Text and artwork by Colleen Corrigan
“Without language you can’t describe your Country.”
—Melinda Holden (Gurang Elder)
I was sitting across from Maureen at her kitchen table, with the lens of my video camera focused on a bowl of fruit because she didn’t want to be filmed in her housecoat. Her mannerisms and humor immediately reminded me of my own grandmother, a sharp-witted matriarch and keeper of family knowledge, though the two of them come from different continents and quite varied cultural backgrounds. They also speak vastly different languages. Maureen is an Elder from the Bailai people, an Aboriginal Australian group of Traditional Owners who have connections to the coastal land and rights to the sea at the southern end of the World Heritage Great Barrier Reef.
To my left sat Melinda, a Gurang Elder from this same coastal area and a co-researcher for our project on the integration of measures of effectiveness of Indigenous land and sea management. Melinda and I had already conducted a number of interviews with Traditional Owners who lived along this coastal range in eastern Queensland, in the northeast of Australia. Our purpose was to understand the Indigenous perspective on how well the natural environment was being protected, the role of Traditional Owners, and their measures of success, for both people and nature. Those we spoke to included men and women, Elders and youth from multiple generations ranging in age from the 20s to the 80s. Maureen’s was the last interview we were to conduct, and it was memorable. She was funny, sincere, and full of insights.
Along with Elder representatives from three other tribes, Maureen had signed the community’s strategic plan, and has long been involved in advocating for respect and acknowledgment of Aboriginal heritage. Her historical perspective and knowledge of changes in the environment provided valuable context to what brought the three of us together around her kitchen table on that hot December summer day. What we learned together was intended to contribute to my PhD dissertation and to a broader effort, both nationally and internationally, to better understand local measures of how well natural resources are being protected by Indigenous people. Importantly, this includes both ecological and social measures.
For Aboriginal communities in Australia, caring for nature is an obligation and synonymous with protecting culture, language, and essentially identity.
For Aboriginal communities in Australia, caring for nature is an obligation and synonymous with protecting culture, language, and essentially identity. The group with which we were working has a government-sponsored “Caring for Country” program, which includes employment of Indigenous rangers to take care of the land and sea, collectively referred to as “Country.” In the Aboriginal context, that is the term used to describe all aspects of nature that are traditionally managed by and intricately linked to the culture of Aboriginal Australians. The cultural obligations of caring for Country are hard to realize, as Maureen so aptly put it, when “there is no Country to care for”—an increasing threat that limits traditional connections to nature, such as when mangroves are removed to make room for the construction of ports and other infrastructure along the shoreline, or when dams impede the flow of water that has historically provided habitat for culturally important species.
Though the focus of our interviews was about indicators of change in the environment and connections to it, a concern about language arose among many of the Traditional Owners, especially the Elders. In addition to being a co-researcher, Melinda is an Aboriginal language specialist, and she feels strongly that knowing Country, and thus being able to effectively care for it, requires being able to describe it. And the best way to do that is by using the local Indigenous language that reaches back thousands of years, evolving with the surrounding diversity of life.
While I listened to Melinda and Maureen chatting over some of the guiding questions for the interview, I thought back to a conversation we’d had earlier in the day with Richard Johnson, another Elder from the region just up the coast. He discussed the challenges of knowledge loss between generations and of maintaining culture while living as an Aboriginal in a relatively urban society. Richard reflected Maureen’s concern about the challenges of transferring traditional knowledge and language to the youth, especially when access to being on Country is increasingly limited. He explained how he teaches his grandchildren language as a means to connect to their environment and secure their identity: “They’ve all got language names, so they feel a part of this environment. That fella’s name is Kalu. He’s the brown hawk. So when we’re driving along, yeah, he’ll point. Or see a pretty-faced wallaby over there, that’s Kiriwina. Yeah, that’s his sister. So it’s in them. It’s about where ‘I’ belong.” Even words and names provide a strong connection to the environment, which in turn fosters an awareness of self, culture, and place in nature.
This part of Australia, where Maureen, Melinda, and Richard have their cultural ties, is diverse both ecologically and socially. Three key rivers, the Burnett, Kolan, and Boyne, all originate in the Many Peaks region and empty into the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, an icon among the world’s most important heritage sites. The highest diversity of Australian birds sits in this southeastern corner of the state of Queensland. Endangered species and World Heritage designations abound. The greatest concentration of nesting loggerhead sea turtles in the South Pacific is at Mon Repos Regional Park, in the heart of the region.
Culturally, a number of Aboriginal groups are expanding their efforts to engage in collaborative management of the areas that traditionally belonged to them. Indigenous ranger groups work closely with national and state government agencies as well as other protected area managers to keep threats at bay, especially from invasive species and unsustainable development. For them, being a ranger is more than a job; it’s an opportunity to stay physically connected to Country, learn from the Elders, and gain confidence about their skills. In essence, a stronger identity emerges.
Melinda and I had worked together for several months to speak with Traditional Owners about their connections to Country. The first round of interviews took place during what was called “Immersion Weekend,” an annual event for the local Aboriginal community, taking place at a campsite along the Burnett River just south of Bundaberg on the east coast of Australia, a five-hour drive north from Brisbane. We set up the video camera behind the main camp building where it was a bit quieter and used the native forest as a backdrop. It was an unusually chilly September weekend as we busily set about having conversations with a number of those who attended.
Although now in their 70s, childhood friends Bridget and Hazel huddled together in front of the camera to give us their input. While karaoke blasted in the background, the two swapped stories about what their lives were like as children six and seven decades earlier and shared observations about what had changed. What did they see as the biggest changes to the health of Country? How do they maintain connection to their environment now? What significance does it hold? Younger adults in their 20s and 30s also participated, often sharing insights that demonstrated they were listening to their Elders—even though during the project many Elders noted concerns about the younger generation and their access to Country: “Without your language you can’t connect to your culture, and without your culture you don’t know who you are” (female, 30s).
During my in-depth analysis of interviews from both the Elders and the younger generations, the whole issue of language emerged prominently. From their experience and point of view, if you don’t have your native language, you can’t describe Country. If you can’t describe Country, you have no connection with it, and that connection is the essence of identity for Aboriginal Australians (and I actually think for most of humanity). My first visit with the community two and a half years ago was filled with an immediate sense that this community was struggling at its core with issues of identity, especially given the challenges of development in the urban context. Two years later, it remains an important part of the findings.
If you don’t have your native language, you can’t describe Country. If you can’t describe Country, you have no connection with it, and that connection is the essence of identity.
At first, the reference to language seemed to be about a spoken Indigenous tongue that was lost for some time during displacement processes in the past century and because of rapid urbanization. But another strong language exists: the language of nature. For the older generation, that is a language of physical presence, careful use, and exquisite observation of the species and habitats around them, taught through the guidance of their Elders and family. That language still exists in the form of observations about what has change in the environment and what has happened to Country in recent years. In all the interviews that Melinda and I conducted, a similarity can be found regardless of generation: the congruence of rivers and the sea and the importance of flow are at the forefront for those who describe their environment. These are the custodians of areas where the freshwater and saltwater meet. The evidence of their connection to this space and their awareness of changes are tangible and understood in various linguistic forms.
Despite the loss of language and knowledge in recent generations, the potential to relearn language is being supported through efforts such as the Queensland Indigenous Languages Advisory Committee and language programs based at the Gidarjil Aboriginal Corporation in Bundaberg. Apart from language, another key aspect emerging from this research is the importance of co-learning. Several Elders have described “relearning” things they were taught in their youth by spending time with the Indigenous rangers. In turn, the rangers are learning more about their culture from the Elders. Everyone we spoke with has recollected the times when, being somewhere on Country, they were recipients of knowledge passed down from the previous generation. The critical element of this transfer is having a shared language of nature.
Language underlies identity and relationships with both our social realms and our environmental surrounds.
When one spends countless hours reading, rereading, and rereading yet again each word from dozens of pages of transcribed interviews that were conducted in the context of biocultural research, the meaning of words and use of language become quite significant. The nuances of phrases begin to stand out, and it becomes clearer how language is constructed to explain both consciously and unconsciously the deeply embedded aspects of culture. As I coded those words from the interviews, I realized how important language is and how it underlies identity and relationships with both our social realms and our environmental surrounds. Whether it’s Gurang, another Aboriginal or native language, or even English, it’s important. Language represents us. And if we are so intricately connected to nature, but lose the language to express the diversity of life that flourishes within it, what else do we lose?
About the Artwork: Complementing my piece are three sketches from my traveling watercolor journal. I always take the journal with me when I travel, and use it whenever I’m in community. I usually sketch only scenes or nature and not people, but it always captures a different sense of the experience. These three sketches are from my trip in late August 2016, when validating the research findings from our project with Elders and staff from the Aboriginal corporation.
Colleen Corrigan is Senior Program Officer at UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre and also a doctoral candidate at Australia’s University of Queensland. Her work focuses on conservation effectiveness, protected areas, marine biodiversity, and the role and contribution of locally-led conservation efforts by Indigenous Peoples and local communities.
Gidarjil Development Corporation. (n.d.). Welcome to Gidarjil. Retrieved from http://www.gidarjil.com.au/
Gorenflo, L. J., Romaine, S., Mittermeier, R. A., & Walker-Painemilla, K. (2012). Co-occurrence of linguistic and biological diversity in biodiversity hotspots and high biodiversity wilderness areas. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(21), 8032–8037.
State of Queensland, Department of National Parks, Sport, and Racing. (2016). Mon Repos Turtle Centre. Retrieved from https://parks.des.qld.gov.au/parks/mon-repos/attractions/mon-repos-turtle-centre