Caring for Country: Transmission of Aboriginal Environmental Knowledge in Western Australia

Project Contributor: Kimberley Language Resource Centre Aboriginal Corporation

Credit: Kimberley Language Resource Centre

Barbara Sturt and Bonnie Marisha Sampi with Barndu (water goanna) and Jalij (freshwater prawn) Credit: Kimberley Language Resource Centre

The Kimberley region of Western Australia is one of the most linguistically diverse areas of Australia. At least 42 languages, plus dialects, were identified post-colonisation. According to 2009 data from the Kimberley Development Commission (http://www.kdc.wa.gov.au), Aboriginal people form almost 48% of the population of the region, or roughly 16,500 people. The Department of Environment and Conservation has acknowledged this region as an area of great biodiversity. The Kimberley Language Resource Centre (KLRC), the first regional language centre established in Australia, was incorporated in 1985. In over 26 years of operation it has cemented its status with Aboriginal people as the most representative body for Kimberley Aboriginal languages. It services an area of 422,000kmsq, including six towns and approximately 50 Remote Aboriginal Communities. It is governed by an elected Board of twelve Aboriginal Directors accountable to a membership representative of the approximately 30 languages still spoken, which represent about a fifth of the remaining national languages.

The KLRC is often asked to provide linguistic support to Kimberley language groups carrying out documentation of plants and animals through other bodies working in the Natural Resource Management (NRM) field. When collaborating with language groups and other agencies on ethnobiological projects, the KLRC takes the following position: 1) Ensure the development of ethnobiological resources appropriate for knowledge transmission in the community – with strong language outcomes; 2) Provide appropriate professional development for Aboriginal people to document their own knowledge; 3) Provide direct support to the community to produce language resources, e.g. DVDs, bilingual books; and 4) Encourage language immersion at every opportunity.

A general problem with language transmission outcomes in these kinds of projects was identified by the KLRC Board and by language groups. Often, the fast disappearing Aboriginal languages documented during field trips figure as just a list of words in publications or other resources. The knowledge found in oral language captured in audio or audiovisual recordings remains unused because of the prevailing focus on written documentation in English. The KLRC is often left to find additional funding in order to increase the language transmission outcomes – but these funds are not easy to obtain, since ethnobiological work is primarily regarded as NRM and not as language and knowledge maintenance.

One example is the Jaru Plants and Animals project, initiated by the Kimberley Land Council and the Ord-Bonaparte Program in 2004 and involving extensive fieldwork in 2004-2005. The Jaru language group in the Halls Creek area had been pushing strongly for materials development from this fieldwork. Sadly, several of the elderly language speakers involved have passed away since the start of the project. The “Jaru Ethnobiological Language Knowledge Project”, located in the KLRC, was established to consolidate strong language transmission outcomes from ethnobiological documentation. The KLRC was successful in sourcing funds in 2008  from the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts and began working with Jaru speakers to identify what kind of resources they thought would  best help them pass on their ethnobiological knowledge in their language.

In the end it became very clear that people wanted to pass on languages and knowledge on country and in an Aboriginal teaching and learning framework, with resource development as an outcome of that. Sadly, within the timeframe of the funding, it was not possible to move forward quickly enough on the group’s ideas. In the end a standard plants and animals book was produced http://www.klrc.org.au/projects/projects/jaru-plants-and-animals-project. Another outcome was a group of men working with a local, young, Aboriginal filmmaker to develop a short film which captures knowledge about trees in the Jaru language, and links that knowledge to how these trees are used in artefact making.

Nevertheless the KLRC continues to promote language immersion and Teaching On Country http://www.klrc.org.au/teaching-on-country as the only way to pass on strong cultural knowledge in the appropriate teaching and learning environment. In regard to the bigger picture for the Kimberley, the KLRC has partnered with the Kimberley Land Council, Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre and the Kimberley Aboriginal Pastoralists Incorporated to produce a Kimberley Caring for Country Plan which captures decades of Aboriginal people’s aspirations for their languages and culture through looking after country http://www.klrc.org.au/projects/projects/caring-for-country

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