Unsuspected literacies in the bush


At left: Maimie Butler, Inge Kral, Jennifer Green.
What happens if we stop looking at Indigenous literacy in terms of deficit – of what is not happening –  and instead look at what is happening? An educator with 20 years’ experience in Indigenous education and also a linguistic anthropologist, Inge Kral, has written a book that does just that, focussing on the Ngaanyatjarra community of Blackstone in Western Australia. It’s called Talk, Text and Technology and was launched this week at Red Kangaroo Books in Alice Springs.
Her friend and informant Maimie Butler, who spoke at the launch, grew up at Warburton and had an interesting story to tell about the evolution of her Indigenous language: “Every tribe came in from anywhere [she named several places], we all came in from different directions, we stayed at Warburton Mission. Most of our old people used to talk in their own language but as we grew up we changed it, different children from different family groups, it became known as Ngaanyatjarra language. We all call ourself Ngaanyatjarra.”
She and other young people at the mission were sent away for formal schooling “to the goldfields”. When they returned they found that their families had left Warburton, returning eastwards, to their traditional lands: “So we had to chase them up and live with them at Blackstone,” she said.
“I’m really happy for my family, because while we moved away we took our language with us, the Ngaanyatjarra, but the old language, the Ngaatjatjarra, faded for us. But we stilll hang on to that Ngaanyatjarra language and now today our children are talking Ngaanyatjarra.”
Not only talking, but reading and writing too, said Dr Kral. Mrs Butler’s granddaughter, by dint of growing up around a woman with strong literacy in her own language as well as English, has acquired Ngaanyatjarra literacy and today uses it to communicate with her friends on Facebook. This is a mode of learning that Dr Kral is interested in, one that doesn’t rely on explicit teaching, and it’s being put to use in a mode of communication that likewise is self-taught, self-directed. Young people in remote areas, like their counterparts in cities around the world, are learning through one another and by themselves to use digital technologies and networked communications.
‘Writing to make very special things for beloved family’
Jennifer Green, a well-known linguist in Central Australia and now with the University of Melbourne’s School of Languages and Linguistics, also spoke at the launch, referring to Kral’s observation of multiple literacies: “There are some really beautiful examples which are taken from everyday interactions in the bush where people are using literacy in a lot of ways that other observers of literacy practices might not have noticed. There are examples from funerals in the bush [and birthday parties] and how people use writing to make very special things for beloved family.”
She quoted a passage describing the diversity of media used by teenagers for inscription:
“Every surface is dogged with the textual scribblings, patterns, icons, authorising marks of youth. Adolescents do not discriminate between surfaces but interact with all materials of the built environment – brick, concrete, plastic, metal and paper – as surfaces to be filled with written expressions of self. Tags are smoked onto ceilings with cigarette lighters, rendered in marker pens on plastic bottles, and in petrol on the road on sniffing nights. Welded in metal letters on the benches, drawn in dust on car windows, in refrigerator condensation, carved on trees, scrawled in charcoal on cement floors, etched onto the skin as tattoos, traced in the sand during story-telling.”
Dr Green assured us that Kral also addresses “some of the hard questions that are probably in the thoughts of anyone who has engaged in remote communities. For example, what is literacy for, who uses what language for what purpose, what is the role of Indigenous literacies in the context of school-based literacies, are these just stepping stones or are there deeper lessons to be learnt, how do people use all of these things and how do they achieve things that they want to do?
“Kral acknowledges that these issues are serious. Education and skills in whitefeller literacy do not necessarily achieve the aimed-for goals in employment and this can lead to disillusionment. Kral challenges the idea that formal schooling is at the centre of social change. Rather she provides great insight into literacy practices in contexts outside of formal schooling.”
Participating in global cultures
These nonetheless have “enormous implications for both learning and employment in Indigenous communities”. For example, “new technologies are opening the doors for young people to participate in global cultures. The mobile phone network has reached Warburton and this has lead to the development of Aboriginal media and music broadcasting and production in the [Ngaanyatjarra] Lands. New young leaders are emerging through their involvement with media and other technologies.”
The book is “historically grounded”, tracing “the impact of western literacy on Ngaanyatjarra lives over four generatiosn beginning in the 1930s”, but it is also “forward looking”: “Although there is an explicit critique of narrowly defined aspirations for literacy, by looking at literacy as it happens, on the fly and in context, Kral gives a way forward in a vision of combining old and new in ways that will work to improve and enhance people’s lives. As she writes: ‘The implications of technological change in the remote sector are enormous and yet to be harnessed.'”


  1. Yes, transferring literacy from the community is much easier than introducing it, in school. But of course, it will only transfer to functional standard English if the purpose for it requires standard English. So the ubiquitous tags, textual scribblings, patterns, icons, authorising marks of youth etc satisfy their purpose of communication within the group, but don’t lend themselves to development that could, for example, help to make people job ready. It’s also important to consider the cultural context of literacy and the formidible barriers presented to using local literacies as stepping stones. I know people on remote communities who are literate but hide it, some even hide their ability to understand English. This is a society where most knowledge is considered private to individuals or groups, not just given away to anyone. And to be known to be able to understand some of the complexity of English and Whitefella matters, for example, to be able to complete a form, opens a person to endless demands from relatives that they perform this role, or transcribe songs, or read eulogies. Community literacies are interesting and of local importance but they are not the foundation stones they may appear to be.

  2. Great article Kieran look forward to reading Inge Kral’s book. Talk Text and Technology–
    Hi Ralph,
    Not sure what you are really saying here– cannot resist the urge to respond in some way –guess it is the old curriculum wars, history wars, literacy wars, pedagogical wars, and differing beliefs and perceptions about almost everything.
    I remember the Kungka Tina Tjuta [the big girls class] 1991 and the well attended afternoon classes where the girls struggled with determination and delight making up stories using the language, characters and nonsense of traditional stories [vocabulary stuck around the room] combining this with perhaps what you name their personal community literacies. In the evening I would struggle through these “texts” adjusting them so they were readable to the whole class the next morning.
    I’d arrive next morning with lots of little stories, stapled together into little books of assorted scap paper, with little maps, sketches and symbols. One example I recall –” Jabberwocky drove Toyota to Alice Springs with three bears. Goldilocks was crying for ice cream. Kumintjayi went back home” The eagerness, pride and anticipation of having their stories shown and read out as a valued piece of work was quite a moving experience for me, the girls would teach me some Pintupi words and much learning was generated.
    It was here that I realised the importance of language, literacy and literature, in all its forms, as the tools needed for all to engage in local, national and global learning opportunities. I also learnt about the importance of being seen, valued, listened to and heard. I finish with a verse of one of their favourite adapted stories.
    One, two! One, two! And through and through
    The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
    He left it dead, and with its head
    He went galumphing back.


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