Eileen's language lives on

Eileen McHughes was a respected Elder in the region, and spent her time teaching and preserving the Ngarrindjeri language with others.
Eileen McHughes was a respected Elder in the region, and spent her time teaching and preserving the Ngarrindjeri language with others.

Eileen Blanche McHughes (nee Kropinyeri) was born in Murray Bridge on January 5, 1941. Eileen was the eldest child of Alban Richard Kropinyeri and Gertrude Elizabeth Kropinyeri (both deceased).

Her fascination with her peoples’ language began as she grew up in a tin shanty-type dwelling on the cliff of the River Murray, south of Tailem Bend, with several other local Ngarrindjeri (Aboriginal) families. 

A self-proclaimed “nosey” child, Aunty Eileen would listen to the yarns told by Elders, and learnt most of the language that way. 

While she was schooled at Tailem Bend Primary School and Murray Bridge High School, growing up at ‘Three Mile’ was an important part of Eileen and her siblings’ educations, as it taught them responsibility, life skills, respect for others, sharing and caring.

The family survived on bush tucker, often eating rabbits, kangaroo, bird life (such as swans and ducks), fish, dampers and home-made rainbow cake, which was the special treat.

The family eventually moved from Three Mile into a railway house in Tailem Bend - the first Aboriginal family from the area to do so. It was a step up from living at Three Mile; the family was able to to cook on a stove (not on an open fire), and no longer had to cart water up the cliff.

After leaving school, Eileen spent some time in the Women’s Royal Australian Army, and aimed to become a truckdriver. However, this did not eventuate due to her height (she was too small). 

Eileen left the army, and her life course changed; she had to raise her seven younger siblings, following the death of her mother. Eventually, she also had her own children (Aileen, Kello, Sammy, Georgie and Cathy), so the 1960s and 70s was devoted to parenting.

In the 1980s, with her passion for her language still strong, she attendedBatchelor College in the Northern Territory. This set her on the course of Ngarrindjeri language revival and sharing her cultural pride through weaving, language and story telling.

Through her consistency and determination she achieved a lot for the Ngarrindjeri people in understanding their own culture and language.

Recently, she declared her hope that “future generations may know where they fit in, and learn their genealogy, culture and language”.

Her move to Victor Harbor in 2009 provided her with more opportunities to share her cultural knowledge, pride and identity on Ngarrindjeri land. She promoted an understanding of both cultures through doing ‘Welcome to Country’ in Ngarrindjeri and non- Ngarrindjeri language. 

She worked tirelessly, energetically and passionately in schools and communities to promote her culture.

A respected Ngarrindjeri Elder and tireless campaigner for Aboriginal languages and Aboriginal health and welfare, Eileen worked as a cultural and language consultant and as an advisor to many projects and reports relating to Ngarrindjeri and Aboriginal causes, such as saving the Murray River and Coorong.

Her passion and dedication to the Ngarrindjeri language was recognised through multiple professional associations and her personal completion of studies.

Eileen’s story was published in the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Studies Journal in 2012. 

In it, Eileen details her early life at Three Mile and Tailem Bend, her studies in the Northern Territory, and her teaching work.

“I would like the young ones to be proud of their language, and their heritage and culture, and be proud of who they are,” she wrote.

“I am a very proud Ngarrindjeri mi:mini (woman) who spends many hours babysitting my grandchildren... I teach them their language, culture and genealogy.

“We like to use the analogy or metaphor of basket weaving in the way we learn and teach our language. Each strand or thread or yalkari (rush) represents a word in Ngarrindjeri, and the baskets or placemats represent the sentences and songs we are weaving together.

“As we learn more and more of the traditional grammar, our woven language seems to be getting more intricate, just as my baskets now have more complex designs.

“So before I leave this world, my language and my weaving will be perfect, just as our language was prior to European invasion.”

Eileen’s daughter, Georgie Trevorrow, said her mother lived by the following life philosophy, best described in Ngarrindjeri: ‘Tunkun’ or ‘Loving’; ‘Piltenggi Elin’ or ‘Being strong’; ‘Kalparrin’ or ‘Sharing the load’ when things get tough, and; ‘Ka:ngkun’ or ‘Laughing’. 

Georgie said Eileen “always tried to look for the ‘silver lining’ in black clouds and inspired others to live by the same philosophy”.

“So all of us can take heed that when times get tough we can try to be strong (Piltenggi). We can also help each other cope with the burdens and heavy loads of life (Kalparrin); especially from those we love (Tunkun); and most importantly, we need to try to look for the funny side of life and have a good laugh together (Ka:ngkun),” Georgie said.

“She lived and breathed these words everyday.”

Eileen passed away on July 30, 2013.