The lullaby that brought a prime minister to tears

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Media captionAustralian PM Malcolm Turnbull cried during an interview

Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was recently filmed wiping tears from his eyes as he told the story of an Aboriginal mother singing a lullaby to her child.

"The thing that's so sad is to imagine that mother singing that story to her at a time when you were losing culture and the last thing that baby was, was safe," Mr Turnbull told indigenous journalist Stan Grant.

A teary-eyed prime minister makes for easy news copy, and the video quickly spread across websites and social media.

But the story of this lullaby is not as simple as it first seems, and in fact it's one of many clues helping to revitalise a language.

'Black Maria'

Tyronne Bell and Glen Freeman are from the Ngunawal people, the traditional owners of the land on which Canberra's Parliament House stands.

The cousins, who once helped Mr Turnbull prepare a speech in Ngunawal, were the source of the story, the prime minister's office confirmed.

Mr Bell said Mr Turnbull was referring to an enigmatic figure named Black Maria, a Ngunawal woman who lived in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales in the 1800s.

In 1930, the Moss Vale Post newspaper interviewed a very old woman who remembered listening to Black Maria's singing as a child.

Image copyright Prime Minister's Department
Image caption From left to right: Tyronne Bell, his son Jai, Prime Minister Turnbull and Glen Freeman

"Black Maria, as she was called by the whites, possessed a very attractive voice and seated on the ground she often entertained the white children with lullabies, beating time with two sticks," the article said.

Four lines, purportedly from Maria's favourite song, were transcribed phonetically into the article. Mr Bell said these lines did not make sense in Ngunawal, as the people who transcribed them did not understand the language.

Image copyright Supplied by Tyronne Bell
Image caption The Moss Vale Post clipping from 1930 that includes the story of Black Maria and the lullaby

The story is further complicated by the identity of the woman who recalled Black Maria's lullaby. Mr Turnbull, it appears, made the assumption she was Black Maria's daughter, but this is not mentioned in the newspaper article. It's entirely possible that she was one of the white children who listened to Maria's songs.

Mununja the butterfly

What we do know is that Maria's alluring voice still resonates almost two centuries later.

Although the meaning of the original lullaby cannot be discerned, those four lines of inaccurately transcribed text helped inspire Mr Bell's late father to publish a book in the Ngunawal language, based on the legend of Mununja the Butterfly.

It is a love story about a young girl who escaped marriage to the evil Gunga and stayed close to her family and country forever under the protection of a beautiful butterfly, Mununja.

Mr Bell's father envisioned that the book, which included the Black Maria story as source material, could be used in schools to lift awareness of the language.

Image copyright @ImMylesMorgan
Image caption A photograph of the Ngunawal story taken by NITV journalist Myles Morgan

In the 1800s, Aboriginal people displaced by increasing British colonisation were moved to missions. They were often forbidden from speaking their mother tongue or following cultural traditions, meaning many cultures were lost forever.

But now, even elders are learning their language "from scratch". Mr Bell, Mr Freeman and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (ATSIS) launched a pilot project to teach Ngunawal two years ago.

Mr Bell and Mr Freeman started their project after a list of 30 words in Ngunawal was found two years ago. Since news of the project travelled to others in the Ngunawal community, they have collected more than 300 words.

There is increasing awareness of the importance of protecting indigenous languages. When he made his address to parliament in Ngunawal, Mr Turnbull announced A$20m ($14.8m; £10.5m) in funding for language preservation programmes.

Dr Marcus Woolombi Waters, a sociology lecturer at Griffith University, is of the Kamilaroi people. He says embracing indigenous languages is not only vital for Aboriginal identity and belonging, but can help create much-needed understanding for non-Indigenous Australians.

"That's not just healing Aboriginal people, that's letting Australians become inclusive in thousands of years of connections themselves," Dr Waters said.

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