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16 Nov 2016

Spotlight On – Wiradjuri Language Program, Parkes, NSW

Lionel Lovett, President of the local Aboriginal Education Consultative Group (AECG) and Wiradjuri language teacher at Parkes Public School, teaches language at the school he attended as a student himself. When he was a student he learnt about language and culture through books. Now, language is visible and alive in every classroom, around the school and across the community. “Language is all around ... The names of farms, the names of creeks. You can see it. The words have to have a meaning, and with meaning comes appreciation and understanding”, says Lionel. 

The Wiradjuri Language program started a decade ago in primary schools and is now taught from early learning services through to secondary schools, creating pride in the next generations. There are also community Wiradjuri language classes that are supporting a positive shift in attitudes toward Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. “Anyone can come in and see what we’re doing ... it’s a real collaboration”, says Lionel when describing the classes. “Reconciliation is definitely a word that you can use to describe the language program ... Aboriginal students have gained confidence and relationships are stronger with their non-Indigenous peers”, he adds. 

This year, students from schools in Parkes were invited to be part of barrangal dyara (skin and bones). This epic installation by Wiradjuri/Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones was presented for the 32nd Kaldor Public Art Project at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Sydney from 17 September – 3 October. The artwork’s name, barrangal dyara, means ‘skin and bones’ in the local Sydney language. To construct the work, 15 000 bone-white shields were carefully placed to retrace the parameters of the Garden Palace, a colonial building that briefly towered over Sydney in the 19th century. The palace showcased Australia’s major exports and housed a large number of Indigenous objects collected from the colonial frontier. In 1882, the building burnt to the ground in a devastating fire that destroyed everything within it. 

Jones’ installation is a response to the immense loss felt throughout Australia due to the destruction of these culturally significant objects, many of which were from Wiradjuri Country. It is also a revival of a story of great significance to Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia.

A soundscape of eight Aboriginal languages from southeast Australia was heard by thousands of visitors from around the world who attended barrangal dyara (skin and bones). These languages represented the groups from which the objects within the Garden Palace came. The soundscape included the following Wiradjuri words spoken by high school students Michael, Nicayden and Kyah from the Parkes community: 

winhanga-y-gunha-nha gayaa (remember the shovel) 

winhanga-y-gunha-nha wargang (remember the canoe) 

winhanga-y-gunha-nha bugang (remember the necklace)

In September, 15 students and 10 teachers, including Michael, Nicayden and Kyah, were invited by Kaldor Public Art Projects to witness firsthand their contribution to the artwork installation. While in Sydney, and as part of the Public Program for the installation, students spoke with Jonathan Jones to a full audience about their experience of learning language at the Royal Botanic Garden.

The trip highlighted to students and teachers the scale of the project, and the significance of being able to contribute. “We didn’t realise the enormity of the project, the scale of the work” says Lionel. “It was tricky getting everyone together from the different schools, but in the end we thought ‘wow, look what we’ve done’. It definitely put a feather in our cap.”

To learn more about Wiradjuri language in Parkes, watch ABC Open’s Our Mother Tongue: Wiradjuri.