Australian Functional Ingredients – by Vic Cherikoff

The language of food

A recent article in the National Indigenous Times moved me to write to the editor. Since my comments may never be widely seen, I urge you to read the story and perhaps you might find my response of interest. At least, I hope it provides food for thought.

The article misses the significance of the disappearance of Aboriginal languages. In Australia, it is not just a matter of a language becoming replaced by another, usually English, with life going on as usual. The disappearance of an Aboriginal clan’s native tongue is because the time is upon us when the last speakers of that language are old and dying. This means that with them goes much of their local culture; the stories, the knowledge of resources, traditions, history.

Stop and think about this. So many Australians think of Aborigines as one people but recognize that there were (600) different languages traditionally spoken across our country. But as someone who has studied the indigenous foods and medicines used by different Aboriginal clans in my work in creating an Australian native food industry, I know that some species used by even neighbouring groups were foods for one group but not even in the picture of the next.

What this means as far as language goes, is that as the last speakers die, they take with them the oral histories of generations stretching back through time. Knowledge of survival for eons evaporates and if this means little to modern Australians, let me put it in context. White occupation is only just over 200 years. Aborigines measure their skills to prosper in tens of thousands of years.

Even after just 200 years, whites are wondering where their next drink of water will come from. It won’t be from a bottle. All Australians can now wonder who will grow our food as farmers abandon drought stricken, degraded land which once supported Aborigines who lived within the land’s carrying capacity. Salt, weeds, animal and insect pests, lack of water and choked brown rivers are inescapable. It’s a far cry from the beautiful pristine country which mothered our indigenous people and who managed its many whims.

With the disappearance of languages, goes the knowledge of how to survive in Australia. The land management skills go. The future is less rich. Even bone-headed ‘developmentalists’ should mourn the loss of species which could provide the next chocolate, pepper, food oil or medicine. It means we are poorer in every way; nutritionally, wellness, culturally, socially, genetically, economically and environmentally. I haven’t even considered ethics or humanity.

I believe that it should be a matter of national urgency to preserve the remaining Aboriginal languages and oral traditions. It is insurance for our future survival.

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Vic Cherikoff