Aboriginal elder Michael Kulka overheard a conversation between students that stopped him in his tracks while on a recent visit to the local primary school at Mossman, an hour north of Cairns in far north Queensland.
It wasn’t the topic of the discussion that struck him, but the fact that the children were speaking in snippets of his native language, Kuku Yalanji.
The words transported him back to his own early childhood, growing up on the banks of the Daintree River surrounded by traditional language and culture. As a boy, he would paint himself in white clay and sneak up on the “old girls” while they were fishing in the river, earning him the nickname he still bears today: Uncle Spook.
When he was around five years old, his parents stopped speaking Kuku Yalanji in line with discriminatory government laws that banned cultural practices.
“I lost something and I wanted it back,” said Mr Kulka, now 73.
It wasn’t until age 17 that he ventured three hours north to immerse himself in the Wujal Wujal community, where Kuku Yalanji was still the dominant language, to reacquaint himself with his native tongue.
These days, he loves nothing more than to sit with his granddaughter, telling her the language names for birds and trees. But without proper teaching, he worries his grandkids will “gradually lose it later on”.
More than 250 Indigenous languages were spoken across Australia prior to colonisation. Only 13 are still spoken by children. Census data show there are now just over 300 Kuku Yalanji speakers. In Mossman, Mr Kulka is one of only about a dozen people who speak the language fluently.
Read more: Brisbane Times