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The Language Man

Sunday April 13 2008

Summary:

John Bradley was in his early 20s when as a new teacher he was sent to the remote aboriginal
community of Borroloola in the Northern Territory. For most of his adult life he has been working
with the Yanyuwa, documenting their language and culture, and is now a fluent speaker himself ... one
of the last. Our journey is an unusual look at indigenous culture - through words and meanings -
and a record of change within one man. The untimely death of Dr Bradley's son uncovered a deep
spiritual bond with the Yanyuwa that surprised even himself.

Story:

Hello and welcome tonight to the story of an extraordinary relationship between a man and a people.
John Bradley is an anthropologist and a distinguished linguist at Victoria's Monash University.
He's also fluent in an aboriginal language that only a small handful of people can now speak.
Tonight's story is an unusual look at the deep connection between language, culture and
spirituality ... one that through tragic circumstances has taken John Bradley himself, to another
level of experience

John Voiceover

My young son was killed last year. He died most unexpectedly and tragically

Many of the people here knew him. They know all my family. So it was decided that some of his
possessions, should be brought back to this country and placed in this country, because that's the
rules for this country. That's the law for Yanyuwa country. Is that when people die, the Jungi or
the guardians for that individual, they take the possessions of the deceased person back to their
own country And so that's why this is also to take those immediate belongings belonging to my son
to what we call his Nabaji country or the country of his father's mother.

Narrator

It's a long journey to the heart of another culture ...

John Bradley has travelled this road countless times over the past three decades.

It will take him to a remote corner of northern Australia.

He first came as a teacher but soon became

the student ... He came with no ties, but would eventually forge a bond so strong it would change his
life.

Nancy

This man here he came here when he was young, a school teacher didn't know nothing then. He bin
taught from the old people. Them old people, he was their adopted son,.

Annie

John Bradley. Before long time years ago he used to be with us everywhere. He was a bit younger, no
grey on head.

Steve

You've got to blend in with the land to learn the language. And John was lucky enough to come up
here when the old people was around and he moved around with them and you know he learned
everything

Narrator

John Bradley first came to the remote community of Borroloola (in the Northern Territory) in 1980.

A farmer's son from Victoria he studied to be a school teacher. But when he graduated there were no
jobs in his home state.

Instead he was offered a posting in the Northern Territory.

John

I had a telephone call where I was told I could go to Nudgimano, Beswick or Borroloola. I said what
about Borroloola. And he said, hell I don't know it's somewhere near the sea. So I thought well the
sea's good and that's why I arrived here.

Narrator

Borrolloola in fact lies 80 kilometres from the sea - inland from the Gulf of Carpentaria.

To get here it's a 1000 km road trip south-east from Darwin.

This remote town is home to the Yanyuwa - 'saltwater' people who traditionally lived from the sea
and its bounty.

John

I've always been interested in languages. And the way I thought about it at the time was that it is
no different than if you arrived in Spain, then you would learn Spanish. If you arrived in Germany
you would learn German. So you arrive in Yanyuwa country it seemed to me to make sense that maybe
you should try and learn Yanyuwa.

Annie

What's happening here? We're just staying. But that tyre is flat.

John

The nail speared the foot of the car, the nail that belongs to this country of Wardawardala.

Jemima

You must have picked it up over there on the west side of the road.

Narrator

The women want to go turtle hunting ... It's become something of a ritual every time John visits. It
was on such occasions in the past that John first started picking up the language.

Annie

He used to learn anyway he used to stare at us sitting there, all night they listening, what we
talking about, and that's the way he learned. He catched up quick. So you can be like that, like
him.

Narrator

These women are amongst the last to have been brought up in the old ways - a traditional way of
life that's fast disappearing along with their language...

When John Bradley first came here almost 30 years ago there were 200 speakers of Yanyuwa. Today
there are around ten, including John.

John

(in Yanyuwa) This is Mambaliya country isn't it?

Women

Yes, in the east, it is Waylia country all the way. Mambaliya country all through here. And this is
Naninja lagoon coming up. And in the north is where the crow and the chicken hawk fought.

Narrator

Yanyuwa is a difficult language: one of the few in the world to have male and female dialects. John
learnt the hard way.

John

There was a Yanyuwa woman living in Darwin. I was talking to her one day. I was talking and she was
looking at me. I was talking and she became a bit more disturbed, and she looked at me and she just
said: look I didn't know you had a vagina. And that's basically the way, you're a man. Don't talk
like a woman. If you're going to learn this language speak properly.

Narrator

Yanyuwa, like all Indigenous languages, provides a unique view of this land, its plants and
animals; its People and their culture.

Now there's a deep and abiding sadness amongst these last surviving speakers ...

John Bradley - the man who came to them as a boy - is now their one hope for keeping their language
alive.

But today John's organising the turtle hunt.

Jemima

He'll come and pick you up

John

I'll come back and get you.

Narrator

John arrived in Borroloola to teach, but once in the world of the Yanyuwa, it was he who became the
pupil.

John Voiceover

I started coming out with people every weekend, school holidays this is what we did. Camped in the
bush, and the women went off hunting for goannas and long necked turtles and blue tongues and
sometimes I'd go with them and sometimes I'd go down to the sea for dugong and sea turtle.

John Voiceover

You're just dealing with an understanding of people in place, people in a country like this country
here, for Yanyuwa people.

John

What are you finding?

Is it a big or a small turtle

Amy

You can tell by the way the dirt is here.

John Voiceover

And it just isn't a place where you go hunting and get food. It's a place where people are related
to that country through their ancestors.

Amy

Long-necked turtle. This is the food from the old times, the old days. This one now, we used to eat
a long time ago, our fathers and mothers showed us, they used to eat it too.

John Voiceover

People are also related because the birds and the animals and the trees and the plants also have
Law. That they're also relations - and they're kinship.

John

It was the understanding of kinship expressed in country that was really important and I really
came to get fascinated by and Yanyuwa reflects that really strongly this notion of kinship to
people but also kinship to the country and the kinship to all the things that are in that country
and, yes, I think that really is what started to fascinate me. And began to understand that
especially when I was put within a family and had a point from which I could then understand
kinship

Steve

They give him a kin name. And I mean he is my grandson. And it sort of started off like that. They
took him as one of their own. So he joined the group.

Nancy

He's a really good bloke, he's our son now. Like he's my son. He calls me mum.

John Voiceover

When Nona my wife came here for the first time she was immediately family, she was my wife. So
immediately everybody had a relationship to her. The same as my children, the same as my mother, my
father, my sister, my nephews, my brother-in-law. They all are immediately fitted within the
family.

Narrator

It's a kinship bond that cuts deep. John was to realise how deep a year ago when his 12-year old
son, Asher, died in a boating accident near home. Asher was well known to the Yanyuwa.

John Voiceover

Not long after Asher had died I had a dream of Jemima's husband who was a very important man to me,
my gaddadia, my uncle who came to me in a dream and Asher was with him. And he said in this dream,
you know everything is alright you know. He's with me. He's standing with me and everything is
going to be alright. This is my grandson. So I'm standing with him, I'm telling you that I'm
looking after him safely

Narrator

It's the day after the big turtle hunt and everyone is happy if a little tired. John has invited
his 'aunties' over for tea. Jemima. Rosie. Annie. Dinah. These women are the Brains Trust in this
country ... friends, family and collaborators in John's work.

John Voiceover

When I came here when I was young, there were a lot of old women and men still alive. Like, these
people here were young women. So language was everyday, people spoke language. That's what they
did. There was no language, and everybody spoke language. But at that time the school, it didn't
want language in the school, so the kids would come to school and there was no culture, no language
coming into the school. It was not allowed, and I got into trouble myself because I used to speak
to the kids in language and the kids used to give me words.

They taught the kids well but they would not let any culture or any language in that school. So
they made the kids shamed for speaking language and things like that. And then in the 1980s so many
old people died so quickly.

John

This is the cemetery at Borroloola and this area over here are all unmarked graves. A lot of the
old people are buried there. Many, many old people that I knew when I first came here. This place
is full of the memories of the old people who we all remember that lived here years ago who were
strong in Law and strong in Language. Language is now spoken by the old people, people like Dinah
and Jemima and Annie. They're the people who are now holding the language, only a few left.

Narrator

The young teacher realised something had to be done or the language would die. He began recording
the speech, songs and stories of the Yanyuwa.

John

So, these ladies here have been working really hard to try and document as much as they can so that
their grandchildren, if they want to know, it's there, they can try and learn from it.

Narrator

The dictionary also includes stories ... recent events that have become part of Yanyuwa history ... and
creation stories that dictate Yanyuwa laws.

John

And after they were taped we would sit down and write them in Yanyuwa and then I'd go away and
translated them from Yanyuwa into English and make sure that the English represented as closely as
possible.

Narrator

This precious record of Yanyuwa language and culture would soon have another important role to
play. The stories were used as evidence in court for the Yanyuwa peoples' successful Land Rights
claims in the 1990s.

John

What was that story about? That was Annie's mother's country story about the white bellied sea
eagle on north island.

So what Annie's saying is that she gave those stories as evidence in the land claims to get the
country back. Same as everyone here, you have to tell those dreaming stories in the land claim
court to the lawyers and the judge.

And I would say the dictionary is important, but I don't think at the moment it's the most
important thing. I think the most important thing is developing tools, developing aids that stress
the nation of relationships, of peoples relationship to each other, of peoples relationship to
their country. And so probably the most important tool that's come out of that is the atlas that
was released in 2003 which has been called Forget about Flinders. That's probably one of the most
important works which is constantly being built upon.

Narrator

John's wife, Nona Cameron illustrated the Atlas. It maps the Yanyuwa's stories geographically -
pinpointing significant landmarks and sacred sites, with photographs and pictures.

Narrator

Yanyuwa country extends to the islands in the Gulf. Steve Johnston lives on Vanderlin island,
several hours from Borroloola. Steve is one of the last senior Yanyuwa law men and a mentor to
John.

John

Old Steve has lived on Vanderlin island nearly all his life. His mother was a Yanyuwa woman. His
father was a white Australian fellow who was shipwrecked on the island.

Steve

He was given numbers to put on it (the surveyor peg).

John

So what is it, the latitude and longitude?

Steve

That's the latitude and longitude of where the post is.

John Voiceover

Well he has a fascination with the history of those islands, his home. He also has a profound love
of his mother country, of the Yanyuwa sense of those islands. Of Yanyuwa as a language, of the
networks of relationships that are embedded in that country in the Yanyuwa sense.

Narrator

John is singing to country. Song lines - or "kujika" in Yanyuwa. These song-lines criss-cross the
land in a web of stories - linking landforms with people with animals with the ancestral beings who
first entered and named the country.

Steve

The song line was a .... What would you put it down as, Gugu Oh yes, it's like a map, you know, and
it's how the land was created by the old people. That's about the nearest I can get to it. And it's
a thing they've got to follow as a line and something to work on. It was their Law.

It's like the Bible. It kept everybody in their place. In the old days you couldn't do this,
couldn't do that, the rainbow will get you and all this sort of stuff. Everybody had that in their
mind when they were on water or wherever, you know.

It doesn't mean much to the younger generation because they haven't continued it on. But in the old
days it was the way of living.

Narrator

It's a sad fact that Yanyuwa children, even adults, have little knowledge of song-lines.

John Voiceover

And you sense in the younger kids, they want to know, they want to know something. They're not sure
what they want to know but they know there's something bigger in this community that they weren't a
part of because they're too young to know about it. And maybe the song line stuff is the entry,
because that talks about this song is for your country, this song speaks of your relationship to
all your family and your extended family.

Nancy

Well, it was passed from a long time before I was born and before my father was born and it's been
passed on from generation to generation. That's why we like kids to learn it, kujika very well now.

John

And that's the big challenge. How in this day and age do you create devices by which young people
might be interested in what the old people had. And so this has led me in the last two years to
story board 400 kilometres of song lines.

Narrator

John has helped produce a series of animated song-lines which he intends to make available on-line
to [the] Yanyuwa youth.

John Voiceover

You know this is radical intervention of another kind. To try and say culture is worth something,
law is worth something. And we'll see if it works.

Narrator

Black Rock Landing, in the heart of Yanyuwa country, 30 km downstream from Borroloola. John has
come here to begin ... the final leg of his journey.

It's time to farewell his son Asher... in the Yanyuwa way.

John

What we're doing today is we're taking some possessions that belong to my own son. And we're going
to take them out to the islands to a sacred place, so there'll be no filming because that's the Law
for this country. And my son's family are from New Zealand, so we're just going to put this with my
son's things too as a symbol of his relationship to new Zealand. Just for his mother's family's
memory.

Narrator

The sacred burial place lies on an island one hour downstream ... It's John's responsibility to
prepare the way ... by calling to the Yanyuwa spirits.

John VoiceoverSo you address the unseen people that are in that country, the spirits of the dead
who dwelled there. And the spirits of past relatives of all the Yanyuwa people Saying things like
I'm the guardian for this country. I've been given the law for doing this by old men who are now
dead. With me stand people who are the traditional owners of this country. They carry with them
objects that belong to dead people. We're going to place these objects in this country. Don't be
ignorant towards us, don't hurt us, don't harm us.

John

Cut ...finish

Narrator

John insists on no further filming on the island nor of the ceremony for his son, so these images
are of other places in Yanyuwa country.

John

This is a very powerful place with powerful rules and those rules have to be respected. The islands
are often called strong country. Strong country because that's where the spirits of the dead people
are living. Now scattered all over those islands are the human remains of many, many generations of
Yanyuwa people. Both as bone bundles wrapped in paper bark, as burials in log coffins, highly
decorated that have been through ceremony and wherever those objects are the country itself is
incredibly sacred.

Narrator

John placed his son's possession's in a sacred cave ... fulfilling his kinship responsibilities as a
Yanyuwa father and a guardian of this land.

John Voiceover

This notion of the sacred is really an important issue I think. Now Yanyuwa people have a very
strong idea of what is sacred and the force of the sacred. There's no separation at one level for
Yanyuwa people between secular and sacred.

Song cycles, song lines for me represent a missed opportunity for Australians to understand the
core of Australia's sacred. If they could only reach out and understand that these invisible
threads of connection are moving through land even as we speak which create a sense of the sacred.
And I mean something that is seriously understood.

John

Yanyuwa language, who knows what the future holds. Tradition is a mighty powerful thing. We've seen
it the world over where we think something's finished and it will rise up and grab people again.
Three generations down the track people may say we want to reclaim it. And I suppose the best I can
do is to provide a core body of data that they can reach to in the richest sense possible.