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Miriwoong Waniwoogeng! Language is the Only Way to Understand Our Ancient Culture

Only a handful of frail elders speak our language. Our youth can save it, but the language can also save our youth and reconnect them with their heritage.

Woorlab ngelemendayin-narri Miriwoo-biny. Gelengoowa ngoowa yawoorroong woorla-woorlab berranben Miriwoo-biny.

Gooloo-gooloob yirrandayin woorlab yirranken-nging Miriwoo-biny. Yawoorroonga woorrb yarrenkoo woonjoo-woonjoob-gerring yoowoorriyang woorlang Miriwoong.

Woorlab yarrenkoo Miriwoong waniwoogeng!

(I am speaking to you in Miriwoong. Nowadays not many people speak Miriwoong.

We are happy when we are speaking Miriwoong. Let’s all unite and look after our language together. Let’s all speak Miriwoong forever!)

The words above are written in a language that you’ve most likely never heard before. That language is Miriwoong. It’s my mother tongue and has been spoken by my ancestors for thousands of years and, we hope, it will keep being spoken for thousands more too.

Miriwoong country is located in the East Kimberley of Western Australia and stretches across to the Keep River national park in the Northern Territory. It follows the mighty Ord river, which flows from the enormous human-made Lake Argyle (which, after its damming, buried much of our country under millions of litres of water) to the remote township of Kununurra and onwards out to the coast.


Miriwoong was once a vibrant language, spoken widely and lived especially through our Dreamtime stories and songlines. Traditionally our elders used language to teach us our lore, cultural traditions and practices, and how to look after country. Hence the knowledge, philosophies and wisdoms of our ancient culture can only be truly explained and understood through the language that was used for thousands of years to teach them.

Tragically though, our language is now considered to be critically endangered: only a handful of fluent speakers remain, all of whom are elderly and are becoming increasingly frail.

In the late 1960s Miriwoong people and many others from neighbouring language groups were forcibly resettled into the newly built town of Kununurra, after equal-pay laws meant cattle station owners could no longer afford to “employ” entire families of Aboriginal people by paying them in tea, flour, sugar and tobacco. The Indigenous people who lived and worked on those stations endured horrific treatment and were deprived of real wages, yet it’s important to note that during those times they were still rich in culture, country and language. It’s when our mob moved to Kununurra that elders identify as the time “trouble began”.

The transition from life on the stations to life in town contributed immensely to the problems that still constrain Miriwoong and many other Indigenous people’s advancement today. The dominance of English and the western lifestyle in Kununurra led to an sharp decline of traditional practices, and Indigenous languages were actively discouraged.

The move has been described as like “living in a waiting room, worrying for country”, and there was little to no assistance to help Indigenous people transition into town life. There weren’t many jobs created to replace the work Aboriginal people had done on the stations. Instead “sitting money”, or welfare, was introduced. Alcohol and drugs, which were not allowed on the stations, further contributed to the decline of traditional practices and fuelled social problems such as domestic violence and mental illness.

As these problems began emerging in the early 70s, our elders quickly realised that the Miriwoong language, culture and values were severely threatened and sought to establish a centre where these could be documented and preserved for future generations. This led to the establishment of Mirima Dawang Woorlab-gerring Language and Culture Centre (MDWg), which translates to “Mirima place for talking”.

I’ve been trying to highlight the importance of Australia’s first languages and share the efforts being made to save them. I’m a Miriwoong woman: an author, teacher, qualified interpreter, mother and grandmother. I first begun working with MDWg as a language worker in 1998.

At MDWg, we have established successful and innovative programs based on internationally renowned learning models for endangered languages. These programs emphasise intergenerational learning so that the knowledge of elders is effectively transferred down to our youngest generations. Our most successful program, the Miriwoong Language Nest, was based on a model developed by the M?ori people in New Zealand and uses simple song, talk and play to immerse children in the language. This program is one of the first to operate for Indigenous languages in Australia, growing from a small pilot in 2013 to now be regularly teaching Miriwoong to more than 300 children a week – both Indigenous and non-Indigenous.

Mirima Dawang Woorlab-gerring Language and Culture Centre is just one example of many organisations and groups of people around the country working tirelessly to preserve, revitalise and revive our nation’s first languages.

Owing to the monolingual nature of Australia, many people are simply unaware of the importance of these languages. Yet language plays a critical role in the development of an individual’s sense of identity, of belonging to a certain place or community and forming a connection with a particular culture. And the loss of language and culture has had profound and long-lasting effects for both Miriwoong communities and individuals; contributing significantly to the intergenerational trauma and hardships suffered since colonisation. It is particularly damaging to children who, in their early years, are developing the foundations of their sense of self and self-esteem.

Our elders strongly believe that one of the most effective ways of addressing the vast social challenges facing our community is to learn our mother tongue, so that our people will be able to reconnect with their heritage and foster greater pride and respect in themselves and in their culture. Research strongly supports this. A growing body of studies have shown that a stronger connection with culture and the ability to speak your mother tongue are associated with:

  • Markedly better physical and mental health.
  • Higher levels of attending and completing school, and individuals are more likely to gain a post-school qualification.
  • Higher rates of employment.
  • Lower rates of incarceration.
  • Lower rates of alcohol and illicit substance abuse.

One study in particular found that among Indigenous communities in Canada where traditional language use was still strong the youth suicide rate was significantly lower than communities with little to no knowledge of language. Tragically, the growing rate of Indigenous youth suicide is a major crisis in the Kimberley and it is findings such as these that demonstrate how Indigenous languages, as a marker of cultural continuity, are a strong predictor of health and wellbeing.

The revitalisation of the Miriwoong language will help reconnect our mob with our traditional culture, heritage and knowledge, ensuring that they can continue to be learned and practised for generations to come. Conversely, if the Miriwoong language is lost completely, it would only reinforce the current cycle of degradation and hopelessness that has engulfed far too many people in our communities.

And with the disturbing trend of Indigenous youth suicide becoming almost commonplace now, language revitalisation will play an important role in creating a cultural life that young people judge to be worth living.

Learn some Miriwoong words and phrases

Garni woora-ngoong / how are you?

Ngoondengi-tha-ngany / I am good

Ngiyi / yes

Ngoowag / no

Dawang / home/country

Gawooleng / woman/female

Jawaleng / man/male

Joolang / dog

Nalijang / tea

For pronunciation of these and other words, you can find a Miriwoong dictionary app that is free to download here.


This article originally appears at:
Article taken from the following publication:
The Guardian
Article submitted by:
Glennis Galbat-Newry

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