Mrs Nancy Egan and Mrs Jackson Stuart[i]
Mrs Nancy Egan and Mrs Jackson Stuart are Victorian Aboriginal women who played a vital role in the preservation of their People’s language.
Table 1: Approximate location of particular languages, source: Hercus, Map 2, page ix[ii].
MRS NANCY EGAN
Image 1: Mrs Nancy Egan revisiting the Edwards River with Luise Hercus (1965): Hercus, 6(b), page xviii[iii].
Mrs Egan was a fluent WembaWemba speaker in her youth, with her brother Stan Day and their ‘uncle’, ‘old Johnnie’ Taylor from Balranald[iv].
WembaWemba country stretched from Kerang to Swan Hill (on the Loddon River) and south to Charlton (on the Avoca River) and north to Booroorban and Moulamein in New South Wales at Barham, Lake Boga and Boort[v].
When the WembaWemba were forced from their land, they concentrated at the Moonacullah Mission, 25miles downstream from Deniliquin on the Edwards River. Because they remained settled as a unit, their language survived to a comparatively late stage. When she met Luise Hercus, it was many years since she and her family had consistently used the language. However, they loved the WembaWemba language and were vitally interested in it.
“When I got married and lived for years down at Framlingham I used to cry because I felt so lonely for the old people speaking in the language[vi].”
Whilst apparently out of practice, they regained fluency whilst talking to Luise.
The language described gives a most beautiful insight into the country and the culture of the WembaWemba along with their daily life at the time they spoke with Dr Hercus. There are names for insects. The mozzy is liri. Animals include wilgar, the dingo and bingal the carpet snake. There are names for birds – the corella is gadjega, the white crane is wanj and bangal is the wedge-tailed eagle. Nadan is the crayfish.
Wudwid is a kind of toy. Footprint is djinenjuk. “I’m hiding from the policeman’ – djabanda beligmena.
“We could always understand what the old people said, and we could talk back to them in language, but when they started singing, then we couldn’t understand. My grandfather used to be quite cross with me because he then had to go on explaining the song over and over again.[vii]”
Mrs Egan, like all WembaWemba women, regarded the owlet-nightjar as sacred. This is a picture of the owlet-nightjar.
Mrs Egans’ brother told Luise:
“The men liked the bat, but the women were glad and would laugh if one got killed or caught. The women loved the owlet-nightjar (yeraded-gurg, cf. gurg woman). If we boys had killed a yeraded-gurg the old women would have been after us with a walking-stick and we would have had to run for our lives”[viii].
Mrs Egan’s grandfather was Marad (David Taylor), a brilliant singer. But, he merely sang songs made by others. ‘Tommy’, a man old at the turn of the twentieth century, composed many songs. This beautiful song below, made after the death of his grandmother, tells of a dead woman trials to conquer before she can reach the ‘Land of the Dead’. If she fails, she stays ‘properly dead for ever’.
‘Who is this chasing up and disturbing the bird? You people look around and see!
It is my own grandmother.
Undo the net, for heaven’s sake undo it! Put it down on the ground this way!
Go on like mad! Run!
There is a new (and bigger) one. That one will certainly kill you.”
What a wonderful song. Energy, love, passion.
MRS JACKSON STUART
Mrs Stuart was a Wergaia speaker[ix].
Wergaia was spoken over a wide area of north-west Victoria and was one of the most important ‘Kulin’ languages. It was spoken from Dimboola to Lake Hindmarsh and Lake Albacutya, along the Wimmera River and from Yanac to Warracknabeal. They were the Wotjobaluk People[x].
When the Wergaia were forced from their land, from ~1861, they concentrated at the Ebenezer Mission, near Antwerp in the Mallee. This Mission closed in 1904.
Mrs Stuart left Ebenezer Mission before 1904 with her parents. She learnt the Wergaia language from her father, Archibald Pepper, a pelican-totem man who proudly and jealously guarded his language. Mrs Stuart was greatly interested in the language and compiled a vocabulary with great care.
Again, the language brims with joy and love. Stories aplenty. Morning dew, maternal grandmother, sweat, rainbow lorikeet, beard and ‘his liver’. There are phrases for ‘looking for something in the water’, and ‘sit down on your bottom’, ‘a snake bit my hand’ and ‘what’s the matter with you now?’.
There’s one word describing “to go past shining like a falling star” – yibunga. ‘To kick up a lot dust’ is njibua. ‘All chattering together’ is wureg-wuran.
Mrs Stuart paints pictures of a culture that’s alive, creative and full of fun.
She related a myth that revealed important cultural links to stories across Victoria.
“These two men… they are heavenly men. They saw this woman lying there crying at the bottom of the tree. She `was crying her heart out for her baby who was up in the tree, stolen by the Eaglehawk. These men flew down from the sky, they must have been heavenly men, and asked her what she was crying for, and she told them:
‘My baby is up there and the Eaglehawk is going to eat it’.
One of them (the Brambimbul brothers) climbed up the tree, and with the help of his mate, made steps in the tree so that he could climb down the tree with the baby. They used a badjig stone axe … The Brambimbul saw that the Eagle had built his nest in the fork of the tree. The Brambimbul climbed up, told the Eagle that he wanted to take the baby, and when the Eagle didn’t agree … he killed the Eagle… The Brambimbul put the baby in the bag. The Brambimbul climbed down the tree with the baby, while the other fellow climbed up the tree to help him.
They gave her the baby and cut down the tree and gathered the chips, put them into bags and said that there would never be any gum-trees growing there again, by Lake Boga, and so there weren’t …”
Kellehers celebrates these important Australian women and their contribution to Australian language and culture. Had they not trust Luise Hercus with their language and stories, she could not have written her careful linguistic record.
Because of them, we can!
[i] Today’s story draws on the extremely important Monograph by Dr Luise Hercus, 1986, Victorian Languages: A Late Survey, Pacific Linguistics, Series B – No. 77. Luise was a European trained linguist and a student of Sanscrit. When she came to live in Australia, the treasure of Aboriginal languages drew her in. She established relationships with a number of Aboriginal people who were prepared to provide her with their knowledge of language. Her description and analysis of the knowledge given to her resulted in the recording of these languages. Contemporary language revival programs derive important information from such work.
Nancy Egan and Eleanor Stuart were two women who formed a relationship with Dr Hercus and, from that, made a massive contribution to the preservation of their language.
[ii] Dr Luise Hercus, 1986, Victorian Languages: A Late Survey, Pacific Linguistics, Series B – No. 77, ix.
[iii] Hercus, L., 1986, Victorian Languages: A Late Survey, Pacific Linguistics, Series B – No. 77, xviii.
[iv] This description of Mrs Egan and her People is taken from Chapter 2 Outline of the WembaWemba Language, in Hercus, L., 1986, Victorian Languages: A Late Survey, Pacific Linguistics, Series B – No. 77, 3-71.
[v] Tindale, N.B., 1940, Distribution of Australian aboriginal tribes: a field survey. Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia, 62: 140-231 @ 194, cited in Hercus L., 1986, Victorian Languages: A Late Survey, Pacific Linguistics, Series B – No. 77, 3.
[vi] Hercus, L., 1986, Victorian Languages: A Late Survey, Pacific Linguistics, Series B – No. 77, 3.
[vii] Hercus, L., 1986, Victorian Languages: A Late Survey, Pacific Linguistics, Series B – No. 77, 22.
[viii] Quote from Mrs Egan’s brother, Stanley Day, Hercus, L., 1986, Victorian Languages: A Late Survey, Pacific Linguistics, Series B – No. 77, 61.
[ix] This description of Mrs Egan and her People is taken from Chapter 2 Outline of the WembaWemba Language, in Hercus, L., 1986, Victorian Languages: A Late Survey, Pacific Linguistics, Series B – No. 77, 72-100.
[x] Howitt, A.W., 1904, The native tribes of south-east Australia, Macmillan, London. 55, cited in in Hercus L., 1986, Victorian Languages: A Late Survey, Pacific Linguistics, Series B – No. 77, 72.