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Going where the lingo is...

“We feel incredibly lucky to be able to work with communities and Elders on their languages. We want to do this right, and that means leaving Macquarie Street and going where the lingo is.”

— Damien Webb, Manager of Indigenous Engagement at the State Library of NSW


Two men and two women representing the Indigenous Engagement Branch smiling and standing in front of green plants.Our Indigenous Engagement team are midway through a three-week journey across NSW to meet with Aboriginal language speakers, experts and Elders. 

The United Nations General Assembly has declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages at an absolutely critical point in time. In Australia, roughly 90% of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages still spoken today are considered endangered. 

Language is at the core of how we remember, express and sustain our cultures and identities. It has a central role in helping us form and nurture bonds with others. Language also helps us process our histories and imagine our futures.

It’s these critical and complex relationships that centre around languages that the branch hopes to learn more about on their trip. They’ll be meeting with Aboriginal language speakers, singers, experts and Elders, to listen deeply and to learn.

Here’s what Damien Webb, Manager of Indigenous Engagement at the Library, had to say about their plans and aspirations for this year.  

The Indigenous Engagement branch are about to head off on a road trip, what can you tell us about it?

We have been busy working on a new major exhibition for the International Year of Indigenous Languages! So, for the next three weeks we will be travelling to different parts of NSW, facilitating workshops and asking communities to share their stories about language.

We hope to learn about how the many language groups in NSW want to tell their stories. We’ll also be exploring different ways the Library can actively support and sustain communities with their local language and culture programs.

Woman standing on country.

It’s a really exciting time for us! We’re thrilled to be co-curating with Aboriginal communities to build something that showcases the incredible diversity and strength of our Aboriginal languages. We’ll be visiting old friends, as well as making new ones; building two-way relationships that will continue long after the exhibition through several key new projects.

What have you been most looking forward to?

We feel incredibly lucky to be able to work with communities and Elders on their languages. We want to do this right, and that means leaving Macquarie Street and going where the lingo is.

For many of us, Aboriginal languages are inexorably bound to our Country, to our identity, and to our ancient culture. It’s only through experiencing those connections ourselves that we can hope to do the stories of NSW Aboriginal languages justice

While the exhibition is in the front of all of our minds, we are also thinking big! We’re speaking to communities about digital keeping places, Indigenous copyright, digital repatriation, training and new technology – all to help guide the Indigenous Engagement Branch over the coming months and years.

What have been the highlights from your trip so far? 

Getting to see more of NSW and being shown Country by Elders who have shared their language with us has been a wonderful experience. Some of the highlights so far include standing at the lookout in Nambucca Heads and having Micklo Jarrett talk us through Gumbaynggirr stories of the gaagal (sea), being shown the Warrumbungle National Park and 12,000-year-old rock carvings in the Pilliga National Park by Aunty Maureen Sulter (pictured bottom right), as well as learning about the Anaiwan language revival in Armidale with Callum Clayton-Dixon. 

You mentioned earlier that your branch has been busy working on a new major exhibition for the International Year of Indigenous Languages. What can we expect?

There will be a couple of pretty big international loans, including incredibly important wordlists which are coming back to Country for the exhibition – one of them for the first time since it was written. We’ll also be hosting events and workshops to coincide with the exhibition!

Is there any way for people to keep up-to-date with your plans for this year?

All the major updates and events will come through the State Library Facebook, and the exhibition will be going live in time for NAIDOC 2019. In the mean-time you can check out some of our other language projects online: Muru View, My weekend with Pop, Indigenous Language Research guide, and Rediscovering Indigenous Languages.

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