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Warlpiri/Warumungu interpreter Valda Warntaparri on the importance of language, culture and having a voice

Jess Whaler -

Valda Napurrurla Shannon Warntaparri has worked as an interpreter in a number of high profile cases and speaks fluent Warlpiri and Warumung.

She can also understand neighbouring languages, which she brings together with Aboriginal English when assisting clients. In her role as an interpreter she recently supported distressed family members by engaging with legal teams and the court during the Kumanjayi Walker proceedings.

Ms Warntaparri understands several Aboriginal languages and dialects across Central Australia and is a highly sought after interpreter, currently working for the Northern Territory Aboriginal Interpreter Service.

Having Elders involved in her schooling reinforced the value of both traditional and western education. Whilst learning mainstream curriculum, Traditional culture was also embedded.

"The Elders used to come in and teach us every week, splitting us up into our language groups. Teaching us dance, body paint, dreaming stories, dreaming collections, hunting skills and how to collect bush tucker. They taught us who were the owners of traditional land," she said.

Along with being an interpreter, Ms Warntaparri previously worked with the Mental Health Association of Central Australia (MHACA) developing a program into an Indigenous context titled Suicide Story. The program which now sits with Aboriginal Medical Service Alliance Northern Territory (AMSANT) uses cultural metaphors to help mob connect with ideas from within cultural perspectives, to empower them to take action.

She further stressed the importance of valuing and respecting cultural protocol which was demonstrated during the Kumanjayi Walker case, Ms Warntaparri explained that as Kumanjayi is Warlpiri and Luritja, it was very important that she take on the role because she is connected to family members on both sides.

When working with corporate and government sectors she shares the critical need not only for language speakers but for cultural considerations to be a central focus.

"The two cannot be separated, for example if I was to interpret in a hospital, I have to inform the doctors of cultural protocol and needs of the patient. I just can't just go up to a patient, we need to consider that we might not be able to call their name, they might be named after someone that passed away. So, I tell the doctors the do's and the don'ts. Professionals don't know anything about our background, they don't know how we live according to kinship. It's about educating with clear and respectful communication," she said.

Ms Warntaparri said that by instilling cultural protocol in organisational settings, will ensure that the clients are feeling included in the narrative and are a part of these stories and are not outsiders. "Even today, people and organisations are just talking about us, they speak about us and for us without engaging with us."

Ms Warntaparri acknowledged the increased volume of Aboriginal Liaison roles and additional initiatives within organisations, but added that she would also like to see these roles in the education spaces, insisting that culture and language "must be taught if we are to see our Indigenous kids doing well in society for the future".

"A lot of these jobs do require cultural language, knowledge and input. It's got to be our people that are practicing culture and language that must be employed. When I look at the problems we are having, those kids are coming from strong culture and language backgrounds. We should have a cultural advisor in every single program, but then we look at the employment scene and we are like 'where are our people?'. People are coming into the community and taking our jobs. If we look at what's really missing, there's no structured career pathways in consultation with community members" she said.

On the subject of the Voice to Parliament, she said it was vital to engage with all Indigenous communities.

"For it to work we need to have people like me, to speak up for that voice to be heard. We cannot have other people stepping up and taking our place at the table. The Voice to Parliament is a good idea because it provides a platform for people on the ground like me, where I have been working for so many years to encourage our language groups to discuss the issues that are impacting our daily lives and allow communities to make the decisions. It's our basic human right," she said.

"Our people are empowered to speak and we don't need anyone doing all that for us, we don't need a spokesperson. The voice should and must encourage community at a grassroots level to speak for themselves, for what we want on our country and our regions."

On cultural protocol Ms Warntaparri she added: "We don't speak for someone else's land, we can share ideas with them but they must have final say. Taking into consideration our cultural protocol, no-one from outside is talking for us."

More information on Aboriginal interpreter services and becoming an interpreter can be obtained online at Aboriginal Interpreter Service at NT.GOV.AU or by calling 1800 334 944.

More detail on the important work of Suicide Story is on the AMSANT website.

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