Aboriginal Language Bill a proud moment in NSW history

For Taree’s Jaycent Davis, the passing of Australia’s first Aboriginal languages legislation in NSW Parliament was a proud moment. 

The Aboriginal Languages Bill 2017 was introduced in the Upper House on Wednesday, October 11, which moved to acknowledge that Aboriginal languages are part of the culture and identity of Aboriginal people as well as establish an independent trust made up of Aboriginal community leaders.

They will oversee the development a strategic plan to protect and strengthen Aboriginal languages through programs, partnerships and funding. It was then passed by both houses of Parliament on Wednesday, October 18. 

Jaycent said the introduction of the legislation and acceptance of traditional language has shown the Australian society has come a long way.

"When I grew up I sort of knew that I was Aboriginal and it was quite a challenge building confidence with the identity you had as a young kid. The country wasn't too accepting of Aboriginality so a lot of the time you were trying to piece together what it was all about.

"A lot of the time we'd hear words in language that were spoken by our grandparents and our uncles and we picked them up,” he said. 

Under a previous law, Aboriginal people were not allowed to speak in traditional languages.

"It's quite devastating for them because there's culture within the language. When I was young, I was always asking grandfather for language.

"It was quite embarrassing for them (grandparents) because they weren't allowed not only to forget but brainwashed into thinking it was wrong and they weren't allowed to say it.

"I was very envious of this language because it was about being that which is what we are and that's Aboriginal,” he said.

Aboriginal Affairs NSW spent about six months consulting with language groups across the State in relation to the proposed legislation.

“It was all about the government taking it seriously because the movement is getting bigger and stronger,” Jaycent said. 

"We wanted that law to recognise that our languages are something that are real and need to be supported because you're talking about the heritage of a country which is seen as one of the oldest places on the planet and the only ones who haven't caught up with it are the ones who are standing here.”

The handing of the Message Stick to Aboriginal Affairs minister Sarah Mitchell.

The handing of the Message Stick to Aboriginal Affairs minister Sarah Mitchell.

Jaycent was invited, alongside Aboriginal elders and community representatives of the Bundjalung, Dharawal, Dunghutti, Gamilaraay, Gumbaynggirr, Paakantji and Wiradjuri languages, to attend the introduction of the legislation in the NSW Parliament.

The group entered the parliament and formed an elder circle (an arc shape).

They then had a chance to speak to the floor as to why the Bill is important to them.

"We didn't go in war, we came in peace,” he said.

When it was Jaycent’s turn, he took a spear that he carried into the Parliament and held it above his head while looking at everyone in the room.

As he spoke, he put the spear behind him has a gesture of peace.

“Always is, always will be our land, our place,” he said.

Jaycent said this term is not representative of ownership but rather “the land owns us”.

“We love it, it’s our mother,” he said.

Jaycent believes he is the first person to bring a spear into NSW Parliament. He plans to place a plaque on the spear to recognise the day.

Jaycent has worked to learn and connect with his traditional Gathang language through the completion of certificates in learning an endangered language.

"It was a bit weird because it was like I'm sitting in a room actually learning language but because we had English with the language it sort of made it easier,” Jaycent said.

Jaycent said that he is proud the legislation is underpinning the legacy of his grandparents.

“They were pretty active for the rights of Aboriginal people in the community,” Jaycent said.

He is also confident Gathang will continue to grow in the community.

“The knowledge within the community is going to grow and it's going to take off really big.

“One day, hopefully I will hear Gathang down the street, even if it's a sentence at a time.

"I think we're going somewhere with this.

"I feel proud that I come from Taree,” he said. 

Aboriginal languages bill passes NSW Parliament 

NSW is officially the first state in Australia to pass legislation through Parliament, acknowledging the value and importance of language to our country’s First Peoples and to the cultural heritage of NSW.

NSW Aboriginal Affairs minister Sarah Mitchell said it is an historic occasion for Aboriginal people in Australia.

“The NSW Government has worked tirelessly alongside Aboriginal communities, elders and language experts to develop legislation that acknowledges the importance of Aboriginal languages for past, current and future generations,” Ms Mitchell said.

“I am proud of how far we have come and I’m committed to working alongside Aboriginal people from right across the State as we continue on this journey to promote and reawaken languages.”

The legislation was developed following extensive consultation at 32 workshops held across NSW.