Peter Salmon, last speaker of endangered Thiinma language, travels through WA to teach it

Peter Salmon, from the Gascoyne region of remote Western Australia, is 87 years old and the last speaker of the Thiinma language.

Thiinma is classed by UNESCO as a critically endangered language, as there are no known speakers — other than Mr Salmon — living today.

Mr Salmon also has significant cultural knowledge of the area around Needle Hill (Gardumaya) on the remote boundary of Edmund and Maroonah stations, where Indigenous tribes met for corroborees prior to colonisation.

Towards the end of last year, he embarked on a two-week trip on country with linguists from the Bundiyarra–Irra Wangga Language Centre, extended family and an ethnobotanist to the remote Upper Gascoyne region where he was born and taught Thiinma by his mother.

On each day of the trip, which was supported by First Languages Australia, Mr Salmon taught his language and knowledge of Thiinma and Warriyangga, a closely related language, to trip participants.

Mr Salmon, who was mentored during his upbringing by Indigenous Thiinma and Warriyangga elders who worked on cattle stations and taught him the ropes, is lucky to be alive.

His mother wanted to end his life immediately after birth, similar to many Indigenous women of the time who had babies fathered by white men.

But an older Indigenous woman from Queensland offered to make Peter her ‘promised husband’, despite knowing she would probably be long gone when he came of age — and this decision saved his life.

His mother then raised him with her language and family that included two important ‘step-fathers’ of Indigenous heritage.

Language is ‘buried deep inside’

The group travelling with Mr Salmon visited an important corroboree ground at Gardumaya, on Edmund Station, and for some, it was the first time they had been there.

It was here that four or more Indigenous tribes from the surrounding areas met regularly for cultural gatherings.

“It’s important for me to try and teach them my language, otherwise we’ll end up with nothing,” Mr Salmon said.

“I’m trying to teach you fellas about this country and the language.”

Goannas were described and discussed.

“In the whitefella language, they got two languages: they call it a bungarra [or goanna],” Mr Salmon said.

“But in this language here, along this river, it’s marndabilaru.”

Linguist Rosie Sitorus, who has been working with Mr Salmon for many years, was among the group.

She said since retiring from pastoral station work, Mr Salmon had been working on preserving his language.

“He spoke with his mother and fathers and lots of other people on country,” Ms Sitorus said.

“He’s now in his late 80s, coming back to his language later in his life, and the best place for language is on country.

“It’s out here, it’s amongst the trees, it’s next to the pools, it’s with family, it’s with people who understand and who share that desire to pass that language on.

“That language, it’s buried deep inside, but it’s there, and when he’s out on country it inspires him and it brings it out.”

Art captures spirit of place

Well-known Indigenous artist Sonya Edney, who grew up near Thiinma country, used the trip to inspire a body of work for exhibition from on-country scenes.

“When I hear Peter talking language, I feel connected to the land and the culture about this place, and learning about different people where they come from,” she said.

Ethnobotanist Arpad Kalotas, who has worked with Indigenous people in remote WA regions for many years, was also on the trip.

During the course of the journey, he recorded and collected many samples of plants alongside Mr Salmon so he could capture the Thiinma names.

It is hoped the CSIRO will also soon include these Indigenous names in the Atlas of Living Australia.

The trip was supported by First Languages Australia, the Harper Sisters Trust, Regional Arts WA and the Department of Sports, Local Government, and Cultural Industries.

It is hoped more of Mr Salmon’s critically endangered language will be spoken by his descendants and family, before it is too late.