An Heir to a Tribe’s Culture Ensures Its Language Is Not Forgotten
The Saturday Profile
The New York Times
NARRANDERA, Australia — Stan Grant, crudely tattooed in a way that hints at the petty crime and drunken brawls of his youth, clasped gnarly hands across his round belly and murmured: “birrangbirrang, birrangbirrang.”
Mr. Grant had spotted a small kingfisher, or birrangbirrang in Wiradjuri, as it swooped low over the Murrumbidgee River in the oppressive summer heat, calling to its mate.
Slipping back into English, he spoke over the whirring of cicadas in the river red gum trees that line the sandy banks: “It is smaller than a kookaburra. Its mate will be nearby.”
Mr. Grant, 75, is an elder of Australia’s second-largest Aboriginal tribe, the Wiradjuri, who roamed most of central New South Wales before white farmers surged inland in the early 1800s.
Until recently, he was one of only a handful of people still speaking the tribal language, also called Wiradjuri (pronounced wi-RAD-jury), which nearly died out in the 20th century, when Aboriginals could be jailed for speaking their native tongue in public.
“You are nobody without language,” Mr. Grant said. “The world does not respect a person who does not have language.”…
…Mr. Grant was probably 8 or 9 years old the night a local policeman heard his grandfather, Wilfred Johnson, and locked him up. But he does not recall a sense of alarm.
“He was an elegant man,” he said of Mr. Johnson. “He was beautifully dressed, usually in a coat and hat. But he was black. So it wasn’t the first time he had spent the night in jail.”
After the arrest, Mr. Johnson, who spoke seven languages, refused to speak Wiradjuri in public…
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