palawa kani: Expressing the power of language in art and the museum context

1.	Luna tunapri workshop, Flinders Island, 2011. Photo: Lucia Rossi
Luna tunapri workshop, Flinders Island, 2011. Photo: Lucia Rossi

Pakana, Tasmanian Aborigines, were the first astronomers in lutruwita, later known as Tasmania. We know this because we have language words describing the skies – in darkness and light – that refer to the brightest “stars” and the light and dark between them; in fact, our story of creation tells us that the first (black) man, Palawa, was made by Muyini, who cut the ground and made the rivers; and a bright star in the sky, Rrumitina, who gave Palawa joints.[1] And we know these stories because of language revival. In Lutruwita, invasion and colonisation was swift and violent. Ancestral and intellectual traditions have been severely impacted – often to the extent of huge gaps in knowledges. Some of those gaps can be, and have been, narrowed, and even closed due to Ancestral memory and information resting in the pages of manuscripts, journals and correspondence of the colonisers.

Before colonisation there were 6–12 distinct languages spoken in lutruwita.[2] Now there is one language, palawa kani. While not enough remained of any single language for that one language to be revived, palawa kani includes words revived from most of the original languages once spoken across the island. After state-wide community meetings in the early 1990s, the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC) – the longest-running Aboriginal community organisation in the State – began to retrieve and revive our language in the form of palawa kani, work that the organisation continues today. These community gatherings provided guidance for the development of the language program, linguistic processes for a consistent sound and spelling system (unlike that of English), protocols around its use and the protection of intellectual property. Aboriginal people worked with linguists to research the sounds and grammatical features that occurred in the original languages, to understand the most reliable colonial records and to determine an orthography.[3]

The work of language retrieval is laborious, requiring rigorous historical, linguistic, geographical and archival research, and requires the close comparison and interpretation of numerous sources to ascertain cultural context. In fact, the palawa kani Language Retrieval Program could be described as one extensive research project, with many smaller research projects informing it. From those early beginnings, as a community without a language, we are now a community with two generations of families who have grown up with the opportunity to learn palawa kani. We are a community who use our language across a range of domains—from ceremony and Welcomes to writing songs and poetry, and delivering speeches. Language revival and use represents a pride in cultural identity, place, practice and memory, and it goes hand in hand with the revival and strengthening of cultural practices. After almost thirty years of working through the reclamation of language and the cultural knowledge that comes with every word revived, we are now embracing opportunities to share language with the broader community.

Recognising the importance of supporting Aboriginal cultural revival and an imperative to right some of the wrongs of the past, the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) in nipaluna/Hobart, has over the past twenty years focussed on increasing Aboriginal voice within the collections and exhibitions. Essential to this has been the use of palawa kani and a community narrative that centres the museum’s exhibitions on continuity and survival. Linking cultural memory, community knowledge, and language with the colonial archives and collections is now one of the museums most important roles. Elders often remind us that our knowledge is not lost but resting; it is a deep responsibility to reawaken it. Cultural revival is part of our story. Utilising museum collections and colonial archives in the process of reawakening cultural memory has enabled the Pakana community to revive and strengthen cultural practices such as canoe-building, basket-making and shell-stringing.

1.	Luna tunapri workshop, Flinders Island, 2011. Photo: Lucia Rossi
Luna tunapri workshop, Flinders Island, 2011. Photo: Lucia Rossi

TMAG’s most recent touring exhibition kanalaritja: An Unbroken String is a culmination of the vision of Pakana shell stringers determined to pass on this ancient practice to a new generation.[4] Through six years of cultural workshops, the exhibition was developed from oral histories and presented in the first-person as opposed to an authoritative and removed curatorial tone. Language, both palawa kani and the colloquial language of our “old fellas,” was integral to empowering a Pakana-centric perspective and shifting the emphasis from the collector, academic, historical or curio valuer to one of honouring the maker and the broader community and culture to which it belongs. kanalaritja transformed traditional museum labels from describing necklaces of “unknown” or “unprovenanced” makers as necklaces “made by our Ancestors.” Standardised museum labels, when labelled in anonymity, imply expertise and ownership belong to the institution. In kanalaritja, handwritten cards provide the maker’s name (either known or Ancestor) with shell types, recorded as known by the stringers (“marina,” “penguin,” “black crow” shell) rather than scientific terminology, to place the necklace as more than ethnographic artefact or art, but as “Ancestral cultural treasures.” 

Creating presence through language was also a powerful component of the 2020 Mona Foma festival’s kipli paywuta lumi (food to sustain us/food across time). Conceived as an “on Country” installation by Kaurna and Te Arawa artist James Tylor to celebrate Pakana architecture, food and language, the project brought together both local and interstate Indigenous artists with the Pakana community. Mona Foma audiences walked Country along a track of ochre-painted trees to reach the lina bush hut, an architecturally reimagined traditional domed structure. A small number of intimate ticketed events presented guests with traditionally prepared foods by the Pakana catering company palawa kipli, whose menu concept was based on the elemental forces of fire, earth, water and wind.

Dave Mangenner Gough, Anna Liebzeit, Samantha Rich, Tim Sculthorpe and James Tylor,  kipli paywuta lumi, Trevallyn Recreation Reserve, Mona Foma 2020. Courtesy Mona. Photo: Jesse Hunniford
Dave Mangenner Gough, Anna Liebzeit, Samantha Rich, Tim Sculthorpe and James Tylor, kipli paywuta lumi, Trevallyn Recreation Reserve, Mona Foma 2020. Courtesy Mona. Photo: Jesse Hunniford

The heartbeat of kipli paywuta lumi was a 60-minute sound piece produced by Koori artist Anna Liebzeit in collaboration with palawa kani speakers. Capturing and combining the unique sounds of the Cape Barren Island fiddle played by Merinda Sainty, Country and language, Liebzeit’s hauntingly powerful soundtrack vibrates through time and place, creating a fluid narrative of Pakana connection to the elements. In this context palawa kani provides a way of expressing a Pakana world view, a way of connecting experience to Country. The visual language of the cultural landscape, the ochred trees, the lina, and palawa kipli menu, come together through the soundtrack of language to simultaneously create an immersive cultural experience for the senses and a contemplative space for the spirit. 

Based on our journey of revival in Lutruwita, there is no doubt as to the importance of language retrieval. The confidence in welcoming visitors to Country to advocate for the protection of our cultural heritage, to say once again the proper names of places, and to see them given prominence, and to state our sovereign rights – in our own language – honours the strength and tenacity of our Elders and Ancestors. Whether through palawa kani or our voice expressed in English, language helps us reclaim space, demands the privileging of Pakana knowledges. Language is our stories, songs, knowledge – it holds and transmits our life views. Language is power, which is one of the reasons that the disruption of language is a prominent impact of the colonial project. As a community marred by the myth of extinction – piecing together Ancestral memory, community knowledge and archival records to reawaken language and culture is a powerful act of resistance. It is our hope that the gift of our Ancestors continues to be honoured – and spoken into the future.

kani milaythina-ti paywuta manta; Pakana tunapri milaythina-ti paywuta manta.
kani rrala; Pakana rrala war!
Language is in Country long way, long time – forever. Pakana knowledges come from
Country long way, long time – forever. Strong language; strong people!

Dave Mangenner Gough, Anna Liebzeit, Samantha Rich, Tim Sculthorpe and James Tylor,  kipli paywuta lumi, Trevallyn Recreation Reserve, Mona Foma 2020. Courtesy Mona. Photo: Jesse Hunniford
Dave Mangenner Gough, Anna Liebzeit, Samantha Rich, Tim Sculthorpe and James Tylor, kipli paywuta lumi, Trevallyn Recreation Reserve, Mona Foma 2020. Courtesy Mona. Photo: Jesse Hunniford


  1. ^ N.J.B. Plomley (ed), Friendly Mission, The Tasmanian Journals and Papers of George Augustus Robinson 1829–1834, 2nd edition. 
  2. ^ Palawa Kani Sounds and Spelling, Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre Inc. 1998; mina tunapri nina kani palawa kani Dictionary, Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre Inc. 2019. 
  3. ^ Ibid.
  4. ^ kanalaritja: An Unbroken String, Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, toured nationally, December 2016 – April 2020. Artlink review by Greg Lehman, published 03 February 2017  here

Zoe Rimmer is a pakana basket weaver, beginner shell stringer, Senior Curator of Indigenous Cultures at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, and Senior Indigenous Research Scholar at the University of Tasmania focusing on repatriation and First Nations museology.

Theresa Sainty is a Pakana woman, an Aboriginal Linguistic Consultant for the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC) with the palawa kani Language Program and a Senior Indigenous Research Scholar at the University of Tasmania. Theresa is also a member of the First Languages Australia (FLA) committee.

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