Newtown student ignites debate after singing national anthem in Eora language at international rugby match

By ALEC SMART

An Indigenous language version of the Australian national anthem was sung for the first time at an international televised event, prior to the Tri-Nations rugby union match between Australia and Argentina on Saturday 5 December, igniting new debate over the anthem and its lyrics.

Beneath slow and steady rain at Western Sydney (Bankwest) Stadium in Parramatta, Wiradjuri and Ngiyampaa artist and activist Graham Davis King introduced the Welcome to Country ceremony followed by Argentina’s national anthem, to honour the sporting guests.

Then, in an event heralded as an advancement for race relations and raising the profile of Indigenous Australians, 17-year-old Olivia Fox, a young singer from the Newtown High School of the Performing Arts, began singing the opening verse of the national anthem in the Eora language, accompanied by acoustic guitar.

“The feeling was incredible, walking out onto the field; I was just so honoured to be there in the first place,” Ms Fox later told SBS News. “As soon as I started to sing the anthem, I was overwhelmed with pride.”

Ms Fox was joined by the Wallabies – the nickname for the Australian national rugby union team – who, wearing Indigenous-themed jerseys, also sang it in Eora, followed by the well-known English language version.

Ms Fox rehearsed with the Wallabies prior to the event, so they were all familiar with the new translation of Advance Australia Fair. Rugby Australia, the Wallabies’ governing body, explained that the Eora lyrics were not a literal translation from English, but a compromise substitute covering the Eora people’s close connection to the land.

They were approved by the Metropolitan Local Land Council, a major Aboriginal organisation representing the former Eora people’s territory across the Sydney Metropolitan Region.

“I learned the anthem through the Aboriginal Vocal Identification Program,” Ms Fox explained to Channel 7. “I’ve been performing it for many events, such as State of Origin [rugby league competition] and the Australia Day concerts at the [Sydney] Opera House, and to be able to sing this as a solo with the Wallabies alongside me was an incredible feeling.”

Wallabies’ captain Michael Hooper revealed after the match, “We were practising it during the week and our guys were … proud to have the opportunity to do it.

“I think it sounded pretty good, too. Wearing an Indigenous jersey and singing that in Aboriginal and then English … it was great to be a part of.”

Ms Fox also told Channel 7, “To be able to sing in the two languages was so unreal. It was so amazing and being able to showcase my culture … it was emotional, a great feeling … I want people to hear it and learn about Indigenous culture.”

Ms Fox is a proud Wiradjuri woman whose ancestors, a hunter-fisher-gatherer clan united by language and kinship, historically occupied a vast area in central New South Wales in an area known as ‘the land of the three rivers’, including the Macquarie (Wambool), Lachlan (Kalare) and Murrumbidgee (Murrumbidjeri) rivers.

Ms Fox continued, “I am from Wiradjuri, I have family living around Wellington, Dubbo area. I’ve always been really connected to my family and my culture.”

Ms Fox’s mother, Tanya, revealed that her daughter was chosen by Rugby Australia after she was seen performing the Indigenous version of the national anthem for Randwick Colts Rugby Union at their home ground in Coogee. Ms Fox was invited to sing it during an Indigenous jersey launch in November, followed by the Tri-Nations Test match, which was televised to a worldwide audience of millions.

The Tri-Nations clash for second and third place (New Zealand’s All Blacks took the top spot) ended in a draw with the Wallabies (incidentally, an Eora word), who trailed the South Americans 13-6 at half time, making up the shortfall to tie 16-16 by the end of the match.

Anthemic debate

Although the singing of the national anthem’s first verse in Eora was widely celebrated as a necessary step towards more inclusivity for Indigenous peoples in Australian’s national songs and identity, there was mixed reaction from those keen to completely overhaul and update the lyrics of the 1878-composed song.

South Sydney rugby league star, Latrell Mitchell, who, along with other Indigenous rugby league players Cody Walker, Josh Addo-Carr and Will Chambers boycotted singing Advance Australia Fair throughout the 2019 State of Origin series, posted criticism on his Instagram page.

In a since-deleted post, Mitchell reportedly said: “When will people understand that changing it to language doesn’t change the meaning? Be proud but understand what you’re being proud of.”

Boxer Anthony Mundine, who has previously refused to enter boxing rings until the anthem has concluded, has chimed in with condemnation of the lyrics. Describing Advance Australia Fair as the “theme song for the White Australia Policy” in the Daily Telegraph, he said, “For me … It’s like kicking someone when they’re down. The message of the anthem is wrong … It was putting salt into the wound for Aboriginal men.

“If they want to change things then actually change the words of the anthem. But you can’t just sing [it] in Aboriginal language and think it’s going to fly with people.

“It got people talking but it still ain’t the right message. It looks good and sounded good when the Wallabies sang it and it looks like they’re giving back – but they’re not really giving back.”

Like the debate surrounding Australia Day, there has long been controversy over Advance Australia Fair, which is seen as uninclusive of Indigenous people. One of the most divisive lines is: “Australians all, let us rejoice, for we are young and free.”

Although Britain officially declared the island continent part of the British Commonwealth in 1770, and settlers arrived to establish a penal colony in 1788, Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders have resided here continuously for over 60,000 years – although they weren’t permitted citizenship until 1967.

Harper Nielsen, who in September 2018 refused to stand and sing the national anthem in school because of its lyrics. Senator Pauline Hanson said she needed a “kick up the backside” and Jarrod Bleijie, Queensland’s Shadow Minister for Education, called her a “brat”.

In September 2018, Harper Nielsen, a nine-year-old student of Kenmore South State School in Brisbane, refused to stand in school assembly for the national anthem, in protest at what she insisted was institutional racism. Her defiance brought to the surface a long-simmering national debate.

Nielsen claimed she did it to “raise awareness and get people thinking”.

“When it says ‘we are young’ it completely disregards the Indigenous Australians who were here before us,” Nielsen explained to ABC News.

However, far-right senator Pauline Hanson condemned Nielsen as “disgraceful” and a “brat”.

“Here we have a kid that has been brainwashed and I tell you what, I would give her a kick up the backside,” Hanson castigated. “We’re talking about a child who has no idea,” she bemoaned, adding: “This is divisive. I’m proud of the national anthem. It’s about who we are as a nation.”

Queensland’s Shadow Minister for Education, Jarrod Bleijie, from the Liberal-National coalition, also condemned the action.

A spokesperson for the Queensland state education department later revealed that when the school learned in advance that Nielsen would not participate, they offered her the choice of remaining outside the hall during the anthem or simply not singing.

When Nielsen declined and then refused to stand and sing the anthem, she was issued with a detention punishment for “blatant disrespect”.

New lyrics

The Recognition in Anthem Project (RAP), a non-profit organisation founded in January 2017, is campaigning for a change in the lyrics of the national anthem to recognise Indigenous peoples.

They have released a re-written version, with new second and third verses that embrace the 60,000 years history of all First Nation Australians and a call for unity with more recent arrivals.

On 11 November, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian joined the chorus for a reappraisal of the national anthem by supporting the campaign to alter the opening lines of Advance Australian Fair from “we are young and free” to “we are one and free”.

In an interview with ABC TV she said, “Recognising all of our key parts of our society is critical … and I think if we say, ‘we’re one and free’, it acknowledges that we’re not really young as a continent. We’re tens of thousands of years old when it comes to human inhabitants.

“I think it’s about time we recognise the tens of thousands of years of the First Nations people of this continent. Unity is so important.

As to whether the anthem is performed in Indigenous tongues in future, the matter is complicated, because although the New Zealand national anthem combines a Maori and an English verse, there are over 300 distinct language groups of Indigenous peoples across Australia.

Eora is from the Dharug group of languages that were spoken around the Sydney Basin by the original occupants, whose traditional territory spread from the Georges River and Botany Bay in the south to Pittwater and the Hawkesbury River in the north, and west to Parramatta.

Native speakers included the Cadigal, Wangal, Cammeraygal, Wallumettagai, Bidjigal and Ku-ring-gai tribes, and although much of their language has been lost as the native speakers were killed or driven away, there are linguistic revival programs to bring it back.

The Eora language gave us many important words now synonymous with Australian Aboriginal culture, flora and fauna including boomerang, woomera (spear-thrower), corroboree (tribal dance), dingo, koala, wallaby, waratah and wombat.

Advance Australia Fair in Eora language

Australiagal ya’nga yabun
Eora budgeri
Yarragal Bamal Yarrabuni
Ngurra garrigarrang
Nura mari guwing bayabuba
Diara-murrahmah-coing
Guwugu yago ngabay burrabagur
Yirribana Australiagal
Garraburra ngayiri yabun
Yirribana Australiagal

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