In August 2022, the Pertame community, a small, critically endangered Central Australian language group, came together with 11 of the world’s most premier First Nations Master-Apprentice Language Program experts to make history. The Pertame School, backed with the generous support of First Nations Tertiary Education Institution: Batchelor, teamed up with the Global Indigenous Language Caucus, the Yuchi Language Project, Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival, and the Next Steps Language Revival Project to host the first Master-Apprentice conference in Australia. More than 100 Indigenous participants representing
35 endangered language groups across Australia attended in Elder and learner teams. They came with the urgent goal to learn how to create new fluent speakers of their languages from their few remaining Elder speakers.
In 2019, the Global Indigenous Language Caucus sent an email to Indigenous Australian language centers inviting representatives from Australia to their Master-Apprentice training in New York, having seen the grave danger Australian languages were in. The caucus only received one reply from all of Australia—from the Pertame language program. Pertame Elder Kathleen Bradshaw-Swan and I traveled to New York to be trained in the Master-Apprentice Program method, which pairs fluent Elder (master) and adult learner (apprentice) teams together to use breath-to-breath learning in real life contexts to create new fluent speakers of endangered Indigenous languages, and took our knowledge back to become the only active MAP in Australia.
The training in New York was revolutionary for our Pertame language program. It gave us a vision for our endangered language that we had never even conceived before: we could actually bring our language back as the living, breathing voice of our community. We knew this knowledge would benefit Indigenous communities across Australia. We had to move the conversation in Australia away from the traditional archive/record/study/write approach to speak, breathe, live, and thrive in our languages. We knew we were the bridge to connect the most successful grassroots community language activists in the United States with the wider language revival movement in Australia. From this connection and urgent mission, the conference took shape.
Kathleen Bradshaw-Swan, a Pertame Elder, speaking with youth.
Kathleen Bradshaw-Swan (PERTAME), Elder
I am a Pertame Elder from Twenga, an Indigenous language group from Central Australia. Wow, what a massive week we had! Two cultures coming together in Mparntwe Alice Springs— our Native American friends from across the ocean and our own Indigenous language speakers from across Australia. Such a diversity of Peoples and languages, but with one dream: getting back our precious languages that were brutally taken away from us. It is up to each and every one of us now to ensure the passion and enthusiasm of the conference keeps growing, until our hearts are filled with our languages once more.
Doreen Abbott (PERTAME), Elder and Language Master
I am a Pertame Elder, born in Alice Springs and raised at Idracowra Station, my ancestral home. What an experience I had being a part of the Pertame tribe that invited people from over the ocean and all across our land to this conference! Meeting and greeting everybody filled me with a warm feeling. Our Native American friends taught us all how to keep our languages alive and strong. My sister Pam Abbott and I loved every session at the conference. If we keep teaching the children and apprentices the language, with patience and time we will have very strong speakers in all our communities that will eventually become the next generation Master speakers. This conference gave us the opportunity to get to know each other and become friends for life. Thanks to the Native American trainers for sharing their knowledge with us. I hope that their languages will be kept alive and strong and that we can all keep in close contact with each other to build on what we have learned.
Samantha Armstrong (PERTAME), Language Apprentice and Conference Organizer
I am a Pertame woman from Idracowra and Tunga. Reconnecting to my language is a learning journey I share with my children and grandchildren. It is one also shared with my two aunties, Auriel and Leeanne Swan, my cousin Vanessa Farrelly, and my niece Shania Armstrong. Our Elders Lyurra Christobel and Kathleen Swan and Yaye Doreen Abbott are our Masters. They are our mentors who teach us Pertame from their lived experiences of maintaining and keeping the language strong so that we apprentices can learn and speak as our ancestors did when there was no English spoken in our Pertame country.
I was fortunate to be part of an amazing team and I am forever grateful for my irteya Vanessa Farrelly’s and Alyawarra wonder woman Kathryn Gilbey’s support from start to finish. We were supported by an amazing network of volunteers who worked tirelessly to ensure everything ran smoothly. The opening ceremony was so beautiful and powerful, bringing two cultures together to celebrate a special week ahead and to celebrate everything that makes us who we are. Although we live in different parts of the world, we are all the same. Our relationship with every living being on country all have a special meaning to us, and that connection is our mother tongue.
I enjoyed every aspect of learning from our Native American friends; just hearing their experiences of their own revitalization efforts to make their own languages strong again inspired me even more. Participating in workshops made everything clearer and it gives me so much hope that I, along with my children, can make Pertame strong by speaking it more and throwing out English. Even my children have been inspired—my youngest daughter, Abby Lee, said to me the other day that we should speak Pertame now so that she can speak it more and be confident when they are in class learning with the other Pertame kids.
Pertame children joining Lakota Prairie Chicken Dance.
Vanessa Farrelly (PERTAME), Project Organizer and Language Apprentice
We really had the dream team of the foremost experts of the Master-Apprentice model in Alice Springs at this conference. What made them so powerful was not the content of the training, but the fact that they are the living, breathing proof that it works. We all face the same barriers as Indigenous people in Australia, and now we have the method, the hope, and the inspiration we need to fight tooth and nail for our languages. As we have seen, this is a lifetime journey. We will have to put aside all shame of being ridiculed, of getting it wrong, of being corrected by our Elders. We need to grow thick skin and be guided by the fire inside us to become a fluent speaker. We will have to commit at least 10-20 hours a week of learning, and we will have to not retreat to the comfort of an English translation. We will have to continue with little funding, and chase our Elders around to actively turn every situation into a language learning opportunity.
After this conference, we now know we can do it, and we know how to do it. The only question left is, will we do it? Will we make the time, the effort, and the courage to learn our language as an adult? Our Elders are our encyclopedias of our ancient heritage, and we don’t have the luxury to tap into their wisdom forever. I cannot wait to see the Master-Apprentice model take off in Australia, and watch all the language groups present at the conference take on the challenge of continuing their language as the living, breathing, spoken voice of their community.
Learn more about the Pertame School at www.pertameschool.org.
Top photo: Master-Apprentice Conference participants and trainers in Alice Springs, Australia.