When central Queensland Indigenous elder Nhaya Nicky Hatfield started piecing her Darumbal language together, she vowed that one day her grandchildren would speak it fluently.
It has been a long journey, but now her granddaughter Leilani Hatfield is sharing their traditional language with the wider community.
Leilani has recorded radio idents in Darumbal language to be played on ABC Capricornia, as part of a nation-wide project by the ABC, which started on October 28.
“I’m just so proud and overwhelmed sometimes to think she’s 18 years old now and I’ve basically done what I started out doing and she’s on ABC speaking her language now and it’s wonderful,” an emotional Ms Hatfield said.
Her work began more than 20 years ago when she went on a mission to recapture her language, which was in danger of being lost as the old people had spoken it only in secrecy.
“They were very scared to teach their children and grandchildren language, because children were taken away from their families,” she said.
It was against the law for Indigenous people to speak traditional languages, so people did this in the privacy of their home, and those who had the opportunity to go to school had to be careful not to slip up.
“It was like that, I suppose, when my generation was growing up and we would speak these words when we were at home, but we would never speak this when we were out in public,” Ms Hatfield said.
She said, as she became older, there was more opportunity to speak Darumbal language and people were no longer thrown into jail for it.
“That’s when I decided, well, my grandchildren are going to speak their Darumbal language fluently, so that’s what I set about doing.”
Photo: Central Queensland Indigenous elder Nhaya Nicky Hatfield with the three books she has written with Caroline Cox in the Darumbal language. (ABC Capricornia: Inga Stünzner)
Since then, Ms Hatfield has been like a detective, piecing together bits and pieces of her language once thought lost.
She discovered, too, that although her father was a Munundjalli man from the Yugambeh nation in the Tweed Heeds and Beaudesert areas, the language he spoke was in fact Darumbal.
“I found out later that it was my grandfather, Alf Garret, who taught him Darumbal language, and he and Mum lived with my grandfather when they first got married,” she said.
Armed with her language base, Ms Hatfield set about gathering words from all her old people, and conducted further research.
“I met a few anthropologists and they started finding out about me, and if they went somewhere and they found Darumbal words, they would send them to me,” Ms Hatfield said.
A turning point was in 2000, when a linguist approached Ms Hatfield’s husband Trevor and asked if she could put a spelling system to the language.
This has helped with the language revival.
“That spelling system helped a lot, because ours is not a written language — it’s a spoken language — so you have to live with the person to learn to speak the language,” Ms Hatfield said.
“Obviously I couldn’t live with all my people or with the kids at school, so putting it into a spelling system has enabled me to put it on paper so that can help everyone learn.”
Since then, Ms Hatfield has written three books in Darumbal language and she has been teaching it regularly at the primary school her children and grandchildren attended.
It was a bit difficult at first, she said, as she was determined to go in regularly to teach.
“Not just at NAIDOC time, or when they’re doing an Aboriginal project. I really wanted to do it on a weekly basis and Crescent Lagoon was the school I started off with,” she said.
“It’s still going today.”
Every Friday Ms Hatfield goes to teach, and it is here that granddaughter Leilani now works as a teacher’s aide.
Asked how she felt after 20 years of work to hear Leilani speak Darumbal …
“I just feel so proud,” Ms Hatfield said, tears in her eyes.