Academic journal article Oceania

Palawa Kani and the Value of Language in Aboriginal Tasmania

Academic journal article Oceania

Palawa Kani and the Value of Language in Aboriginal Tasmania

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

This article examines the cultural meanings of palawa kani, or 'Tassie Blackfella Talk,' the recently created Tasmanian Aboriginal language. My argument emerges out of close to two years of fieldwork during 2010 and 2011, focusing on the re-articulation of Tasmanian Aboriginal culture following their perceived 1876 extinction. Work in the Indigenous Cultures Department of Hobart's Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, including a 2008 internship and as a volunteer in 2010 and 2011, complemented extensive conversations, informal interviews, and trips to the bush with Aboriginal community members, particularly artists and 'culture workers.' These were people working directly on cultural revival through school programs, commonwealth-funded projects, and individual initiative. Together we attended protest rallies, collected shells, went on camping trips, and visited Bass Strait Islands and other culturally important sites. These experiences are part and parcel of the living contemporary Tasmanian Aboriginal culture yet never divorced from cultural politics; they reflect the delicate relationships between past and present representations and understandings of indigeneity. The histories of Aboriginal language in Tasmania, I argue, embody such relationships, and a close analysis of palawa kani s emergence provides insight into the complicated interrelationship between history, culture, and politics in the twenty-first century.

The palawa kani program began in 1992 as part of a nationwide-and commonwealth-funded-Language Retrieval Program. The Commonwealth's interest in maintaining and revitalizing Indigenous languages was part of a broader global effort. A point of comparison is the language of the Wampanoag peoples of Massachusetts, revived in large part by tribal member Jessie Little Doe Baird (2013). Many retrieval efforts around the world involve language immersion programs, like those beginning in the 1980s for Maori (King 2001). While the initial State Project was to be 'jointly run by the Aboriginal community and Riawunna, the Centre for Aboriginal Education at the University of Tasmania' (Bevilacqua 1992:1), the palawa kani program would eventually be run almost exclusively through the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC), a prominent and powerful community organization. The project has been funded by the Australian Government's Indigenous Languages Support program (and its predecessors) and has received substantial funding. (1)

The project's stated goals for the 2008-2009 funding round were to '[r]evive, record, maintain and promote Tasmanian Aboriginal languages, in particular Palawa Kani,' and these remain the core goals today, with the further specification of the project's activity for the period between 2013 and 2016 '[t]o retrieve Tasmanian Aboriginal languages and promote knowledge and use of the revived language Palawa Kani.' (2)

The construction and utilization of palawa kani is one element of a broader Tasmanian Aboriginal cultural politic working to strengthen their status, authenticity, and presence. Rather than being primarily a tool for communication, I suggest palawa kani is a cultural artifact that works to distinguish the Tasmanian Aboriginal community--one that lacks many of the stereotypical components of Australian Aboriginality--within Tasmanian society. As such, it is best understood in relation to Clifford's notion of 'indigenous articulations' (2001) and what Cowlishaw (2010, 2011) refers to as 'mythopoeia of Aboriginality' in Australia. In short, this article describes what palawa kani does and what it represents within the larger Tasmanian Aboriginal context. Rather than striving to pinpoint a hypothetical border between the culturally pure and the pointedly political, both of which are simultaneously idealizations and abstractions, my approach emphasizes the complicated dialectic between past and present and the delicate interaction between traditions, linguistic and otherwise, that is at the heart of contemporary Tasmanian Aboriginality. …

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