Through massacres, stolen generations and ongoing whitewashing, the gift of Aboriginal language continues to be desecrated, writes Celeste Liddle.
THE OFT-QUOTED – and misquoted – line from Romeo and Juliet, which formed a big part of my undergraduate drama education, still creeps in from time to time when pondering the perils of nomenclature in contemporary Australia.
For, despite any idealistic declarations of love the teenaged Juliet may have made, they both end up dead in the end (spoilers!) and the final message is, clearly, that no, misnamed roses don't actually always smell as sweet.
And so this quote was pumping through my head as the debacle from the latest Meanjin cover played out last week. In a bad editorial decision linked to representing content geared around analysis of the mass call-out of sexual harassment and assault, "Meanjin", which is the Turrbal name for Brisbane, was partly crossed out to read #Metoo.
Following quick action by Aboriginal writers Karen Wyld and Amy McQuire, along with others, highlighting not just the continual desecration of our languages but also the erasure of Aboriginal women from #metoo dialogues – despite us experiencing sexual violence at significantly higher rates – editor Jonathan Green submitted an apology and the online issue of Meanjin included an amended cover.
As I watched this, I had many thoughts. One was that the journal was named Meanjin several decades ago due to its progressive and challenging content, yet that challenge to historical white supremacy had been forgotten in the contemporary.
Another was concern regarding the alleged "intersectional politics" I witnessed in the resultant, mainly non-Aboriginal, outrage — where points regarding language loss and violence perpetrated against Aboriginal women seemed to get lost in preference for calling out individual contributors who, while they do need to be mindful of privilege and how they reinforce theirs, did not actually design the cover.
Finally, though, I couldn't help but reflect on Aboriginal languages and how, when our words or histories do come to the forefront in this country, they're continually disrespected or treated as a massive threat to the white patriarchal status quo.
I stated last week in conversations that I see Aboriginal words as a gift — not meaning that we are freely giving them to mainstream Australia for their unbridled use, but rather that, in the face of continual assimilation policies, ranging from Stolen Generation kids being flogged for using lingo all the way to continual threats against bilingual education programs in schools, the fact that we still have words and languages is a miracle.
And therein also lies the key to the disrespect and downright hostility I often see our languages treated with. To this coloniser society, words can serve as a reminder of these horrific and genocidal programs, and also of how, against all odds, they did not manage to succeed. Aboriginal people are still here and still asserting culture.
Meanjin forms a good starting point because I have seen this phenomenon play out most often when it comes to place names. Take Uluru for example. This sacred landmark was handed back to the traditional owners in 1985 and dual naming of it as Ayers Rock/Uluru commenced in a bid to educate visitors of its long cultural significance. It took another 17 years for the order of names to be reversed to reflect the true historical place of them.
Despite this, it's still not uncommon to hear Australians obstinately state that they will continue to call it by its "real name", as if Uluru is some mere, politically-correct imposition. They additionally fume when told they soon will not be able to climb it, despite decades of educational programs run by traditional owners. Indeed, 33 years after the hand back, the airport is still named Ayers Rock, with passenger flights branded accordingly.
During Reconciliation Week, the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre suggested the dual naming of Hobart as "nipaluna", after several decades of research and extensive language revitalisation programs on the southern island. While the Lord Mayor of Hobart Ron Christie expressed enthusiasm, other City Council members did not and the Tasmanian Government immediately stated its lack of support for the idea, outlining some vague commitment to "inclusiveness".
While I note that coverage has included oppositional views from other Tasmanian Aboriginal groups and some traditional owner discussions could be ongoing, I also strongly believe that if dissension leads to alternate suggestions, there will always be resistance from the mainstream powers that be. These same powers convinced themselves for decades that Tasmanian Aboriginal people had been successfully wiped out. Every skerrick of language or culture retained and revitalised therefore exposes this great Australian lie.
Speaking of the genocidal programs that took place in Tasmania for the most part of the past two decades, I have lived in the Federal electorate of Batman. Just last week, the Australian Electoral Commission rejected a call to rename the electorate "Wonga", citing that not enough evidence for change had been submitted. The call to rename the seat has been going for years, with pushes coming from local Aboriginal community members, current MP Ged Kearney and the Greens. Why? Because it was named for John Batman who, as well as signing an invalidated treaty with local traditional owners, acquiring Aboriginal lands for blankets, tobacco and other such items, was also a leading figure in the Tasmanian Black Wars.
He's not the only massacre leader honoured by the naming of an electorate after him, but as the public has become more educated through activism and outreach, the time is ripe for this tale to be corrected. Yet a report in News Corp publications bent over backwards to frame it as people trying to "change history" rather than correct it. They even interviewed a descendent of Batman who put renaming attempts down to activists trying to "get rid of the history and heritage of Australia" — never mind the heritage Batman erased via his massacres or the history that is conveniently forgotten in continuing his celebration.
Swapping his name for that of respected Wurundjeri Elder Simon Wonga clearly threatens the white supremacist hegemony far too much by forcing kids to learn truths while expanding their local knowledge.
Language is often considered to be the key to culture and knowledge. Through massacres, stolen generations and continued mainstream resistance and whitewashing, the use of Aboriginal language within mainstream contexts remains contentious, mainly because by now it was thought all would be extinct. When language is used or gifted, it is either maimed through thoughtlessness and mispronunciation, or it is downright rejected.
Yet our languages remain; either despite the best efforts of Australian policymakers or due to the hard work of those in our communities who've pledged their lives to keep them alive. Perhaps it's about time Australia started celebrating them and committing to a more knowledgeable future, rather than acting as their forebears did in just wishing these gifts of culture and resilience would simply die off?
This article was originally published on Eureka Street and is republished with permission. Celeste Liddle is an Arrernte woman, the National Indigenous Organiser of the NTEU and a freelance opinion writer and social commentator. Read more from Celeste on her blog Rantings of an Aboriginal Feminist or follow her on Twitter @Utopiana.
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