Dr Luise Anna Hercus AM FAHA, and longtime member of AIATSIS, passed away in Canberra on Sunday 15 April. A former Reader in Sanskrit and Deputy Dean of Asian Studies at the Australian National University, Luise was a longtime Visiting Fellow in Linguistics in the School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics. She was an active member of the board of Aboriginal History and served for many years as the journal’s reviews editor.
Few researchers can begin to match the commitment, dedication and respect Dr Hercus demonstrated towards languages and songs of Australia. Up until a few weeks before passing, she continued documenting Australian languages, songs and traditions.
As one of the first AIATSIS grantees, and later as a member of AIATSIS Linguistics Advisory Committee, Dr Hercus has shaped the directions of research into Australian languages that are in danger of being lost.
Her work on Australian languages began when she found there were still people who had knowledge of languages in Victoria. She looked for speakers and started making recordings in 1962. Between 1962 and 2003, she made over 1,000 hours of recordings, which cover over 56 languages and dialects from Victoria, South Australia, Northern Territory, Queensland, Western Australia and New South Wales. Some of these languages are no longer spoken (or have been ‘sleeping’) and her recordings are indispensable to the people these languages belong to.
Dr Hercus deposited and later gifted these recordings to AIATSIS. AIATSIS staff have worked closely with her to disseminate her recordings through the years. Copies of her recordings have been requested for many purposes, including academic study and land claims. In recognition of the significance of her recordings, AIATSIS nominated her sound collection for inclusion in the Sounds of Australia (formerly known as the National Registry of Recorded Sound) and in 2012, it was accepted for inclusion.
What distinguished Dr Hercus from other linguists was her holistic approach. Her recordings were not bound by research needs and capture the language and culture as a whole. Her recordings also represented the whole life of the speaker. This made her recordings precious to descendants of the people she recorded, and some regarded her as an ‘honorary ancestor’ with whom they could share memories of people she worked with.
Dr Hercus was enormously generous and encouraging to researchers and younger colleagues working on Australian languages. She wanted her recordings used widely by descendants who wished to learn their languages, and by researchers to bring about a wider appreciation of Aboriginal culture. To this end she spent a great deal of time assisting people to access and understand the recordings she made. Dr Hercus held a deep respect for the people with whom she recorded and considered the opportunity she had to be a great privilege. She maintained close ties with many Aboriginal people, both those she worked with and their descendants. She was always respectful to people whose languages she recorded and always gave credit to the knowledge holders, never showing off what she learnt from them. Indeed, she was a most modest person.
Those who were fortunate enough to know Dr Hercus were touched and inspired by her dedication, wisdom, and heart. She was and is still known and loved by many AIATSIS staff, scholars, and, especially, the Aboriginal people with whom she worked, and she will be sorely missed. She left an invaluable gift to Aboriginal people, and her legacy will continue far into the future.
‘I am sorry to bother you’: a unique partnership between Luise Hercus and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies’ describes AIATSIS’ long-term relationship with Luise Hercus. The paper was published in the second festschrift Language, land & song: Studies in honour of Luise Hercus (Peter K. Austin, Harold Koch & Jane Simpson, eds. 2017).