Aboriginal languages the remedy
July 14, 2005
letters to the editor:
RICHARD Trudgen is not surprised by this week's report to federal and state
governments showing that, with a few exceptions, we are not making much
progress on overcoming indigenous disadvantage.
A steering committee run through the Productivity Commission found that,
although there have been improvements in Aboriginal employment and education,
there has been little change in many health indicators and crime and
imprisonment rates have worsened. Five years ago, at the request of Aboriginal
leaders in northeast Arnhem Land, where he has worked as a (white) community
development officer for most of the past 30 years, Trudgen wrote Why Warriors
Lie Down and Die.
The book gave the indigenous perspective on the crisis facing the once proud,
independent and economically self-sufficient Yolngu people of the area.
It helped solve the riddle of why nothing governments do seems to make much
difference in Aboriginal communities. It highlighted the misunderstandings that
arise from the cultural and communications gaps - or, more correctly, gulfs -
between black and white Australians. He offered alternatives, based on dealing
with people in their first language and giving them back control over their
lives, which he argued could solve problems as diverse as poor health,
inadequate housing and petrol sniffing.
So how is the situation now in Arnhem Land, I asked him this week. "It's
worse," he replied. "It's like we never wrote the book and no one ever noticed
it. The health indicators have all got worse. Many of the medical people who
come here aren't even receiving adequate cultural awareness training any more."
Yet Trudgen retains a determined optimism. A radio service for Yolngu started
last year, without government support, broadcasting in the local language and
English. "We are on the edge of a massive breakthrough in communication," he
This week is National Diabetes Week and he estimates that the broadcast
material is reaching about two-thirds of the 8000 Yolngu, with indications that
it is making a big difference in knowledge of the disease. "People who don't
have radios know nothing about diabetes," he says. "Some ask whether it is a
It is difficult for other Australians to appreciate the seriousness of what
Trudgen describes as a two-way crisis in communication. People ignore advice to
change their diets until it is explained to them, usually in their own
language, what diabetes is and why giving up salt, sugar and cigarettes can
Trudgen cites the case of a woman who was unable to explain to her doctor that
she had splitting headaches, and was being examined instead for hookworm. A
mother lost her five-year-old son to pneumonia after failing to give one of the
drugs dispensed for him because she did not know what it would do. Because
health clinics and their employees have no authority under traditional law,
many men do not attend them.
What frustrates Trudgen is the attitude of governments and in particular
bureaucracies. "People are rolling out the same old stupid programs for petrol
sniffing and the rest," he says. He argues that people are mistaken in thinking
that children sniff because they are bored, "so let's go and teach them how to
Much more important is the virtual disappearance of bilingual education. "They
learn almost nothing in school other than that they are incapable of learning,"
he says. "You may as well be teaching them in Japanese: they cannot process
what is being taught. They feel bad about themselves and they sniff because
they want to forget who they are."
Recreational programs introduced into the Ramingining community in the early
1980s made the problem worse. Organised by non-Aborigines, they alienated the
children from elders and parents, while some became sniffers so they could join
Success came when children were educated about the effects of sniffing,
including permanent brain damage, and elders were encouraged to revive a
traditional ceremony that allowed them to give instruction to sniffers.
Sniffing stopped in Ramingining and has never restarted, says Trudgen, although
there are other problems with drug abuse. Trudgen shares with Aboriginal
leaders such as Noel Pearson views on the destructive effects of welfare
dependence. But he parts ways with Pearson and others who emphasise the use of
"I'm afraid you cannot force people to learn a language: you can only force
them to lose a language, particularly academic concepts," he says. "That is why
you end up with a lot of urban Aboriginal people who have no academic language
capacity. You actually de-educate people."
Trudgen argues for the need to give back to the people control over their
lives, and he believes the key to that is language. "Government will say it is
ridiculous to say everyone who comes to our communities should learn the
language," he says. "But to find a teacher or nursing sister, it costs
government anywhere between $40,000 and $60,000, and sometimes they don't even
last three months. It seems wise to pay them a little bit to learn the language
and slow that merry-go-round of people coming in and out."
Trudgen's views find some resonance in this week's report from the Productivity
Commission. "Indigenous language is fundamentally linked with indigenous
culture and law and these are intrinsically linked with indigenous wellbeing,"
And it attributes the success of the governing council in Wadeye in the
Northern Territory to the use of traditional structures that give it
Mike Steketee is The Australian's National affairs editor.