University of Adelaide marks 150 years with first-ever Kaurna Day: Honouring the past, building our future together

As the University of Adelaide celebrates its 150th year, a new tradition emerges: Kaurna Day - Tirkanthi - Ngutu - Taikurrinthi (Learning – Knowledge - Be united together), a free public event dedicated to honouring the Kaurna people, the traditional custodians of Adelaide and the Adelaide plains.

Kaurna Day smoking ceremony

Kaurna Day smoking ceremony being performed by Robert Taylor.

The inaugural Kaurna Day event marked a significant step in acknowledging the Kaurna Nation's history, culture, and enduring connection to the land upon which the university stands and operates. 

A Legacy of Shared Contributions

Professor Steve Larkin, the University’s Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Engagement), said the connection between the institution and the Kaurna community stretches back decades, marked by the invaluable contributions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff and students.

"The Kaurna community, as well as the wider Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, has enriched the University with their perspectives, experiences, and knowledge. Kaurna Day is a tribute to the community’s ongoing impact and a commitment to fostering a truly inclusive campus environment," he said.

Professor Peter Høj AC, Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Adelaide, said Kaurna Day signifies a long-standing and evolving relationship between the institution and the Kaurna community.  

"2024 is the University’s milestone 150th year, but the history of the land on which our campuses are located, and the connection of the traditional Kaurna custodians to place is much, much older," he said.

Kaurna Day

The University of Adelaide's Chancellor Hon. Catherine Branson AC KC; Vice-Chancellor and President, Professor Peter Høj AC; Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Engagement), Professor Steve Larkin; Deputy Vice-Chancellor (External Engagement), Dr Jessica Gallagher and Uncle Rodney O'Brien, Cultural Advisor.

Preserving Language, Empowering the Future

Wirltu Yarlu, the Indigenous Engagement branch at the University of Adelaide, is creating a new Indigenous Strategy which will aim to increase the number of First Nations staff and students coming to the University through targeted recruitment, retention, and curriculum development initiatives.

The plan also aims to raise cultural competency across the entire university community.

Looking ahead, the University envisions an enduring contribution to the Kaurna people. Collaborating with the Kaurna community on reclaiming and revitalising the endangered Kaurna language, Kaurna Warra, forms a cornerstone of this commitment.

Dr Lewis Yarlupurka O’Brien AO, the oldest living Kaurna Elder at 93, embodies a lifetime of commitment to advocating for Aboriginal Australians and promoting the Kaurna language. This is a magnificent legacy for which Uncle Lewis has been awarded the University of Adelaide’s highest honour – a Doctor of the University (honoris causa).

"Preserving our language is preserving our identity and connection to our ancestors. It’s not just about words; it's about safeguarding an entire way of life. It's a duty we owe to future generations,” he said.

With 109 out of 123 spoken Indigenous languages in Australia listed as endangered, the urgency to safeguard Indigenous languages and the cultural identity they represent has never been greater.

Uncle Lewis, alongside Kaurna Elder Dr Alitya Wallara Rigney (also known as Auntie Alice), and supported by Associate Professor Rob Amery, a linguist, launched efforts in the late 1980s to rescue the critically endangered Kaurna language from the brink of extinction.

“Our collaborative efforts laid the groundwork for the reclamation and revitalisation of Kaurna Warra. In 2002, we formed Kaurna Warra Pintyanthi (KWP) to promote the Kaurna language and provide oversight of and direction for the Kaurna language movement,” said Uncle Lewis.

Professor Høj notes that KWP is now hosted by the University of Adelaide and emphasised the institution's longstanding commitment to the Kaurna community.

“We reaffirm our dedication to supporting initiatives that honour and preserve the cultural heritage of the Kaurna people,” he said.

Kaurna Day

About Kaurna Day

The free event, curated by Wirltu Yarlu, was held at the Kaurna Learning Circle and Barr Smith Lawns for a vibrant day of cultural immersion, storytelling, and shared learning.

Activities include community stalls, performances by First Nations artists from the Centre of Aboriginal Studies in Music, student presentations, and collaborative information sessions facilitated by Wirltu Yarlu.

The event included traditional games and cultural workshops by Deadly Mentorz, live artmaking by Brooke Rigney, cooking demonstrations by Creative Native & Youth Inc., and musical performances by Marlon Motlop, Shellie Morris, Tilly Tjala Thomas, and Corey Theatre.  

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