John ‘Uncle Sandy’ Atkinson was a Bangerang Elder born at Cummeragunja Mission, in 1932. An influential figure in Aboriginal affairs and an important custodian of Aboriginal culture, Uncle Sandy’s achievements are vast.
After a childhood spent on the banks of the Murray River building boats, collecting duck eggs and learning how to hunt and fish, in 1953 Uncle Sandy met and married the love of his life, Gwen Thorpe. Together they had five children and eventually settled in Tatura, near Shepparton, where they involved themselves in all aspects of community life and remain highly respected in the local area.
In addition to serving over 21 years as Chairperson on the VACL Board, Uncle Sandy’s achievements include: founder of the Shepparton Keeping Place; founder of the Rhumbalara Medical Co-Operative; working for Aboriginal Affairs; Chairman of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Arts Board of Australia Council; Vice Chairperson of the Federation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages and Culture (FATSILC) and Commissioner for the Aboriginal Development Commission. He was a central part of the Koorie Heritage Trust since its beginning and also maintained a long and vital link to Museum Victoria, most recently contributing to the First Peoples exhibition as a Yulendj member.
Uncle Sandy was also a talented musician who taught himself to play the pedal steel guitar, which he played for over 60 years, and travelled annually to Gympie in Queensland for the town’s renowned music muster.
In 1983, he was made a Member of the Order of Australia, in recognition of his service to Aboriginal arts and in 2012 was inducted into the Victorian Indigenous Honour Roll.
Speaking of his role here at the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages, our Executive Officer Paul Paton reflects, “Uncle Sandy was our Chairperson and to this day, he was our first and only Chairperson. My mum would often say when we would celebrate any of our successeses, “the best $50 ever spent” and what she was referring to was when VACL was born, back in 1994, Uncle Sandy used $50 of his own money to register the organisation, paving the way for language revival in Victoria. We are forever indebted to him for this.
Uncle Sandy showed a commitment rarely seen in that he always made himself available for meetings, events and would speak to anyone if they showed an interest. He would be the first to volunteer to travel around the country to support and promote languages with one of his frequent sayings that language has to be relevant.”
Uncle Sandy’s dedication, passion and enthusiasm for the revival of our languages at the community, state and national level has been inspirational.
We will miss his enthusiasm, his leadership, his stories, his warmth and respect to all of us. In our work and in our own lives we will remember him always.
“Language is the first thing in our culture that can become lost. We should not let it happen.” Uncle Sandy.
Rest in peace Uncle, your vision is in good hands.
With the knowledge that language is the key tool to understanding and celebrating culture, it is natural that language provides the keystone to informing and inspiring creative projects and artistic expression. Our model for the creative revival of Aboriginal languages is a living example of Community Cultural Development practice, strengthening communities as well as language and culture. Our work in the field of creative language revival and cultural revitalisation through the Arts is leading edge and meets a growing need in the community. Creative Language Revival Projects contribute to cultural strengthening, health and well-being, educational opportunities and reconciliation.
VACL makes a significant contribution to the creative and cultural identity of Victoria by increasing the body of Aboriginal language and enhancing the cultural profile of Victoria. We achieve this through close partnerships with creative and cultural organisations such as Banmirra Arts Inc, Ilbijerri Theatre Company, The Wheeler Centre, Museum Victoria, Bunjilaka, Koorie Heritage Trust, Immigration Museum, Aboriginal Community Cooperatives, Melbourne Festival, Kiwa Digital, Miromaa Aboriginal Language and Technology Centre, Footscray Community Arts Centre , Sistagirl Productions, Reconciliation Victoria and State Library of Victoria drawing attention to the uniqueness of South-eastern Australian Aboriginal culture. Through these collaborations, we have participated in high profile creative events, festivals and programs such as The Light in Winter, Shearwater Festival, White Night, Next Wave, Blak and Bright and Festival of Pacific Arts.
Below are some highlights and examples of the many ways in which language underpins creative expression:
Gunditjmara/Gunai man Corey Theatre is a singer songwriter whose use of language extends him as a musician to be able to sing in traditional language. Corey has attended VACL workshops and is a strong believer in the power of language and its use in music. Corey continues to strengthen his knowledge through a collaborative journey of language revival and musical expression.
To hear some of Corey's music, visit Corey Theatre Music.
The Shearwater Short Tales program featured many musical collaborations including a song-writing and language revival project with self-selected Grades 5 and 6 students from Wonthaggi North Primary School, Kutcha Edwards and Aunty Fay Stewart-Muir, which lead to a ten-minute performance at the Shearwater Festival at Philip Island.
Learn more about the Shearwater Short Tales Creative Development Workshops held in 2015.
In addition to the promotion and publication of books in Victorian Aboriginal languages, VACL plays an ongoing role in Victoria's literary programs including holding seminars, workshops, presentations, readings and discussions. These have included a panel discussion at the Wheeler Centre, readings of digital storybook apps as part of the Blak and Bright: The Victorian Indigenous Literary Festival, translation work and reading for National Simultaneous Storytime and presentations on language revival at State Library Victoria.
The upcoming book 'Living Connections' by Lisa Kennedy is a visual narrative with Boonwurrung translations resulting from a partnership with VACL language worker and Boonwurrung Elder Aunty Fay Stewart-Muir. The book features Lisa's exquisite watercolour paintings alongside text in both English and Boonwurrung which details the journey of the Shearwater birds and connection to country.
The award-winning ‘Biyadin: The Shearwater Festival’ is held annually on Phillip Island. The Festival is auspiced by VACL in partnership with Bass Coast Shire Council and the Phillip Island Nature Park and has a strong focus on Aboriginal language revival and cultural regeneration. The Festival is preceded by an Education and Community Engagement Program in which Aboriginal Elders, linguists, artists and environmentalists work with children, teachers and community members to teach language and culture. A range of creative resources are developed from this work that are incorporated into the Festival and, where appropriate, are subsequently used for educational purposes.
VACL also works with leading contemporary arts festivals such as Next Wave Festival where we not only feature in the program of events hosting workshops in collaboration with artists on topics such as traditional cloak making, identity, returning to place and connecting to country through language, but have assisted the festival team in imbedding language in their guides, maps and programs through incorporating Aboriginal place names and locations.
VACL’s creative collaborations include public events such as ‘Tanderrum’, a ceremony performed at the Opening of the Melbourne Festival in Federation Square and the Official Opening of White Night in Melbourne at the Exhibition Building. These projects entailed extensive work with musicians, dancers, Elders and children from Aboriginal communities from the Kulin Nation facilitated by the Ilbijerri Theatre Company and with linguistic and creative leadership provided by VACL staff.
Watch a video of Tanderrum.
The Djirri Djirri Dance Group create dances which are contemporary interpretations of Wurundjeri culture with the essence of traditional dance/ceremony. Djirri Djirri is the Woi wurrung name for the Willy Wagtail. The group have many children who are encouraged to take on leadership roles through the use of language and knowledge exchange in dance creation. The group is led by VACL language worker Mandy Nicholson who has written many songs and chants in language which accompany these dances.
Watch the Djirri Djirri Dance Group perform Heartbeat of the Earth at the Shearwater Festival 2015.
VACL has played a leading role in creating digital language resources to support language learning in both communities and schools. Eighteen apps are now available on the VACL iTunes Store, all of which feature unique artwork created by local Aboriginal artists and in creative workshops with Primary and Secondary students across Victoria. These apps have generated a large interest in Victorian Aboriginal languages on a global platform, receiving wide coverage in the print media and radio and international recognition for Dulaiwurrung Mungka-nj-bulanj (How the Platypus Was Made) which won an award for excellence at the 2015 Digital Children’s Book Fair in Japan. This award led to an invitation to be part of a World Exhibition "Digital Ehon de Hirogaru Sekai Exhibition" at Children's Discovery Center Hachirabo (Tokyo, Shibuya).
To download VACL apps visit our iTunes Store.
Language worker, teacher, craftsman and visual artist and VACL Board Member Brendan Kennedy holds language as a central key to culture and creativity. With support from VACL, Brendan has published a collection of his songs and stories in Tati Tati, Mutti Mutti and Wadi Wadi languages. The publication titled Wangilatha Wangu Kiyawatha is a beautiful collection of Language songs and stories about the land, water, and animals of the Murray River people and Mallee people (Brendan's mother's people). The book is brimming with colour, illustrated with Brendan's digital artworks.
Watch a video of Brendan reading one of the stories from Wangilatha Wangu Kiyawatha.
Ngangu biik: Hear, Understand Country, produced by Wurundjeri visual artist Mandy Nicholson and Elder Aunty Diane Kerr, was displayed on the Signal screens in Northbank, Melbourne from August 14 to 22, 2015. This multi-media experience showcased Wurundjeri's living culture through Elder Aunty Diane Kerr. This journey is depicted through projection imagery and audio of her Mother Tongue, Woiwurrung. This event also celebrated the unveiling of her ceremonial walert-walert (possum skin cloak).
Watch a video documentation of this artwork here.
For thousands of years people from all around the world have looked to the night sky to connect with their creation stories, seasonal changes and navigation through land and the seas. Storytelling and the exchange of traditional cultural stories is a vehicle for cross-cultural understanding and celebration. Uncle Larry Walsh along with Koorie Community, Pacific Island Nations and members from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre put together a collection of galactic journeys which are part of an interactive sculpture 'Living Under the Stars' created by artist Keg De Souza. Imbedded in language, a selection of these stories are narrated by VACL staff Aunty Fay Stewart-Muir, Paul Paton and Mandy Nicholson.
Watch a video interpretation of 'Living Under the Stars'.
The 2015 film 'Wawi', Directed by Michael Portway is in Dja Dja Wurrung language with English subtitles. Language worker and previous VACL Board Member Harley Dunolly-Lee worked as a language consultant on the film and assisted with translations in collaboration with Emeritus Professor Barry Blake.
Watch a short extract of Wawi.
Nathan Maynard, a Trawlwoolway Aboriginal playwright and dancer from Tasmania, participated in the Shearwater Short Tales project at the Biyadin Shearwater Festival 2015. He incorporated language into his presentation and showed short films about mutton-birding on Big Dog Island, a practice in which his family had been engaged for many generations. Nathan also facilitated a theatre-making workshop at the Festival based on his play ‘The Season’ which he had presented at ‘Yellamundie’ the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Playwrighting Festival in Sydney. Nathan’s great-grandfather was Mannalaganna, chief of the Troowolway clan and of the whole of the North East Tasmanian indigenous peoples. Nathan was the recipient of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Artist of the Year Award in 2006 and 2013.
Corey Theatre source Corey Theatre Music
Living Connections Lisa Kennedy
Shearwater Festival Terry Melvin
Tanderrum Emma Hutchinson
Djirri Djirri Dance Group Rachel Ramberg
Dulaiwurrung Mungka-nj-bulanj Thornbury Primary School students
Bilgiri Gadini (Flood Waters) Brendan Kennedy
Living Under the Stars installation at Bunjilaka Emma Hutchinson
Wawi film still source Melbourne International Film Festival
Mutton Birding source Nathan Maynard
Traditionally, Aboriginal languages were not written down. They have always been communicated through the cultural practices of dance, song, storytelling, ceremony, artistic expression and cultural knowledge. VACL's Creative Language Revival Projects draw on this rich tradition of embedded creativity in communication, education and learning. Creative language revival activities are framed within a model of Community Cultural Development (CCD), ensuring that knowledge is passed on in engaging ways which lead to cultural revitalisation and community strengthening.
VACL has developed a model for its process of facilitating community engagement and collaboration in the creative language revival process. Drawing on the expertise of artists, Aboriginal Elders and linguists, VACL uses creative approaches to facilitate Aboriginal language revival. VACL staff work collaboratively with artists, providing linguistic and cultural support. They provide advice and resources to develop, record and disseminate language through creative processes which integrate songs, stories, music, poetic text, visual arts and sounds of Country to which the languages belong.
VACL’s model of Creative Language Revival draws on an extensive network of Aboriginal linguists and community leaders as an Advisory Group which is accountable to the VACL Board. The Board’s membership comprises Aboriginal Elders, linguists and community representatives from across the State. Members of the Advisory Group develop the project briefs for special events and programs and seek Expressions of Interest through community networks. Creative works are selected and commissioned from artists and members of different communities work together in collaboration.
Projects are allocated Lead Artists, Linguists and Cultural Mentors from the Advisory Group and on-going support is provided to the Project Teams. The creative works are performed at special events and the outcomes of the projects’ language reclamation processes are documented in writing, audio-recordings, photographs, visual art and film. Where appropriate, the project outcomes from the developmental process become learning resources which support language revival work and cultural learning in the broader community. An on-going cycle of feedback and evaluation is facilitated throughout the process.
Vicki Couzens is a prominent artist of Gunditjmara, Keerray Woorroong who works in language, arts and cultural revival. Vicki has held positions on various boards and committees for over 35 years and has been instrumental in the revival of making possum skin cloaks. Vicki worked as a curator and language advisor for Museum Victoria in the development of the award winning First Peoples exhibition, has served as a Board Member for the Koorie Heritage Trust and was a Founding Member and Chair of Banmirra Arts Inc, where Vicki is now employed to co-ordinate a possum skin cloak ceremonial gathering in 2016, with over 60 communities from South-Eastern Australia.
“I have been actively involved in language work since 1999 when I went home to Gunditjmara country. Remembering, reclaiming, reviving and regenerating language & culture through arts practices and healing is my passion.”
A Gunditjmara man from south western Victoria, Mr Wright has worked predominately in Aboriginal Affairs for over 35 years. In 2000, he was appointed as the first Executive Officer for the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages (VACL), where he established the digital infrastructure required for Aboriginal linguistic research and lobbied Victorian state authorities for the development of formally accredited curriculum in Aboriginal Language studies for schools. Mr Wright is currently the co-ordinator of the Laka Gunditj Language Program which services Aboriginal language groups in south west Victoria. He has recently launched six bilingual interactive apps of Gunditjmara Creation Stories, is currently delivering teacher training in Aboriginal Language studies in two council regions and has established broad community support for reinstating Aboriginal names of significant places in the region. A long standing member of VACL, Mr Wright was elected as a director to the VACL Board late last year (2015).
"I believe that language creates culture, by describing the unique beliefs, knowledges and practices of the world's distinct peoples. Language preserves cultural traditions and drives cultural change. Without language, culture could not exist."
Born in Wangaratta, Loraine descends from the Nira Illum Balug clan of the Taungurung people from central Victoria. Since formally withdrawing from a satisfying teaching career in TAFE and more recently as Executive Officer at the Centre for Australian Indigenous Studies Monash University, Loraine has been involved in numerous educational and community activities. After completing qualifications in Cultural Heritage Management at La Trobe University she has been actively engaged in archaeological research and evaluation. In 2013 she formed a small genealogical/cultural research group which included family members, professional historians and a linguist to research the Nira Illum Balug. In addition to genealogical/cultural research, Loraine is enthusiastically engaged on various committees; Victorian Aboriginal Remembrance Committee, Traditional Owners and Elders Reference Group Melbourne University, Reference Group for Aboriginal Service in WW1 and the Dolodanin-dat Animation Project Group who work in conjunction with Monash University to preserve Taungurung creation stories in language and through new technologies. Loraine has undertaken numerous language training programs and has developed a strong commitment to working towards the reclamation of the Taungurung language and is currently enrolled in the Diploma of Indigenous Language Work at Charles Darwin University.
Loraine believes that “Language is the skeleton which supports the body of knowledge, spirituality and culture and for conservation of the whole, we must strengthen the skeleton".
Brendan Kennedy was born at Robinvale on Tati Tati Country and is a descendant of the Tati Tati, Wadi Wadi and Mutti Mutti tribal lands and language groups. Brendan is a member of the First Peoples Yulendj Group who collaborated with Museum Victoria to produce the award winning First Peoples exhibition; has previously served on the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Advisory Committee; is a Tati Tati delegate for Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations and is the Director of the Tati Tati Aboriginal Corporation. Brendan is an artist who specialises in painting and creating cultural and ceremonial objects.
“I have a passion for my past, my peoples and my ancestral history. Language is imbedded within the landscape and it’s not fair that our language doesn’t receive the respect and recognition it deserves. Our people have been speaking our language on our country since time began. Our people need our language. Our language shouldn’t stop because other people are here on our country.
I’m only new [as a Board Member with VACL], but I’ve got a responsibility to make sure our kids and our grandkids have access to our language. All the answers we are looking for are in our language.”
Vince is a proud Tati Tati, Wadi Wadi, Mutti Mutti, Latji Latji man living on Wadi Wadi country. Vince represents the Yita Yita Nation (his father's people) as a delegate for the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations, helping to protect and care for the waterways. Vince is active in the revival of languages in north west Victoria where he strongly supports the teaching of language to the next generations.
"Languages connect us with our land. I would like all Aboriginal languages to be taught everywhere, all over Australia. I would like to see all Victorian languages strong, we all have the same interest and same ideas about where we hope it will go. We are working together for a common goal with all tribes and their languages."
Sharon Atkinson is a member of the Dhulanyagan clan of the Yorta Yorta people and continues the inter-generational responsibility of custodianship of the Yorta Yorta Language. She has undertaken courses in leadership and mentoring and has worked in Aboriginal health and education for over 30 years. Sharon is currently employed by the Kaiela Institute in Shepparton and is the founder and facilitator of the successful Yalka Loitjba Language Program which has been running now for over 4 years.
“Not only myself, but the people who participate in language, strongly believe that global languages are the key to the universe and Indigenous Languages are the DNA to our homelands.”