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Land Back and Language

This article is part of a series on land back. Questions and answers may have been edited for length and clarity.

Kaleesha Morris is a proud Gumbaynggirr, Dunghutti and Kulkalgal woman. She’s a freshwater jija and a proud aunty to all her junuybin. Kaleesha grew up in Bangiigan (South Grafton) and works in language ecology and revitalisation. She is a strong Gumbaynggirr speaker and instructor and has worked with many First Nations communities in law and policy, strategy and governance, environmental management and cultural education. She is interested in the intelligence of Country, repatriating and reactivating First Nations languages and working to ensure partnerships with First Nations communities are grounded in addressing and responding to critical socio-environmental challenges.

We yarned with Kaleesha about what land back means to her and how land back intersects with language.

1. What does land back mean to you?

Kaleesha: “There are so many ways to answer this question but to me it’s important to start this yarn with Country first. My version of land back is grounded in unceded sovereignty. That is, Country’s sovereignty and by extension ours. When we say ‘land back’ we are asserting Country’s Law - the First Law (and what will be the last Law) - including our rights and our commitment to protecting, healing and sustaining Country, now and for generations to come. Land back carries and conveys the outrage of our Old People who were forced and fenced off their lands. It’s loaded with the political resistance of the Aboriginal land rights movement and all of the protest cries of our Elders who marched. It stands for the justice and reparations we have never received, the safe-haven our grandmothers always wished for us, the staunchness of the frontlines and resistance sites today, the urgency in which Country needs us, the creativity and versatility of our people’s political strategies, and it represents hope for our generation today – in finding and fulfilling our special purpose as Indigenous peoples, once again.”

2. You do so much great work in community. What are some things you’re currently working on for land back?

Kaleesha: “What I think is really important is that land back and sovereignty conversations are always personal and relevant to Country’s and the local community’s needs. Land back shouldn’t be a theoretical or abstract concept, or a brand or online trend – it needs to be explored with the mob around a fire or in conversation over a cuppa around nan’s kitchen table. It needs to translate to bare feet on the ground and our people camping on Country again – taking care of it.

Due to the dispossession and devastation of colonisation in our families and communities, so many of our people are on a journey of reconnecting to Country. In order to understand Country’s needs (which are one and the same as ours) we need to recover and re-embody our languages, cultural knowledges and our responsibilities. The work I do in community is focused on trying to recreate cultural pathways for being, learning and working. I do this through both language education and caring for Country work.

Alongside some really deadly Gumbaynggirr speakers, I’ve been teaching Aboriginal community language classes for over 3 years now and that has opened up the door to learning about the stories and knowledge within the land. We work to make what we learn more accessible to our people to facilitate reconnection and capacity building. For the past 2 years, I was also involved in the development and establishment of the Gumbaynggirr Giingana Freedom School – a bilingual school featuring Gumbaynggirr language and an important language revitalisation strategy.

Other roles I have are through sitting on various local Aboriginal land management boards, including Ngiyambandigay Wajaarr Aboriginal Corporation, Cangai Creek Aboriginal Corporation and the Grafton Ngerrie Local Aboriginal Land Council. These organisations were all set up dedicated to the recovery and return of Gumbaynggirr lands through various mechanisms, including the NSW Aboriginal Lands Rights Act 1975, the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation, and the Indigenous Protected Areas program. We’ve been successful in retrieving some lands and waters but there’s still so much to recover and often, rehabilitate. I’m always looking at what other mobs are doing to recover lands, including private hand-backs, management arrangements, negotiations with governments, protests and land reoccupations, and buy-backs.”

By Amber Hamer, Wayila Creative

3. What could a land back future look like?

Kaleesha: “Ngaaja ngarraanga garla-wajaarr gurulaw nganyundi ganyambilu, ngaaja ngaalgan bawging nganyundi ngaawa ngarraanga Gumbaynggida garlugan-girr, yirraaligunda ngaawa malaana. Garla-wajaada ngiyambandi girrwa Gumbaynggirr daari, giingan, gunganbu juunga jagunumbala, junyirri Gumbaynggirr wumaaga! Garla-ngarraanga Gumbaynggirr Yuludarla, Maangun, barrmarrany, muurlaybiin. Ngiyambandi girrwa, jagunumbala gunganbu garraa. Ngiyambandi jagun, girrwa, ngaarlu, jaliigirr, barrmarrany darrundung, guunuway, nyirrna yidaa. Ngaaja ngarraynggi ngiyambandi Goori barrmarrany yurrga. Yidaa jalumbaw, yidaa yilaana Goorigundi wajaarr.

Translated, this means: I think about a land back future in my tongue. I learned my language so I could think in Gumbaynggirr first, and then English later. In a land back future our people are Gumbaynggirr strong, safe, in ‘right’ relationship with Country and talking in language! There is respect for Gumbaynggirr Creation, Law/Lore, kinship and pathways. Our people and our land are back together again. Our lands, people, waters, trees and animal kin are healed, thriving and forever healthy and beautiful. I wish this for all our Indigenous relatives too. Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land.

Adding onto that, for land back I’d like to see lands being rapidly and unconditionally returned to our peoples with reparations and resources for rehabilitation and long-term management of lands. I’d like to see all Aboriginal language place names reinstated and re-activated on Country. I’d like to see stronger protections and rights given to our waterways, mountains and other significant sites, including our burial grounds, living places and Songlines across land, sea and sky Country. Our people need to be in decision-making spaces and positions regarding planning, natural resource management, cultural fire, threatened species, biodiversity conservation, “disaster”/climate change responses, and environmental management.”

4. What role can non-Indigenous allies play in land back?

Kaleesha: “For people who want to be allies the first thing they need to do is prepare to become and stay very uncomfortable. Change work is not comfortable. We’re supposed to unsettle and get rid of problematic ideologies, structures, power and privilege, and many people’s identities are invested in those things. Many wanting to be allies come for the wrong reasons – well-intentioned and problematic. For example, saviourism in community is still rife, and that’s just underlying racism through a racial superiority complex and paternalism. They may come with an identity crisis and manage to centre themselves, entitled and demanding of our knowledge and emotional labour. Allies need to genuinely connect with community and be patient as we work to recover what was taken from us in the ways we need to. Allies need to try and comprehend what this country is really built and sustained from, how they are complicit today, and they need to listen and offer their support when our community calls for it. They also need to know when to help capacity build and leave.

In terms of land back, allies can give land back. Allies can also get creative. They can work out Blak land tax/pay the rent arrangements and/or shared holding arrangements. They can try to negotiate access and management agreements. There are lots of ways. Many of our sacred sites are on so-called private land, so opening up access for our people to re-establish connection to those sites is important as well, and we also need to be able to work together to holistically manage landscapes. Allies also need to help undo the damage non-Indigenous people have done to Country. A lot of rehabilitation work needs to happen, but it needs to be informed by our people because western environmental science itself isn’t the answer here.” 

By Amber Hamer, Wayila Creative

5. How is language revitalisation related to land back?

Kaleesha: “I think language revitalisation is fundamental to land back. In the Creation time, the Creator Yuludarla gave the languages to the land and the people at the same time – so they would speak/live the same language. For land back, we need to know how to speak that shared language again, and we need to relearn how to speak it from the land. That’s one of my great comforts after everything our people have endured and lost – that our knowledge came from Country. Country is our teacher so everything is stored there, we just need to retrieve it.

Our languages are inextricable from Country. They bring us closer to Country. Languages reflect local landscapes. They have the same characteristics, shapes, sounds, rhythms and songs. Our languages, particularly our place names, encode and express knowledge of place – carrying histories, stories and environmental knowledge. There are strong correlations between biodiversity loss and the loss of Indigenous languages and knowledges.

Our languages are important to our Songlines, when we speak our languages we have the potential to activate our Songlines and awaken the power of Country. Language brings you into journey. Through time – connecting you to the Ancestors. Through place – when you sing the old songs – you begin to travel through Country, you go over mountains and down valleys and your pitch goes up and down. You hit a flat in the land and so does your tone. You move into the stream of the river and the sounds of your words begin to flow. Our languages are still being spoken by Country – by our trees, winds, waters, animal skin, Ancestors and spirits. And they all listen for us. 

Because language gifts us all these things and is so essential to our identities, restoring and relearning from Country has to go hand in hand with restoring and revitalising our languages and embedding knowledge in them again. I really want to make a strong case for this now and into the near future.”

6. Any final words about language and land back?

Kaleesha: “The alarm bells warning people that our languages are in grave danger have been ringing for some time now. I hope that our people will take some time to sit and think about how important our languages are to Country, to who we are as distinct peoples and to future generations. Some people think that our languages belong in the past but I believe that our languages are more important now than they have ever been for all of the reasons above. We and so many others are craving connection, purpose, love and wisdom. Language revitalisation and land return helps us to put ourselves and Country back together. They bring us back into relationships. I’ve talked a lot about how language can do so much for us, but it’s also really important to say that our languages need us just as much as we need them. They need us to believe in them again, to believe in ourselves and our abilities to learn them. They need us to start using them in everyday conversation and to start tapping into their gifts – for all of our survival and success.”

By Bernard Kelly-Edwards

Top image: Kaleesha Morris by Amber Hamer of Wayila Creative
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