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Yesterday brought two good news stories: an Indigenous linguist has been honoured as the Northern Territory's Australian of the Year, and the first relic of the explorer Ludwig Leichhardt's last journey has been authenticated.

Congratulations to Raymattja Marika - the Northern Territory's Australian of the Year - and she's cited for her hard work in lifting the educational standards of the Territory's Indigenous citizens. Raymattja has been one of the leaders in bilingual education, and in promoting the use of Yolngu concepts as guiding principles in schools for Yolngu children. She's written articles on children's rights to learn and be assessed academically in Yolngu languages. You can read some of her ideas in the 1998 Wentworth lecture that she gave at AIATSIS in Canberra. And well as that she has played a great role in teaching outsiders to learn Yolngu languages and preparing materials for it.

It's wonderful news, and well-deserved. It follows hard on the news that Jane Lomax-Smith (SA Education Minister), on visiting the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands and discussing schooling with people, recognised "an imperative to maintain a first language". The article focusses on the poor English literacy outcomes of the children, but passes silently over the fact that for the last fifteen years the children have had only monolingual English education.

Discoveries: Yesterday also arrived with the news of the first authentication of a relic from Ludwig Leichhardt's last trip. So in the late afternoon we rushed off to see..

And ... in the cavernous entrance hall of the National Museum of Australia is a pillar, on one side of which is a tall figure in black beaded Yoruba regal costume. Today, on the other side, we saw a large case completely empty but for a small brass plate about the size of a short ruler (15cm x 2cm). Written on it are the words Ludwig. Leichhardt. 1848.

Leichhardt left Cogoon station on the Darling Downs in April 1848, to cross Australia from north-east to south-west. The exploration team were never seen again. The disappearance was a sensation at the time. Everyone had their theories, and every new generation kept on having them. No one could find any traces of the expedition. But around 1900 somewhere in Ngardi or Jaru country, near Sturt Creek between the Great Sandy Desert and the Tanami Desert, this small brass plate is said to have been found by an Aboriginal known as Jackie who was working with a prospector, Charles Harding. Harding is said to have taken the plate and given it to a teenager, Reginald Bristow-Smith.

The existence of the plate has been known of since 1926. The news is the authentication of the plate as an early nineteenth century artefact and the proposal of a hypothesis as to why Leichhardt should have left it near Sturt Creek. Previously people have speculated that Leichhardt was planning to head on a direct east–west line through desert country. But Darrell Lewis has examined Leichhardt's papers and shown that he was influenced by the German geographer, naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt who argued for the importance of studying the interconnectedness of watersheds. Darrell proposes that Leichhardt planned to cross Australia "along an arc to the north along the headwaters of rivers flowing into the Gulf of Carpentaria and elsewhere along the north coast. There is evidence that he then hoped to find a south-westerly flowing stream that he could follow toward Swan River." The location of the plate near Sturt Creek fits with this proposal, since it flows south-west.

There are still no other authenticated relics from Leichardt's last journey. So authenticating this relic was pretty important, especially given the murky transfer of the plate from Harding to a teenager. And the NMA website has an excellent article on the discovery, history and authentication of the brass plate. At $200,000 (ABC News) it'd want to be authentic! The NMA even provides attachments on the methods used to authenticate. A Good Thing. Most have to do with the material composition of the plate - but I was tickled by one of the authentication arguments:

"The nameplate correctly spells Leichhardt's name with the double 'h'. If it had been fabricated by Harding – a bushman with no formal education – it is unlikely the name would be correctly spelt. In fact Leichhardt's name was often spelt incorrectly with one 'h', and often still is."


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