December 23, 2013

Roper Kriol video trilogy

I've just finished a little trilogy of videos on Roper Kriol - more specifically on a few words in Roper Kriol that don't come from English. I really like these little videos, although I'm a total novice at video editing (please offers suggestions on how to improve them next time!). Each one describes three words that all Kriol speakers in Ngukurr know, but English speakers wouldn't recognise at all. The two guys on the videos, Kamahl and Dwayne, are just brilliant. They were great at describing and acting out these words and it was all done totally spur-of-the-moment. The poor quality is because I recorded them quickly on my iPhone but luckily Dwayne was using my ZoomH2 digital recorder so at least the sound quality is pretty good. And the words themselves I find really interesting (more on that below). I hope you enjoy the vids:

Here's part 1, featuring the words moi, gubarl and ngum:

Part 2 features the words ngarra, waranga and dinggal-dinggal:

And Part 3, which I only edited together yesterday, describes the words bagai, ngaja and burdurdup:

I like these videos because Dwayne and Kamahl describe words that are great examples of substrate lexical influence on Kriol. (That is, the influence that local languages have on the lexicon (vocabulary) of Roper Kriol). See, the vast majority of words in Kriol are based on English. Sometimes Kriol words have basically the same meaning as their English counterpart: wok (walk), lau (allow), kikad (keycard). Sometimes the Kriol meaning is different, either because the word keeps a distinctive meaning found in local languages (this process is called relexification), resulting in words like bingga (from finger, but means fingers+hand), dedi (from daddy, but means father+father's brothers) and smokim (from smoke 'im, but refers to the ceremonial use of smoke to cleanse a person or area after someone has died). Or sometimes English-based Kriol words are just words for things that English speakers use other words for, like pokipain (from porcupine) for echidna or aligida (from alligator) for saltwater crocodile.

Then there are a bunch of words that Kriol speakers in Ngukurr use that have nothing to do with English. Which is what I'm particularly interested in. In my thesis, I'm devoting a section to describing them in detail. It's been fascinating learning about them and finding out just how many there are (and I'm still learning new ones every time I go to Ngukurr!). Because they're not based on English, a lot of them are words that I learned late in the process of learning Kriol and they were a real surprise to me. As an English-speaking Kriol learner, English-based words are learned more quickly because of their familiarity. Whereas for non-English based words, there is no cognitive attachment, so they become salient later in language acquisition processes. When I started to ask people in Ngukurr about these words it was a revelation - there were so many I'd never heard before! And many with lovely specialised and/or culturally-relevant or culturally-specific meanings. And on the academic side, it was exciting because other linguists who'd studied Kriol had been missing some of them too, so I felt like I was learning a few things that other Munanga hadn't.

But I also like these words (and videos) because I had a great time learning about them from many Kriol speakers in Ngukurr. Dwayne and Kamahl in particular were really helpful and great to work with. I have to give them a massive shout-out and heartfelt thanks. The recordings I made with them are so lively and entertaining, just like these videos. I hope that I haven't embarrassed them too much by putting them on YouTube and maybe we can do some more next year!

November 28, 2013

I see the blood on the leaves

I'm reading about so many foul and disgusting things that white people did to Aboriginal people when they first arrived in the Northern Territory.

It's kinda unbearable and makes it starkly clear that white Australia has blood on their hands.

And the names that come up in the history books! The one I'm most surprised at is former Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer's grandfather, Sir John Downer, who was premier of South Australia and a lawyer (and has a suburb in Canberra named after him). John Downer "played an active role" when "successive South Australian governments masterminded, condoned, or concealed the violent dispossession and oppression of Aboriginal peoples in the Northern Territory to 1910" (Roberts 2009: 22). And don't be fooled - the violence and atrocities that white people carried out on the frontier is not something buried. It's in government reports, newspapers, memoirs and diaries, letters of officials, the research of many historians and in the oral histories of Aboriginal people. John Downer and other government officials could not have been ignorant of what was happening.

And it wasn't just as a politician that John Downer played a role this history. As a lawyer, he defended William Willshire, who stood trial for the murder of two Aboriginal men, shot while they slept. Willshire who, after the murders, "then had breakfast before burning the bodies a short distance away - all of this in front of witnesses" (Roberts 2005: 134) was acquitted and returned to police work in the Victoria River District after his acquittal. There is nothing about Willshire's legacy that indicates he didn't commit atrocities. Even his official biography points out his "boastful sadism", "racial triumphalism" and that "he was contemptuous of Aboriginal lives and culture, and condoned female exploitation" (Mulvaney 1990).

There's so much more to say about all of this but I just don't know where or how to start. Or where to stop.



Mulvaney, D. J. (1990) 'Willshire, William Henry (1852–1925)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 28 November 2013.

Roberts, T. (2005). Frontier justice: A history of the Gulf country to 1900. St. Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press.

Roberts, T. (2009). Black-White Relations in the Gulf Country to 1950. Blackheath History Forum, 29 August 2009:, accessed 28 November 2013. 

November 07, 2013

The bizarre story of the 1887 Proclamation of the Township of Urapunga

I’m reasonably familiar with Urapunga, though not many Australians – nor even Territorians - are. It’s a little community of 80 or so people about half an hour’s drive from Ngukurr. It’s nestled between the two big river crossings – the Wilton and the Roper. I used to go there once or twice a week in 2006 and 2007 to help Hannah and Hazel run Ngalakgan classes at the local school. It’s a great little tight-knit community, built, as many remote communities are, on the site of a former pastoral station. 

Opening of Urapunga store in 2010
(Source: Fred Hollows Foundation)

A few years ago, I was wasting time on Google Maps, looking at Ngukurr and surrounds, curious to see how well they’ve mapped probably one of the most isolated-but-populated areas on the globe. And I found something rather weird when I scanned over the map of Roper Bar crossing. There were these faint gridlines superimposed on the map that made it look like a neat little town was about to be build on the banks of the Roper. “That’s weird”, I thought. “I hadn’t heard of anything about to be built there. Surely it’s a mistake”. Was someone really planning to subdivide a parcel of incredibly remote land with little more than a road and a river nearby?

Google maps reveals proposed development at Roper Bar?

I didn’t think much more about it, but a few years later, I learned it wasn’t a mistake. I was, however, mistaken in thinking that someone was going to build something there. The reality, I found out, was that someone had the bright idea of building a little township there over 120 years prior. Bizarrely, the “Township of Urapunga“, had been gazetted and proclaimed by the South Australian Government on March 17, 1887! That’s more than twenty years before the Roper River Mission even existed. 

Map of Town of Urapunga from 1887
(Source: National Library of Australia)

Even more bizarrely, when I read about the 1887 proclamation of Urapunga, I learned that nine of the blocks had even been sold! Howard Morphy described the ludicrousness of the situation very well:
The township of Urapunga only ever existed on the books, in the surveyor’s plans, in the lease granted, and in the nine housing blocks sold and still presumably owned by the descendants of some enterprising Victorian. If any of the purchasers ever visited Urapunga they left no record behind, nor was any work ever carried out on the township. Indeed as far as Roper Bar was concerned the township of Urapunga was to have as little impact on the land as a game of monopoly has on land values in Mayfair. The township of Urapunga was drawn up in abstract at a distance, divided into the grid system favoured in the planning of colonial cities, a miniature version of Melbourne and Adelaide (Morphy 1993: 218).
This mysterious, 126 year old version of Urapunga isn’t even where the present day Urapunga is. It’s a few kms upstream and on the opposite side of the Roper River. But there’s another weird aspect to this, in what my friend Angelique Edmonds called “an absurdity of European law” (Edmonds 2007: 71). When Ngalakgan people went through a land claim to get their land back, they couldn’t claim back this parcel because it was no longer crown land:
Though Urapunga remained a myth, it had legal existence. The squared-off blocks were no longer unalienated crown land in the sense defined under the Land Rights Act so that, almost 100 years to the day that they had been marked on the map, they were excluded from the land available for claim (Morphy and Morphy 2001: 108).
Fortunately this was resolved as Edmonds explains:
The Aboriginal claimants were subsequently granted exclusive Native Title in 2001 (except over some small areas drawn on the map as streets) (Edmonds 2007: 71)
And that's the bizarre story of the 1887 proclamation of the Township of Urapunga, another example of the arrogance of Europeans as they took control of Aboriginal land. Fortunately, the story appears to be nothing but history now...

... Except that its faint gridlines still appear on Google maps. 

... And, as Edmonds suggests, some of the streets presumably still exist as non-Aboriginal land. 

Munanga, hey? Talk about wathu-wathu (crazy)... 


Edmonds, A. (2007). Metamorphosis of Relatedness: the place of Aboriginal Agency, Autonomy and Authority in the Roper River Region of Northern Australia. Unpublished PhD, Australian National University, Canberra.

Morphy, H. (1993). "Colonialism, history and the construction of place: The politics of landscape in Northern Australia." in Landscape: politics and perspectives. Bender, B. (Ed.) Berg Publishers, Providence: 205-243.
Morphy, H & F. Morphy. (2001) "The spirit of the plains kangaroo." in Words for Country: Landscape and Language in Australia. University of New South Wales Press, Sydney: 103-123.

September 09, 2013

NT Election wrap-up: Darwin-Palmerston gaps grows, no-one understands Lingiari and the CLP swing is over.

As Tony Abbott moves into the top job, I've had a look over what happened in the NT for the 2013 Federal election. There haven't been any major changes - (Natasha Griggs looks to have held her seat in Solomon as has Warren Snowdon in Lingiari. Nigel Scullion is again our CLP senator and Labor still won the other senate seat) - but looking a bit more closely at the results shows a few interesting things:


Natasha Griggs has apparently been returned, after a very tight battle with Labor's Luke Gosling. She survived about a 1% swing against her and currently leads by only 800 or so votes. (ABC still has the seat in the "in doubt" category though). Looking at how individual booths voted, the northern suburbs of Darwin generally swung towards Luke and he won quite a few booths there with a clear margin. Down in Palmerston, most or all of the booths there swung towards Natasha. So while the final result is much the same, underlying this is a widening gap between a Labor-voting suburban Darwin and a CLP-voting Palmerston.


In 2010, Warren Snowdon's domination of earlier elections was nowhere to be seen. He survived a massive 13.9% drop in his primary vote, despite being up against a controversial and not particularly strong CLP candidate, Leo Abbott. This time around he was up against Gina Rinehart wannabe Tina Macfarlane. Despite Tina having her own controversies for an environment/nepotism scandal, she was expected to give Warren a very tough contest. Commentators expected the bush votes to continue to swing away from Labor as they did in last year's NT election, although I maintain that it was less a swing to CLP but rather swings all over the place by frustrated and disillusioned bush voters. So I thought Warren was still in the game.

As early polling results came in, Tina MacFarlane was showing a good swing towards her. So much so that pretty much everyone started calling the seat hers:

Pretty much everyone forgot that it's a hugely diverse seat. The booths in CLP-voting towns like Katherine and Alice are counted first and the last ones counted are the remote polling booths. ABC Alice Springs journo, Anthony Stewart, was one of the few with his head still screwed on but still thought Tina would win:

I kept watch throughout the night as the results kept coming in and sure enough, as remote booths were added to the total, Warren clawed his way back and passed Tina at about midnight. Currently, he's sitting about 1,400 votes ahead of her, surviving another swing against him of 2%.

I don't think any commentators really expected this, again revealing them to be very wobbly in anticipating how Aboriginal people in the bush vote. The predicted swing to the CLP didn't eventuate with many (but not all) of the remote booths swinging, often strongly, towards Warren. It also looks like many Lingiari voters were dubious of Tina, especially those closer to her home town of Mataranka. The biggest swings she got were booths a long way from where she lives: in the Darwin Rural area and in Alice Springs. Katherine and Tennant Creek voters who you might expect to give more support to a more local candidate were much more 'meh' about her. One of the two booths in Katherine even went to Snowdon which was unexpected and a turnaround from 2010. 


Another hotbed of controversy was created earlier in the year when Julia Gillard decided she wanted no more of Trish Crossin, or Trish's potential rival candidate, Marion Scrymgour and instead parachuted political newbie Nova Peris onto the Senate ballot sheet. This pissed off the majority of Territorians, including me: I reacted by instantly renewing my lapsed membership to the Greens. I was appalled by Labor's move and I really felt for Marion Scrymgour who had been in contention for the top spot on the ballot sheet but was jilted by Julia just as much, if not more, than Trish was. (And yes, my sympathy for Marion is a huge turnaround after being critical of her for so long for her hand in scrapping bilingual education programs).

If Julia wanted an Indigenous woman in Federal parliament, what was Marion? Chopped liver? Many Territorians saw Nova's appointment as tokenistic. Julia Gillard had shafted someone who, like Nova, is Aboriginal and female but unlike Nova, is an experienced pollie. Apparently Marion is too much of an independent thinker and Julia didn't want someone who isn't afraid to put her constituents ahead of party politics (surely a good quality!). Marion was quite right to say that:
"If Canberra is afraid to have someone stand up and have the debate then I don't want to be part of that process - I think it's disgraceful. I don't want to just stand up in front of the Prime Minister when it's about issues that impact Indigenous people and nod my head."
But all this was months ago and by the election it was pretty much all forgotten about. Initial hopes that Trish or Marion might run as independent never eventuated and it would've been extremely tough for them to win anyway. Antony Green's exciting notion that Rosalie Kunoth-Monks might do well also never eventuated so the Senate result was back to a predicable finish with Nigel being returned and Nova winning.

There's been a bit of celebrating Nova's historic appointment as the first Aboriginal woman in Federal parliament such as this puff piece which seems to have forgotten the controversy surrounding her appointment. I wish Nova all the best, but I'm not celebrating until she proves she has some mettle and can represent Aboriginal people and/or the NT well in the Senate. 

Overall trends - CLP swing is over

Overall, Saturday's vote in the NT didn't show the trend towards the CLP continuing. Their primary vote increased very marginally from 2010 (+0.3%), a bit less than Labor's did (+0.4%). When you add in the slaughtering the CLP got in the Wanguri by-election earlier in the year, it looks like the shine has already gone off them and the NT is back to being a battleground.

From the ABC Election site
And sadly for me, the Greens' vote dropped significantly across the board: their primary vote dropped 5.3%, but I guess by still polling at 7.7% and 9% for the Senate shows there is still a decent voting base, even in the NT which has a reputation for being conservative and red-necked in many ways.

Congrats to the winners and may you all represent all Territorians and our great lands well in Canberra! 

September 02, 2013

Indigenous languages in the election

I know everyone's sick of the election but don't worry - this little post is more about language than the 'leckshun. I wrote a post on Fully (sic) last week about how hardly any election candidates use languages other than English and that this makes election time duller than it should be.

When it comes to Aboriginal candidates there are at least three in the NT who speak an Aboriginal language fluently and aren't afraid to do so publicly. It's pretty cool that at least for us in the NT, it's not English-English-English for the whole election campaign.

The first is Rosalie Kunoth-Monks who's a Senate candidate for the Australian First Nation's party. From Utopia, she used to be the mayor of the Barkly Shire and was the star of Australia’s first colour feature film, Jedda, Rosalie didn’t learn English until she started school. Her first language(s) are Arrernte and Alyawarr. Normally, running for a small party like First Nation's would mean she doesn't have much of a chance, but ABC's election guru Antony Green points out that with Labor's vote falling and everyone preferencing First Nations above Labor and the Greens, Rosalie might just sneak the 2nd NT Senate spot. That would make her the first Federal politician to have an Aboriginal language as their first language! Here's a video of her campaigning in her mother tongue and English:

Rosalie Kunoth Monks from CAAMA on Vimeo.

If you're interested in knowing more about her amazing life, check her out being interviewed by Andrew Denton on the Elders program. 

The next language-speaking candidate is Ken Lechleitner who's also with the Australian First Nation's party, but he's running for the House of Representatives. Ken is from the Alice Springs area and speaks Arrernte, Anmatyerr, Warlpiri and English. CAAMA also has a video of him campaigning in Arrernte (I think!) and English:

And lastly, Warren H Williams is running for the Senate for the Greens party. He ran last time too and helped the Greens get 13.6% of the NT Senate vote. Warren is from Hermannsburg and speaks Arrernte fluently. The Greens look like they're the only party to explicitly support Aboriginal languages and bilingual education, outlined in a press release today that quotes Warren as saying:
"The Greens support our right to speak, use and revitalise Indigenous languages and our right to speak and learn our languages in schools. These programs should be properly funded to give our kids a good education, and to support healthy lives and jobs in the bush."
Here's an old video of him speaking Arrernte while walking about Tamworth NSW, where he's previously won a Golden Guitar award at the Tamworth Country Music Festival.

Hope you like the vids. It's so great that Aboriginal languages are trying to forge their way into Canberra! Good luck in the election!

P.S. Hope I didn't miss anyone - if I did please let me know in the comments!

August 15, 2013

Do your bit for journalism in Australia and pay for your news

I'm a big fan of ABC's Media Watch. When Jonathan Holmes had his final episode last month, he talked passionately about how so much of Australia's news is now free and that it's affecting the quality of journalism in Australia. He urged:
"Whatever your politics, or your preferences, and even if you've never bought a newspaper, start subscribing to at least one media website: whether it's the Herald Sun or New Matilda, Crikey or the Sydney Morning Herald, old media or new, pay just a little to keep real journalism alive."
Well his argument persuaded me and I finally got around to doing something about it. I just forked out $70 for a concession subscription to the independent news website New Matilda and feel warm and fuzzy inside. New Matilda doesn't dangle carrots to get you to subscribe but that's okay. I have all the carrots I need. And I definitely wasn't going to give my cash to the waste of space that is the NT News or the colour-blinded Katherine Times.

I'm still considering subscribing to Crikey, even though I already have access to all their content via my involvement with Fully (sic). Not only are they probably the best independent news we have in Australia, I've gotten so much out of being able to contribute to Fully (sic), so it's the least I can do to give them something for their effort.

What about you? Does anyone else pay for news? If not, could you be persuaded to do so? Have a look at the Media Watch episode I mentioned and see if it motivates you to pay for your news too.

August 13, 2013

PhD Update

Just drafted another chapter. 22 weeks of scholarship left. Feels like 18 chapters to go. Wanna go home. Hate everyone. Hate everything. 72,000 words written. Still know nothing. 129 works cited. Still know nothing. Marra language still dying out. Kriol. Marra. Kriol. Marra. Knowledgemaintenancelossindicateindicateshiftdemonstrateindicatedemonstrateindicate. I see the blood on the leaves. I see the blood on the leaves. I see the blood on the leaves. Mustn't listen to manic Kanye West songs. Mustn't listen to sad Nina Simone songs.

That about sums it up. Now back to the grind...

*written on the #3 bus en route to Uni. 

August 02, 2013

Walking With Spirits festival... at last!

The Walking With Spirits festival has been running for about as long as I've been in the Katherine Region. It makes no sense that I'd never been before. I know the guys who run it and occasionally do bits of work for their organisation, I know dozens of people who've gone and plenty who've performed and worked on it too. This year, I stopped being a lazy bum and checked it out for myself and fortunately enough got to do so for free as a volunteer.

It was a pretty awesome event. Unfortunately with my volunteering duties I didn't get to the venue, Melkjulumbu (aka Beswick Falls) until dusk. It's an absolutely breathtaking place and it would've been nice to be a regular patron and spend the afternoon soaking up the location.

The festival location at dusk. Photo: ABC
The festival consists mainly of one massive show, featuring a range of performers who vary pretty wildly in levels of experience, who they are, what they do and where they're from. Instead of such a mixed bag detracting from the night, it helped to generate a genuine feeling of it being a true community festival, in spite of the professional lighting, staging and sound gear (courtesy of the Australian Shakespeare Company). And although there was a real mix of performers, about half were from Beswick community itself, making it a truly local festival and one that has obvious community development benefits.

The festival kicked off with the most senior elder/songman in Beswick, Victor Hood, singing some traditional songs. He's quite frail thesedays but it was wonderful to see how he sung with such pride and as much gusto as he could. He obviously believes in the event and still wants to show off his cultural knowledge despite it being so threatened.

BBB Crew in action. Photo: Peter Eve
Young people of Beswick featured heavily, with a choir (collaborating with a visiting mob of schoolkids from Mornington Peninsula), a great narrated shadow puppet show (which is now also a book published in English, Kriol and soon Rembarrnga) and plenty of them joined in with bunggul and other traditional dancing. The highlight on the youth side was the "BBB" crew - five young guys from Beswick with an obvious passion for hiphop dancing. Once their scratched CD was cleaned (definitely a sign of an authentic community festival!) they did two great hiphop routines. But even cooler was their intro performance featuring one guy on didj, another the apprentice songman and the other three showing off some solid traditional dance skills. A really nice integration of old and new.

There were a few lowlights, to be expected for any event that runs 3+ hours. The short appearance of the Australian Shakespeare Company to sing a couple of songs seemed out of place. The bunggul performance by the Ngukurr singers was fantastic but did get somewhat spoiled when the dancing was swamped by dozens of kids from Victoria. Yes, it was great that audience participation was encouraged but it could've been handled better to make for a better experience for viewers, dancers and singers alike. And I really think an interval would've been beneficial - time to chill, have a quick stretch and debrief with those around you to discuss the really interesting range of performances you've just witnessed.

Young dancers watch while they wait for their turn
Photo: Peter Eve
But the highlights far outweighed any flaws. The MC, Kamahi Djordon King, did a great job. An accomplished performer himself, it was great the way he could switch between Kriol, Aboriginal English and English and remain funny and engaging. (I really hope he comes back next year with his cousin Constantina Bush!). The traditional singing was phenomenal with performers from Beswick, Ramingining and Ngukurr delivering a range of traditional song genres. These sections were aurally and visually great and exactly what punters wanted to see. Their greatness was accentuated further by so many young men and women proudly stepping up to dance and complement the stellar songmen.

Shellie Morris and the Borroloola songwomen before the show
Photo: Peter Eve
The standout moment for me though was during one of the earlier performances of the night, where Shellie Morris did a short set with the Borroloola Songwomen she's been working with. A couple of years ago they produced the lovely Ngambala Wiji li-Wunungu CD, sung entirely in traditional languages of Borroloola which was recently released nationally. They did five songs all in Yanyuwa, which Shellie has learned really quite well as an adult learner, tutored by (among others) Leanne Norman, a former linguistics student of mine from Batchelor Institute. It was a great little set that had the crowd enthralled and they stand out as a too-rare example of an all-female Aboriginal group who command attention and are so strong on stage. They wonderfully capitalised on that energy, inviting all the women in the crowd to join the Borroloola dancers for their last song, li-Wirdiwalangu. It took a microsecond of encouragement from Shellie Morris to get more than half of 200 or so women in the crowd up the front and dancing alongside with the Borroloola women. The energy and joy coming from the women was palpable - a truly magical moment even for those of us merely watching on.

Leanne Norman and other Borroloola women lead and inspire the audience
Photo: Peter Eve
To end the night was a traditional dance/song genre called Bongiliny Bongiliny performed by Beswick dancers and singers and it was a great way to end. Good traditional dancing is so enthralling that I sat up on my knees to intently watch and forgot entirely about blood circulation. After their 20 minute set I had the worst pins and needles imaginable. But I was glad for that feeling and for finally attending Walking With Spirits. It was an awesome night and I will do my best to attend more regularly!

July 21, 2013

Today's trivia! Or, will anyone care about my PhD research?

Somehow I dug myself out of a mini PhD-writing slump this week and finally tabulated the last results of some research I did at Ngukurr a couple of months ago where I interviewed 14 young Kriol speakers about bush medicine and also a bit about lizards.

The people I interviewed taught me lots of interesting stuff, but analysing what they told me is doing my head in. I've basically been writing about the same stuff for six months and I'm sick of it. I'm sick of my thesis in general. I mean, I'm still *kind of* interested in what I'm doing and learning but I'm at the stage where I've flogged the topics I'm focusing on to death so much so that I barely care anymore and I just can't see how anyone else might care. (Yes, I'm at *that* stage. It's known as the Valley Of Shit).

What I will look like if I have to write
about lizards for much longer
But here's your chance to restore some faith that what I'm devoting all my time to might actually interest someone. A trivia question! Part of my thesis discusses the taxonomic knowledge of lizards that Marra speakers have and compares that with what Kriol speakers know, and I've just finished analysing data that ranks the 10 most salient types of lizard to young Kriol speakers in Ngukurr. So can you guess:
Q: What is the most salient type of lizard among young Kriol speaking people in Ngukurr? (based on a survey of 14 people aged 22-35)
So please: have a go at answering in the comments. If you don't, I will cry. The first correct answer will restore a skerrick of faith that my PhD thesis won't be a total waste of time/piece of crap! And I'll shout you a drink when I see you next!

July 17, 2013

ALNF update: my panic attack wasn't for nothing

I recently wrote a detailed post that was critical of the Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation's use of a statistic that falsely claimed that 80% of Indigenous kids in remote communities can't read. It was a post that had been festering in my mind for six months and I was so relieved to finally get my gripes off my chest. But writing that blogpost was just the start.

Initially, I wasn't confident about publishing it on Fully (sic) but after running it by a few people I decided to publish a version there too, knowing it would get a lot more readers and attention. So it went up on Crikey and I immediately noticed it getting read, Facebooked and tweeted, including by reasonably well-known people like Helen Razer and economist Rory Robertson. I got some good feedback - in particular I was totally chuffed to get a personal email from one of the country's top Indigenous academics thanking me for the piece(!) - but I got a few negative comments too. The attention didn't make me feel good at all. I actually became really quite anxious, partly because it recalled two bad experiences I had last year when online articles I wrote got negative attention (including a random bullying phone call) which was really not nice. Online, I can be outspoken and opinionated but in real life I'm actually not very assertive so knowing lots of people were reading my criticisms of the ALNF was tricky to handle. Then, my anxiety hit a whole nother level when I saw that Mary-Ruth Mendel, the Founder and Chair of the ALNF, had responded to my post! Reading her comments, I felt pretty rotten that I'd upset her (but the fact that she called me Mr. Wilson kind of alleviated some of those bad feelings). After I pulled myself together, I responded to her, standing by what I'd originally written. It was a pretty crazy and worrying few days for me.

But I'm not wanting to just boast about how much attention my article got. I'm writing this to boast because it looks like my piece has actually caused the ALNF to adjust their marketing strategy and their use of that statistic! I looked at their Wall Of Hands website today and gone is the image with "Only 1 in 5 remote Indigenous kids can read" plastered over it. And on the Facts page, they have changed the way they present the statistic so that it's much fairer and accurate (pictured right). It's heartening to see and I'm actually kind of impressed that they've made this adjustment following my pretty harsh criticism. Kudos to them.

You know, I started blogging really quite innocently eight years ago mostly because I was too slack to send individual emails to friends and family while working at Ngukurr. I realise that I'm not Mia Freedman or anything and I realise that by the ALNF altering their marketing strategy doesn't actually mean I've done anything to reduce Indigenous disadvantage but maybe my blogpost has made a few people think about things they hadn't thought about before and that's nice. It really does surprise me that my little blogposts - which really haven't changed much over the years - sometimes find a decent audience and occasionally carry some weight and influence.

Oh! And the most remarkable thing the ALNF have done because of my article? Six months after they blocked me on Twitter, they unblocked me! Ha!

July 11, 2013

Good-but-weird Beswick Kriol

I'm not too far away from finishing my PhD (I hope!) and my plan for afterwards is to come back to Katherine and see what comes my way. I'm pretty confident that I'll find interesting work that utilises my skills and experience like the other day when I was asked to help Djilpin Arts with a Kriol translation of a picture book they're creating.

It was only a little job, but very interesting for me because I had to translate it into Beswick Kriol, rather than Roper Kriol which I'm much more familiar with. There was a surprising number of little adjustments I had to make to ensure the translation sounded okay to a Beswick audience and Evangeline at Djilpin Arts was invaluable in providing assistance.

There were a few things I already knew to avoid - for instance, Beswick mob say idim instead of dagat for 'eat', they say deya instead of ja for 'there' and my favourite - they say eberrijing instead of enijing for 'things/belongings'.

But there was plenty I didn't know. I thought some of these Roper words might make the cut but they were all out: warajarra for 'floodwater', munyurrumap for 'grind/refine', bal for 'pound', maj or muny for 'curse'. The word for 'curse' (verb) was a new one for me - Beswick mob apparently say wunymang. Who knew?! Other substrate-derived words I had to include were moyi (green plum) and jotmo (a plant/bush medicine called guyiya or dogbul in Ngukurr). Yarlbun, which is the ubiquitous word for lilyseed in Roper Kriol was also out, replaced by datam.

It was really interesting to learn just how much variation there was between the Kriol I know and the Kriol spoken by those only a few communities away from Ngukurr. If I do go on to do more academic research after my PhD, I want to do a proper study of dialectal variation in Kriol, something that's never really been systematically studied before. In the meantime, the translation I worked on will go into a picture book called River Boy that will be released at the upcoming Walking With Spirits festival and it'll feature a Rembarrnga version of the text too apparently. Good stuff.

The highlight of doing this job however was getting this sign from Djilpin Arts, in return for my work (as well as a bit of cash):

It's a bilingual anti-smoking sign in English and Nunggubuyu and I love it. Someone had found it at the Numbulwar tip and gave it to them a couple of months ago. Djilpin kept it because they liked how it looked but I don't think appreciated the language part as much as me. So I figured it deserved to go to a better home where it could be fully appreciated. Ha! I'm going to donate it to the Ngukurr Language Centre anyway. :-)

June 27, 2013

Deceit for a cause (or, why the ALNF irks me Pt.1)

Here's a shocking statistic:

It's courtesy of the Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation, or ALNF, a Sydney-based charity that promotes literacy development among under-privileged groups, in particular Aboriginal people in remote Australia. To garner support for their cause, the ALNF has fantastic marketing and PR, with a seemingly endless line of celebrities who 'raise their hands' and successfully appeal to concerned public to part with their cash and fund their programs. Statistics like the one above are a great hook. They appeal to the guilt that many non-Indigenous people feel about Indigenous disadvantage and it gives them a way to feel like they are part of the "solution" without have to leave their urban locales. Here's another example from a couple of years back of just how impressive (and lucrative) their strategy - and that statistic - can be:

Someone like me who's worked in remote communities for years and is passionate about 'closing the gap' would be right behind the ALNF, right? Sadly, no. In fact, the opposite is true. There are many aspects about the ALNF that irritate me to my very core. But today I'm just going to tackle one: the "4 out of 5 kids can't read" statistic.

See, that statistic is misleading, inaccurate... it's just plain wrong. I've queried its accuracy with the ALNF a couple of times on social media and their response has been to simplistically point me to the NAPLAN website, the supposed source of their information. (Note that all they did was refer me to the NAPLAN homepage, as though that would suffice). I hunted around the published NAPLAN results and here's what I actually found:

The NAPLAN website provides various figures and results of their tests, such as the percentage of kids that are reaching national benchmarks at Years 3, 5, 7 and 9. But rather than saying that 4 out of 5 Aboriginal kids in the bush can't read, the NAPLAN site gives us the following results, the 2012 results of the Reading tests for Indigenous students in "very remote" areas:
Year 3 - 58.8% below national minimum standard
Year 5 - 78.6% below national minimum standard
Year 7 - 61.4% below national minimum standard
Year 9 - 73.7% below national minimum standard
There's no question that these results leave a lot to be desired - no-one is arguing against that. But do they prove, as the ALNF suggested, that their shocking statistic is accurate? No, it doesn't. I looked further, checking over results from 2010 and 2011 as well as the results of other literacy-based part of NAPLAN - writing, spelling and grammar/punctuation. They all showed very similar patterns to the results shown above.

So this is what's wrong here:
If 4 out 5 - or 80%- of kids can't read, then the NAPLAN figures should all be showing scores of around 80%. But they don't. One of the figures above is close to 80%, but what about the others? The Year 3 and Year 7 kids' results are closer to 50% than 80%. Is the ALNF just conveniently picking the worst scores and ignoring the better ones?

Regardless of the actual figures, the ALNF is inferring that below national minimum standard means can't read? This is quite a leap, and an unreasonable one. If kids aren't making benchmark, it does not mean that they can't read. It merely means that they didn't reach a benchmark level. And NAPLAN results are not without controversy mind you. They're the product of a controversial test administered under strict conditions with well-known problems, such as that it doesn't account for cultural background or the fact that many or most kids out bush are learning English as a second language. 

Concepts of literacy, illiteracy or "can't read" are complex. This UNESCO report gives a great overview of the varying ways in which "literacy" is understood and defined around the world. To say kids that "can't read" or are illiterate because they don't pass a NAPLAN test, is taking an extremely narrow view of what literacy is. Reading is a real-life activity. It's part of our social practice and relates to our lives and interests. Sitting a standardised test under strict conditions in a classroom misses so much of what "literacy" actually encompasses. If we expand our view of literacy as more than the stuff of standardised tests, we start to see that Aboriginal kids are resourceful young people who do in fact use literacy in many ways that are suitable and relevant to their lives. You only have to look at the astonishingly fast take-up of social media like Facebook by young people in the bush. For some great research on how young Aboriginal kids are engaging with literacy and technology, check out this recent excellent (and free) publication. Without doubt, remote students are lagging behind non-Indigenous urban counterparts, but it makes no sense to claim that only 1 in 5 kids in the bush can read when most of them use Facebook regularly.

Lastly, NAPLAN is an English-medium test and so any data stemming from NAPLAN actually refers only to English literacy and ignores literacy practices in any language other than English. It is true that literacy levels in Aboriginal languages are low, especially since bilingual education has been virtually abandoned. But people in the bush do still write in their own languages. Again, just look at Facebook - if you know where to look, you'll see plenty of young people expressing themselves in languages other than English.

I've pointed out these flaws to the ALNF a few times (including a mini-rant on Twitter that led to them blocking me from following them, see below). But they continue to use their false statistic in their fundraising campaigns.

But why does it matter if they keep promoting a false statistic? If the ALNF are using it for a good cause, then isn't that the main thing? The problem is that they are making out that Aboriginal kids in the bush are dumber than they actually are. This does nothing for the collective self-esteem of Aboriginal people and does nothing to foster an accurate understanding among non-Indigenous people of the lives of Aboriginal people. With the ALNF so effective with advertising and PR, thousands and thousands of Australians are being exposed to their marketing. (They posted this statistic to their 25,000+ Facebook followers as recently as two weeks ago and it got shared so much that would've appeared on hundreds of thousands of Facebook feeds). As I and others have pointed out before, the negative stuff that Aboriginal people are constantly exposed to in the media does have a detrimental effect, so it's really disappointing that the ALNF contributes to that.

In addition to negative social impacts, there is surely a regulatory issue if they are fundraising with a false statistic. The AANA Advertiser Code of Ethics says that "Advertising or Marketing Communications shall not be misleading or deceptive or be likely to mislead or deceive." (Section 1.2). The ALNF receives a significant amount of public donations in addition to the many people - celebrities and regular folk - who symbolically support them. Aren't some of them being misled by the ALNF who continue to promote this shocking-but-misleading statistic? I know that I'd be annoyed if I donated $1000 to a charity that used misleading statistics.

Still, it feels weird to criticise the ALNF when, like them, I'm passionate about Aboriginal issues, especially language issues. Their marketing is so effective that I feel like they've generated a feeling of "if-you're-not-with-us-then-you're-against-Aboriginal-people". It's almost like criticising them is akin to being openly racist! The truth couldn't be more wrong. The truth is that because of my concerns about how Aboriginal people in remote communities are treated and understood, it disturbs me that a major charity that tries to raise awareness of an important issue is actually promulgating misunderstanding with a false statistic that makes Aboriginal people look dumber than they are, all for their fundraising purposes. Not cool.

June 19, 2013

Complementary worlds in the Art Gallery of New South Wales

While many of my PhD days down south are lonely days, I did have an opportunity to spend a wonderful 24 hours in Sydney last week. The occasion was to visit one of my dearest oldest friends who now lives in New York but was on a rare visit to Australia. I jumped at the opportunity to catch up with her and booked myself on to the Murray's Canberra-Sydney express. (Which by the way, I love dearly, if only for the wonderfully ambiguous pre-recorded post-boarding message that says "We thank you for travelling with Murries/Murray's").

Aside from a great and soul-rejuvenating catch-up with the lovely Ms. Iacovella (continuing a friendship that goes back to being 20 and working at World4Kids Aspley), we spent a few hours wandering through the Art Gallery of New South Wales. One of our common interests is art - she's worked for various galleries for years and I've spent years in Ngukurr where many great artists come from, many of whom I've done language work with too. So it was great walking about the gallery with her. We both got equally excited when we spotted this in the main foyer:

 It's a stunning painting by Marra artist Ginger Riley (brother of Mack) called Ngakngak and the Ruined City. I never met Ginger but I've driven through this area and you can totally recognise the topography of the area in the painting. More than just a landscape, it's littered with totemic imagery: the ngag-ngag (white-breasted sea eagle) keenly and sternly watching over its country. And to the right you can just make out two snakes - also Dreamings/totems - either sneaking up on him or simply traversing their country.

We went on and checked out other parts of gallery, both enjoying the 20th Century Australian art. I didn't realise how familiar so much non-Indigenous Australian Art was to me, and how good it is. The magnificent Brett Whiteley piece, William Dobell's wonderful portraits, Sidney Nolan's really interesting and varied work and this brilliant piece by Grace Cossington-Smith. It was at this point that I turned a corner and saw this bit of awesomeness:


On the left is a beautiful Sidney Nolan landscape, Central Australia. Impressive enough. But the painting on the right is just as, if not more impressive and I recognised it instantly. It's Ruined City by Ngukurr artist and Marra elder Angelina George. I was blown away by seeing it there, next to a Sidney Nolan, in amongst the cream of Australia's best non-Indigenous 20th art. The two paintings fit together so well and how great that Angelina's painting isn't restricted to the Indigenous art section - a nice touch of creative curation.

It's not just the curation that I loved but the painting itself. Ruined City, or Burrunju, is an amazing site in Arnhem Land on Ngandi country. It's very remote and most of it is sacred and restricted but I had the absolute privilege of tagging behind some elders on a trip there last year and saw it for myself (only  non-sacred parts, mind you). Burrunju is visually stunning as well as spiritually and historically significant. As well as being a sacred site, old Betty (Angelina's sister) tells of when leprosy was prevalent in the Roper Mission and sufferers used Burrunju as a leprosarium - an on-country alternative to a 600 mile one-way trip to the official leprosarium on Channel Island. (See the fascinating article by Karen Hughes on this history).

Angelina's painting captures the landscape of Burrunju so wonderfully, just like Ginger does in his painting. Funnily enough, the blurb next to the artwork talks about how Angelina decided not to depict any trees in her landscape (for some apparent artistic reason). I was able to scoff at this instantly because there aren't any trees there to start off with! Here's a picture I took last year of just the tiny part of the fringe of Burrunju (it goes for miles) and I'm sure you can see that Angelina's painting captures the place's aesthetic quite brilliantly. And once you get into the rock formations, trees are rather scarce:

So those were the highlights of my quick visit to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. We also checked out the rest of the Indigenous art in the collection and there were many magnificent pieces, includes a stunning series of 50 year old bark paintings from Arnhem Land and the most stunning mask from the Torres Strait I've ever seen. 

Going back to Canberra on the Murray's my soul was refreshed, not just because of spending time with my lovely friend but because of this trip to the Art Gallery. It could have been such a clash of worlds: Aboriginal art depicting remote sites hung in a major metropolitan art gallery, being in Sydney when I'm now more comfortable and used to working remote and working with Aboriginal people, and struggling with the lonely life I'm currently living v. reuniting with a friend I've shared so much with. But funnily enough it wasn't a clash - all these worlds somehow managed to complement each other and sit comfortably together just like Sidney Nolan and Angelina George's paintings do. Awwww...

June 11, 2013

lonely days

At the moment, all I'm doing with my time is trying to get this PhD thesis written. About 60,000 words down, about 40,000 to go. I've pretty much eliminated all other tasks from my agenda so my to-do-list basically looks like:
  1. Write thesis
This can lead to some pretty lonely days. Like today. Basically I got up. I went to my office. I pored over data, I wrote a few hundred words, I procrastinated with some emailing and internet surfing. I ate lunch at my computer and by the time I left at the end of the day, I'd barely had contact with any other humans. 

It kinda sucks. But I just want to finish the damn thing. Sigh.

But I probably shouldn't write a completely dreary blogpost. So here's a neat video I saw today in Murrinh-Patha (the language of Wadeye) and English with a guy tricking people into thinking he's eating dogfood. :-)

June 07, 2013

Baba ba im. And a bidiyo.

I just noticed how odd this string of syllables looks:
... baba ba im, im ...
 But it's not odd at all. It's a perfect little string of Kriol words that means:
... his/her sibling is ... 
And who said Kriol words were hard to pronounce?

In other Kriol language learning news, the first of three Roper Kriol verbs videos is done and up on the Ngukurr Language Centre YouTube page. I mentioned on a previous post that while at Ngukurr recently, an audio recording session with two of the young guys who've been a great help to me with my Kriol research turned into an impromptu video recording session with them demonstrating some of the substrate verbs that are common in Roper Kriol. The first video shows three of the verbs: moi, gubarl and ngum. Kamahl's acting is suberb! You might notice the camera wobbling noticeably when he's scavenging (gubarl) cigarette butts. That's me trying not to laugh too much! Hope you like the vid. Parts 2 and 3 will be done soon hopefully.

May 16, 2013

People1 and People2

Here's a crazy scene: two guys outside a beachside shopping centre. One guy is harassing the other one for money. The guy being harassed announces he's a cop so the first guy gets spooked, runs off into the bush and subsequently strips off and goes into the water. He eventually gets caught and does what could only be described as the ultimate walk of shame: stark naked, trailing a cop, as you go off to be held in police custody.

Now, if you were someone who witnessed this scene, wouldn't it sound a bit odd to describe it like this:
"I was laughing to myself because it was the first time I have seen people naked."
Why say there were naked people, when there was only one? Why would an adult not have ever seen a person or people naked before, as the quote implies?

The answer lies in that the term people used here is a euphemism for Aboriginal person/people. What the above quote really means is " was the first time I have seen an Aboriginal person naked".  In this usage, 'people' is a euphemism resulting from political correctness and the anxiety that many non-Indigenous people feel regarding the way we refer to Aboriginal people. So even though the article that reported on this incident doesn't mention that they naked guy was Aboriginal, my forensic linguistic skills allow me to pretty confidently deduce that he was. (And no, not because I'm adhering to stereotypes of Aboriginal people that relate to high incarceration rates and their over-representation in the justice system).

It's not at all uncommon for non-Aboriginal people in the NT, who are (self)-conscious about how they talk about Aboriginal people, to use a generic word like 'people' in this odd way when they are actually referring specifically to Aboriginal people. I remember talking to a friend recently who said something like:
"People don't like to work in the afternoon".
Which 'people' was she talking about? Why not just say 'we'? From the context of the conversation it was clear that what was really meant was 'they', as in "they (people in remote community X) don't like to work in the afternoon (they prefer to work in the morning)". But without context, the utterance sounds rather bizarre.

'Otherness' is kinda funny when you
use it to take the piss out of yourself
I would actually go further and suggest that this euphemistic use of 'people' is applied more specifically to Aboriginal people from remote communities - those that non-Indigenous people commonly see as inherently different or "the other". But political correctness dictates to liberal-minded non-Indigenous people that labels that focus on the "otherness" of others are to be avoided. Like how liberal-minded folk also often try to avoid the pronoun 'them' or 'they', fearing that it connotes 'us and them' discourses that are commonly associated with racist discourses. So, to get around these issues, a non-descript label like "people" is used. It's a way for us to talk collectively about Aboriginal people in remote communities when we don't want to be seen to be labelling or dichotomising and don't want to evoke racist discourses of 'us and them'.

Which is kind of a good thing I suppose. Except that we sometimes end up sounding dumb. As in the examples above.