CALL

Centre for Australian Languages and Linguistics

Christobel Swan finalist for 2021 National NAIDOC Female Elder of the Year Award

Christobel Swan is a proud Pertame Southern Arrernte woman, who grew up on-country at Henbury Station, and now resides in Alice Springs. She is one of the last remaining fluent speakers of Pertame, a severely endangered Arandic language, spoken to the south of Alice Springs. Christobel is also a caring and dedicated mother, aunty, grandmother and great grandmother to so many people. She cares for her family deeply, and is always willing to lend a hand and look after people.

Christobel Swan is a leader in Aboriginal language rights. Christobel Swan was one of the first ever Aboriginal interpreters in the Northern Territory, working within the courts, prisons, Centrelink and hospitals for 30 years to ensure that Aboriginal people received vital information in a language they could understand. Christobel was the Co-Ordinator of the Aboriginal Interpreter Service at the Institute for Aboriginal Development throughout the 1980s. Christobel is NAATI accredited to interpret in five Indigenous languages, Eastern Arrernte, Western Arrarnta, Pertame, Luritja and Pitjantjara. Christobel also co-authored the “The Learner’s Wordlist of Pertame”, the first and only publication of Pertame Southern Arrernte ever made. Christobel worked at the Institute for Aboriginal Development (IAD) for many years, teaching and recording Pertame. She is the only person alive today who is completely literate and fluent in Pertame.

Even though Christobel is now retired, she is still working tirelessly to save her language and teach it to the next generation. In 2017, Christobel Swan took a family of women from Melbourne out to her homelands and communicated her vision to run an on-country language and culture school for Pertame children. The women have since granted several philanthropic donations to help make Christobel’s dream a reality. Christobel is the head teacher for Pertame School, taking her family out on country, and teaching them about their land, bushtucker, bush medicine, their skin names and their language. In 2019, Christobel launched an interactive online Pertame wordlist, with audio recordings for over 700 Pertame words and definitions.

Christobel contributed to the Central Land Council’s “Every Hill Got a Story”, a comprehensive oral history of Central Australian Aboriginal people (https://www.clc.org.au/articles/info/591). Christobel Swan was also featured in ICTV’s Bedtime Stories series, sharing the dreaming story of the goanna and perentie in Pertame that was aired on SBS, ABC and ICTV: https://www.sbs.com.au/ondemand/ar/video/1756706883518/bedtime-stories-s1-ep3-the-goanna-and-the-perentie?action=play

Christobel Swan was also one of the key elders who presented her detailed knowledge of country to win back Native Title over Henbury station. Native Title was successfully handed back to the Traditional Owners of Henbury Station in 2018, thanks to the hard work of Christobel and other elders. Christobel is now a key Traditional Owner on the Twenge Aboriginal Corporation PBC, created to look after Henbury Native Title rights and interests.

Christobel is a proud land defender. She was involved in the 2009 campaign to stop the Angela Pamela open-cut Uranium Mine just 10km south of Alice Springs. She also was a vocal opponent to the proposed Tellus Toxic Waste Dump, over Henbury Native Title land.

Christobel Swan was also a passionate advocate for the rehabilitation and healing of Aboriginal people in Central Australia. She sat as a Board Director for the Central Australia Aboriginal Alcohol Programmes Unit (CAAAPU), an Aboriginal-controlled primary provider of culturally-appropriate alcohol counselling and residential treatment services in Alice Springs. In her role, she acted as an interpreter, advisor and gave submissions to the NT and Federal Government about appropriate solutions to drug and alcohol abuse.

Today, Christobel Swan is the key elder in the Pertame Master-Apprentice program (https://callprojects.org.au/pertame). This program requires a fluent elder (the master) to spend 10-20 hours a week immersed in language with adult learners (the apprentices) to rapidly create new fluent speakers of endangered Indigenous languages. This method was developed by Native American communities in the US and has shown great success internationally. At the age of 73, Christobel now works 20 hours a week teaching four apprentices as the key fluent elder master in the only active master-apprentice program in Australia.

Christobel is also training the Pertame adult apprentices in language teaching, assisting them to teach children Pertame at Bradshaw Primary in Alice Springs, and during the Pertame school holiday programs. She has also previously taught Pertame at Alice Springs Steiner School, The Gap Youth Centre, Gillen Primary and Living Waters Lutheran School.

Christobel Swan is a hero for her family. She faced many hardships in her youth. She recalls running and hiding from police who were trying to take her away from her family at Henbury Station.

My old people told me the stories of when the police went to Twenge and shot my people like dogs. They were young people at the time and were terrified. The old people would call out ‘The police are coming to shoot us!’ When I was a child I was scared of the white people because of these stories and because welfare would come and take kids away – Christobel Swan, 2015

She lived through severe punishments for speaking her language at school.

"I remember when I was about ten, we used to come in from the station, and we'd be walking along the street, and people would say " Don't talk that language". Even at school they used to give us a hiding in the playground. And I often used to think why should I speak English? That's not my language!" - Christobel Swan

She lived through intense domestic labour on the stations for nothing but rations.

“I would wash, iron, scrub and polish the floors on my hands and knees” – Christobel Swan

Despite all her hardships, Christobel remains determined to keep her language and culture strong and fights hard to gift Pertame to the next generation. Christobel deserves recognition for her dedication, generosity and leadership.

Articles featuring Christobel:

https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/awaye/features/word-up/word-up/10209512

https://alicespringsnews.com.au/2018/05/23/to-save-a-dying-language/

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-06-20/native-title-doesnt-offer-much-indigenous-people-traditional/9891338.html

I was privileged to work with Christobel Swan at the Institute for Aboriginal Development in the 1980s. Christobel was one of the first group of students enrolled in the Institute’s Interpreter Training Program, which was then in its infancy. Not only did Christobel successfully complete the program, but she went on to be a valued member of the Institute’s Language Centre team, and was subsequently appointed as the Co-ordinator of IAD’s Aboriginal Interpreter Service, at that time the only such service in Australia.