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Reclaiming and reviving Aboriginal Languages in South-Western Victoria

Heywood and District Secondary College students study baskets used for trapping eels, at the Tyrendarra Indigenous Protected Area

Heywood and District Secondary College students study baskets used for trapping eels, at the Tyrendarra Indigenous Protected Area.

The Aboriginal Languages program at Heywood and District Secondary College (one of several in Victoria) has grown from a trial program to an established curriculum for Years 7 and 8 in less than four years. In partnership with the Winda-Mara Aboriginal Corporation and Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation, and with strong support from the Victorian Aboriginal Education Association Inc (VAEAI) and Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages (VACL), the school has delivered a Language program that is now in a consolidation phase and has led to other opportunities to improve the knowledge of, and connection to, Gunditjmara dialects in the district. One of the latest has been student involvement in the creation of digital books as part of the Gunditjmara Digital Language Resources program. Students from the area participated in workshops to develop their stories, and their voices were recorded as part of the narration.

Around 12 per cent of students at the school identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. The opportunity to start the Language program came in 2012. The school's program coordinator Steph Tashkoff explained: 'The school had the opportunity, when the French teacher resigned, to review its curriculum. Local Aboriginal history had already been taught for decades in the school. A local book, Gunditjmara Country, has been a resource at the school, and includes history and geology.'

Completing a Masters in Literacy Leadership at the time, Steph was interested in how to improve literacy in Aboriginal English, and the switching between different dialects that occurs. 'We put together a proposal on how to encourage Koorie students to participate in education, and how they can be recognised. The school has a responsibility to encourage the best educational opportunities for all students.'

For the school's principal, Glenn Kane, the biggest challenge was funding. 'To do it properly, you have to have a local Gunditjmara person on staff − that was made clear − and to be sustainable, you can't rely on volunteers.' Seed funding was auspiced through Winda-Mara, and the VCAA provided funding for the pilot program, which was extensive and comprehensively planned. At that stage, the most important aspect was consulting with local communities. Steph explained: 'We set up meetings with stakeholders from VCAA, VAEAI, VACL, the local Aboriginal communities, local KESOs (Koorie Engagement Support Officers), Winda-Mara and Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation.' Glenn agreed that 'traditional owners were pivotal to establishing the program. As keepers of the Culture, they have natural links that made it easier for the school and local community to work together.' For Winda-Mara CEO Michael Bell, 'It was essential to work with the traditional owners of the land. Doing this groundwork helped with the implementation of the program.'

Damein Bell, CEO of Gunditj Mirring, was part of the initial stakeholder meeting: 'When the proposal was put to our Full Group, which meets monthly, we agreed that it was important for our Language to survive. Compared to other Language districts, there were not many Gunditjmara and for the Language to stay alive, we needed to make sure young people, both Gunditjmara and non-Gunditjmara, would be able to learn it. They will keep it with them as they grow older. The digital books are part of recording and sharing the Language.'

Year 7 students with their body-parts Language project

Year 7 students with their body-parts Language project.

Currently, Steph, a Humanities and English teacher, conducts the class in partnership with Di Bell, a KESO who also works with preschool and primary school students in the area. The curriculum builds on their knowledge of local history and geology, and includes local Culture. In Year 7 the curriculum sets up a foundation of Aboriginal history, family and kinship (basic greetings, Aboriginal words in English), body parts and counting, and Language in the context of Aboriginal people and the environment. The Year 8 curriculum builds on this knowledge, with a focus on eels and their significance to local Aboriginal people as a food source and for trade, the seasons and astronomy, and Aboriginal art and stories in the context of the local environs.

According to Glenn Kane, one of the biggest highlights has been the emerging engagement in schools from the Indigenous community. 'Local Gunditjmara people have seen we are genuine about Aboriginal Languages. The Language program is not an add-on or one-off, it's embedded in the curriculum. The benefits to students in the school include 'a sense of acceptance. They know we value the culture and we value them as well.'

Principal Glenn Kane joins in with students cooking wattle-seed damper

Principal Glenn Kane joins in with students cooking wattle-seed damper.

The value of the program is greater than educational. 'We are still consolidating Languages that have been hidden for so long. Every lesson we discover new Language. It's an ongoing linguistic project in many ways. The students, and hence the community, become a repository for lost languages,' said Steph. Students have participated in Language workshops with primary schools in the area, which has provided the opportunity to build leadership skills. Informal surveys of students within the school suggest that the program has contributed towards the building of a sense of community between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students.

Both Koorie and non-Koorie students from HDSC presented at the Glenelg Shire Reconciliation event during National Reconciliation Week in 2014. 'It was very well received by the local community and demonstrated what youth and kids can give to adults − the flowing up of knowledge, as a result of education, is a great outcome for local Aboriginal people,' explained Michael Bell.

The school is working towards a project, What's My Story, Where I Belong. Aboriginal students from schools in the area will spend time with Elders from their clans. The aim is to help Aboriginal students connect with their lineage through Language and by visiting significant sites in the area. 'We get comments from the kids about how they feel culturally safe, but they are not fully connected to their lineage,' said Glenn Kane.

According to Michael Bell, a program like this will build confidence and resilience in students. 'It's not just in their traditional connection to the land, but also in learning the story of their family. It's a way to acknowledge the history of Australia.'

For more information about the Gunditjmara Digital Language Resources program, visit the VACL and VAEAI websites.

– Victoria Harrison

Primary students from throughout Glenelg Shire enjoy Language workshops with HDSC students

Primary students from throughout Glenelg Shire enjoy Language workshops with HDSC students.


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