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Lester Rigney - Bread verses Freedom | Indigenous, Language, Treaty, Australia, Legal, Education, Australian, National | FATSILC, Fed. Aboriginal Torres Strait Island Languages and Culture
Lester Rigney - Bread verses Freedom PDF Print E-mail

Bread verses Freedom: Treaty and stabilising Indigenous Languages

Lester-Irabinna Rigney [1]
Senior Lecturer
Director of Studies-Indigenous Studies
Yunggorendi First Nations Centre
Flinders University, South Australia

National Treaty Conference
National Convention Centre
Canberra, 29th August 2002

First to my cultural side.
As is my cultural custom I acknowledge the Ngunawal.

Ngangkinna, meyunna! Na marni purrutye?
Ladies and gentlemen. Welcome (ie how are you all)?

Ngai narri lester-Irabinna Kudnuitya Rigney
My name is Lester-Irabinna (Warrior), Kudnuitya (Name of third child if son) Rigney.

Ngai yaitya meyu Narungga, Kaurna, Ngarrindjeri birkounungko.
I am a man from the Nations of the Narungga, Kaurna, Ngarrindjeri.

Marni na (ninna) budni iangga banbabanbalya kuanna, ngadluko yertangga, inbaritya ngadlulityangga, ngadlu warrabutto meyu.
It is good that you come here to this conference house to meet speakers who are full of words.

Natta wodlianna minko minko padninga nindaityangga
It is good you came. After the conference, travel safely home as our people need you like never before.

Ngaityo yungandalya, yakkanandalya.



Before proceeding with my address I take this opportunity to celebrate our past achievements. To the early activist for Indigenous rights who are with us today.:

I thank you for your struggle. Without your struggle I would not be standing here. I also take this opportunity to thank our non-Indigenous supporters whom I praise your commitment to a reconciled Australia. Similarly to those of our people who sit amongst us who we cannot see. I bring you revolutionary praise for creating a well-worn path that now leads us to treaty. I also speak down the microphone to the young and the unborn. Tikari, Tarniwarra, Kaitlin-Inanwantji, Lachy, Dillion, Lakkari, Kalyan and Maiye.[2] You no doubt will be listening to these tapes of this conference somewhere in a library in forty years time. Your future and others like you is why we have gathered here today. Let me say to you, at this moment we can only control our words and not the actions of governments.
Now to the academic.

I agree with Michael Mansell who said at the forum on Tuesday, that this conference should be about the discussion of ideas rather than fixed position statements on treaty. Here I will give my ideas for treaty that have multiple ways forward. I want to explore two propositions. The first is what I call the 'Bread' verses 'Freedom' debate in relation to treaty. The second is the urgency to stabilise Indigenous languages and its importance for treaty. Before I address these propositions I want to speak briefly on what I call 'Intellectual Segregation'' and the treaty debate.


Intellectual Segregation

The theme of this session is the 'Social Impacts of Treaty'. One social impact that treaty must avoid is a 'monopoly of debate' or ' Intellectual Segregation' in order to promote free and open discussion between all groups interested in the development of treaties.

During the first two days of this conference you have heard excellent legal and political ideas about treaty strategies for securing Indigenous rights. This is not surprising as treaties are complex legal agreements. You could be forgiven also in thinking that treaties involves Indigenous peoples, governments and the legal system with the main players being lawyers and politicians. There is no denying that these main players are indeed fundamental to the process. However, partnerships, treaties, or compacts (whatever word chosen for legal agreements) need all sectors of the Indigenous and non-Indigenous community to be informed about its processes and potential outcomes to overcome ignorance and misunderstanding. The question of who is currently included in treaty discussions is a critical question for me. To prevent 'Intellectual Segregation' treaty discussions must move beyond legal and political bureaucracies for greater involvement by local and regional communities and organisations who have an interest in treaties.

Let us concede that a legal and political strategy is important in developing a treaty process toward the protection of Indigenous rights. But the question I want to pose is, what social and cultural aspects are we trying to protect?

Language and education play a major role in educating all Australians about treaty. Moreover, language and education are crucial components to any treaty if the desire is to address poverty, unemployment and poor health. Fundamental to all societies including Indigenous Australians is the transmission of language, culture and identity to the next generation. Education and language (by Language I mean Aboriginal English, variations of languages and First languages) are the glue needed to maintain, revive and reclaim culture.

If the transmission of culture to the next generation via languages and education is interrupted, this has serious consequences for the maintenance of culture and diminishes the practice for Indigenous to be Indigenous. In other words, If treaty was a body then we can consider the heart to be Indigenous cultures. Indigenous languages and education are the blood that supplies life to not only the heart but to all other organs.

Languages and education are the medium that reproduces culture. Moreover, language and education can produce bi-lingual and bi-cultural Indigenous Australians for greater control and autonomy over their own lives. Without educational agreements legal reforms are weak. In other words the legal and the political aspects of treaty only exist in the protection of the social and cultural aspects. One cannot survive without the other.

Without an education and language strategy treaties become meaningless. Yet education and language have received little attention in the treaty debate.

Indigenous parents who know best for their children cannot afford to be 'intellectually segregated' from the treaty debate. As I have argued elsewhere, if treaty is a mechanism to address issues of greater Indigenous recognition, control and autonomy, and I argue it is, then education of children should benefit from such a process.[3] I now want to turn to the first proposition of this paper - 'Bread' versus 'Freedom' and its relevance for the treaty debate.


Bread versus Freedom

It has been two years on since the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation (CAR) concluded its term by presenting to the federal government its Final Report titled 'Reconciliation: Australia's Challenge'. Chapter one of the report highlights that Australia is the only Commonwealth country that has never signed an official treaty with its Indigenous peoples.[4] Since the CAR report, there has been a broad spectrum of debate by political commentators and interest groups about whether or not a formal agreement or treaty would advance reconciliation. It is beyond the scope of this paper to explore indepth the numerous treaty arguments. To provide an overview I wish to draw on the works of Patrick Dodson and Prime Minister John Howard to highlight two emerging themes.

In his 2000 Wentworth lecture, Patrick Dodson outlined the need for a treaty where he advocated several treaty principles including the establishment of an independent treaty commission. Dodson argued that the principle of self-determination/reconciliation must be addressed in a 'legislated framework agreement or treaty between Indigenous peoples and the Australian government'.[5]

However, John Howard dismissed the idea of the need for legislation for reconciliation by claiming

true reconciliation cannot be legislated or mandated. It involves a process that is genuinely community based...Success in this process will ultimately be measured not simply by the effectiveness of government policies and programs but more by the extent to which Australians develop a genuine personal commitment to reconciliation... [6]

Whether reconciliation should enter the legislative (legal) domain of agreements (treaty) is but one aspect of the debate. In light of a renewed interest in this debate an apparent binary seems to be emerging. On both sides for or against treaty there is an attempt to win the hearts and minds of Indigenous peoples and other Australians. I do not wish to focus on all elements of this debate but select arguments to highlight the binary of treaty in what I call 'Bread' verses 'Freedom'. 'Bread' arguments state a case against treaty and can be clearly identified in various statements by public commentators including Phillip Ruddock [7] and John Howard.[8] Justification includes the following:

  • Acknowledgment that Indigenous peoples are in a state of crisis (statistics and other social indicators are used to justify this position).
  • Extreme poverty keeps the Indigenous in busy work just to survive. Key words used here are the Indigenous are engaged in a 'struggle for survival'.
  • A hierarchy of needs is offered to explain away treaty. Food, health, education and an atmosphere free of violence - all in this order with treaty a low priority.
  • Legal and political struggle is lower down on the hierarchy of struggle.
  • Primary focus are immediate solutions and short term goals to bring relief to the 'struggle for survival'. Longer terms goals of treaty are not on the agenda.

Arguments for 'Bread' invariably conclude that the focus of Indigenous legal and political rights are luxuries that Indigenous peoples can least afford. Seldom mentioned is the need for legal and constitutional protection of Indigenous languages and cultures.

Treaty is seen as a distraction from the 'real' task of providing 'Bread' for the hungry. Supporters of this position concede that although government services for Indigenous peoples are deficient, the focus of the struggle is to make these work more effectively. Autonomy is advocated by greater Indigenous inclusion into government decision-making processes that offer community services. Indigenous peoples are citizens of Australia like other Australians and are entitled to the rights and protection that is devolved from the state to its citizens.

However, when these arguments are scrutinised, the form of social contract advocated is that governments legitimately govern and care for its citizens and all that Indigenous peoples want and can hope for is a better deal. In other words, Indigenous Australians have rights through citizenship. Therefore, if Indigenous rights are to be achieved the solutions should target all their arrows at better 'access' and 'equal opportunity' to government services. This implies that Indigenous rights to self determination can only occur within already existing legal and constitutional arrangements and that this is inevitable. Although the constitution is silent on Indigenous rights this is not considered as a major cause of disadvantage. Nor is the strategy of overturning this silence seen as a solution.

A major contradiction in the 'Bread' argument is that poor Indigenous statistics in almost every social indicator from health to education is testimony that civil inequalities remains economically, legally and politically. Similarly, 'equal opportunity' and 'access' to civil services has not stopped or reversed the current rapid loss of Indigenous Languages. Advocacy for a better version of the status quo does not automatically guarantee cultural and linguistic protection. Nor does it bring an end to dependency. Cultural and linguistic harm will continue to remain in absence of formal legal and constitutional protection. As I argue elsewhere 'treaty, agreements and or partnerships afford the possibility of legal and constitutional amendment to include self-government/management leading to an increase of Indigenous authority and jurisdiction over their own lives'. [9]

Opposite to the 'Bread' arguments are the 'Freedom' (from oppression) advocates who state a case for negotiated treaties. These positions can be evidenced in numerous public lectures by several candidates including Pat Dodson, Geoff Clark [10], Marica Langton [11] and Larrisa Behrendt. [12] Those arguing 'Freedom' (from oppression), claim the benefits of a treaty remain in the following:

  • The arguments for 'Bread' are not disputed but the way forward is.
  • Indigenous sovereignty was not ceded at colonisation.
  • Prior to colonisation Indigenous inherent jurisdiction and governance existed and never ceded therefore these should be maintained in a formal agreement.
  • Freedom advocates vision what is Indigenous self-determination and what does it look like? What is the future of Indigenous peoples in Australia? What is best and how to get there?
  • Seek the end to legal absorption toward a society where Indigenous languages, culture and values are protected by law and constitution as equals.
  • Justice for Indigenous peoples is the survival and well being of the Indigenous as Indigenous that is upheld by all Australians in law and constitution.
  • Revitalise, adapt and develop Indigenous culture for living in and surviving in a modern world.
  • Long term legislative goals sought to resolve and reconcile the legal and political issues that are socially divisive.

'Freedom' (from continued oppression) explores ways to renovate and restore Indigenous management capacity over their own affairs, in legal agreement with governments for meaningful self-determination. However, such arguments tend to take a longer term approach which in most cases does not bring immediate relief to the 'struggle for survival' as advocated by the 'Bread' supporters. 'Freedom' advocates understand that a legal system and constitution that is silent on Indigenous rights inhibits cultural and linguistic democracy. Therefore it could be argued that focusing entirely on 'Bread' detracts from correcting the constitution which sustains the unsustainable in terms of discrimination. 'Freedom' supporters acknowledge the slim odds for successful referenda outcome. Australia has a history of failed referendums. Overwhelming popular opinion is needed for constitutional change. However, the freedom literature is thin on strategy needed to achieve overall consensus among the Indigenous and Non-Indigenous. In this sense language and education are also marginalised in the debate.

It is my belief that strategies for stabilising Indigenous languages cannot afford to choose between either 'Bread' or 'Freedom'. It is radically dependent on both. According to Joshua Fishman strategies must include Indigenous child rearing practices to revitalise and stabilise their speech community to the next generation.[13] This must be done whether hungry or not. At the same time there is an urgent need for greater legal and constitutional recognition while struggling for political and economic development. Legally weak Indigenous languages have struggled to maintain a foothold in Australia against constitutionally protected English. Cultural and linguistic adaptation is a daily reality for Indigenous peoples that are rarely experienced by other Australians who are first language speakers of English. 'Bread' or 'Freedom' supporters have to address such complexities in light that most Australians are not aware of the high levels of linguistic and cultural loss.

Differences will always remain in the 'Bread' verse 'Freedom' debates, but a feature that is common to both is that Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians can no longer live with each other like they have over the past 200 years. Both sides seek ways forward for a better future toward overcoming continued oppression and disadvantage.

It seems to me the on going challenge for treaty is balancing the competing interest of appeasing the need for urgent relief of Indigenous disadvantage/survival/suffering, and the need for longer term solutions of agreement making toward linguistic and cultural democracy.

Treaty offers a way to protect, preserve and promote the rights and freedoms of Indigenous peoples and their languages and cultures. It does so by renovating and restoring Indigenous management capacity to protect, promote and realise rights and self-determination. This brings me to my second proposition - The urgent need to stabilise Indigenous languages.


Stabilising Indigenous Languages

The world's Indigenous languages are in crisis. The way things are going, only a few hundred languages, amongst the world's 6,000 or so, look like surviving in the long term.[14] James Crawford concludes that only about 600 languages, that is, approximately 10 percent of the world's total, remain relatively secure - for now. This assessment is confirmed, with and without detailed estimates, by linguists reporting the decline of languages on a global scale, but especially relevant to the Indigenous languages of Australia, the Americas, Africa, and Southeast Asia.[15] Indigenous Australian languages have to be classified as not only locally endangered but also globally endangered as there are no other places in the world where they are spoken as a first language.

It could be argued that the rate of extinction of Indigenous languages and cultures across the world parallel or exceed that of flora and fauna. Australia does not a have good record in this regard. Prior to colonisation there were approximately 250 Indigenous languages spoken in Australia. Some of these had several varieties, and there were altogether about 500 language varieties used across Australia. Before settlement Indigenous individuals were capable of speaking five or more languages fluently. However, monolingual and monocultural principles have been upheld in the Australian constitution since the formation of the Australian nation/state. Language was and still is the major colonising and assimilating factor in Australia.

The effects of colonisation on Australian languages have been devastating.[16] All Indigenous language speakers are aware of past government policies and their eradication strategies over the last century. A high water mark in the legal elevation of English and the destruction of Indigenous languages was the assimilation policy period between 1937-1970.[17] Another now famous governmental eradication strategy at the time was the removal of Indigenous children from their parents that contributed to a disruption in inter-generational transmission of language and culture.

Many Australian Indigenous languages have declined to a critical state. More than three-quarters of the original Australian languages have already been lost, and the survival of almost all of the remaining languages are extremely threatened. Linguists differ on the precise numbers of Australian languages that have survived colonisation but it is probably somewhere between 30 and 50. This means that these languages are being lost at a rate of approximately one per year since colonisation.

Stabilisation efforts of Indigenous languages over the last thirty years has had some success in Australia. Currently in Australia there exist a number of activities and facilities dedicated to the maintenance and support of Australia's Indigenous languages. Each of the states and the Northern Territory has at least one Indigenous Language Centre devoted to the maintenance, revitalization, recording and transcription of Australia's Indigenous languages. These are linked nationally by a respresentative body, FATSIL (Federation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages). Without such initiatives the decline of Indigenous languages would be far greater.

These events above have clearly promoted pockets of language safety areas where Indigenous languages are spoken, learned, written and heard. However, despite this success, language diversity and the number of Indigenous languages speakers continue to rapidly decline.[18]

More recent impacts on Indigenous languages include the axing of 21 Northern Territory schools Indigenous bi-lingual education programs in 1998. Similarly, the 2000 National Inquiry into Rural and Remote Education investigated the provision of education for rural and remote Australia. As a part of its third term of reference, the inquiry was instructed to investigate whether the education available to Indigenous children complies with their human rights. The inquiry found Indigenous knowledges, cultures, values and languages have rarely been valued in education and the curriculum through our history.[19]

According to linguist Christine Nicholls 'Indigenous language loss is not something of the past but is ever present today'.[20] One could be forgiven in thinking that past colonial government practices of renaming the Indigenous landscape in English has now ceased. However, an aspect of contemporary Indigenous language loss can actively be seen in the practices by state and territory governments whose naming policy continues to rename in English, sites that already have Indigenous names.

The Committee for Geographical Names in Australasia (CGNA) was formed in 1984 to provide a coordinating role in Australian place naming activities. Despite policy guidelines for the recording and use of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander place names being developed in 1992 by the CGNA, South Australia is the only state to adopt Dual Naming legislation. While states and territory governments have incorporated some aspects of the CGNA guidelines there remains no national dual naming legislation. The state processes for geographical naming of sites (parks, recreational areas and rivers) are far from uniform nor is Indigenous involvement throughout the entire process evident. If the state naming processes are problematic this has serious consequences for Native Title - If you cannot name your country in your language this could mean extinguishment.

The good work to stabilising threatened Indigenous languages operates in a crippling atmosphere of non-legal, political and constitutional recognition. Successful language planning for the maintenance, as well as the revitalisation and reclamation of Australia's Indigenous language heritage, will continue to be weakened in absence of legal and constitutional protection.[21]

There is no official status given to Indigenous languages within the constitution. Every other language taught in Australian schools, excluding Indigenous languages, is an official language of other global countries. There is no legislative protection or support at present by federal or state and territory governments. Currently, Australia has no National Indigenous languages policy. Nor is there little by-law recognition by local shire/councils.

No one focus will prevent Indigenous language decline. Multiple strategies need to be adopted. Legal and constitutional recognition is an important part of this strategy to prevent further cultural and linguistic harm. According to Stephen May 'significant gains towards greater Indigenous self-determination have been achieved under International law' by the actions of the United Nations (UN) that include rights to land, culture, language, education and autonomy.[22]

Most member states of the UN have ratified the 1976 International Convention on Civil and political Rights (article 27). Countries including South Africa, Canada and New Zealand have incorporated legal recognition of Indigenous languages in domestic law. Such recognition in Australia is still not evident. There are many types of international examples where monolingual nation/states with a similar style of democracy to Australia have pursued progressive pluralistic language and cultural strategies to include Indigenous languages. I wish to explore these International examples.


International Examples of Legal Recognition of Indigenous Languages

There are a numerous international examples of former colonies that have recognised first languages in legislation and or the constitution. A brief analysis of existing international language institutes offer Australia an insight to the conditions of success conducted in such organisations to secure linguistic diversity. Who then has been down the road of legalising linguistic diversity that we can draw from? My focus is on those countries whose diversity in Indigenous languages are similar to Australia and that have only recently moved to including Indigenous languages last century. Similarly, I have also drawn on examples abroad where Indigenous languages were non-official languages and have only been until recently, legally and/or constitutionally recognised. The four examples here are:

  • Guatemala
  • South Africa
  • Aotearoa/New Zealand
  • Welsh Language

Guatemala has a population of some 12 million, of whom approximately 60% are Spanish-speakers. The remainder of the population speak any one of 24 Indigenous Mayan languages

  • In 1985, Guatemala adopted a new Constitution. This was amended in 1994 to end civil war. Article 58 recognises the rights of Indigenous groups to maintain and express their cultural identity, in accordance with their values, languages, and customs.
  • Peace Accord on Indigenous Rights (1995): Internal armed conflict saw peace negotiations that included agreement on "The Indigenous Rights Accord". This document championed the identity and rights of Guatemala's Indigenous group [23]

Although the 1996 Accord is an impressive document, its implementation is proving difficult due to financial constraints and political will. The Accord has some interesting qualities that could be used in a treaty in Australia. Its content provides useful examples of how educational and cultural policy must be oriented to focus on recognition, respect and encouragement of Indigenous cultural values. The Accord advocates strongly the need to promote the usage of Indigenous languages when providing state social services at the community level. It also seeks judges and legal representation trained in Indigenous languages. Elsewhere, within the Accord's treatment of cultural rights, provisions are made for the use of Indigenous place names and also the use of Indigenous languages within the mass media. Interpreting and translation services are integral to all governments and media services. The Accord declares the need to decentralise and regionalise the education system in order to adapt it to linguistic and cultural needs of regional groups.[24]

The Accord could serve as a guide to Australian education reform and official recognition of regional linguistic autonomy. It also offers interesting insights for treaty in Australia to recover and protect Indigenous languages and to promote the development and use of those languages. Let us turn to South Africa.

South Africa
In the "Founding Provisions" of the 1996 Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (Act 108 of 1996), 11 languages are recognised as "official languages" and the nations multilingual status is clearly defined: [25]

  • Section 6 Article (2): Recognising the historically diminished use and status of the Indigenous languages of our people, the state must take practical and positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use of these languages.
  • Section 6 Article (5): A Pan South African Language Board to be established by national legislation.[26]

The South African Constitution has a Bill of Rights that recognises Indigenous languages and cultures. In short, despite strong government advocacy and the presence of a constitution that emphasises Indigenous linguistic diversity and rights, South Africa is rapidly being overwhelmed by the power and status of English and constrained by the limits of its own financial resources. However, the successes attributed to constitutional and legislative reform in establishing an African Language Board cannot be understated.

Possible issues for Australia is to establish a National Indigenous language Institute to oversee language planning strategy and policy. Australian has no National Indigenous Languages Institute to act as a facility to support, maintain and promote Australia's Indigenous languages heritage. Unlike South Africa the establishment of such an Institute could be done through legislation rather than through constitutional change via referenda. The Pan South African Language Board mission statement offers valuable insight into the role and function of such an institute in Australia.

The Mission statement is to promote multilingualism in South Africa by:

  • creating the conditions for the development of and the equal use of all official languages;
  • fostering respect for and encouraging the use of other languages in the country and encouraging the best use of the country's linguistic resources in order to enable South Africans to free themselves from all forms of linguistic discrimination, domination and division and to enable them to exercise appropriate linguistic choices for their own well-being as well as for national development.[27]

The role of the Board is to establish the following structures in each province (state) for all official languages:

  • Provincial Language Committees
  • National Language Bodies
  • and the National Lexicographic Units [28]

The role of the Provincial Language Committees (PLC) in each province is to advise the Board on language related matters affecting any province. Australia already has an Indigenous Language Centre in every state that could serve the same function as PLC.

I recognise that the internal language infrastructure of South Africa is complex and costly. However, their function and purpose allow us in Australia insights to adapt suitable structures while rejecting others. Indeed, such strategies could be examined in depth for their treaty potential in Australia. Lets turn now to New Zealand.

Aotearoa/New Zealand
New Zealand is one of a tiny number of countries in the modern world that does not have an entrenched constitution (the United Kingdom is another). Thus, unlike Australia, it does not have a single, stand-alone constitutional document - rather a series of Acts and Legislation. Since the 1970s, the significance of the Treaty of Waitangi has increased. Although it still have a somewhat ambivalent legal status, its increasing prominence and political influence reflects a broader shift away from the idea of New Zealand as a monoculture (Pakeha) and towards a more complex entity within which the rights of both Maori and Pakeha needed to be upheld.

The success of Maori language maintenance and revival is due to many factors including the following:

  • 1981 Kohanga Reo (Language Nest).
  • 1986 The Maori Language Act declared Maori the official language of NZ.
  • 1987 Maori Language Commission (MLC). MLC advises government on policy and grants certificates in Maori.
  • 1990 Bill of Rights recognises Indigenous rights to language.

While New Zealand has only one Indigenous language, the Maori language situation has many successes that Australia can draw from. Australia has no National Languages Act. Similarly, Australia has no National Indigenous language policy. Legislation and policy go hand in hand. Maori language policy is worthy of note here. On 1 December 1997, the New Zealand Cabinet adopted five overarching Maori language policy objectives.[29] These are:

  • To increase the number of speakers of Maori by increasing learning opportunities to improve proficiency levels of people in speaking Maori, listening to Maori, reading Maori and writing Maori.
  • Increase opportunities to use Maori by increasing the number of situations where Maori can be used.
  • Increase the rate at which Maori language develops so that is can be used for the full range of modern activities; and
  • Foster among Maori and non-Maori positive attitudes toward Maori language so that non-Maori bilingualism becomes a valued part of New Zealand society.

These objectives in relation to Indigenous Australian languages could well serve as fundamental principles in a National Indigenous languages policy. Similarly, these could serve as core values negotiated in regional or state agreements or treaties. The final international language example is Welsh.

Welsh Language
At the beginning of the last century, almost half of the population of Wales spoke Welsh, with the 1911 Census recording that almost a million people considered themselves to be speakers of the language. For the next 60 to70 years, speaker numbers drastically declined. Despite this decline, many families and communities advocated increasing official support for the language. Since then Welsh language has had some major event seen in the following:

  • 1967 British Parliament passed a Welsh Language Act. Welsh-speakers have the right to use their language in court and in public administration.
  • 1993 Welsh Language Act passed was much more significant than the 1967 Act. It confirmed equality of Welsh and English.
  • 1993 Welsh Language Board was established. This is a statutory organisation whose main function is to promote and facilitate the use of the Welsh language. All government agencies according to the Act are to develop language strategies to implement Welsh Language. The Language Board monitors the strategies implementation.

Welsh now has strong legal, political and constitutional protection. Moreover, it has strong governmental infrastructure and is well resourced. Aspects of the 1993 Welsh language Act and Language Board could possibly be operated in Australia without heavy financial burden. Language schemes require all government agencies aim to increase Welsh speakers' ability to access public services as a matter of course in their own language. This includes applying for a driver's license and paying phone bills.
This could apply in Australian regional and remote areas where there are Indigenous communities who have English as a second language. The key here is that government departments are mandated to report on the implementation and operation of services in Welsh. In this regard language employment is developed for speakers of Welsh language. In Australia employment for speakers of Indigenous languages is limited. Adopting aspects of the Welsh model could foster employment careers for Indigenous language speakers.



Australian Possibilities: A National Indigenous Language Institute

My brief analysis here has the purpose in highlighting that there are many international examples of nation/states who have attempted to legally implement legal cultural and linguistic diversity in recognition of minority or Indigenous groups. No one country provides a perfect template for Australia but all have aspects upon which we might draw for an Australian National Indigenous Languages Institute. What are common across my examples are several factors that give us insights for Australia:

  • Constitutional Recognition
  • Legislated Language Act
  • Language Board/Commission
  • Bill of Rights
  • Government services mandated for Indigenous language infrastructure

Many of these strategies take language planning seriously. To arrest and prevent further decline in the hope of maintaining the relatively small number of Indigenous languages in this country, there is an urgent need to move into the legislative domain. An Indigenous Australian Languages Act needs to be drafted as a matter of urgency and passed through the federal parliament. One strategy the Act could provide is the concept of a National Indigenous languages Institute. There are several examples abroad of Language Board/Commissions that have contributed to successful maintenance and revival of Indigenous languages. There is no parallel equivalent in Australia. The effects of the commissions on Indigenous language maintenance abroad are persuasive. In Australia, the idea of a National Indigenous languages Institute is not a new concept as it was articulated in a report to the federal government in 1983 prepared by the PLANLangPol Committee.[30] I have drawn on this report to promote the idea of a National Indigenous Languages Institute. Its role and function could include the following:

  • A statutory body legislated.
  • To collect information and fund research into stabilising Indigenous languages.
  • To collect information from overseas on language education, language planning relevant to the Indigenous language experience situation in Australia.
  • To make this information and expertise available to groups and individuals who need them.
  • To build up a 'resource centre' of language teaching materials, and technology including the evaluation of these.
  • Contribute to the development of a National Indigenous Language policy and necessary legal and legislative changes. Advises governments.
  • Operationalise the National Indigenous language policy once developed.
  • Coordinate an Indigenous geographical place names committee to advise governments.

The activities of an Institute will need to be supported by the Australian legal system - whether this be within a framework of legislative protection or by opting for a constitutional amendment to protect the remaining Indigenous languages of this country.



It would seem that Australia is slow to incorporate the necessary legal mechanisms to maintain its own linguistic heritage. Most Indigenous peoples speak some variety of Indigenous language or Aboriginal English. Indigenous languages reinforce worldviews and identities whether the language is spoken fluently or not. Similarly they are fundamental to the maintenance and revival of Indigenous culture.

A national Australian culture is inconceivable without Indigenous cultures and languages. Therefore Indigenous languages have relevance for all Australians and contributes greatly to the national identity. In this sense Indigenous languages are uniquely and irreplaceably Australian.

If Australia is to move toward rebuilding a reconciled nation then cultural and linguistic democracy must be put into practice rather than being alluded to in speeches. Treaties are instruments used in democratic countries to achieve reconciliation.

While 'Bread' and 'Freedom' advocates debate treaty, the last speaker of one or more Indigenous language passes into the spirit world. Time is of the essence. Whether you need 'Bread' or want "Freedom', language is central to your struggle.

Ngaito Yungadalya Yakkandalya
Thank you



[1]Lester-Irabinna Rigney is a Narungga man. He is a Senior Lecturer within the Yunggorendi First Nations Centre, Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia where he is the Director of Studies-Indigenous Studies.

[2] These are names of my children and those of my colleagues at Yunggorendi First Nations Centre who give me inspiration and hope for the future.

[3] Rigney, Irabinna-Lester (2002), Indigenous Education and Treaty: Building Indigenous Management Capacity, In Balayi Journal of Cultural, Law and Colonialism, Volume 4, p.75

[4] (Accessed 1/7/02)

[5] Dodson, Patrick (2000), Beyond the Mourning Gate: Dealing with Unfinished Business, The Wentworth Lecture, 12 May 2000, AIATSIS, p.14

[6] Howard, John (2000), Practical, Reconciliation, In Grattan, Michelle (Ed) (2000), Essays on Reconciliation, Bookman Press, Melbourne, Australia, p.89

[7] 'Ruddock stresses need for dialogue', ABC The World Today - Monday, May 29, 2000 12:38pm (Accessed 1-8-02)

[8] Howard, John (2000), Reconciliation in Australia Today - Current Issues in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs lecture series, Sydney, December 2000 (Accessed 1-7-02)

[9] Rigney, Irabinna-Lester (2002), Indigenous Eduction and Treaty: Building Indigenous Management Capacity: In Balayi Journal of Culture, Law and Colonialism, Vol 4, p.76

[10] Clark, Geoff (2000), From Here To A Treaty, Hyllus Maris Lecture, Latrobe University 5 September 2000, (Accessed 1-7-02)

[11] Langton, Marcia (2002), A Treaty Between Our Nations?, Inaugural Professorial Lecture, University Of Melbourne, (Accessed1-7-02)

[12] Behrendt, Larissa (2001), The Relevance of the Rights Agenda in the Age of Practical Reconciliation, A paper Delivered at the Future of Rights: Treaties, Self-Determination and Australian Indigenous Peoples Symposium, Sydney University, 17th December (Accessed 1-7-02)

[13] See Fishman, J. (1991) Reversing Language Shift: Theoretical and Empirical Foundations of Assistance to Threatened Languages. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

[14] Crawford, James, (1995), Endangered Native American Languages: What Is to Be Done, and Why?, Bilingual Research Journal, vol. 19, no. 1 (winter). (Accessed 1-9-02). Crawford, James, (1996), Seven Hypotheses on Language Loss: Causes and Cures, In Stabilizing Indigenous Languages, Editor Gina Cantoni, A Center for Excellence in Education Monograph, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff (Accessed 1-9-02)

[15] Brenzinger, M. (Ed.). 1992, Language death: Factual and theoretical explorations with special reference to East Africa. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, Robins, R. H., & Uhlenbeck, E. (Eds.). (1991). Endangered languages. Oxford Press Schmidt, A., 1990, The loss of Australia's Aboriginal language heritage.: Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra

[16] Walsh, M & Yallop, C (Eds.) (1993), Language and Culture, In Aboriginal Australia, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra

[17] McConnochie K, Hollinsworth D, Pettman J, (1988), Race and racism in Australia, Social Science Press, Wentworth Falls, NSW

[18] Amery, Rob, 2000, Warrabarna Kaurna! Reclaiming an Australian Language. Lisse: Swets & Zeitlinger, Hale, K (1992), On Endangered Languages and the Safe Guarding of Diversity, In Language 68, 1, 1-3

[19] See HREOC (2000), National Inquiry into Rural and Remote Education, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Commonwealth of Australia

[20] Nicholls, Christine, 2001, Reconciled to What? Reconciliation and the Northern Territory's Bilingual Education Program, 1973-1998, in Joseph Lo Bianco and Rosie Wickert (eds) Australian Policy Activism in Language and Literacy, Language Australia Ltd, Melbourne, Australia, pp 327-345

[21] Rigney, Irabinna-Lester (2001), Building Stronger Communities: Indigenous Australian Rights In Education and Language, in Voice of The Land, FATSIL (Newsletter) Vol 21 This paper was an intervention to the Commission on Human Rights, United NationsSub-Commission on the Promotion & Protection of Human Rights, Working Group on Indigenous Populations, Session 19, 23 - 27 July 2001 Geneva, Switzerland. Available at Also at

[22] May, S (1998), Language and Education Rights for Indigenous Peoples, In Language, Culture And Curriculum Vol. 11, No. 3

[23] Salvesen, Hilde. (2002). Guatemala: Five Years After The Peace Accords - The Challenges Of Implementing Peace. A Report for the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. PRIO Report. Oslo: PRIO.

[24] (Accessed 1-7-02)

[25] (Accessed 1-7-02)

[26] (Accessed 1-7-02)

[27] Ibid (Accessed 1-7-02)

[28] Ibid (Accessed 1-7-02)

[29] Te Puni Kokiri (Ministry of Maori Development). (1999), Te Tuaoma: The Maori Language - The Steps That Have Been Taken. Wellington: Te Puni Kokiri (Ministry of Maori Development).

[30] PLANLangPol (1983), National language policy for Australia: A Report, January 1983 prepared by the PLANLangPol Committee, Sydney


Lester-Irabinna Rigney (Narungga Nation)
Director of Studies - Indigenous Studies, Yunggorendi First Nations Centre for Higher Education and Research
Flinders University
GPO Box 2100, Adelaide SA 5001, AUSTRALIA
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