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NAIDOC Week: Celebrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages

NAIDOC Week: Celebrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages

By Belinda Wilson

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A couple of weeks ago Victorian Parliament heard for the first time legislation which included the language of the traditional owners of the Melbourne area, the Woi-wurrung language.

The legislation was the Yarra River Protection (Wilip-gin Birrarung murron) Bill 2017, which gives the Wurundjeri people a legislated role as members of the newly established Birrarung Council that will act as a custodian of the Yarra River. The Yarra River is called Birrarung in the Woi-wurrung language – hence Birrarung Marr, the park that runs along the Yarra.

It is the first piece of legislation introduced into Victorian Parliament with a dual Aboriginal title and to have a preamble written partially in the Woi-wurrung language.

The name of the legislation was read out in parliament by Wurundjeri Elder Alice Kolasa. She is the first Wurundjeri person to speak from the floor of parliament as a traditional owner of the land on which Parliament House stands.

The bill’s preamble starts with:

Woiwurrungbaluk ba Birrarung wanganyinu biikpil

Yarrayarrapil, manyi biik ba Birrarung, ganbu marram-nganyinu

We, the Woi-wurrung, the First People, and the Birrarung, belong to this Country. This Country, and the Birrarung are part of us.

You can read more of this preamble below, but what I want to emphasise is the importance of this legislation in recognising and respecting the lore and language of Aboriginal people, as well as providing the Wurundjeri people with a legislated voice to Government on the protection of the river.

“Our Languages Matter” is the theme of this week’s NAIDOC Week – the week where we celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, history, achievements and community. This theme aims to recognise and celebrate the important role that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages play in communicating culture, history, community relations and lore.

As lawyers, we understand the importance and power of language. Language forms our identities, is an essential part of our culture, and we use language to form our social norms and our laws. The study and practice of law is in many ways the study and practice of language, interpreting language and resolving disputes about meanings.

In Victoria, there are approximately 40 Aboriginal languages. The effects of colonisation in Victoria and across Australia have led to a loss of language over the generations, with most Aboriginal languages at a critical state. However, important work is being undertaken – led by the Aboriginal community – to revive Aboriginal languages and to recognise their importance.

The Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages (VACL) was established in 1994 as a community-controlled organisation that supports Aboriginal communities to revive their languages. VACL runs classes in Aboriginal languages, undertakes research, shares resources and undertakes projects to support the learning of Aboriginal languages, including creating Aboriginal language apps.

Restoring Aboriginal names for places is another important way of recognising a rising awareness of Aboriginal culture and the ongoing connection of Aboriginal people to their land. 

Earlier this year Mount Eccles in the Western District was restored to its original Gunditjmara name Budj Bim (meaning "high head"), following the nomination of the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape as a World Heritage site on the basis of its Aboriginal culture and heritage, including its 6600 year old aquaculture system. The recently introduced Parks and Crown Legislation Amendment Bill 2017 will officially rename Mount Eccles National Park, which is co-managed by the Gunditjmara people, as Budj Bim National Park.

The rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to use, maintain and revive their languages are protected through international and Australian human rights instruments as an expression of self-determination. Article 13 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples recognises the rights of Indigenous peoples around the world to "revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations" their languages and to "designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons" and Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights more broadly protects the rights of minorities to use their own language.

The Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities also recognises and protects the rights of Aboriginal people to "maintain and use their language" (s19(2)(b)). The United Nations Human Rights Committee has noted that states may be required to take positive measures to protect the rights of a minority group to maintain their own language.

Aboriginal languages embody the knowledge of Aboriginal communities, and are crucial to realising self-determination. The LIV hopes that Aboriginal languages will continue to be revived, recognised and celebrated in Victoria.

We encourage our members to take the opportunity of NAIDOC Week to learn more about Victorian Aboriginal culture and language, through joining us at the NAIDOC March on 7 July or attending another NAIDOC event , or exploring the many resources available on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages.

Preamble to the Yarra River Protection (Wilip-gin Birrarung murron) Bill 2017:

Woiwurrungbaluk ba Birrarung wanganyinu biikpil

Yarrayarrapil, manyi biik ba Birrarung, ganbu marram-nganyinu

Manyi Birrarung murrondjak, durrung ba murrup warrongguny, ngargunin twarnpil

Birrarungwa nhanbu wilamnganyinu

Nhanbu ngarn.ganhanganyinu manyi Birrarung

Bunjil munggany biik, wurru-wurru, warriny ba yaluk, ba ngargunin twarn

Biiku kuliny munggany Bunjil

Waa marrnakith-nganyin

Balliyang, barnumbinyu Bundjilal, banyu bagurrk munggany

Ngarn.gunganyinu nhanbu

nyilam biik, nyilam kuliny – balit biik, balit kuliny: balitmanhanganyin manyi biik ba Birrarung. Balitmanhanganyin durrungu ba murrupu,

ba nhanbu murrondjak!

We, the Woi-wurrung, the First People, and the Birrarung, belong to this Country. This Country, and the Birrarung are part of us.

The Birrarung is alive, has a heart, a spirit and is part of our Dreaming. We have lived with and known the Birrarung since the beginning. We will always know the Birrarung.

Bunjil, the great Eagle, the creator spirit, made the land, the sky, the sea, the rivers, flora and fauna, the lore. He made Kulin from the earth. Bunjil gave Waa, the crow, the responsibility of Protector. Bunjil's brother, Palliyang, the Bat, created Bagarook, women, from the water.

Since our beginning it has been known that we have an obligation to keep the Birrarung alive and healthy—for all generations to come.


Disclaimer: Views expressed by commentators are not necessarily endorsed by the Law Institute of Victoria Ltd (LIV). No responsibility is accepted by the LIV for the accuracy of information contained in the comments and the LIV expressly disclaims any liability for, with respect to or arising from any such views.

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