Aboriginal languages the remedy
The Australian
July 14, 2005
Mike Steketee:

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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 says.

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 cancer."

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 overcome it.

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 play basketball".

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 the programs.

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 English.

"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," it says.

And it attributes the success of the governing council in Wadeye in the  Northern Territory to the use of traditional structures that give it  legitimacy.

Mike Steketee is The Australian's National affairs editor.