Butchulla language revival in Queensland

Students performing

Butchulla dabba yawar-warray music students performing

Source: Butchulla Language Program

December 2010

The story of the revival of the Queensland Fraser Coast-based Butchulla language is a remarkable one—from barely a handful of speakers to the recent call for the renaming of Fraser Island to its traditional name ‘K'gari’, meaning paradise in Butchulla.

The dramatic rise in speakers of the language—estimated to now be well over 200 people—can be attributed to innovative work of the Butchulla Language Program. As part of the program language is taught as part of everyday life in households, it is also used in naming ceremonies and is published weekly in the local paper. An award-winning media campaign also helped to increase public awareness of the need to preserve the language. The Butchulla Language Program is funded by the Australian Government Maintenance of Indigenous Languages and Records (MILR)* program.

Joyce Bonner, Coordinator and co-founder of the program with the Butchulla Elders discusses how it all began.

Why did you start the project?

I commenced the project as I was doing studies about Australian Indigenous Languages in 1999. It was from this I had community people black and white asking could their children learn the Butchulla language as part of the LOTE program in the schools. As it was not part of the Queensland Education curriculum we were not able to initiate the language learning. Following this I met and consulted with the Butchulla Elders and we decided to teach it as a community project within Korrawinga.

Prior to the project, was Butchulla spoken as part of in everyday life in households?

Students performing

Butchulla dabba yawar-warray music students performing

Source: Butchulla Language Program

Since the language has become part of the community's spirit where interviews with the Elders were being recorded and documented and maintained to revive our Butchulla language to teach our ghundus (children) their identity through language revival. The Butchulla language is being taught as part of their everyday life, in households, in naming ceremonies, in projects where community are consulting with the Butchulla Elders and Korrawinga Aboriginal Corporation by promoting our language and by following protocols when naming is adhered to for language preservation.

Who were the key community members speaking Butchulla?

The key members in our community would be the Butchulla Elders who are the knowledge holders. It is now our young ghundus and youth who are leading the way and portraying the language with pride and dignity.By performing in public it is giving them acknowledgement and self esteem and mainstream educators can tell them it is wrong because they have been taught by the proper members within out Butchulla language system.

Was knowledge of the language limited to a small number of elders? Or did middle-aged members of the community still practice the language?

Due to our Butchulla Elders who were passing on, it came to my attention that our language needed to be maintained and revived for our future generations. This is where only a small handful of Elders who still knew some of the language, so we recorded and documented all information in a data base to commence classes to revive our Butchulla language. Some of our middle-aged community members have given Butchulla names to their new born by promoting the meaning. Greetings are used everyday within public speaking and responded in language by our students. Documents that were sought through internal research proved another way of retrieving and consulting with Butchulla Elders to verify information which is being taught through language learning from prep to secondary, University of Southern Queensland  international students (Butchulla on Country) who are obtaining there degree, local university and TAFE students, adults and community people who have shown an interest.

Strong Black Yabon

Strong Black Yabon

Source: Butchulla Language Program

What do you think are the key factors that have led to the project’s success?

I believe the most common factor would be because it is community owned and community driven. Respect for ownership and culturally driven and taught by grass roots people who care about the identity which most schools lack.Our Butchulla Elders are part of the consultation processes and are involved with the planning and evaluation performances.

The Korrawinga Aboriginal Corporation has received MILR program funding over a number of years. In 2010-11 the Butchulla Language Program will receive $109,000 to continue to build awareness of the language, with a strong focus on young people.

For more information on the Korrawinga Aboriginal Corporation and Butchulla Language Program visit Korrawinga Aboriginal Corporation, State Library of Queensland.

(*MILR is now known as Indigenous Languages Support)