Ep 14 | Mar 27, 2023

Transcript

Theresa Sainty and the path to revive the palawa kani language

Reviewed by: Erin Ching

Jake Orlowitz:

Hi, this is Jake. I’m here at the Decolonizing the Internet’s Languages conference, and I am with Theresa. Theresa, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how that brought you to this conference?

Theresa Sainty:

I am a Pakana woman. I’m a Tasmanian Aboriginal woman from lutruwita, which is the proper name for Tasmania. I’ve worked in the language since 1997 and worked within the community since before then, grown up in our community. We are a saltwater people. I work for the Tasmanian Aboriginal Center, which has responsibility for reviving the language in lutruwita. And as a result of my involvement with working with language, I do the linguistic research and analysis for the Palawa language program. And so I am fortunate to be sitting on a national committee, which is First Languages Australia. And so it was through my involvement with FLA that I was fortunate to be offered a place at this meeting.

Jake Orlowitz:

Thank you for the introduction. Let’s start with just a broad question. How are you and/or your community using your language online?

Theresa Sainty:

Most people use Palawa Kani, which is the name of our language, to provide “welcome to country.” We don’t limit welcomes to elders, obviously, it’s always great to get an elder to do a welcome, but we encourage our young people, so school-aged children or, you know, anybody within our community really to provide welcome to country and the organization. The TAC provides support to people to write those welcomes in our language. And so that is probably, the main way that people have become introduced, I suppose, and a little bit more fluent with language by, you know, being able to do those welcomes in Palawa.

Jake Orlowitz:

Can you just explain the term “Welcome to Country”?

Theresa Sainty:

A Welcome to Country. It’s probably, we’re actually, our community is actually looking for another way to describe, or something else to call a welcome because a welcome to country is around the old agreements, I suppose, made between different tribal groups to be able to access someone else’s country. Um, so it’s about acknowledging that you’re in someone else’s country. It is about paying the respects to the people of that country, their elders, past and present. And it’s about acknowledging that there are permissions to be got to begotten or given by people from, you know, to someone else who wants to walk through someone else’s country. And so in modern-day Australia, that applies to, I guess it’s a modernization of those permissions that were required back before invasion, in that we acknowledge that we are on our land, on Aboriginal land, no matter where we are. So Aboriginal people do a Welcome to country, welcome to Aboriginal land. And then, you know, we’ll often talk about our creation story. It depends on the person that is providing the welcome and, basically, giving you permission to be in my country. Non-Aboriginal people, or Aboriginal people that are not from, say, lutruwita in our case, would acknowledge that they are on the land of the Palawa people, and they would pay respects to our community and to our elders past and present. So yeah.

Jake Orlowitz:

Thanks for explaining that and going into some depth about its importance. When you look at your language online, what exists and what is missing?

Theresa Sainty:

Well, there are a couple of different things that are resources, et cetera, that are online, and they’re available to our community, generally speaking only. So there is a database, it’s called Mirima. It was developed by one of our first languages in Australia, members, actually. So that is a database that has every word history that we have produced, for every single word that has been revived on that database. And so you can do a search on the database in English or in Palawa for a particular word, and it’ll bring up the word histories. A word history is a document that’s been a working document for like 20-something years, which we’ve developed basically for the community to be able to look at and see, you know, the process of reconstructing a word, but also why that word was chosen, who recorded it. So it is exactly what it says, it is a history of that word from the earliest recording to the latest recording or use of that word.

So that information is there. Sometimes the recorder will give something a translation, and he’ll correct himself later on. So, you know, it’s rigorous research, and it’s thorough research. And then, of course, it shows how we’ve looked at the sounds that each recorder they were trying to represent in their own sound and spelling system. And we do that with the International Phonetics Alphabet (IPA), and then it is put into the Palawa sound and spelling system so it’s spelled in our language. So all of that information is on that word history. So, the community can go to the database, have a look at the word, and have a look to see, well, how did they find that word? Where did they get that, where did it come from? Why is it this word and not another word? And they can also hear the word said; there’s an audio of the word on the database as well. And that’s available to our community only. We have produced, we’ve got our second edition of a Palawa dictionary. The first one was published in 2013. And then there’s, we actually have a Facebook page to Kari Leah, Carney family Speak, talk where we can support each other in writing welcomes or writing poems or speeches, songs. And then, we have some resources that are available on the Tasmanian Aboriginal Center’s website as well.

Jake Orlowitz:

That’s, that’s a great answer. Thank you so much for sharing. It’s a really interesting mix of resources and, also, permissions about who is able to access those resources. The next question is about what you wish you could create or share online. And what are some of the barriers or blockers to that today?

Theresa Sainty:

That’s a good question. I guess it would be great to access writings, for instance, whether it’s poetry or, or stories, even our creation story online. I’m not sure about that, though, in terms of, you know, our information and things around people misusing our information and other people other than us becoming experts about our culture and about our language. And there are so many out there already. I guess one of the barriers is the mistrust of people taking our information and misusing it, as has happened in the past and continues to happen. And so that is probably the biggest barrier for me, certainly, and suggests for the community in terms of having any of our information, whether it’s information about language or about us, there’s so much out there already that is not authentic. And I guess that could be something that may potentially encourage us to say, well, at least if we produce the online resource, then at least people would be getting authenticity, and from the people whose information it is.

Jake Orlowitz:

That makes a lot of sense, especially the point that you could put more information online, but you have good reason at this point to be reluctant to do that.

Theresa Sainty:

Well, I mean, a good example of that is we get people all the time, some of our own people, but generally speaking, you know, non-Aboriginal people saying, well, oh, it’s a shame that you know, you don’t share your language and oh, I’d love to learn your language, and you know, all that. And we sort of think, yeah, it would be wonderful to be in a place as a collective, not as an individual, to be able to share everything about our language. But a really good example, you sort of think, well, you wonder why it is. In 2012, we developed an aboriginal and dual naming policy with the then Labor government and the Greens also. The day after that policy was launched and the, I think the first, I think there were 12 places around Littlewe, around the state of Tasmania, that were dual named.

One of them was Kani, which is Mount Wellington. There’s a push by a proponent to put a cable car on Kani. And there’s, this has been going on for years, and, of course, the Aboriginal community does not support further defacing of kani with anything, with any more infrastructure up there, particularly a cable car. Now that company registered a URL using Kani, and their response was, well, it’s out there in the public domain, and you sort of throw your hands up in the air and say, you wonder why we mistrust you, and we do not wanna share our stuff. So that’s a perfect example as to why would we want to.

Jake Orlowitz:

That’s a great and also, horrifying example. Thank you for sharing it. So we’re at Decolonizing the Internet’s Languages, and there’s a group of folks who have different but also shared backgrounds and interests and concerns. How are you finding the experience of being here at the conference?

Theresa Sainty:

I guess I’ve found my way of thinking to be somewhat challenged in, in some ways. I sort of think, oh, I hadn’t thought of it in that way. I realize that I probably know a little bit more about the subject than what I thought I did. I have at least been able to contribute a little bit, which is way more than what I thought I would be able to contribute to the conversation. I have learned a fair bit. I’m not sure I’ll retain it all, but you know, I’ve been exposed to, I guess, different languages in terms of the internet language, I suppose. And this Decolonizing the Internet’s Languages, I sort of thought, hmm, you know, “decolonizing”, it’s a bit of a buzzword these days. We are decolonizing everything, and I understand what it means, but I just thought, oh, well, here we go again.

But you know, I sort of see, I see the benefit in that. I see the potential benefit to our community when we have much more language to be able to do much more with, when we have decided to share more. But I think in terms of these languages that are in danger of not being spoken any longer, I think, in order to be able to say, do a search in my language for something, we need to have our people writing or producing things in our language. That’s what I’ve come to this meeting thinking, and I think that is still the case, but not, it’s not all about that either, I think.

Jake Orlowitz:

Thank you so much, Theresa. I think you’ve contributed a lot, both at this conference and this interview. Is there anything else you’d like to add about where your language is being used online?

Theresa Sainty:

Yes, there is. We are doing some fantastic stuff in terms of our language and getting our language out there just within our state but to the world. We’ve recently participated in Jennifer Kent’s new feature film called The Nightingale, and if you haven’t seen it, you must go and see it. So we had the opportunity to provide the translation for the script for the Aboriginal actors, which I was lucky enough to be doing on behalf of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Center and to work with those actors on set as a dialect coach. And that film is now won an award at the Venice Film Festival, and Apackley, who is the lead Aboriginal actor, won an award there as well. And it’s just so fantastic to go and see the film in its entirety, to hear Palawa, my language, being spoken up there on that big screen and to see it in English subtitles, no less.

So that was very cool. We’ve done an episode of a NITV-produced animated series called Little J and Big Cuz — it’s aimed at children, school-aged children, to encourage them to go to school. You know, it gave some of our young kids the opportunity to do the voice-over, and it was just a great project to be part of. And we have just recorded another episode for the second series, so that’s also exciting. I can’t wait to see that people are writing songs. I’ve co-written a song, and it’s about what we find we are writing about our connection to the country and the importance of protecting the country and protecting our heritage. You know, young people are writing songs as well, and it’s fantastic to see our community, no matter what age, expressing themselves and their identity and their connection to their country, our country, in their language.

Jake Orlowitz:

Thank you again, Theresa.

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