Image above: proud Kaurna man Uncle Rod O'Brien
by Nance Haxton 

Today’s first ever Kaurna Day – Tirkanthi – Ngutu – Taikurrinthi (Learning – Knowledge – Be united together) has been hailed a great success, with hopes it will become an annual event.

The University of Adelaide hosted the day and coordinated events across all three campuses to honour Kaurna history, language and culture, and ongoing connection to the land on which the university stands.

The Kaurna language was critically endangered in the 1980s, but is now being taught at schools on the Adelaide Plains.

As part of celebrations today Dr Lewis Yarlupurka O’Brien AO, the oldest living Kaurna Elder at 93, was awarded the University of Adelaide’s highest honour a Doctor of the University (honoris causa).

Uncle Lewis, alongside Kaurna Elder Dr Alitya Wallara Rigney (also known as Auntie Alice), and supported by Associate Professor Rob Amery, a linguist, launched efforts in the late 1980s to rescue the critically endangered Kaurna language from the brink of extinction.

“Preserving our language is preserving our identity and connection to our ancestors,” Uncle Lewis said.

“It’s not just about words; it’s about safeguarding an entire way of life. It’s a duty we owe to future generations.”

Uncle Rod O’Brien is the son of Uncle Lewis, and devotes his time to continuing the work of generations before him to reclaim Kaurna language and culture.

Uncle Rod said today honoured all his father and many others in the community had achieved over thousands of years.

“I think it’s a great day for the celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture,” Uncle Rod said.

“It’s not all about just Kaurna culture, it’s about celebrating Kaurna people’s networking with other nations because our old people believe that no one nation or group of people have the monopoly on knowledge. 

“We can all learn from one another, and I think this is a great way of celebrating that by getting other groups, other people from other nations come to Adelaide at the University of Adelaide to share their knowledge and experiences and the wider community can learn from it as well about Aboriginal culture and the importance of the survival of it in this country. We’ve been here for over 60,000 years, so we’ve got a lot to share.”

Uncle Rod says there’s demand for more Kaurna teaching in schools, but not enough teachers trained to do so.

“We need to train up a lot more teachers because we’ve got about 20 or 30 teachers trained, but we need about a pool of 50 to 60 teachers trained,” he said.

“Our vision is to have our language taught in all the schools on the Adelaide Plains area, which is our region, and we need that amount of teachers so that they not only can teach it, but have a career teaching it. 

“We believe that all the kids should share it in the language because language doesn’t only belong to us, the Kaurna people, it belongs to the country, the Kaurna country, the Adelaide Plains region.

“If you know the language of the country, you know the country better, we believe anyway. And so we hope that it becomes more prominent and people want to learn from it because if they know the language, they’ll know their country better. If they know their country better, they’ll care for the country better.

“We want to be taught in a consistent manner where everyone’s gone through the same programme and teach it in the same manner. So we have consistency in the curriculum, how it’s taught, and everyone’s taught the same lessons.” 

He said his dream is to hear Kaurna language used conversationally again, and that it is valued as much as overseas languages taught at schools.

“So you can do assessments and see where it’s at and the amount of people that can get to a stage where they can talk it in a fairly credible manner where they can have day-to-day conversations in Kaurna language,” he said.

“We believe that it can happen again, and young people are keen and we get, keep that keenness alive. The language will be more and more spoken, and that’s what it should be. It should be the language of the country that you live in. You should be able to speak it.”

The university’s Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Engagement) Professor Steve Larkin said the connection between the institution and the Kaurna community stretches back decades, marked by the invaluable contributions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff and students.

“The Kaurna community, as well as the wider Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, has enriched the university with their perspectives, experiences, and knowledge,” he said. “Kaurna Day is a tribute to the community’s ongoing impact and a commitment to fostering a truly inclusive campus environment.”

Vice Chancellor and President of the University of Adelaide Professor Peter Høj said Kaurna Day signifies a long-standing and evolving relationship between the institution and the Kaurna community.

“2024 is the University’s milestone 150th year, but the history of the land on which our campuses are located, and the connection of the traditional Kaurna custodians to place is much, much older,” he said.