They incarcerated the language. Imprisoned the words and confined the expressions until the isolation nearly killed off the 700 or more languages once spoken. They muted the hundreds of living, breathing languages of this continent by institutionalising their custodians, by ensuring the penalties for speaking these languages were severe, even fatal for the speaker.
This targeting of Aboriginal language was part of a systematic and enforced assimilation, a white-out of the oldest continuous culture on our earth. It began when colonists first put their boots on Australian soil, and continued right through the twilight of our last century. It took less than 200 years to disassemble the oldest continuous culture on our earth. A speck of time, a flash across the night sky compared to the 50,000 or more years Aboriginal Australians survived and thrived on this land.
They incarcerated the language. This affects me more than any other revelation today.
Language is oxygen to a culture. It is the trade wind on which wisdom is carried, it ensures stories survive the fire and live on. It is both the glowing ember and the flame that flares – for the individual and the greater community it is how you say I love you. How you say I don’t. It is how you play, tease, cajole. How you warn, and how you rage. It is your myth and your lesson, it is how you declare war, and equally, how you offer peace. It is how you express who you are – and how you know where you have been.
To silence language is to sever the spiritual tongue. It is to disorient one’s place in space and time, to reduce all communication to a rudimentary commentary on the here and now. It is fundamentally designed to ground the speaker in the immediate – to censor the whisper of ancestors, and to suppress the shouts and cries of one’s children.
The children. They kept taking the children, and no-one could speak of it. For the first time I realise just how calculated and methodic Australians were in their approach. How they declared this continent Terra Nullius – unowned, unoccupied – upon their arrival, and across two centuries worked backwards to make it the truth. They re-wrote history, redacted an entire people to make it so. Children, communities, and entire ecosystems were sacrificed to validate one of the greatest lies ever told. A lie so big the reverberations can still be felt in 2013, where time is marked against an arbitrary date in 1788. To be a nation in possession of the world’s oldest stories, and to start the clock here – this I cannot understand.
Today I would not even know that there are bones under my feet, but for the stories that have been fierce enough to survive.
Because they have survived, somehow. For all that has been lost there is a thread that sings one back through time, a thread you can follow on the guitar string and the mournful notes at a gathering like ours tonight. When the language is shared around the fire in this way, it vibrates. You can feel it come up through the soil where your toes dig in, you can sense it in the sentinel stars. They, who have been our story keepers for longer than time.
I believe the stars themselves sang out when as a nation we said sorry. The truth had been waiting a long time to be told.
Last week my company, the aptly named SEEK, took a group of us on an extraordinary journey, a Welcome to Country where we spent two days and nights with the Gunditjmara people of Warrnambool on the south-west coast of Victoria. For my colleagues and I it was a moving and revealing experience and I for one came away with many heart bruises. I was particularly affected by the idea of Aboriginal languages being destroyed; we learnt that it was a major practices of colonists to stop Aboriginal people speaking their own languages and I could not stop thinking about how much was lost with this calculated linguicide.
I would like to dedicate this elegy to Amy who showed me the constellations, who knows of a lake where her people used to look down to see the stars. “The keepers of our stories” she told me before we returned to the fire.