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At the time of European colonisation in 1788, there were some 250 known Indigenous languages across the country. Now only about 20 are spoken comprehensively. Language is intrinsically linked to Indigenous peoples’ way of life, culture and identities. Language brings meaning to cultural heritage and articulates the intricate relationships between Indigenous peoples and their connection to their land and community.
Through the ongoing support of the Library’s Indigenous collections, Rio Tinto Australia has enabled the Library to embark on an ambitious project Rediscovering Indigenous Languages. This initiative shares the Library’s extraordinary archival collection of Indigenous wordlists and vocabularies collected by from the late 1700s to the mid to the mid-1900s.
These records are often the only recorded history of Indigenous languages and were sourced from the Library’s original material including manuscripts, rare printed collections containing vocabularies embedded in historical documents, letters, manuscripts, diaries or journals and included regional languages of NSW, Queensland, Victoria and Tasmania.
The Rio Tinto initiative
Rio Tinto has long been focussed on supporting Indigenous initiatives and had already poured considerable resources into a number of Aboriginal educational projects with the State Library of NSW.
The project to digitise and create a vibrant, growing resource for all Indigenous languages was another important step in their work.
With the systematic recording and digitisation of this material, the completed project has facilitated widespread access to the nation’s significant cultural heritage whilst building a strong and sustainable Indigenous language environment. This specialised website provides a better understanding of our nation’s rich cultural landscape and amalgamates previously dispersed and disparate information allowing community critique and discussion. This important historical record is also an effective educational resource.
An important and ongoing component of this reclamation project has been extensive community collaboration with Indigenous groups to share knowledge and skills to interpret and translate the material.
Over 200 items from around 100 diverse languages were unearthed during the project with over 8,500 pages now linked to the website.
As more items are discovered, they will be added to this dynamic project. In 2008 the Indigenous Languages collection was singled out for national recognition when it won an Australian Business Arts Foundation NSW Marsh Partnering Award.
In 2014, as part of Sydney Corroboree Festival, a recognition event was held to mark the completion of the project and to launch the Rediscovering Indigenous Languages website. Featuring art from award winning Yuwaalaraay artist Lucy Simpson, the website includes a searchable map for finding material from across Australia. It makes accessible all the wordlists and vocabulary discovered during the project. It's an organic and evolving website meaning that new words and lexicons can keep being added by community groups.
This project would not have happened without the critical support of Rio Tinto who share the Library's passion for recognising Indigenous culture.