The need for truthing in language rematriation

Dr Lou Bennett AM. By Phil Nitch, Nitch Photography.
Dr Lou Bennett AM. By Phil Nitch, Nitch Photography.

In this edited extract of her recent 2019 Lin Onus Oration at the University of Melbourne's Faculty of Fine Arts and Music, Dr Lou Bennet makes a compelling case for the importance of Indigenous research methods and practice-led research to the task of “rematriating” Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages.

By Dr Lou Bennett AM

There are over 500 languages in Australia and surrounding islands, with some languages spoken fluently and some that are struggling; or from a linguist's perspective, have died out or are dead. Linguistics is the scientific study of human languages and from this understanding a question occurred to me: how is the retrieval of Indigenous languages possible through a Western paradigm and structure?’

Language in this country comes from the country. It's not just about what's in your brain or something extracted from reading a book or word lists. It stays in our body, and it stays in the body of the country. How are we able to express this language by breathing life into our languages through our embodied knowledges? The most natural way for me to do this as a singer and composer of 30 years, is to sing language. Learning language from a book is very different to learning language from country, so how do we bring these two processes together? Non-Aboriginal people collected much of our languages, and we, in order to revive our languages, now must interrogate their processes. What were the collector’s questions to our Ancestors? In many cases, we do not know how they got that material. How do we know for sure that these words that have been written down by non-Aboriginal people, are in fact our language?

There is a disconnection that needs further investigation, and that disconnection is euro-linguistics. Euro-linguistics is a science that focuses on the written word, with an emphasis on vocabulary development. So, after many hours at the kitchen table with my partner, Dr. Romaine Moreton, also a skilled academic and my sounding board, we gathered our ideas and came up with the title Sovereign Language Repatriation. That involved looking at language retrieval processes through the eyes of Indigenous communities and individuals. A question arose: "Why are Indigenous communities, in South Eastern Australia, not speaking their languages fluently?" For this reason, I am researching these systems and how they code and recode Indigenous languages. It's time now to look at culturally appropriate methods that centralise Indigenous research methodologies, as these methods help us understand the language as well as, importantly, language knowledge.

Dr Irene Watson explains in her 1999 thesis Raw Law: the coming of the Muldarbi and the path to its demise: "Muldarbi is an ancestor spirit who failed to uphold the best interests of the collective in relation to the natural world." Dr Watson uses the term Muldarbi "to describe the phenomenon of colonialism and the impact it has had upon Indigenous people’s lives, laws and territories, worldwide". In the writing down of Indigenous languages, there has been a corruption, distortion, homogenisation and standardisation, and most crucially a stripping of knowledge that our languages held and hold. The Muldarbi, in this case, is the imposition of euro-linguistics.

Plains Cree writer Leroy Little Bear – in Jagged Worldviews Colliding (2000) – further supports the idea of language embodiment by saying:

“Language embodies the way a society thinks. Through learning and speaking a particular language, an individual absorbs the collective thought processes of a people."

To understand the inadequacies of euro-linguistics in reference to Indigenous language retrieval processes, we have to understand euro-centric values. What are the euro-centric values that have clashed with our cultures and our belief systems? Let’s look at a couple examples both from Euro-centric and Indigenous perspectives.

Euro-centric time is understood as linear, singular and static (Little Bear, 2000), for example, past, present, and future. An Indigenous concept of time is cyclical, all together, all at once. For example, "dreamtime," imposes a euro-centric value over an Indigenous value. The dreaming is an event and a production of western time; a static moment that resides only in the past. However, our dreaming and belief system is happening all the time. We need to understand those differences when we are teaching Indigenous language’s so they do not become anglo-sized1. If we have a different way of looking at time, then our languages are going to have different way of presenting time. Temporality is an important example of contrasting definitions.

The concept of animate/ inanimate. Linguist Julie Reid describes how the word "reduplication" is used only when describing inanimate objects. Reid uses the example of the Wergaia word Yalum, which means waterhole – hence Yalum Yalum would mean a chain of waterholes. The argument is not the definition of a chain of waterholes, rather the assumption that waterholes are inanimate objects. Indigenous belief is that everything coming from the earth is alive. Little Bear explains:

"There is no animate/ inanimate dichotomy. Everything is more or less animate. Consequently, Aboriginal languages allow for the talking to trees and rocks, an allowance not accorded in English. If everything is aminate, then everything has spirit and knowledge. If everything has spirit and knowledge, then they are like me. If all are like me, then all are my relations" (Little Bear, p78, 2000).

Land and language are inextricably woven together – where language and song emerged. It's about learning how to unearth it. It is at this point, with this awareness, that Sovereign Language Repatriation transformed into Sovereign Language Rematriation. There are sacred knowledges in that land that remain uncoded and cannot be shared in particular environments. Having the right to refuse the transference of knowledge into the public domain is a sovereign right, and integral to self-determination. It's about reclaiming what is inherently ours from archival literature. There are "truthings" (Little Bear, 2000) as well as other processes that need to be in place. Bringing language back to country through song and learning from the country plays a pivotal role in language retrieval processes. Tuck, McCoy and McKenzie reference Rasmussen and Akulukjuk (2009):

“‘In Nunavut,’ the authors say, ‘the language speaks Inuktitut’ (285). By this they mean that land and sea have ‘evolved’ an Indigenous language to communicate with through human beings … that language is not something developed in isolation, in human brains, but in relationship to land and to water (285)” (p12).

Although there is valid argument for the importance of roles that archives play, there is a surmountable role for the Indigenous body, Indigenous community, and the Indigenous country in language rematriation. Our bodies and communities embody the depth of language knowledge that comes from the country. We have language that comes directly from the country when we listen deeply. Tuck, McCoy and McKenzie – in Land education: Indigenous, post-colonial, and decolonizing perspectives on place and environmental education research (2014) – assert further:

"Anishanaabe writer Gerald Vizenor asserts that, language is among the most powerful forms of Indigenous resistance (Visenor, Tuck, and Yang 2014). Many generations of Indigenous intellectuals have insisted on the power of words to make change and ensure self-determination and well-being (Deloria 1969; Smith 1999/2013), and along with many other amazing scholars, Kawagley, MacLean, Rasmussen, and Akulukjuk, we see the power that has derived from the rooted ness of (Indigenous) languages in land." (Tuck, McCoy and McKenzie Pg 12).

We are told that our languages are sleeping and we're going to wake them up. Years ago, I agreed with that statement; however, now I believe it's our selves that must wake up and listen deeply. Aboriginal people need to do that on our country, in safety and with support from our allies. People like yourselves. We'll be able to share our languages in generations to come, but for many languages, it’s not the right time. Aboriginal people have to give our language love and attention, just like a family member, and that family member is screaming out to be heard.

1 Dr Lou Bennett, Yorta Yorta Lotjpa! Retrieving, Reclaiming, and Regenerating Language and Culture through the Arts. Unpublished, 2015.


  • Little Bear, Leroy. "Jagged Worldviews Colliding." Reclaiming Indigenous voice and vision (2000): 77-85.
  • Tuck, Eve, Marcia McKenzie, and Kate McCoy. "Land education: Indigenous, post-colonial, and decolonizing perspectives on place and environmental education research." (2014): 1-23.
  • Reid, J. and H. Bowe, Wergaia Community Grammar and Dictionary, 2008.
  • Watson, Irene Margaret. Raw law: the coming of the Muldarbi and the path to its demise. Diss. 1999.

Find out more about the annual Lin Onus Oration, hosted during Wilin Week by the Wilin Centre for Indigenous Arts and Cultural Development.