Report: Sophie Marcard
Photography: Greg Ford and Melissa Di Ciero
Images: Monash Country Lines Archive
Thousands of years of Australian history will soon disappear as Indigenous languages across the country face extinction. But philanthropy is playing a role in helping to preserve snapshots of these languages.
Through their foundation, Dr Alan Finkel AM and Dr Elizabeth Finkel have made a transformational gift to help conserve Indigenous languages through the creation of the Monash Country Lines Archive (MCLA).
In the MCLA program, a team of researchers, students and digital animators work with Indigenous communities to produce 3-D animations that help preserve the communities' languages, stories and narratives. These traditional dreaming stories are also known as Country Lines.
Alan's interest was first peaked when he saw the animation of the tiger shark Country Line (pictured) – one of the Yanyuwa language stories completed by MCLA program director Associate Professor John Bradley.
"The animation captured a traditional story of land in an engaging way," Alan said.
"It was narrated superbly well in the Indigenous language with sub-titles in English. In five minutes you absorbed a fantastic overview of a key story from that country group. I thought it was brilliant," he said.
"What an amazing way to present historical information, simultaneously providing you an audio, visual and intellectual overview."
Alan recognised that these animations preserve language, stories and culture for future Indigenous generations in a way that appeals to children and adults alike.
"We particularly liked that the Country Lines initiative demonstrated how technology and collaboration can help Indigenous communities to preserve their ancient languages," he said.
"These digital animations will survive on publicly accessible information networks. They will be reproduced for centuries and millennia without deterioration, providing
a cultural and ancestral insight for future generations; be they descendents, scholars or interested members of the broader community.
"But also, by being short and punchy these animations will engage people. Kids will look at them in their school class, or at home, and they will enjoy them."
Narratives of Country
The Country Lines that so impressed Alan were the five Country Lines animations completed by the Monash team with the Yanyuwa people of the southwest Gulf of Carpentaria. Narrated in Yanyuwa, the animations form a living cultural archive.
Associate Professor John Bradley and his team were guided by the Yanyuwa in selecting and bringing the stories to life; and the community now owns the animations.
"The vast and critical knowledge that Indigenous people have gained in their country for millennia is encoded in their language. In those languages are the treasures; in those languages are the details that we might otherwise miss out on. They provide a deep well of environmental and social knowledge," Associate Professor
Dr Elizabeth Finkel believes that it is important to see the animations as part of something bigger.
"This is more than just an animation of a dream time story. This is actually a way we can do something about the extinction of culture," Elizabeth said. "When you see the big picture, everything falls into place."
"The project is also an entry point for the development of new skills in the Indigenous communities. The Monash team will be working with people who speak those
languages; they'll be training them in communication and animation. The MCLA project will have great spin-off benefits for the communities," she said.
The gift from the Finkel Foundation will enable the team to animate 20 Country Lines per year (equal to more than 40 minutes of detailed animation) over the next five years.
"Imagine if you could do five or six animations for every single one of the hundred groups that still have these stories. What an amazing opportunity! This is a moment
in time when we can do this; a moment that can never be repeated. To let this slip through our fingers would be tragic," Alan said.
The gift to the MCLA from the Finkel Foundation extends the foundation's generous support for Monash University. The foundation has donated to a number of initiatives including Child Abuse Prevention Research Australia (CAPRA), the Finkel Chair in Global Health in the Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences, and 'top up' PhD scholarships in the Faculty of Engineering.
The Monash Country Lines Archive is a flagship program of the Monash Indigenous Centre in the Faculty of Arts, working in collaboration with the Faculty of Information Technology. The long-term aim for the MCLA is to create a physical centre or museum that forms part of the entry to the Monash Clayton campus. The museum would display Indigenous artefacts and art, and be a home for the animations, presenting them on high quality screens and providing information about the communities and how the animations were produced. It would be a museum for the general public, Indigenous communities and scholars.
The early animations were supported by the Besen Family Foundation and The Myer Foundation through the Sidney Myer Fund.
When the first fleet arrived in Australia in 1788, there were 250 separate languages spoken on the continent and there were also at least 600 dialects of these languages.
Today, less than 100 of these languages are spoken, some by only one or two people. On average, two of Australia's Indigenous languages disappear each year.
Your role in protecting Indigenous cultures: Support or view the Monash Country Lines Archive