Tyson Ferguson
Tue, January 17, 2012 at 11:15
Stephanie Hunt

Stephanie Ney says Tyson Ferguson is the most interesting person she knows on the Coffs Coast.  A young Aboriginal man who works with Stephanie at Saltwater Freshwater, Tyson speaks and teaches Gumbaynggirr language.  “He's fantastic with people,” Stephanie explains  “He is really just growing into himself."


Tyson Ferguson ambles into the Saltwater Freshwater office; casually dressed and sucking on a straw planted firmly into a large Gloria Jeans iced coffee.  “I’m not a morning person,” he admits as we head to a table and chairs outside the office where we will conduct our interview. 

At 22 years of age, Tyson is a broad man with a ring in his nose and a stud in his lip.  On someone else the image could be a bit intimidating, but Tyson’s easy smile when we meet and his nervous laugh when we start to speak suggest he is anything but menacing.  We talk about Tyson’s life as a young Aboriginal growing up in Coffs Harbour, about his job with the Saltwater Freshwater Arts Council and about lemon myrtle cheesecake.  But Tyson really comes into his own when he talks about Indigenous language: its importance to him personally and the role it can play in healing a broken people.

Tyson has a lot to teach.  He is teaching his own people to rediscover their language.  But he also has much to teach non-Aboriginal peoples about why an almost forgotten language is important. 

Tell me about growing up in Coffs Harbour.

We lived in the caravan park over at Park Beach for most of my years.  Just me, Mum and my sister Narina.  It was a nice community living in the caravan park….fun, lots of things to do.

My Mum put us through Catholic education because she thought it was good for us.  I went to St Augustines and then to John Paul College.

We’re very family-orientated at home.  When I was in high school we took in one of my friends who got kicked out at a young age.  He lived with us for a couple of years while we were going to John Paul College.  And then 4 or 5 years ago we adopted my niece.

Did you have a role model when you were growing up?

Mum is my role model.  She was on a disability pension but she still supported us through high school and still does now.  I love how she holds herself and just how strong she is.  It inspires me to become strong.

When you were growing up did you have a sense of being Aboriginal?

Yeah.  But I didn’t feel different from other kids.  Mum always said, “You’re Aboriginal.  Don’t be ashamed of that.”

I never felt discriminated against.  From year seven I’ve had the same friends.  We stuck together all the way to year 12 and we were just friends: black, white, whatever.

I was a very quiet, shy person at school.  I didn’t really talk to many people.  Now look at me!  I can see the transformation from school to now.  I’ve definitely sprouted.

What do you think caused this transformation?

In year 10 I joined a Gumgaynggirr language class at SCU campus.  I did an HSC in it and came second.  And often if the teachers weren’t there people would ask me to teach the language. 

I think learning the language is a big part of me breaking out of my quiet little shell.  It boosted my self-esteem. There’s the fact that I could learn another language, but I wasn’t just learning the language I was also learning everything about that language…. it gave me a sense of belonging. 

How does language give you a sense of belonging?

Even though my mother is Bundjalung, because I was born on Gumbaynggirr land I am a Gumbaynggirr man first.  Learning the language for the land that I’m on gave me a sense of belonging and an understanding and respect for this land.  It made my spiritual connection stronger.

Where did your sense of a spiritual connection to the land come from?

For me it was always there.  Learning the language just clarified it and made it stronger.  I feel protected and safe on the land.  I believe that our family ancestors are watching over us, protecting us.  I’m a big believer in that even though we went through a Catholic education.  My first religion is the Dreamtime stories. 

How did you get involved in teaching Gumbaynggirr language?

After high school I moved to Brisbane for two years with my best friend.  I was looking for work and was SO unsuccessful.  So I came back to Coffs and one of my teachers, Auntie Pauline, said she was teaching out at Tyalla and would I come along and do team teaching.  Then I got the opportunity to work at the five northern schools: Corindi, Mullaway, Sandy Beach, Woolgoolga High, Woolgoolga Primary.  Then I started doing a class at Frank Partridge and Nambucca Primary and I became involved with Muurrbay Aboriginal Language Centre in Nambucca.

How did you go from teaching to working at Saltwater Freshwater?

I volunteered for the Festival last year and afterwards I was asked if I was interested in a job as Admin Assistant.  I wanted to expand my knowledge and do something bigger, language-wise.  Saltwater Freshwater is a growing Aboriginal organisation, and I thought maybe I could bring language into that.  And that’s what I’ve tried to do.  Last year I was driving to the Festival in Port Macquarie with Stephanie Ney and her husband.  I was singing, and they heard me singing in language.   They actually got me up on the stage at the Festival and I sang Advance Australia Fair in Gumbaynggirr. 

Can you tell me a bit about this year’s Saltwater Freshwater Festival?

It’s a bit of a good ‘un.  It’s in Taree.  I’m pretty excited because one of the ladies I’ve worked with will have a bush tucker stall and she makes the most beautiful lemon myrtle cheesecake.  Seriously, you have a bit of that and you’ll never want to eat another cheesecake again.  It’s worth the drive to Taree just for the cheesecake.

Besides the cheesecake, what are you most looking forward to about this year’s Festival?

Well….Casey Donovan is singing.  I’ve never actually met Casey, so that will be interesting and different.  I like getting to know the artists.  I think being a part of Saltwater Freshwater I’m able to connect with important indigenous people, not just for the organisation but for myself.

Do you have a career plan or ambitions?

Oh I’m just going with the flow.  Wherever I can do a bit of language, that’s where I’m going to go.  You could say I’m on the language path.

Do you have a vision of how the Gumbaynggirr language might be used in future?

I have a little goal to project the language out to a bigger audience.  I do a radio segment on Speaking Our Lingo on 104.1 CHY, so that’s one way that I make the language bigger. 

I’d love to see more youth learning the language. I recently got a job at John Paul College as a teacher’s aide.  Once the school year starts again I’ll be working there 2 days a week, while I’m doing 3 days a week with Saltwater Freshwater.  The plan is to work with the Indigenous kids first and later on possibly have mixed classes. 

Why is language so important to you?

My way of giving back to the community is learning the language and teaching people.  There’s not a lot of really good emotional support for Aboriginal people and I think bringing language into their lives makes a difference, especially for Aboriginal people that are really broken.  Language is a part of healing.  It’s something that was taken away and now we are able to learn it again.  I feel so blessed that I’ve been given this opportunity to learn our language and now teach it.


The Saltwater Freshwater Festival is a nomadic event that moves to a different location in our region every Australia Day.  This year it will be held at Queen Elisabeth Park in Taree on Thursday 26 January from 11am to 5pm.     Click here for more information.


Tyson tells me that Clark Webb is the most interesting person he knows on the Coffs Coast (although he does remind me that he also knows plenty of other interesting people nationally).  Clark is another Aboriginal man who is making his mark on the community.  Tyson admires his passion for helping indigenous youth through the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience and the fact that he has started his own business as a cultural engagement consultant.  So much for any ideas that Aboriginal people aren't helping themselves!



Article originally appeared on The Most Interesting Person I Know (http://themostinterestingpersoniknow.net/).
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