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Australian State Enacts Landmark Laws to Revive Aboriginal Languages

Traditonally dressed Australian Aboriginal performers participate in a 'Corroboree' showcasing traditional dance during an event to mark National Reconciliation Week on Sydney's Coogee Beach May 27, 2015.

In Australia, a drive is on to restore the identity and culture of the country’s native, non-European peoples. New South Wales is the first state to pass laws to recognize and revive indigenous languages.

Dozens of languages and dialects are thought to have been lost since European colonization in the late 18th century. They were the target of deliberate efforts by Australian authorities to eradicate languages considered inferior to English.

About 250 First Nation languages existed when British settlers arrived in the late 18th century, but only about half are thought to exist today. Campaigners say that reviving them is not about nostalgia but restoring cultural pride and identity.

Center of excellence

The New South Wales Aboriginal Affairs Minister Sarah Mitchell said new legislation would help them to be “re-awakened and nurtured.”

The laws will ask a panel of First Nation linguists to help guide official policy, and a new center of excellence will also be set up.

Ray Kelly, an indigenous academic at Australia’s University of Newcastle, says it is a momentous time.

“This is a magnificent day,” he said. “Its (the legislation) genesis is 30 years, 40 years old, so people have been talking about the rights for language and the protection of Aboriginal languages for so long.”

But indigenous elders have also cautioned politicians not to exert too much control over the preservation of ancient languages.

Let Aboriginals lead

Murray Butcher said it is important that the power lies with Aboriginal communities, not parliament.

“Let’s do something right and help us save our languages. Put the power back into our people to save our languages and let us control our own destiny,” Butcher said.

Aboriginal languages date back thousands of years and are not simply about communication. They are repositories of ancient beliefs and customs, and a vital part of the living history of indigenous Australians.

First Nations people, or native Australians, make up just more than 3 percent of Australia’s national population. They suffer disproportionately high rates of ill-health, early death, unemployment and imprisonment.