Language rescue

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90 per cent of Australia’s Indigenous languages are endangered. Philanthropy ensures Professor Lynette Russell AM and Associate Professor John Bradley can change this.

A project by Monash University and Australian Indigenous communities that is addressing the loss of Indigenous languages through 3D animations, has been made possible, and indeed sustained, by the long-term philanthropic support of the Alan and Elizabeth Finkel Foundation.

Wunungu Awara: Animating Indigenous Knowledges uses innovative 3D animation to bring alive stories, poems and songs from communities across Australia, to preserve stories and language, and their cultural and environmental context. To date, it’s produced 23 high-quality animations, with five more in production, for more than a dozen communities across Australia.

Before European settlement, 265 separate Indigenous languages were spoken across Australia; now 90 per cent are considered endangered. The project is animating languages that in some cases haven’t been spoken in 80 or 90 years.

The project is run out of the Monash Indigenous Studies Centre in the Faculty of Arts by Director, Associate Professor John Bradley, Brent McKee, Director Animation, and Fred Leone, Project Manager and award-winning Indigenous performer known to communities across the country.

According to Professor Lynette Russell AM, Director of the Monash Indigenous Studies Centre, the project has inspired people in Indigenous communities to re-engage with languages, and share their culture.

“We know that whenever you bring a language back into the country, you increase the sense of identity and even the sense of wellbeing,” Associate Professor Bradley said.

“Language plays a vital role in the practice, re-engagement and revitalisation of cultural knowledge and values,” Fred Leone said. “These aspects are extremely important in underpinning Indigenous spirituality.”

The stunning animations are precisely made with “country looking like country”, depicted as it’s known to the people involved, and with Indigenous people represented in a culturally appropriate way. The intellectual property belongs to the community groups.

The project has been instrumental in generating extensive cross-generational learning and assisting communities in healing trans-generational trauma. The animations empower children to reclaim language and cultural knowledge; they provide Indigenous rangers with communications tools to speak to communities about cultural maintenance and renewal; they allow communities to recast their past ways of life and material culture; and they reveal the original landscape and story of the areas they cover through the Wunungu Awara animations. Two of the recent animations, about the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape in Western Victoria and Fraser Island in Queensland, even bring to life World Heritage Sites.

Thanks to this successful partnership approach, the Wunungu Awara team has seen increasing demand for animations from communities and academic partners alike.

The Alan and Elizabeth Finkel Foundation was instrumental in helping progress the project, formerly the Monash Country Lines Archive, in its early stages from 2011, and to nurture and expand its reach across Australia.

Supporting PhD students

The project’s expanded scope also supports the 3.5-year research tenure of three PhD students, including Vincent Dodd and Nathan Bird, whose work aims to raise knowledge of Indigenous languages as a living archive and as part of modern music culture, respectively.

More information

To find out more about supporting vital Indigenous research, programs and scholarships, contact Gillian Dodgin at gillian.dodgin@monash.edu.

Words: Clarisa Collis