Pigram-Ross, who peppers her conversation with Yawuru phrases, reminds every student of the significant role they play in reclaiming the local language and history.
“The kids that I teach are fabulous ... they’re helping to keep a language that’s endangered alive. Each and every one of them are special and each and every one of them our elders will thank for helping them keep the language and culture strong,” she says.
The teaching program was first created back in 1997 to meet concerns raised by the community.
“The Yawuru people were concerned that the language was close to dying with no young people learning it and very few elders left who speak it fluently,” Pigram-Ross explains.
Since then however, the program has grown in strength thanks to the dedicated work of community elders and teachers. Language teacher Dianne Appleby first started the program, working alongside her mother Doris Edgar to revitalise the language in the classroom. Edgar personally spent time visiting the school until she was well into her 80s where she provided valued mentorship for the teachers.
Although she has now passed, Pigram-Ross says “she is always with me”.
“[She was] a very generous elder who shared her culture and knowledge for many, many years and so it’s through her efforts that we have been able to keep our language program continuing and growing in strength.”
Edgar also drew on her upbringing, providing students with incredible insight into historical struggles faced by Aboriginal people including the fight for equal wages and the stolen generation era. She recalled memories from her childhood.
“The date of her birth wasn’t recorded, like many of our elders born in the bush in her homeland, so even those parts of her life were shared.
“She didn’t go to school, she didn’t learn to read or write, so we spoke a lot about her upbringing with the children, to show that elders who are quite knowledgeable, who are very wise in our culture and very strong, may not be wise in the sense of the western ways of reading and writing…
“Her school was the bush, her parents where her teachers, her family were her teachers, she knew how to find water, she knew which animals to hunt and gather during the different seasons,” Pigram-Ross shares, noting Edgar’s legacy includes helping to shape the Yawuru language curriculum used by the school.
“Her life was really a big part of sharing the culture, as a role model and a very inspirational person...”
One significant challenge the community faces is the residual impacts of discrimination which have seen many of the older generation robbed of their ability to speak Yawuru with their families following colonisation.
“We do need to work on those generations, like my parents and grandparents that were forbidden to speak their language, to build that confidence up to something stronger, so we give them the opportunity to speak language with the young ones that are learning at school … that’s our big challenge for our community at the moment.”
The ability to speak across generations is somewhat of an ambition for Pigram-Ross and her community while simultaneously continuing to support students to flourish and embrace their heritage.
It is success in this area which gives her pride.
Pigram-Ross explains that although not all students have Yawuru ancestry, every child is taught that their culture is valued.
“We are like family, we carry one another’s knowledge together and learn from one another so we can go forward together … I’m here to share my language and culture with you so you’re able to understand us more, and the kids really enjoy that.”
The impact of this work is evidenced by responses from students both past and present. Pigram-Ross describes talking to a past student who described learning about his culture as “strengthening [his] spirit”.
“To hear the student call out [in Yawuru] and use the greeting confidently with no shame, they use it proudly, and I’ll call back to them [in Yawuru] and just a simple thing like that just brightens your day and you think, ‘wow, hopefully I’m making a difference’.”
After all, Pigram-Ross says, “that’s the whole reason I teach”.