“Heads and shoulders, knees and toes, we all clap hands together.” It’s a chorus sung by excitable pre-schoolers all over the country. The sound of young hearts and minds learning as they go. But for a group of Grafton pre-schoolers they sing together in a different language. The language of Bundjalung Country.
“Gunngalair,” says Dean Loadsman. The children in the room stop and look up. It takes a moment for them to settle down from all the activity, but it’s obvious they know what it means … listen. “Who remembers the word for kangaroo?” Dean asks. Hands shoot up in the air and the young voices call out “gurraman!”.
By bringing the culture and language back we’re just wanting to share with everyone, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal
Artist and youth worker Dean Loadsman is visiting the pre-school as part of Balun Budjarahm Cultural Experience, a Clarence Valley based cultural education organisation. Together with fellow artist Bianca Monaghan and Uncle Roger Duroux, Dean shares local language, songs, stories, art, artefacts and traditional dance through pre-schools, schools, youth programs and community events.
“Balun Budjarahm means ‘river dreaming’ in Bundjalung language,” Dean explains. “The connection to the river is very significant. The river connects the three nations, the Bundjalung, Gumbaynggirr and Yaegl. It’s a unique spot here. It’s like the crossroads where the three nations all connect. The name also came from the connection with our youth dance group Us Mob Balun Ngahriga and how we perform up and down the river.”
“A lot of our culture was lost as it wasn’t allowed to be practised in the past,” says Dean. “By bringing it back and bringing the language back we’re just wanting to share with everyone, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. It’s about bringing everyone together and the healing process. I think it’s so powerful. Learning and sharing and teaching the culture,” says Dean.
Uncle Roger, a respected Bundjalung Gumbaynggirr Elder, says that learning together is all part of the process. “Listening and learning from each other. And hearing a different story every time makes it more, you know, exciting. The three of us learn from each other,” he says.
“There’s 13 clans in the Bundjalung. And you’ll find the Clarence River runs along there and up into Tooloom. I think they say there’s 380km of river and then it makes it way down and that’s where some of the stories start and they go along and connect up the whole river,” says Uncle Roger.
Bianca explains that she learnt the story of the river from her grandmother (reproduced below). “I was pretty lucky growing up,” says Bianca. “Being from Baryulgil we had a fair bit of culture out there. My grandmother, she told me the story of the river Dirrangun so I pass that one on in the schools. She was a highly regarded Elder so I was really lucky to have her as a grandmother. I think as a kid you take it for granted. She was forever telling us to sit down and listen and we’d just want to run and play. You don’t realise until you’re older. We’re just lucky that she made sure we knew her stories and knew our language and knew our seasons of hunting.”
“My hope is that our Aboriginal culture is part of everyone’s knowledge. Everyone should know the stories and know the language. We are teaching the kids from here to say ‘Jingi-wala’. So if they grow up with that when they travel they can say, ‘where I’m from we say ‘Jingi-wala’. That simple one word can mean a lot. We’ve got non-indigenous kids in our dance group, and they love it just as much as the Aboriginal kids. And that’s what it’s about.”
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By Justine McClymont. Photographed for Clarity by Gary Parker.