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When Gary met Gugs… and awakened a sleeping tongue

Indigenous Languages, IYIL, Learning, Patji-Dawes

Date: 12 July 2019

Brother Stephen ‘Gugs’ Morelli and Gary Williams go back a long way. Back to the early years in Kempsey and Nambucca Heads when some of the Gumbaynggirr elders asked Brother Steve to help them regain their language so that they could teach it and pass it onto future generations. This week their joint 30-year effort to revive the Gumbaynggirr language of the mid-north coast of NSW was recognised with the Patji-Dawes Language Teaching Award, presented to Brother Steve after he was nominated by Gary.

Brother Steve recalls that when he first “turned up in 1985” the first people of the area were recovering from enforced assimilation, mission and integration. “For me, this award says something about the great revival of the Gumbaynggirr people, about the huge sense of pride felt by the local Aboriginal people in ownership of their heritage,” he said. “This award in some way honours the achievements of the people too – it’s not just an honour for me.”

Steve Morelli accepts the Patji-Dawes Award

These days the language is so well developed, it is being taught to future teachers at Certificate III level and its best speakers can even have a chat. (For a taste of this, listen to Steve and Gary on ABC Radio National.) Brother Steve has also compiled a dictionary and grammar of Gumbaynggirr, co-developed courses, and co-edited the Gumbaynggirr Yuludarla Jandaygam Gumbaynggirr Dreaming Story Collection.

Gary is a Gumbaynggirr community elder, CEO of the Muurrbay Aboriginal Language and Culture Cooperative and co-editor of that dreaming story collection. He said that Brother Steve has worked with the community to help its members do justice to the aspirations and vision of those original elders who first wanted to reclaim their language.

“He has really understood from the start that our language and culture are completely intertwined,” Gary said.

“Developing the language to accommodate the needs of contemporary speakers was only possible because Brother Steve has always worked with us as part of a team, together adapting the language in ways that made sense culturally."

Picking up on this point, Brother Steve said he has come to understand that although on the east coast the daily existence Gooris is in the non-Aboriginal world, they have retained their Aboriginal essence.

What does this mean for language? “Language was given in the first place to country,” Brother Steve said. “The country speaks the language and mediates language to people. So one should learn that country’s language. Language teaching that ignores this essence or form is half baked. I have often been guilty of that ignorance, for instance emphasising literacy over Goori communication, which is in essence oral, aural and kinaesthetic.”

Acknowledging the traditional custodians of Tasmania in Gumbaynggirr at a special award ceremony during the AMFLTA conference in Hobart, Brother Steve took the opportunity to recount the fundamental beliefs behind his ideals as a co-teacher of language:

“Gooris you are your culture. The events of the past 200 years have removed you from your country, but not your attachment to it; destroyed the traditional kinship, but not your togetherness with family; silenced the old songs, but no the rhythm in your veins; taken your dreaming stories, but not your shared spirituality; wounded your traditional language, but not your Goori body language; suppressed your maangun, your traditional law, but not your sense of justice; changed the way of life your ancestors led, but not destroy your identity.”

Patji-Dawes 2019 group photo

L to R: Sharon Butters, Anna Kingston, John Hajek, Sophia Mung (co-winner), Jane Simpson, Anne-Marie Morgan, Steve Morelli and Gary Williams. 

Not just a community leader, Gary is also a shining personal example of the success of Gumbaynggirr language education. He recalls a time when Brother Steve was away and his Centre had to work to a deadline to translate an article by Senator Aden Ridgeway into Gumbaynggirr for the Sydney Morning Herald.

That article went on to win a United Nations Association of Australia Media Peace Award in 2010 for its 'Promotion of Aboriginal Reconciliation'.

“It was very difficult to translate, as any opinion piece would be, full of pollie-speak!” Gary said. “I nominated Brother Steve for this prestigious award, not only on my own behalf, but on behalf of the thousands of Gumbaynggirr people who have now been enabled to learn their language and to reclaim their own stories. As we say at Muurrbay – Ngarraanga  Nginundi Yuludarla – Remember Your Dreaming.”

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University