Indigenous language and culture: What role is played by communication technologies in the maintenance of indigenous language and culture?

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Communication technologies can have an important role to play in the maintenance of indigenous language and culture. Whether this is a positive or a negative role depends largely on the way in which the technology is introduced, used and controlled.

Indigenous languages all over the world are in danger of extinction. 'Some linguists predict that... as many as 90% of the world's languages - most of which are indigenous - will cease to be spoken in the course of the next century (Krauss, M. 1992, in Maffi, L. 1998). At the 16th annual session (1998) of the Centre for Human Rights' Working Group on Indigenous Peoples a large number of delegates stressed the importance of their language to them 'not only to their education, but indeed to their own identity and livelihood, to the continued development of their knowledge systems and cultural traditions, and to their relationship to land' (Maffi, L. 1998). Language not only communicates the knowledge of a culture, it also creates and upholds the knowledge, beliefs and wisdom's (Maffi, L. 1998).

This is true for indigenous Australians who see their language as the 'heart of their culture' (Michaels, E. 1986, p6). At the time of European settlement of Australia there were about 300,000 Aboriginal people who spoke between 500 and 600 different dialects. Just over 200 years later all Aboriginal languages are endangered and many of the languages are irretrievably lost (Aird, M. 1996 and House of Representatives Standing Committee. 1993. p1). 'Only about one tenth of the languages survive today in a relatively healthy state. About a third of the original languages continue to be spoken but are under considerable threat, often being spoken by only a handful of elderly speakers' (House of Representatives Standing Committee. 1993. p1). The initial loss in language occurred because of the huge decline in Aboriginal population caused by massacres, introduced diseases and displacement (House of Representatives Standing Committee. 1993. p2). From the first fleet until the 1970s Australian governments have had a policy of harsh assimilation towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) people in which their 'language and identity were largely denigrated and repressed.' (House of Representatives Standing Committee. 1993. p8) The 'Aboriginals Protection and Restrictions of Sales of Opium Act of 1897' gave the government the power to take people away from their families and put them under the control of the state (Aird, M. 1996. p11). In the missions people were actively discouraged from speaking their own language. 'If the old people tried to teach the younger people, they were sent to Palm Island, at the pleasure of the Superintendent in those days. It was a crime to teach us languages, that's why we were going backwards...The old people were frightened of getting sent away...' (Douglas, A. in Aird, M, 1996. p14).

The imposition of the hegemony of European culture and language was reflected and reinforced by the media. The media seems to give more credence to migrant communities than to indigenous culture. 'While media operations place great value on knowledge of say foreign languages of experience of being a member of an ethnic community, none of them, to my knowledge, places a premium on extensive experience with Aboriginal people.' (Havnen, O. in Hartley, J. & McKee, A. 1996. p38). Australian media has a history of racism against ATSI people typified at the turn of the century by the Bulletin magazine which, according to Havnen, regularly referred to Aboriginal people as 'Abos,' 'Niggers' and 'Coons,' (Hartley, J. & McKee, A. 1996. p38). Havnen claims 'there has been a consistent tendency over the years for much of the media to propagate negative or untruthful statements about our peoples, by planting false and misleading ideas in the mind of the public about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The tactic has been to approach Aboriginal issues using trivialisation,...
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