Make the most of every opportunity and who knows where it will lead is the sentiment from outstanding community leader Len Collard, who won a fellowship to the Yumalundi NIRAKN (National Indigenous Research and Knowledge’s Network) program late last year.
Well respected Whadjuk Nyungar elder and UWA Indigenous Studies ARC Chief Investigator Len thought he was a poor scholar at school, but his outstanding knowledge in the language and culture of his people led him into academia.
“I still hear the words from my grandparents who would say, ‘Be sure to go to school and learn about white fullas, but don’t ever lose your own culture.’ Staying true to their wishes I never have.
“Not being good at English was a handicap for my education. I left school at Year 10 to do a kaleidoscope of different traineeships including a pre-apprenticeship in fitting and turning and as an electrician, but not completing these, I then turned to labouring to eke out a living.
“But ironically in the end, not being good at English led me to my journey as an academic,” Len says.
Born in Pingelly, the eighth child of nine other siblings, he moved with his parents to White Gum Valley in Freo during the 1960’s, where he was raised with a strong work ethic from his shearer father.
“As an ordinary working class family, four of my older sisters took advantage of the Government’s push to attract Aboriginal people into university education, which helped raise awareness of opportunities that were available to us.
“But it was when I had a mortgage, wife and two children that I realised I needed something more.
“Although I spoke our family’s version of English mixed together with Nyungar, I realised that this was an inhibitor that I needed to fix.
“So I went to night school to study English and from there to university,” he says.
Today Len has written extensively on subjects relating to contemporary Aboriginal issues and local communities and teaches on Aboriginal issues, society, politics, literature and popular culture.
“My research of the Nyungar language and culture is not just about preserving it. It’s also about expanding people’s knowledge and framing it as a tool of communication that continues to live and breathe as it has over many generations.
“I was thrilled to be recognised by AIATSIS (Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies), which will allow me to build on my ARC work in Nyungar Placenames in the South-West of WA, where there are over 50,000 placenames.
“Many towns in WA end in ‘Up’, take for instance ‘Carbunup’ which means ‘place of the trees with spiders’ – ‘Car’ is a spider, ‘Bun’ is the trees or the woods or the bushes and ‘Up’ is the location, so looking at Nyungar placenames also tells a story about the place,” Len says.