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Language activism at Yarrabah

​4 September is Indigenous Literacy Day: Yarrabah State School students learn about their environment through language and literacy

"It takes a village to raise a child," is an oft-quoted proverb.

Yet, at Yarrabah State School, a more appropriate quote is: "It takes a language to raise a culture."

As with many Australian Aboriginal languages, a couple of hundred years of European settlement has virtually eradicated languages that had been around for thousands of years.

But Yarrabah language teacher Nathan Schrieber is not only determined that his local community language does not follow the fate of the many disappearing Australian Aboriginal languages, he's resuscitating it with an active first aid plan.

"I have become a language activist," Nathan says.

"Our community, like many others, faced the devastating effects of the missionary experience. We had our language and our culture stripped away. There was no transmission of stories by our Elders."

Yarrabah is about 1 hour east of Cairns by car, and has a population of approximately 5,000. It is one of the largest Aboriginal communities in Australia.

The language of Nathan's Gunggandji people is Gunggay. With the support of Yarrabah State School principal Jason Evert, he is teaching this language to the Yarrabah students and, by extension, ensuring the survival of the culture as well.

And he teaches them in a way they can relate to, a way their ancestors would have learned, and that's through experience – talking and doing, singing and dancing.

"Students learn and retain information when it's contextualised for them," Nathan says.

"It has to be something real, something they can touch, feel and sense. When it's real they can make connections. They can see the relationships."

Nathan concedes that passing on a waning language has not been an easy task. His journey first began when he started to question why his language had become dormant. The quest led him – serendipitously – to find 2 half-century-old recordings of Gunggay songs, which has helped build the foundation of the vocabulary he had picked up over the years.

Nathan says language is an inextricable part of his people's identity.

"Language, our land and our culture are inseparable. It's the speaking that will keep it alive."

His unwavering determination and motivation is, in part, inspired by the wise words of his grandmother.

 "When we were young she'd always tell us: 'Don't ever forget who you are and where you come from. They're both very important aspects to us'.

"A house built on a firm foundation will last a long time," Nathan says. "For us, we need to know where we are, and where we've come from, in order to give us direction on where we're going.

"Today, I'm picking up the pieces of my language that have been scattered abroad and like a jigsaw, doing my best to put it back together for the children. This, I believe, is my responsibility to my People, after all this is the Language of my Country that has always been here from the very beginning!"

4 September is Indigenous Literacy Day – a national celebration of Indigenous culture, stories, language and literacy.

Find out more about what's happening at Yarrabah State School.

 Learn more about Nathan’s story

Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Australia (CC BY 3.0) ( )
Last updated
01 November 2019