The National Gallery of Australia are celebrating their 25th anniversary this year with an exhibition of aboriginal art, both traditional and modern, produced in the last three years. The collection is called Culture Warriors and, according to the NGA’s website, is ‘designed to break aboriginal art stereotypes’.

Here is one of the featured works, Treasure Island by Daniel Boyd, that hopefully, will break a few stereotypes of its own, those of indigenous homogeneity and monoculturalism.

I can’t remember just how many times I’ve been asked something like ‘so you speak aboriginal?’, but there have been many, by otherwise intelligent people. Curiously, they’re often the very same people who, as calmly as if they were describing the weather, speak of Kriol as ‘bastardised English’.

I guess I’m naively hoping that such people will look at a depiction such as the artwork above and realise that there was, and is, great cultural, linguistic and ethnic diversity right around the country. Then again, they may see it as a bunch of coloured shapes on a map of the country.

In case you need to be told, these aren’t just a bunch of coloured shapes on a map of the country, they are the best guess at pre-colonial linguistic boundaries as surveyed and published by AIATSIS.

Tandanya is the Kaurna name for Adelaide. 

I was finally able to get on the internet today after a few days of suffering email and blog-stat withdrawal symptoms. Except it’s not the high-speed wireless broadband that I envisaged. Rather it’s a university access lab that reminds me of what it was like to be a student again – without the concession transport rates.

This morning was the official start of the ALS conference after yesterday’s start of the ILC conference, and so far it’s been full of brilliant and interesting talks from various people working on various indigenous languages, more often than not, their own languages. Two of the more memorable talks so far have been Phil Cash Cash’s discussion of the documentation of placenames in his people’s country, the Southern Columbia Plateau, and Te Haumihiata Mason’s presentation of the arduous work involved in producing the first adult monolingual dictionary of Maori¹. These presentations, among others, should soon be available from the ALS/ILC website.

It’s shaping up to be a very topical and political gathering as well, since many people here are directly affected by the government’s intervention plan. Not only linguists and language workers whose projects are going to suffer as a result of radically less funding opportunities, but also delegates from communities from all over the country, who have embraced this gathering, held on Kaurna country, by the way, and have demonstrated support for people working on indigenous languages not only in Australia, but other parts of the world too.

It’s also been a little bit of a blogging fest, with I think most of Australia’s linguist bloggers all in the one location. We have Jane Simpson, Claire, Wamut, Bulanjdjan, Hooch and Sophie and I believe a couple of us were even meeting for the first time offline.

Annoyingly, I haven’t been able to access my newer email account, the one at the recently acquired matjjin-nehen.com, because the host (hoster?) doesn’t have a web-based email access system set up yet. So apologies if I’m missing anything.

That’s all for now since I’m only able to get to a computer by sacrificing my morning tea break, which means foregoing coffee. So consider yourself lucky!

~

¹This computer won’t let me run the character map, and I can’t find the bar-A using alt combinations.

The United Nations is due to vote on the adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples tomorrow, as I’ve just learned from an article sent out on ILAT.

“Basically, it’s a very wide-ranging declaration that recognizes rights that they already have, such as the right to cultural integrity, the right to education in their own language, the right not to be dispossessed of their ancestral land and so on,” [Kali Mercier of Survival International] says.

[...]

“There has been a lot of support for it from some countries. Other countries have not been quite so keen and they’re some of the countries in which we would have hoped to have a much better example set. For example, Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand, all countries with indigenous peoples, have been very opposed to some of the wide-reaching rights recognized by the declaration.”

“Have not been quite so keen” is putting it very mildly. The Declaration has been about 24 years in the making, but suffered a setback earlier this year, when, possibly under pressure from John Howard, the recently elected Canadian government withdrew their support.

If adopted the declaration would encourage states to do things such as:

  • Not dispossess indigenous people of their land,

  • Undertake efforts to prevent loss of indigenous languages, and

  • Make bilingual education possible,

Australia, the United States and Canada between them have many hundreds of different indigenous ethnic groups spanning many hundreds of distinct languages, so I suppose it isn’t surprising that these countries would do what they can to thwart the adoption of this declaration. Protecting hundreds of indigenous languages, some spoken by, or affiliated with as few as a hundred people, is a very costly affair. And any good economic rationalist government would weigh up cost with benefit and conclude that doing so isn’t worth it, especially when we can do things like buy helicopters, give election-motivated tax cuts, or throw massive soirées at Kirribilli House instead.

Understandably, economic rationalism is an ideology I don’t altogether buy.

~

No more than an hour after hitting the ‘publish’ button for this post, I opened the Herald to see that this story had been taken up there. While the conservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is in town after the APEC summit monstrosity, the minor parties are lobbying hard to have the government support the declaration, which will probably pass tomorrow irrespective of Australia’s position.

On Monday, the Democrats senator Andrew Bartlett moved an urgent motion in the Senate urging the Government to change its position while the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, was in Canberra. Labor, the Greens and Family First supported the motion, which was defeated by 35 votes to 33.

It also brought to light an interesting snippet of information which is especially pertinent with all the current hoo-haa:

The Government, which has lobbied since 1998 to have the phrase “self-determination” – saying it could lead to calls for a separate indigenous state – removed from the draft declaration, is standing firm.

Now of course, they are all for self-determination. Well, “self-determination” inasmuch as it doesn’t impinge on the federal government’s self-imposed sovereignty over mineral-rich land that they would very much like to dig up and sell to China. They’re ecstatic with “self-determination” when it refers to their getting away with not funding vital services in remote communities.

The hypocrisy is nauseating.

~

<update>

Despite Australia thinking its opinion is worth anything on the world stage, the Declaration passed overnight by a whopping 143 to 4 with only eleven abstentions. I find it encouraging that so many nations supported the declaration, but deeply embarrassing that we, along with the US, Canada and New Zealand (I still can’t believe that, Helen Clarke was otherwise highly likeable), chose to oppose it.

Robert Hill, Australia’s ambassador to the UN and former Howard government Cabinet Minister (independent diplomatic appointments is a thing of the past, apparently) again made it clear that the Australian government’s opposition was motivated by the term self-determination, which, I might point out again, is the very term they use for the ultimate goal of the current NT intervention.

It’s interesting that the ABC news website now allows comments on many stories, this being one of them, because we can see a glimpse of the ideology that drives Australia’s opposition to this declaration.

Good on the government for voting against this crap.
It’s time these people stopped living in their stone-age past and realise they were conquered, the white man came and took over.
Nobody is excluding them from being a part of our society, the only thing that is excluding them is the chip on their shoulder.

(from “Realist“)

</update>

A friend of mine forwarded me an opinion piece in the Maltese newspaper The Times, which argues for the further adoption of English as a lingua franca and conversely, the dropping of Maltese:

Maltese needs to have its wings clipped today, rather than tomorrow. It is a quaint, museum-piece code which requires so many foreign fixes and props to keep it alive in today’s world that the line where Maltese stops and other languages (English especially) start has become blurred to the point where it is no longer there, effectively.

I say drop Maltese and concentrate on English.

The only semblance of a reason that the writer, Mario Schembri Wismayer, appeals to is the ubiquitous ‘English literacy is plummeting’ argument. Obviously he is under the assumption that there is no better way to increase literacy in one language than to abandon all others.

Anybody involved in education will tell you that the levels of spoken and written English are plummeting and hitting desperate levels. If we turn our back on this problem, we will be allowing a vast resource to slip through our hands.

I think, and I’m sure many will agree, that this argument is entirely fallacious and isn’t borne out by the facts. One such fact is that a sizeable majority of human beings are bilingual at least, and many of those speak three, four or five languages, all learned natively, with very little, if any, difficulty.

Then there is the slightly less obvious fact that bilingual education is a very effective method of increasing literacy in both languages, and may even be more effective than monolingual English education, where children are expected to learn a new language at the same time as gaining literacy skills. This places far too much cognitive burden on the child.

It’s an argument that emerges in Australia from time to time as well, as it probably does in any location where there are minority languages in addition to a standard lingua franca. It’s been the subject of a couple of posts here, as well as elsewhere, and without fail, someone argues that everyone should have the option to speak English. I agree completely. However, what they fail to acknowledge is that learning English is by no means mutually exclusive with learning the language of one’s ancestry. Furthermore, the option to speak one’s language of ancestry is the right of all people, according to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights (a pdf of the entire declaration is available here).

That’s a good segue into my counterpoint to Wismayer’s opinion piece. His main thesis is that we all have the right to uniformity, at least with respect to language. Sure, I’ll concede that; no person should be prevented from being able to speak any international lingua franca, such as English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Mandarin and so on. I would argue though, that in addition to the right to linguistic/cultural uniformity, we all have the right to linguistic/cultural diversity. If speaking a particular language is a salient aspect of one’s identity, and allows them to differentiate themselves from others, then by all means their right to diversity through language should absolutely be respected.

At the end of the day, I believe monolingualism is conducive to a narrow-minded, monocultural world view, in which the concept ‘us’ versus ‘them’, and exclusion generally, abounds. Multilingualism and multiculturalism on the other hand, engender inclusion, broad-mindedness and awareness of and respect for others with different cultural backgrounds.

Surely in this increasingly divided world, the latter is what we should aim towards.

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