Writer : Inge Kral, PhD & Jennifer Green, PhD & Elizabeth Marrkilyi Ellis
Year : 2019
Writing this paper at the beginning of 2019, which the United Nations has declared the International Year of Indigenous Languages, we reflect on what ICH means in an endangered language context where it is the intangible heritage aspects of communication, cultural expression and social interaction that are rapidly disappearing. As the celebrated linguist, Ken Hale, noted (1992), the loss of local languages and of the cultural systems which they express has meant irretrievable loss of the world’s diverse intellectual wealth. In this paper we discuss this issue by focusing on one case study: the verbal arts traditions of the Ngaanyatjarra people of Australia’s Western Desert, who reside in a region locally known as the Ngaanyatjarra Lands. We trace our attempts to safeguard the verbal arts of the Western Desert through documentation, recording, archiving and repatriation (Plate 1). Although safeguarding these verbal arts as intangible cultural heritage could arguably be perceived as an end in itself, key to the vitality of these traditions is their transmission to future generations. We conclude the paper by shifting the focus to the language of youth and consider how the verbal arts can be kept strong through everyday language practices.
Our research addresses the question of what happens in societies that have undergone profound and recent sociocultural transformation, where structures that made sense in the not-so-distant past are challenged by contemporary modes of communication and social interaction. We draw attention to the experiences of a people whose communicative styles and practices have been altered by modernity. Increasingly, as elders pass away, there are fewer and fewer adults who retain the memory of how these fragile oral traditions were practised. With their passing, some of the connection to the poetic forms of the Western Desert will be severed.
Our study also contributes to the debate about what may seem to be competing imperatives: the documentation agenda versus the language revitalisation one, and argues that these practices are, as Grant (2010, p. 54) puts it, two sides of the same coin. Seen as an iterative process grounded in long-term relationships and ethical engagements, the tangible objects of language documentation have the potential to inform and inspire, to find their place in the arts and education, in new media and musical forms, and even, as we will show later, in their original contexts of use. It also raises issues about the processes involved in transforming what are essentially dynamic and ephemeral forms of language—speech, sign, song, drawing—into tangible forms, by the creation of documentary records. Such ‘fossilisations’ of linguistic practices are, by their nature, not able to reflect the many innovative and adaptive dimensions of verbal arts traditions (see Grant: 2010, p. 51). We argue, however, for the value of such documentations as part of a multifaceted strategy to invest in the heritage value of one the world’s unique, small, endangered languages.
The Ngaanyatjarra Lands fall within the Western Desert region of central Australia and comprise approximately 3% of mainland Australia, fanning out into Western Australia from the tri-state border with South Australia and the Northern Territory (Figure 1).
Approximately 2000 people now live in the eleven Ngaanyatjarra Lands communities. The population includes descendants of the last nomadic groups of the Western Desert (referred to hereafter as ‘the Ngaanyatjarra’). As a group, the Ngaanyatjarra have never left their country, nor has their country been annexed or occupied by outsiders, and they now form a relatively homogenous group. Remoteness has protected them, residing as they do in the harsh desert of central Australia, a thousand kilometres away from the closest townships of Alice Springs to the east, and Kalgoorlie to the west.
The mutually intelligible Western Desert dialects Ngaanyatjarra, Ngaatjatjarra and Pitjantjatjara are the main languages spoken by those who reside in the Ngaanyatjarra Lands. Of Australia’s remaining Indigenous languages it is estimated that less than twenty are sufficiently robust to be passed on to the next generation (Angelo et al.: 2019). Of these, only a few will retain their full expressive richness. The dialects spoken in the Western Desert will be transmitted to the next generation: however their oral traditions, the verbal arts of their culture, are under immediate threat. These traditions of Western Desert people are central to cultural practice and social interaction and embrace special, respectful ways of speaking, as well as sign language and the use of graphic symbols to accompany sand story narratives. These multimodal speech arts are a valued part of their traditions. Nevertheless they are highly endangered, and opportunities for children to acquire the full expressive potentials of these oral and visual traditions are decreasing dramatically.
Ngaanyatjarra people say that in the tjukurrpa— the Dreaming or Creation time—Ancestral Beings appeared out of nowhere. They then created waterholes and other features of the environment and these sites became significant places imbued with spirituality and sacredness. In the Creation time, everything was brought into existence by the Beings: parna—the land, kapi—the water, yukiri—the flora, kuka—the fauna, yilkari—the cosmos, and yarnangu—the people. The actions of the Ancestral Beings who created the environment are embodied in the performance of ceremonies that reenact the Ancestral Beings’ original acts. Traces of the actions of the Ancestral Beings remain etched on the landscape and abstracted into designs. These designs, inscribed on sacred boards and painted on the bodies of participants during rituals, serve as mnemonic devices for recalling the tjukurrpa. Such actions of the Ancestral or Dreaming Beings are also rendered in tjuma (oral narratives) and turlku (songs, dances and stories).
The Ancestral Beings also spoke in certain ways, and the way that Ngaanyatjarra people speak now is influenced by the way that the sacred Ancestral Beings spoke to each other in the Creation time. Their legacy remains in narratives from the tjukurrpa and in the special speech styles and registers used by people to this day. As Ngaanyatjarra people say, you can go back into the tjukurrpa and see this is the place, this is the song, this is the story. Oh we do this now because it was in the tjukurrpa they say, it’s our traditional law, it’s our culture. This why we do what we do now and this is why we speak like we speak now. Importantly, this means that much communication is embedded in the realm of the sacred and secret. This sets rigid rules for when tjaa yuti (literally ‘clear speech’) is allowed and when alternative forms of speech must be used. Tjaa yuti is the form of language that can be used in the everyday and is understood by everyone. Everyday communication also embraces the verbal arts: tjuma (story), turlku (dance/song), tjinytja/mirlpa (sand drawings), and mara yurriku (sign language). Contemporary cultural practices and language practices all derive from these understandings. Language establishes the frame for the proper order of things—the order of life, behaviour and interaction in ritual life and in the everyday (Kral and Ellis: forthcoming).
Let us now turn to the rich spectrum of Western Desert verbal arts.
There is a dynamic interplay between semipermanent marks made on the sand with the hand, the stick (or now with so-called ‘storywires’), and the spoken word. In this primarily female practice, little girls learn to narrate by drawing upon a range of communicative resources deploying multiple modalities in the act of storytelling. Alongside verbal forms, these may include sign, drawing, mimetic sound symbolism, mimetic action represented by the movement of parts of the body and the engagement of ‘props’ such as leaves and sticks (Green: 2014; Green: 2016). Today young girls are still constantly seen sitting in groups telling stories in the sand using a storywire (Plate 4).
Ground-based games have also developed where inscribable surfaces are readily available. The mama mama ngunytju ngunytju game is played in the Ngaanyatjarra region. In this game speech, gesture and graphic designs are negotiated in dyadic and polyadic interactions between caregivers and a number of children, as linguistic and embodied practices are reinforced in peer-to-peer play. It is a systematically organised language routine in which players employ oral ‘question and answer’ routines linked to visual graphic schema drawn on the sand and contextualised in a framework of social and spatial knowledge.
The mama ngunytju game is an overt language socialisation activity that reinforces the connectedness of kin to their traditional country within a bounded socio-spatial field. Through engagement with the game, young girls practise and acquire manual and verbal skills and demonstrate their knowledge of social relationships within the known range and expanding habitus of their world. Children take from the game a heightened understanding of kinship relationships and spatial orientation within the desert landscape. Ngaanyatjarra children acquire these core cultural concepts as tacit knowledge required for myriad practices in the course of their lives. In this practice, we see the use of a mutually comprehensible set of symbols or icons associated with the sand storytelling tradition combined with new symbols associated with contemporary living (Ellis, Green and Kral: 2017).
Other respect relationships are the so-called ‘avoidance’ relationships. Among the many avoidance relationships in Western Desert society, the strongest are the relationships between a woman and her son-in-law, and a man and his son-in-law. These two strict avoidance relationships also come into being during the manhood ceremony. In these respect relationships there must be no eye contact and no physical contact, and a respectful distance must be maintained. People can only speak with each other and give things to each other via a third party. They can refer to each other by indirect means but must not say each other’s names. In contexts requiring respectful or distant social interaction between certain relations, the use of indirect speech styles—tjitirrpa or kiti-kiti watjalku—is also required (Kral and Ellis: forthcoming).
Another speech style originating from the tjukurrpa is yaarlpirri. Yaarlpirri or ‘early morning talk’ is a form of public oratory or rhetoric that is a more formal version of ordinary everyday discourse, used extensively in the past to discuss issues, air grievances, disseminate information or organise the day’s hunting and gathering (Goddard: 1992). Yaarlpirri is a speech routine employing indirect mediational strategies to maintain social harmony and resolve conflict.
To this day it is understood that to be a competent speaker in this speech community entails having proficiency in cultural as well as linguistic practices in different domains of use. This requires understanding the social conventions of language use encompassing verbal and non-verbal communication modes, as well as mastery of the verbal arts and the special speech styles used in everyday and ceremonial contexts.
The 1960s and 1970s saw numerous Ngaanyatjarra people travelling out into towns in the Eastern Goldfields, near Kalgoorlie: adults for employment on pastoral stations and adolescents for secondary schooling. After the mission was relinquished to the government in 1973, families moved back to their traditional country and set up small outstations that became the permanent communities we see today. By the 1980s, families began to move from residing in semi-permanent bough shelter constructions to living in houses in settled communities. Today, extended family groups tend to live together in Western-style houses. Most families have motor vehicles and are highly mobile, driving hundreds of kilometres to visit family, attend funerals, sporting events, participate in ceremonial activities or seek out services such as banks, hospitals and shopping malls in urban centres like Alice Springs and Kalgoorlie. In recent years there has also been a rapid uptake of digital technologies. The internet is widely used, there is mobile phone connectivity and most teenagers and adults have mobile phones.
Such changes have, of course, impacted on communication and social interaction. For example, yaarlpirri, the early morning speech style, is no longer heard or used, partly as a consequence of the shift away from living in open camps to dwelling in houses. Similarly, contemporary community life has brought those in avoidance relationships into closer proximity. Older people comment on how young people do not show respect. In other words, they are interacting directly with their in-laws (sitting near each other, talking with them and eating together) rather than using indirect modes (Kral and Ellis: forthcoming).
These changes notwithstanding, the multimodal speech arts (encompassing narrative competence, oratorical skills and other symbolic, visual and gestural modes of representation and communication) remain a valued, if endangered, part of the traditions of Western Desert people. In the past, command of broad-ranging traditional cultural practices and knowledge systems came through familiarity with the world experienced through embodied knowledge and habitual practices. Although the Ngaanyatjarra have experienced profound change, it is nonetheless evident that the actions of the Ancestral Beings are still present in the landscape, and their trace memories shape the performance and rhythms of everyday life in the present.
Young people in the Western Desert are living in this rapidly shifting language ecology. For them, the newly-introduced institutional pressures of schooling and employment have further impacted their capacity to engage in cultural practices that previously enabled the acquisition of context-specific language forms and specialist knowledge. This has meant that younger people are not acquiring the songs, dances and special speech styles associated with ceremonial activity as they would have in the past. In addition, social media has intensified the influence of English language and Western cultural practices. Despite these altered sociocultural circumstances, the traditional structures of social organisation remain intact (Brooks: 2011). Moreover, the verbal arts are still practised and young people are transforming them to suit the contemporary context (Kral and Ellis: 2019).
In the contemporary songs of young Ngaanyatjarra musicians we also see a performative process of creation and renewal, and an indication of the enduring importance of the verbal arts in the lifeworlds of young people. Here, direct and indirect references to the tjukurrpa abound, translating intangible concepts into tangible objects in the form of CDs and music videos. Young musicians are using digital technologies to lay down new narrative forms (Plate 7). In a manner reminiscent of the way in which turlku or ceremonial song is embedded in place, and people are the vessels for the songs that emanate from the landscape, the music produced by the young musicians is also embedded in place. Their songs evoke movement, and a yearning for ‘country’. In one song ‘Ngurra Karilywaraku’, Trenton Giles, a young musician from Warburton (Plate 8), sings about Karilywara (Patjarr), the traditional country of his grandmother:
Yangupala kutjarralurni ngayunya watjarnu,By shifting the focus to the language of youth we attempt to dispel any notion that we are tied to a form of linguistic essentialism focused only on fixed ‘authentic’ social and cultural practices and bounded cultural identities. Rather, we seek to recognise the hybridity of new language practices, whether oral, written or mediated by technology. In the language documentation literature, most research has focused on older generations. Consequently we know little about the manner in which Indigenous young people are taking up the oral traditions of their culture, or about how the communication systems, speech styles, verbal arts, performance genres and inter-related knowledge systems are being acquired or transmitted. Further research is needed in this domain.
Two young fellas came and said to me,
Yarrala marlaku ngurrakutu
Let’s go back home
Ngurra nyarratja ngarala
To the place over there
Our home Patjarr
Importantly, these perspectives situate language as living heritage; where language is alive, it is dynamic, and it is the means by which human beings communicate and interact with each other in a vast array of social contexts. But also language is not a neutral medium for communication but rather a set of socially embedded practices… [and] social interactions live linguistically charged lives. (Ahearn: 2017 , p.3). Nowhere is this more apparent than in oral performance in context and the anchoring of verbal art in the social and cultural worlds of its users, and the complex multidimensional web of interrelationships that link performed texts to culturally defined systems of meaning and interpretation and to the socially organised systems of social relations (Bauman: 2004, p. 32).
Through our project of recording, documenting and archiving the verbal arts of the Western Desert, aspects of this intangible heritage will be safeguarded for the future. However keeping these traditions alive as living language is an altogether more difficult quest. There are, nonetheless, glimmers of hope as we see the verbal arts traditions gain new life and revived prestige as an outcome of our documentation project.
The film recordings we made between 2013 and 2018 with ten young women who transferred the traditional sand storytelling practice to iPads have injected new life into this traditional narrative form. The films burst with colour, energy and originality, and we see traditional iconography merging with contemporary symbols as the young storytellers recount stories of trips out bush collecting traditional foods with humorous memories of flat tyres and seeing scary animals. Other stories reveal the contemporary pastimes of young people-playing football, softball and going to the disco (see Plate 9). The films have been shown in community film festivals, on Indigenous Community Television, and transferred into book form with QR codes that allow readers to see the films online.
The research on the spoken respect register has also been returned to the Ngaanyatjarra community. At the end of 2018 we went back to the community with a list of some 300 words and their equivalent meanings in everyday Ngaanyatjarra (and Pitjantjatjara), representing the most extensive list of examples from this special respect register (see also Goddard: 1992). Around thirty older people had been interviewed, providing more than six hours of recordings, including example sentences and descriptions of the context of use. These interviewees are representative of the last people to have learned this auxiliary language, and of the very few able to still speak it in the ‘yirrkapiri camp’ during the manhoodmaking ceremony. The interviews were transcribed and translated in ELAN and entered into the FLEX dictionarymaking programme. We left this precious document with an older woman who was eager to spearhead a revitalisation of this special speech style. Some weeks later we heard that the list had been taken into the yirrkapiri camp and it had piqued the interest of some of the young people, catalysing a burst of enthusiasm for learning this verbal art form among the young. Such examples of the use of research materials provide a window into the many ways that this intangible heritage can be kept alive, reminding us that safeguarding must have multiple dimensions. Firstly, items must be stored in sustainable archives for future generations, but these traditions must also be maintained as living practices among the younger generation as the future of these unique oral traditions and cultural practices resides ‘in their hands’ (Hinton: 2014, xi).
In conclusion, we need to consider the connection between language endangerment and language socialisation and the role of the family and community in the acquisition and transmission of cultural processes and practices, including language, over successive generations, and the dynamic hybridity of new language practices as people and their practices change over successive generations. By paying attention to these multi-faceted, multi-dimensional aspects that pertain to the multi-modal speech arts, we may have some chance of safeguarding the Western Desert Verbal Arts for the future.