheer on their team. They were a diverse bunch: kids, teenagers, adults and community leaders/elders. They are the children, parents, uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews and grandparents of the men on the team and they were rapt watching their relatives take to the field.

Non-Indigenous football clubs have a different raison d'être to community sides. For teams like the Camels, it's more of a bloke thing where players often play to get away from work and domesticated life. Community sides like Ngukurr play not to escape but to represent their families, their people and their community.

Scattered around the ground were probably an equal number of Camels and Bulldogs supporters, and a smattering of reasonably impartial fans - black and white - who were there just to watch the big final. The game started in high spirits. The first quarter was close with both teams going goal for goal. In the second quarter the Camels built a 3-goal lead. It wasn't until the third quarter that the game started to turn sour. Sitting in the grandstand, I, along with many other spectators there started to notice something wasn't right: repeated bad umpiring decisions that were consistently in favour of the Camels. "That's not right", "What was that?", was starting to be heard from various sections of the grandstand, from many who had no reason to be partial to either team. At the same time, the Camels were playing better than the Bulldogs and were pulling further ahead. Things weren't going well for the Bulldogs players and supporters. Having the game slipping out of your reach is one thing but having poor decisions repeatedly go against you exacerbates the frustration.

Then, it started to get ugly. A Camels player kicked a goal, then turned to the Bulldogs supporters - kids of all ages, parents and grandparents - and didn't just give them the finger but gave the finger with both hands, gesturing wildly for quite a period of time. It was an extraordinarily antagonistic gesture and did not produce a response from the umpires. By the time the third quarter ended, the situation was unravelling. Most Aboriginal people in the ground, as well as more than a few non-Aboriginal people, felt that they were watching an Aboriginal team being unfairly treated by umpires and had seen a non-Indigenous player seriously antagonising Indigenous spectators, without reproach. Some of the Ngukurr supporters and coaches approached umpires and officials to complain. Tempers were starting to flare and composure was fraying. The feeling that things weren't right was palpable. 

The 4th quarter started in a very tense atmosphere. The play was getting rougher and the umpiring was not improving. A rough tackle drew a yellow card for one of the Bulldogs and things were only going to get worse. Having seen enough, the Bulldogs coaches recalled all their players, who dutifully left the field. The Camels supporters booed. The Bulldogs' coaches retaliated with the same double-finger gesture that had been delivered to them and their families not long before. One coach marched over the Camels' camp, ready for confrontation but his son - one of the Bulldogs players - drew him back. We were not far away from a violent situation but to their credit, the Bulldogs and all their supporters left quickly, peacefully and relatively quietly.  It was a sad end - sport and Katherine divided, seemingly along racial lines.

There will be no objectivity as to how the event will be perceived. There are two quite distinct points of view. The Camels and most non-Indigenous spectators will probably see what happened as the Bulldogs being bad sports - not following the values of 'finishing the game at all costs' and the Bulldogs' inability to handle 'a few bad umpiring decisions' (they're inevitable in sport after all). Most Indigenous people on the ground (and more than a few others) saw: biased umpiring decisions made by non-Indigenous umpires in favour of non-Indigenous players; grievances ignored; a non-Indigenous person be extremely disrespectful to Aboriginal families and apparently supported by officials, teammates and team supporters. Spectators who don't have much to do with Aboriginal people saw an angry mob ready blow their top. Others perceived what they saw as a large crowd of very upset and angry people from Ngukurr responsibly diffuse a extremely volatile situation by withdrawing themselves from it altogether.

As emotions started to settle, the debriefing and post-match analyses commenced. I spoke to a few Aboriginal people who had played football in Katherine twenty years ago. They felt like what they witnessed was reminiscent of twenty years ago, when societal-level racism in Katherine was more acceptable and overt - not fond memories for Aboriginal people and not memories that should be revisited in this era. A quick scan of Facebook commentary shows Aboriginal people from different communities - dedicated supporters of Ngukurr's rival teams - condemning the umpiring and seeing the racial lines that the umpiring decisions drew.

How can the two perspectives on the game be reconciled into something approaching "the truth". Maybe it's impossible. The Bulldogs and other Aboriginal spectators saw what they saw. The Camels saw what they saw. The Camels will talk to their mates who share the same opinions and have those opinions confirmed. Those with differing points of view will talk to others who share that point of view and similarly consolidate those viewpoints. Unfortunately, with AFL administration and umpiring being Katherine-based and predominantly non-Indigenous, they are perhaps more likely to speak to and be spoken to by other non-Indigenous town-based people whose views are likely to be in support of the Camels. Indigenous people can be forgiven for thinking that being understood and fairly treated (let alone supported!) will be an uphill battle.

After the game, the Camels' players and supporters stayed in the ground drinking and celebrating long into the night (see e.g. here, here and here). Maybe the varying perspectives on the game itself each have validity but there can be little doubt that if the Bulldogs had won, they would not have been allowed to stay in the grounds, drinking and celebrating. It's a nice reminder that, in fact, equality does not yet exist in Katherine. [Edit: it's also seems apparent that no liquor license was obtained to allow for the consumption of alcohol at the venue]. Let's see if AFL officials demonstrate an understanding of this fact and try to see all sides of the debate with an open mind and with a sense of fairness.

[Author's note: This blogpost touches on sensitive issues. It is not my intention to cause offence or inflame issues covered in the post. I expect people making comments to do the same. I reserve every right to remove comments that I feel are inflammatory or don't contribute to the discussion in a positive way. 

Also note that this is my personal blog where I express my own opinions and perspectives. This post isn't purporting to be journalism or news reporting, but nevertheless, I have taken care to present multiple perspectives on the issues which I am not obligated to do.]

September 17, 2012

Government report on Indigenous languages is out!

I've done quite a few posts here about the national inquiry into Indigenous languages that's been going on for about a year. See here and here, for example.

I'm very excited to say that the final report came out today and it's really good. I was very lucky to receive a preview copy of it last Friday because of my association with the language blog on Crikey. It was a media embargoed copy of the report and I wasn't allowed to disclose its contents until it became public today. (I'm so ready for CSI: Ngukurr... ha!). But getting the preview copy allowed me to write up a piece for Crikey which can be found here (thanks go to Claire, Aidan and others from Fully (sic) and Crikey eds for making my piece much better than it was going to be).

It's been an exciting day. Personally, I was pleased to see my article published on Crikey and that it seems to be pretty well received and read. But that's just my own little smugness. Generally, I'm really excited about the government report and what it might mean for Aboriginal languages and Aboriginal people and the many many people I know who, like me, battle away on working on these languages.

It could mean that organisations like the Ngukurr Language Centre will be better resourced. It could mean the return of proper resourced bilingual education in remote schools. It could simply mean that Aboriginal languages are better and more widely recognised and that I won't have to do so much hard work advocating for why it's worthwhile paying attention to them in the first place!

I'll be keeping track of the media and commentary that the report gets over coming days and weeks. In the meantime, here are some links to other media stories about the report that came out today:

Action needed to help preserve Indigenous languages - The Conversation.
Preserve Indigenous languages: inquiry - NITV news (video)
Indigenous students need bilingual education - ABC online
Call for Indigenous languages in schools - ABC news (video)

Exciting times.

September 09, 2012

What's in a word: barra

My PhD research concentrates on Marra and Kriol - Marra an endangered traditional language and Kriol, a creole language that has usurped it along with many other languages in this part of the world.

Personally, I find both languages fascinating. The idea that Kriol is somehow inferior or should be viewed upon negatively doesn't wash with me. Although I do recognise that Marra has more prestige for many. Kriol is amazingly interesting, dynamic and complex and I've learned that it has a richer vocabulary than any other linguist has previously described. At the same time, I love learning Marra and working with the last few old ladies who speak it. We've spent hours and hours making and listening to recordings and transcribing and translating them and I've loved pretty much every minute of it.

When translating recordings with the old ladies, I'm often amazed at how neatly Marra translates into Kriol most of time. Some of the Kriol translations are so compatible with Marra that it looks like Marra falling out of use is no great loss in terms of how you can describe the world around you. But then along comes a Marra word, saying or sentence that makes me go, "Damn, okay. You got me there. Kriol speakers would no way be able to talk about that in the same way, or maybe even know what you're talking about."

A recent example of that is when we came across the word barra in an old recording (a wonderful 52 year old recording for that matter!). Initially, I thought the word was barda - a common word meaning 'after' or 'later'. But old BR and FR said it meant 'wind'. But I know the Marra word for 'wind': walulu. Someone's confused - the smarty-britches PhD student or the elderly ladies?

BR and FR explained further: barra is a specific wind - a westerly wind. I had no idea this word existed in Marra. There's certainly no equivalent of it in Kriol. What a neat word! I was impressed.

See, in English we can describe different kinds of wind, and some are very specific: sea breeze, northerlies, westerlies, headwind, trade wind, gale, etc. But there's a key difference. English words for specific winds are more often than not compound words. They have a root - breeze, wind, north - which is modified or added to to create the word:

sea + breeze --> sea breeze
north + erly + ies --> northerlies
head + wind --> headwind

(Note: words like gale and breeze are exceptions but they describe the strength of the wind, not the direction like the Marra word barra does.)

The word barra is special because it is monomorphemic - a unique, stand alone word. It doesn't have a root part and a modifying part like the English words do. The word barra has nothing to do with the generic Marra word for 'wind' (walulu) or a Marra direction term (warrgarliyana means 'from the west' and nguwirri means 'to the east'). To put it simply, the Marra language places enough importance on this type of wind that it gets its own word, unrelated to any other Marra words. Kriol and English don't do this.

Is there a reason why this would be so? Perhaps. Heath's Marra grammar has barra in the dictionary and includes some encyclopedic information in the defintion:
barra: northwest wind. This is the dominant wind during the wet season. Mack Riley says that the arrival of this as the dominant wind is a sign that dugong are heading for deep water to breed. (Heath 1981: 439)
So it can be argued that there's a sound cultural reason that this westerly or north-westerly wind has its own unique name in Marra. It's associated with dugong hunting traditions. But these traditions have changed or diminished. There's no dugong hunting in Ngukurr because it's too far inland/upriver so maybe Kriol speakers at Ngukurr don't have a reason to pay attention to this wind in the same way that Marra dugong hunters would have done. And as a result Kriol doesn't have a special word and has lost some eloquence because of it.

Then again, it's not as though you can't describe this wind just because your language doesn't have a special word for it. Kriol speakers and English speakers can describe this sort of wind if they want - sangudanwei win? westerly? When the word barra finally fades from living memory, what's been lost? A unique meaning? A cultural reference? Or just a rather eloquent word that other languages describe in a more clumsy way? I don't know the answer. If you have any thoughts, please share.

This is the big question of my thesis - what's lost when a language disappears. I'm finding it a hard question to answer.
Heath, J. 1981. Basic materials in Mara: grammar, texts and dictionary. Pacific Linguistics: Canberra.