Language in law

Budj Bim: an Aboriginal cultural heritage landscape

The management of the Budj Bim landscape in southwest Victoria people by its traditional owners, the Gunditjmara people, in collaboration with the Victorian Government and other parties, demonstrates several features of modern protection systems of landscapes, environments and cultural heritage.

Water in Aboriginal culture

In Aboriginal culture, water is a part of countryCountry is everything that gives and receives life; it is all the plants and animals, including humans, and all the landforms, water bodies and other elements that make up the earth and its inhabitants. The ancestral being of the Dreaming created country. The Dreaming is written in the land and sustained through cultural practices and oral traditions. Particular Dreaming ancestors are associated with particular places, and are part of a complex cultural fabric that defines the relationship between traditional custodians and their country. Stories and totems, songlines and dreaming tracks link people to country through a web of meanings, responsibilities and reciprocities1.

For Aboriginal people, water is a cultural creation that is part of the Dreaming and has a central place in many historical and contemporary practices. For example, the Gunditjmara group from Western Victoria state that Lake Condah is at the heart of Gunditjmara country, and prior to colonisation it was a significant site for many cultural, social, and economic practices, including an extensive aquaculture system that provided a reliable source of fish and eels. Although European colonisation disrupted many of these practices, traditional owners are leading contemporary efforts to restore the lake to health and reinstate cultural practices2.

Recognition of Aboriginal connections with water places

Increasingly, Western knowledge traditions, including legal frameworks, are coming to recognise the unique relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and water3. This includes recognition that Aboriginal people maintained healthy waterways and kept river systems alive for millennia, and that they have a strong contribution to make to the contemporary management of water systems.

Case study: The Birrarung or Yarra River

In 2017 the Victorian State parliament passed the Yarra River Protection (Wilip-gin Birrarung murron) Act into legislation. The legislation sets out the parameters for the establishment of an statutory body, the Birrarung Council, which will provide advice to the Minister regarding management of the Birrarung or Yarra River. The Council must include two Aboriginal members nominated from the Wurundjeri Land and Compensation Cultural Heritage Council Inc4.

Changes to river management through the use of a legal mechanism to ensure the participation of Wurundjeri on the Birrarung Council is strongly buttressed by symbolic practices that make visible the unique cultural and spiritual relationship that Wurundjeri have with the Birrarung or Yarra River. For example, the historic address made by Wurundjeri Elders to the Victorian parliament on the occasion of the bill entering the house, and the inclusion of a statement by the traditional owners in the preamble of the Act, are instances that make visible the enduring relationship between traditional custodians and the Birrarung or Yarra River. The address and the preamble are in the English language and the Woi-wurrung language, and both include reference to the Dreaming ancestors of the river. Both texts show the continuous connection that traditional owners have maintained with the Birrarung or Yarra River. This is an excerpt from the preamble to the Act:

‘We, the Woi-wurrung, the First People, and the Birrarung, belong to this Country. This Country, and the Birrarung are part of us. The Birrarung is alive, has a heart, a spirit and is part of our Dreaming. We have lived with and known the Birrarung since the beginning. We will always know the Birrarung5’. 

Including this statement in the preamble to the Act, and establishing a substantive voice for traditional owners in the management of the Birrarung or Yarra River, is an example of the way that language can have inclusive social effects. The Australian law is a technical language, but Aboriginal people also have a technical language, and the use of the Woi-wurrung language in this instance serves to strengthen and legitimise the contribution traditional custodians have made and continue to make to keeping the Birrarung or Yarra River alive.

Classroom activity - English Year 10

In these classroom activities students will examine the Victorian Yarra River Protection (Wilip-gin Birrarung murron) Act 2017 and the historic Wurundjeri Elders address to the Legislative Assembly of the Victorian Parliament. Students investigate the social effects of inclusive language. Students reflect on instances in their own life where they noticed exclusionary language, and then consider alternative scenarios. Students discuss the significance of traditional owners addressing parliament in the Woi-wurrung language, attending to the social, moral, and ethical perspectives of different parties.

Curriculum connections

This resource addresses the following content descriptions from the Australian Curriculum:

  • Understand how language use can have inclusive and exclusive social effects, and can empower or disempower people (ACELA1564)
  • Understand how paragraphs and images can be arranged for different purposes, audiences, perspectives and stylistic effects (ACELA1567)
  • Understand conventions for citing others, and how to reference these in different ways (ACELA1568)
  • Evaluate the social, moral and ethical positions represented in texts (ACELT1812)
  • Analyse and explain how text structures, language features and visual features of texts and the context in which texts are experienced may influence audience response (ACELT1641)
  • Use organisation patterns, voice and language conventions to present a point of view on a subject, speaking clearly, coherently and with effect, using logic, imagery and rhetorical devices to engage audiences (ACELY1813)

This resource addresses the following excerpts from the achievement standard for Year 10 English:

  • develop and justify their own interpretations of texts
  • listen for ways features within texts can be manipulated to achieve particular effects
  • explain different viewpoints, attitudes and perspectives through the development of cohesive and logical arguments
  • make presentations and contribute actively to class and group discussions, building on others' ideas, solving problems, justifying opinions and developing and expanding arguments

Inquiry-based learning questions

Reflect on the importance of the address made by Wurundjeri elders to the Victorian parliament’s legislative assembly. Consider the effects it may have had on the Wurundjeri community and communities of other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Consider the effect on the broader Australian community. How might using traditional Woiwurrung language be socially inclusive?

Wurundjeri traditional owners will have a voice in the management and protection of the Birrarung or Yarra River through the recently established Birrarung Council6. Reflect on the place attributed to water in Aboriginal culture. Research the values that the Wurundjeri representatives are likely to advocate for.

Activity 1 – The social effects of inclusive language

Suggested timing for activity: Two lessons

Required resources: computer with internet connection, writing materials

In the first lesson students can examine the Yarra River Protection (Wilip-gin Birrarung murron) Act 20177, considering in particular the preamble that opens the Act. With reference to this example, students can write a page discussing the social effects of inclusive language. In the second lesson, students can then write a reflective paragraph describing a time when they experienced or observed the social effects of exclusionary language. Students can attend to the distancing or marginalising effects of this. In pairs they can then share their example and consider how inclusive language could have been used instead and what difference it would have made in their example. The whole class can then reconvene and discuss a number of examples.

Activity 2 – Wurundjeri elders address Victorian parliament

Suggested timing for activity: 30 minutes

Required resources: computer with internet connection, writing materials

Students can watch the 10-minute video clip of the Wurundjeri Tribe Council’s address to the Victorian parliament8, and also read the text of the speech9. In pairs or small groups students can spend 10 minutes students discussing the significance of this address. Students can reflect on the social, moral, and ethical positions implicit in the event from the perspective of the Wurundjeri elders, the members of parliament, and the broader Australian public. For the final ten minutes each group or pair can share one key reflection from their discussion.


1 Bell, D. and Johnston, C. (2008) Budj Bim. Caring for the spirit and the people. In Conference proceedings of the 16th ICOMOS General Assembly and International Symposium: Finding the spirit of place – between the tangible and the intangible, 29 sept – 4 oct 2008, Quebec, Canada. Retrieved from:

2 Bell, D. and Johnston, C. (2008)

3 O’Bryan, K. (2017) New law finally gives voice to the Yarra River’s traditional owners. The Conversation. Retrieved from:

4 Wurundjeri Land and Compensation Cultural Heritage Council Aboriginal Corporation (n.d.) Our story: Recent past and present. Retrieved from:

5 ibid.

6 O’Bryan, K. (2017) New law finally gives voice to the Yarra River’s traditional owners. The Conversation. Retrieved from:

7 Parliament of Victoria. (2017). Yarra River Protection (Wilip-gin Birrarung murron) Act 2017 (Act Number 49/2017). Retrieved from$FILE/17-49aa003%20authorised.pdf

8 Parliament of Victoria (2017) Wurundjeri Elders address Legislative Assembly [video]. Retrieved from

9 Wurundjeri Land and Compensation Cultural Heritage Council Aboriginal Corporation (n.d.) Our story: Recent past and present. Retrieved from

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The development of these resources was funded through an Australian Government initiative delivered by the University of Melbourne's Indigenous Studies Unit. The resources include the views, opinions and representations of third parties, and do not represent the views of the Australian Government. They have been developed as a proof of concept to progress the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content in Australian classrooms. In drawing on the material, users should consider the relevance and suitability to their particular circumstances and purposes.