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Aboriginal peformers, dressed in traditional bodypaint, peform a welcoming ceremony. Photo: Reuters

‘Using our language to defend our heritage’: Aboriginal activists revive lost language for state election campaign

The advertisement focuses on the Tasmanian Liberal government’s stalled but ongoing push to allow recreational four-wheel driving on off-road tracks in a conservation reserve

If you have not heard spoken palawa kani, you are not alone. Few have. Among Tasmanians, at least, that is about to change.

In an Australian first, a television advertising campaign by activists has been produced in a revived Aboriginal tongue.

Tasmanians will hear it spoken (and see it subtitled) on breakfast television and during prime time over the coming weeks of the state election campaign. The advertisement targets the premier, Will Hodgman, for what Indigenous leaders say has been a failure to deliver on a pledge to “reset the relationship” with Aboriginal people since he was elected in 2014.

The Indigenous language has been not just revived but reimagined. It is estimated there were more than 20 Indigenous Tasmanian languages until they faded from daily communication in the first half of the 19th century.

The last known speaker, Fanny Cochrane Smith, died in 1905, leaving behind poor-quality recordings of her singing in Aboriginal language. Using these snippets, and records of Europeans’ written approximations of words and their meanings, the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre in the 1990s began a programme to build a composite. Its name is literal: palawa kani means Aborigines talking.

Using our language to defend our heritage from a premier ... is a powerful new tool that makes us very proud
Heather Sculthorpe, activist

The advertisement focuses on the Tasmanian Liberal government’s stalled but ongoing push to allow recreational four-wheel driving on off-road tracks in the Arthur-Pieman conservation reserve, part of the Tarkine – or, in palawa kani, takayna – in the state’s northwest.

A 21,000-hectare strip along the coast was placed on the national heritage list in 2013 in recognition that it is considered a rich archaeological site that includes significant evidence of a semi-sedentary life lived in the area, including shell middens, hut depressions, tool artefacts and rock art. The Hodgman government has proposed laying rubber matting over the middens and allowing vehicles to drive over them.

The advertisement is a collaboration between the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre and the Wilderness Society. The Aboriginal centre chief executive, Heather Sculthorpe, said Hodgman was “doing his best to run over our heritage” in a bid for votes in the state’s northwest.

“That is one of the very important areas in Tasmania that hasn’t been wrecked since white invasion,” Sculthorpe said. “Using our language to defend our heritage from a premier prepared to put politics ahead of people is a powerful new tool that makes us very proud. It is a big step forward for us. We expect it to resonate.”

Some four-wheel driving tracks were closed by the Giddings government in 2012. The Liberal Party ran hard on a pledge to overturn the ban and received a 14 per cent swing to it in the electorate of Braddon, which includes the area, at the 2014 election. In government it moved quickly to allow vehicles to return but was challenged by the Aboriginal centre in the federal court, which judged the tracks could not be opened unless Indigenous heritage was protected.

The state government referred the proposal to the federal environment minister, Josh Frydenberg, who requested an independent assessment – a public environment report – due to potential risk to the Indigenous cultural values of the landscape and threatened species including the orange-bellied parrot and the Tasmanian devil. The assessment will be undertaken by the state primary industries department.

A spokesman for Hodgman said the government had substantially delivered on its commitment to reset the relationship with Indigenous Tasmanians, as promised.

“This includes changing government policy to provide a more inclusive definition of Aboriginality, as well as adding Aboriginal history to the school curriculum,” he said.

“We made a commitment at the last election to provide access to this area for all Tasmanians and we intend to deliver it. We are currently working with the federal government to ensure that this can be achieved in a way that minimises the impact on the environment and upon aboriginal heritage.”

Labor has not clarified its position on four-wheel driving in the area since losing power. The Greens say the ban should stand.

The advertisement comes as the state government is criticising the Jacqui Lambie Network for running a candidate in Braddon who is facing court charges for driving a quad bike in the restricted area. The Liberal MP for Braddon, Adam Brooks, said people driving in the area before the ban was lifted made it harder for the government to make its case and gave fodder to opponents. Sculthorpe said the government’s stance was “hypocrisy run wild”.

The two groups behind the advertisement are running a joint programme to record sites of significant Indigenous heritage significance and removing rubbish and marine debris from the area.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Tasmanian election ad revives lost language