JUST decades ago speaking the local Indigenous language - Dhauwurd Wurrung - was discouraged, and some people would avoid doing cultural tasks that were thousands of years old.
However things are turning around, with educators across the region’s state schools coming on board with a new Dhauwurd Wurrung language and culture curriculum.
Gunditjmara elder and Koorie engagement support officer Daryl Rose said there was a fear of retribution if culture was practiced back then because there had been real consequences: children being taken away (as part of the stolen generation), or of people learning words or practices that might get them in trouble because they wouldn’t be seen as “white” enough.
“When the missions started in the 1860s, language and practicing culture weren’t encouraged,” Mr Rose said.
“That was the influence the churches had (and) they were there as agents of the government.
Mr Rose said he had a recording on tape of his great grandmother, Mary Fary, speaking to a linguist at Framlingham, near Warrnambool, in 1963.
She told the linguist the Indigenous name for the bark on a tree, however wouldn’t elaborate with more words because someone in the background grew suspicious that the words were being recorded, and that those words could get them into trouble.
“My grandmother (then) didn’t get told lots of words: she grew up at the tail end of the mission and that was the culture (of being fearful of authority) – it was probably embedded in the mob, and is a similar story all over Victoria.”
Now all of Portland’s state primary schools, Bolwarra, Narrawong, Heywood Consolidated and Dartmoor – eight schools in total – are beginning to deliver the Gunditjmara Culture and Language in Schools Project to all of their 900 students.
It is believed to be the teaching of the largest single Indigenous language taught in the state as part of the formal Victorian curriculum.
Until the beginning of 2020 just 2300 students were learning their local Indigenous language through the education system, according to Mr Rose.
“We hope to be able to use this as a model (for other Victorian schools) because this is the first cluster of schools that have done anything like this,” Mr Rose said.
“We first talked about this in November 2019 and said it’s going to take a bit of time to get it right.”
Bundarra Primary School principal Tara Hulonce said the region’s primary school principals acknowledged at a meeting in 2019 that there was a lack of effective language other than English instruction in their schools, with the biggest reason behind that the difficulty of appointing qualified staff.
Being able to extend their current Indigenous cultural curriculum to language teaching seemed a logical and natural next step, and allowed them to capitalise on partnerships that could be made with the local community.
“We’re already fully embedded and working in this space culturally, why not strengthen that in another way?” she said.
Ms Hulonce was able to take advantage of some down-time during COVID-19 and was able to write the curriculum in consultation with Department of Education and Training Koorie engagement support officer and elder Aunty Di Bell as well as Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owner Aboriginal Corporation chief executive Uncle Damein Bell.
She also spent time researching how Indigenous languages had been taught elsewhere in Victoria and managed to put together 270 introductory-level lesson plans for students from Foundation to grade six level.
“There’s music, art and dance in there too: that’s the first step. Then, in a year to a year and a half, we’ll need to look at the middle and the senior year levels and make it (the curriculum) a bit harder.
“Hopefully by then it will have built everyone’s confidence in this.”
Ms Hulonce said she was pleased the region’s schools had also received nearly $1000 worth of Indigenous texts and resources through the School Focused Youth Services grant process in 2020, and that they had been allocated enough funding for a language support officer to work up to full-time mentoring educators and being available as a resource for educators who had any questions about the program.
Last September a virtual professional learning day was held with 70 people including educators from local schools as well as local, Melbourne and Gippsland Koorie education support staff and Indigenous community members.
The learning day introduced educators to the program and also provided them with the opportunity to explore their personal perspectives on racism.
Ms Hulonce is now advertising to appoint the officer, who will be based at Bundarra but will work across all the region’s state primary schools.
Other principals in the region are also helping manage the process and delivery of the program, too.
Ms Hulonce said the background work to develop the curriculum meant the program could continue in the long term because it wasn’t dependent on the employment of a single staff member.
Some language instruction elsewhere in the state had ended when that staff member had left their position, she said.
And while the team of people putting the program together are under no illusions about the need for ongoing improvement and development of the curriculum, they believe it could also be a great testing ground for the rollout of similar models across the state.
“They’ll have principals they can speak to about its impact – and practitioners on the ground, not just theorists,” Mr Rose said.
Heywood and District Secondary College currently offers Dhauwurd Wurrung as a language, however that same program is not offered elsewhere.