As a young girl, Walbunja-Ngarigo artist Cheryl Davison wondered why her father could not teach his children their ancestral languages.
It was only years later that she heard the story from her cousins.
Ms Davison’s father and uncle would hear their mother and her elders sitting at home speaking Dharawal. But when the kids came into the room, they would stop.
“It must have been the teachers that told the welfare protection board that the kids were coming to school, talking in language,” Ms Davison said.
“The police turned up at my grandmother’s house one day, and said, ‘If you teach the kids any of that language anymore, we’re going to chuck you in jail.'”
Ms Davison is now on the path to reclaim her language through song.
In 2019, she founded the Djinama Yilaga choir in her role as Aboriginal producer with Four Winds, an arts company based in Barraga Bay, near Bermagui on the NSW far south coast.
The choir began singing covers of popular songs and hymns that Ms Davison remembered her elders singing at church services and funerals.
But soon, the choir’s ambition grew.
Ms Davison met acclaimed singer-songwriter Lou Bennett, and worked up the courage to ask if she would help the choir learn to write songs in the Dhurga language of the far south coast.
With no musical background, and “bits and pieces” of language written down on paper and in notebooks, they started on the path to what Ms Davison describes as “a life that we never thought we’d have” — writing, recording and touring with the choir.
Language ‘rematriation’ through song
Dr Bennett is a Yorta Yorta Dja Dja Wurrung woman, best known as a member of trio Tiddas and Black Arm Band. In 2015, she completed a PhD on Aboriginal language reclamation.
“Across the southern, eastern parts of Australia and up the east coast, you’ll find many, many languages that haven’t been spoken or sung for centuries,” Dr Bennett said.
As a Senior Lecturer at Melbourne University, working in the field of language rematriation, she works with communities to bring back their languages through their own songs and stories.
“Song is what gives us our lore,” Dr Bennett said.
“When we listen deeply, we allow our language to come alive in us, because it’s alive in the country.”
For Cheryl Davison, part of the experience of writing and singing songs in Dhurga has been a realisation of what is lost when language is not passed down.
“I understand now, how destructive that is to all Aboriginal people, for us not to be able to practise our language,” Ms Davison said.
“The way we are learning is for us a very healing way, it’s a very cultural way. Singing, it’s a way of coming together as well.”
Since the first writing workshop with Lou Bennett, a Dhurga dictionary has been published, and members of the choir are studying and teaching the language.
“I don’t know if it will happen in my lifetime to speak fluently again,” Ms Davison said. “But I know with our younger generation, they’re going to be speaking it.”
The choir regularly performs at festivals and public events around the country. And the new songs keep flowing.
“If you told me five years ago that I’d be doing this, no way in the world,” said Cheryl’s daughter, Tamsin Davison, who has become an accomplished songwriter and language teacher.
“I feel filled with pride to be able to share that with my aunties and my cousins. Yeah, just pride.”