Yaama, Tracey ngaya

Meet the woman fighting to save her language from extinction

Matthew Fisher's black and white portrait of Tracey Cameron Art: Matthew Fisher

Enthusiastic is the word that springs to mind when one sees Tracey Cameron. Having spent many years as a teacher at Glebe Public Primary School, she exudes a patient and motherly aura. She likes her lattes weak and her tea milky, and is usually spotted sporting a sensible singlet-shirt-jeans-sandals ensemble.

She’s the teacher everyone wanted, the teacher that anybody would have been lucky to have. As we sit together, however, it becomes clear that Tracey is much more than a retired primary school teacher.

“Yaama, minyangindada gubi?”

She smiles as she says hello, and offers me a coffee.

Tracey is instrumental in the revitalisation efforts of the Gamilaraay language, which was, not too long ago, considered near extinction.

"Yaama" translates into "Hello". "Gaba Nginda?" translates into "How are you?"
Art: Matthew Fisher

The Gamilaroi nation is one of the four largest Indigenous nations in Australia, encompassing a vast expanse of land ranging from south west Queensland to the Hunter Valley. Before colonisation there were forests and delicate soil, both felled by agriculturalists with their axes and heavy hoofed beasts of burden. For some perspective, the more prominent towns in the Gamilaroi nation include Moree, Tamworth, Coonabarabran and Walgett.

Tracey’s father, Doug, is a Gamilaroi man born in 1936 and raised in the Burra Bee Dee Aboriginal Reserve outside of Coonabarabran — a reserve established by his ancestor Mary Jane Cain from land granted to her through petition by Queen Victoria. This land was to become a haven for many dispossessed Gamilaroi people over the years.

But this haven couldn’t last forever. Doug moved from Coonabarabran to Sydney in 1941 after his father enlisted in the Second World War. With the policy of assimilation in full swing, his mother feared for the safety of her children without their father to protect them. She and her mother, along with other women from the community, left for the state capital where they would feel more secure.

Doug and his wife eventually settled in the Riverina city of Wagga Wagga where they had four daughters, the eldest of whom was Tracey.

During her time as a Maquarie University student, Tracey was passionate about social issues. In this period, Tony Abbott was no more than an unbearable stupol hack across the Parramatta River. When she mentions this, the relevance of student politics
suddenly seems to carry some genuine weight.

I ask her what kind of politics she was involved in.

“Left wing politics, of course!” She answers, incredulous of my question. But the story of how Tracey really began to reconnect with her Gamilaroi heritage started off as all good journeys do: with a chance encounter.

In 2000, when she was looking for educational resources for her school library at Black Books in Tranby (an Indigenous bookstore in Glebe), Tracey stumbled across a copy of The Sun Dancin’: People and Place in Coonabarabran by Margaret Somerville. She was shocked to find many of the people mentioned in the book were her relatives.

From this point on, she focused her energy towards learning more about her culture. Upon completing her Masters of Indigenous Languages Education at the University of Sydney, she began her work as a tutor for the oldest language revitalisation course in the country. She has since won a scholarship for writing the best abstract describing a research proposal for the International Conference on Language Documentation & Conservation (ICLDC) at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, Honolulu. The proposal was in regards to documenting her research about the Gamilaraay language.

"Minyangindanda Gubi?" translates into "Do you want a coffee?"
Art: Matthew Fisher

Tracey currently tutors Speaking Gamilaraay 1 (KOCR2605) at USyd under the direction of Doctor John Giacon. The subject, coordinated under the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, typically hosts up to 22 students a semester since it began in 2006. John Giacon now also teaches the course at the Australian National University.

“We get lots of linguistics students, education students, arts and history students … even some students from unusual areas like chemistry,” Tracey tells me.

The classes consist of three-hour intensive oral workshops. The unit is available to students in over 40 degrees, and is counted as a senior elective unit — the only prerequisite is a total of 48 previous junior credit points. It is also available for non-degree study to people not enrolled at university.

Tracey beams as she tells me this. As the first point of Western settlement, most Indigenous languages in New South Wales were reduced to simple nouns and colloquial phrases upon colonisation. One of the first casualties of imperialism is language and, as a result, cultural identity.

This loss of identity was ideal for colonial settlers. According to Tracey, Indigenous peoples were completely disregarded as just “Aboriginals”, a term which, in her opinion, carries overtly negative connotations.

“It [Aboriginal] is a colonial term for us. It was a way of categorising people in a way that colonists liked, instead of in a way that was accurate to representing the diversity of Australia’s first peoples.

“These days if you were to ask most Aboriginal people ‘Who are you? Where do you come from?’ They would say I’m a Yorta Yorta person, or I’m a Wiradjuri person. They would not generally say ‘I’m an Aboriginal person’ first. I think they would like to specify their nation.”

In Australia students are rarely taught about the countless massacres of Indigenous people, so the idea that an Indigenous language could be formally taught in universities should seem like a hopeless task. Even more so that it would be so popular amongst students.

“I am a Gamilaroi woman.”

There is an understated confidence to everything Tracey says.

She tells me that groups such as the Muurrbay Aboriginal Language and Culture Cooperative who teach a variety of Indigenous language courses and publish dictionaries, have been vital in restoring the Gamilaraay language.

Tracey’s ancestor, the aforementioned matriarch Mary Jane Caine (also known as the Queen of Burra Bee Dee), wrote a manuscript including the history of the people in her area, as well as a dictionary of words and place names. That manuscript is in the state library available for study.

Despite this community work, most Indigenous nations relied on a strong tradition of oral history passed down from elders. A lot of this culture and language has been lost to aggressive assimilation policies — such as the banning of spoken languages.

But these languages aren’t lost forever.

Gamilaraay has a significant amount of archival history. Missionaries wrote down prayers in Gamilaraay, surveyors such as Robert Hamilton Matthews recorded spoken Gamilaraay, and many early colonial explorers kept journals where they took notes on the spoken language. It is from these European sources that linguists and anthropologists are piecing the language back together. Ironically, the imperialists that caused the degradation of the language are now providing the sources needed to restore it.

"Baayandhu nginda" translates into "See you later." "Maarubaa" translates into "Thanks"
Art: Matthew Fisher

Tracey smiles at me as she collects her thoughts.

“Indigenous peoples in Australia and all over the world have suffered under colonisation and policies that reinforce invaders’ privileges. We want to reclaim the language, culture and land that was taken. By revitalising and reclaiming language we are demonstrating the diversity and complexity of Indigenous peoples’ cultures, knowledge and understandings of Australia,” she says.

“I think the revitalisation of Gamilaraay is a way of breaking ignorance down.”

Cameron Gooley is a Gamilaroi man and the nephew of Tracey Cameron.