The loss of one of Australia’s ancient Aboriginal languages was mourned yesterday with the burial on Cape York of its last fluent speaker, Tommy George.
A renowned stockman, tracker, land right’s activist and co-founder of the Laura Aboriginal Dance Festival, he was the sole custodian of Awu Laya, the language of the Kuku Thaypan people.
He and his brother George Musgrave were awarded honorary doctorates by James Cook University for their help in documenting language and traditional fire management of land...
Dr George died late last month. The 87-year-old, buried along with his son Thomas, 58, who died just days after him, was yesterday lauded as one of the “greatest elders’’ of north Queensland.
He famously took on billionaire Gina Rinehart, leading her to abandon plans in 2014 to dig for diamonds in the rock art country around Laura, 150km west of Cooktown, and helped secure indigenous management of the national parks on Cape York.
In a eulogy at a ceremony near Laura attended by indigenous leaders Noel Pearson, Richie Ahmat and Mike Ross, indigenous filmmaker Victor Steffensen said Dr George’s passing marked the loss of an ancient language.
He said Dr George and his brother, who died in 2006, had shared their knowledge of custom, language and the land with scientists, family and the clan. “It is a great loss for us to lose these great old men, and today we also lose the Awu Laya language,’’ he said.
“Dr Tommy George was the last fluent speaker of Awu Laya language. At one time, (he) started teaching the language to his grandchildren at the Laura School. His grandchildren have some of this language as a result and continue to share this with their families. Tommy was a great story teller, he loved to make a joke, and he liked to keep everyone in line.’’
It is believed that 120 of an estimated 300 Aboriginal dialects have been lost since European settlement.
Mourners were told Dr George and his brother were raised in traditional ways by family while living and working on the Musgrave Station, on Cape York.
The two escaped the clutches of the authorities, who took Aboriginal children away as part of the Stolen Generation, because of then station owner Fred Shepherd, whom they called “Dad’’.
“At a time when police were removing Aboriginal children and families off country and into missions, old Fred would hide the two boys in mailbags and put them in the storeroom whenever police turned up,’’ Mr Steffensen said.
“Through the day and night, old Fred would sneak food and water up to the boys to keep them comfortable.’’
Dr George and his brother later joined the legions of legendary Aboriginal stockman, who worked throughout Cape York.
Almost three decades ago, he co-founded the Laura festival, held every two years on traditional “bora’’ grounds. He said the festival helped keep tradition alive. “This is how we teach our young,’’ he said. “It is how we teach them to hunt, fish, find bush tucker (and) what is right and wrong.’’