By Trevor Stockley
Trevor is a Gumatj speaker and worked for 14 years at Yirrkala and Laynhapuy Homeland schools (NT), focusing on Yolngu control, the inclusion of Yolngu knowledge in a balanced curriculum, implementing Yolngu ways of working and community-based teacher training. He currently works in North Queensland as a specialist Aboriginal languages teacher and program writer for the Warrgamay and Gudjal language revival programs.

Yalmay Yunupingu and Walpinda Wunungmurra display the clan languages spoken at Yirrkala

While critically ill with kidney failure, the late Dr M. Yunupingu, entered the fight for the right of Yolngu students to a quality bilingual and bicultural education, with the following words:‘I want to talk about strength, either in English or the Yolngu Matha speaking domain. We learnt from our elders that language is sacred. Yolngu kids think in their own language which can then inform them about English, about its meanings and its values. I consider Yolngu children in Yolngu schools to be as clever as anyone else in the wide world, and I don’t want that cleverness left outside the classroom door. Not for my kids or my grandkids. They should have equal rights, the same rights as any kids in the world, whether they are Chinese, or Balanda, the equal right to learn in their own language’

Sadly, Dr Yunupingu died only weeks before the celebration this year to mark the anniversary of forty years of Yolngu bilingual education at Yirrkala.

Aboriginal first language bilingual programs are hard to find in Australia today. It wasn’t always like this; thirty years ago there were twenty-one bilingual programs in the NT. Through a lack of resources and Government support, these programs were reduced and decimated, despite vigorous community opposition, to become just nine bilingual programs by 2008. The final assault on these remaining nine bilingual programs came with the 2009 NT Government’s four hours of English policy, whereby the mornings, when kids learn best, were set aside for English-language tuition only, There are now only three Aboriginal bilingual programs left in the NT and these may be the only ones in all of Australia.

The recent celebration of 40 years of bilingual education at Yirrkala was a strong display of Yolngu pride and recognition of Yolngu resistance to the domination of English language and culture in the education of their children. The celebration was a time for Yolngu to remember the insightful vision and strength of their Elders, but it was also an important marker in the continuing battle for Indigenous language rights in Australia.

The Yolngu Elders vision was for a balanced education, which meant making Yirrkala School a Yolngu bilingual school for their children and grandchildren. Those Elders believed their children had a right to learn in their own Yolngu language and knowledge and that English language and Western knowledge would come later, when appropriate for the learners. Those Elders wanted a Yolngu school, which respects Yolngu knowledge and languages. They wanted an education for their children, which utilises Yolngu ways of working, Yolngu ways of learning and Yolngu ways of being.

The Elders vision included an Aboriginalisation plan, which encouraged Yolngu to undertake teacher training and initiated the Principal and Senior teacher mentoring pathway program, while putting in place Yolngu control structures such as the Yambirrpa School Council and the Djarrma action group. This positively changed the authority structures and working relationships within the school. It did not place Balanda above Yolngu in the curriculum or in the classroom or in the power structure of the school. It was not to be an education of assimilation.

The bilingual and bicultural two-way education work of the late Dr R. Marika and the recently deceased Dr M. Yunupingu was also remembered and recognised. By working with their Elders, Dr Marika and Dr Yunupingu drew on traditional Yolngu knowledge to help place Yolngu philosophy, languages and ways of working and being into the whole school structure and curriculum. They helped develop strategies for Yolngu education and empowerment; aiming to achieve a mutual respect and understanding – a reconciliation of Yolngu education and Balanda education.

Through the vision and strength of the Yirrkala Elders and forty years of hard work the Yirrkala community (and Australia) now proudly have the Yirrkala Community Education Centre; a Yolngu bilingual and bicultural school, which today continues a 40 year old tradition of developing quality two-way education programs, including Yolngu Matha literacy and oracy, Galtha Rom workshops, the Garma Maths program and Learning on Country programs.