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Losing Culture

Monday, 10 August 2015  | Barbara Deutschmann

I visited the women’s section of the local correctional centre recently. Many of the women, some with tiny babies, were hard at work in the weak winter sun, creating paintings for display in the prison during NAIDOC Week.

NAIDOC Week centres on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. In various events, culture will be celebrated in dance and costume, music and drama, works of art and story but these are just the artifacts of a deeper cultural universe that is less visible to me. It includes a worldview – a way of seeing, knowing and believing that is unique to that group.

I look at these women’s paintings and wonder at the beauty that emerges on the canvas from such damaged lives. I rejoice that deep within these artists lie these stories and the images that bring them to life.

I can’t really understand what it must be like to see your culture eroding with each successive generation. Language encodes culture and many Aboriginal languages have disappeared. Of the 250 traditional languages, only 40 remain and only 18 of these are still learnt by children. Kriol, spoken by about 20,000 across northern Australia, and other emerging languages like Gurindji Kriol and Light Warlpiri, testify to the linguistic agility of Aboriginal learners. Elders, nevertheless, grieve the loss of the rituals that ensured the passing on of knowledge to new generations, the rupture of cultural transfer caused by premature illness and death or caused by the distractions of mainstream youth culture. In a recent Pitjantjatjara language lesson, the teacher was explaining the words for different stages of girl/womanhood. We asked what ages fitted each stage. “It is not to do with age: it is to do with when that girl or woman gets taught the knowledge. That’s when the name changes.” Progression through life for Anangu women is about being judged worthy to carry the knowledge on.

My culture, of course, is rampant, carried by the spread of English language in the baggage of global trade in an act of colonisation which makes the early English colonisation of Australia seem like a playground tussle. I need not worry about loss of my language, music or art. Anglo-Saxon culture seems to sweep all before it, vacuuming up the small skerricks of remnant beliefs which don’t fit. Radical groups like Reclaim Australia seem to think that this culture has some kind privileged status in the world.

Does it matter to us that we are such cultural bullies? Why do we not value the diversity of this God’s earth and treasure the Aboriginal cultures of Australia? The Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition handed down its report last week. All three of its proposals for constitutional change included phrases not only acknowledging prior occupation but also respecting the Aboriginal culture and linguistic heritage of the land. The referendum to come, probably in 2017, will give us all a chance to say a resounding “Yes” to our Aboriginal brothers and sisters and affirm the richness that they contribute to our nation.


Barbara Deutschmann now manages TEAR's Dhumba program from a base in Alice Springs. The program supports five Indigenous organisations in the areas of training, publishing, business enterprise development and youth development. She says: “My main task is to listen and learn about the perspectives of Indigenous people, support the work of Indigenous Christian organisations and help non-Indigenous people learn about Indigenous issues.” Barbara blogs at http://hotandbotheredblog.wordpress.com.

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