On Friday 13 July I attended a Colloquium held at the ANU in honour of Luise Hercus (nee Luise Schwarzschild), a linguist noted for her services to Aboriginal studies in both language and culture.
Her peers, friends and students helped us to understand the broad reach of Luise’s research activities. An old friend and colleague, Harold Koch, remarked ‘Luise has walked off the stage but she has cast a long shadow. It will take everyone a long time to work through the material she has left behind’.
Just how great a contribution Luise made was evident in the display of books that she had authored. It wasn’t just the quantity of her output that was remarkable but the effect that it had on research into Aboriginal Studies. As one speaker said, when Luise published her book, The languages of Victoria: A late survey in two parts (1995), the general belief was that all Aboriginal languages had disappeared and there was no point in trying to track them down.
In addition to demonstrating that there were Aboriginal languages still alive and well, she broadened the scope of her own research to include texts, biographical accounts of speakers, and music. In doing so she again departed from the convention that linguists dealt with language and anthropologists dealt with culture, and one shouldn’t try to step outside one’s narrow field to do both.
Luise had some notable informants who trusted her with traditional stories, cultural practices and all sorts of information about the Aboriginal way of life.
In particular she focused on the languages and traditions of the Lake Eyre Basin and made numerous fieldtrips to the Simpson Desert area to record stories, songs, mythology, and placename information. Such trips were not without incident and not for the faint-hearted. Getting bogged was a fairly regular event.
Luise Hercus was a scholar with the ANU from 1976 to 1992 when she retired, but she promptly became a Visiting Fellow in the Linguistics Department and continued to advise and encourage students, and work on the material that she had collected. Her contribution was described as ‘a gift to Aboriginal Australia, but also an incredible gift to all Australia’.