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Edition 47

Contents
Essay

Not so easy

A YOUNG MAN – scarcely more than a boy – stands on a rock beside the deep sea. A whale surfaces next to him, almost within reach. I can’t say if the boy knows the whale, but he knows of the whale: all his life he’s watched families of them travel along this coast. Recently, he learned the words of one such journey.

The boy doesn’t retreat from the rocky edge; he doesn’t step away from the whale. Instead, he dances out onto the whale’s back and dives into its spout. Inside the whale is like a cave, and its heart is a fire. Leaping with excitement, the boy prods and pokes that pulsing heat and sings the song he’s so newly learned: the song of the whale. And the whale, resonating with song in its skull. Well, in English we use the word ‘sounds’ for what it does. The whale dives, the song goes deep. Boy and whale are one; and the boy’s voice sings on as darkness closes around and the last silver bubbles slide away.

Even the bravest would begin to doubt…

I’m paraphrasing Mamang (UWAP, 2011), a picture book published from the Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories Project, which – to quickly add a disclaimer, declaration of interest and stubborn measure of shameless pride – I’ve been closely involved with over the last several years. This essay will consider a few of that project’s publications, inspired as they are by ancient examples, and also how they came to be picture books.

For now, I want to stay with Mamang: its brave protagonist is a risk-taker, is he not? He trusts the heritage and upbringing that has delivered him to this cusp of opportunity, this moment of choice and contestation. He also trusts himself.

Not so easy for a young Aboriginal man today.

I WANT TO know more about the protagonist of this story, to understand the way he thinks and sees the world. Of course, his language would help because, as David Crystal points out in Language Death (Cambridge University Press, 2000), [i] a language – especially one that is relatively ‘pure’ and carries very little evidence of the influence of other languages – can ‘represent the distillation of the thoughts and communication of a people over their entire history’. However, although the picture book I’m citing is in the Noongar language as well as English, it is not so easy to share insights from such a brief form, or in a situation that consists of just you, me, and the English language upon the page.

I’m also uncomfortable trying to explain the boy’s worldview by reference to some generic ‘Dreamtime’, or some shared vernacular of ‘hunting and fishing’ or ‘mother earth’.

In A Place for Strangers (Cambridge University Press, 1993), Tony Swain, writing as theologian more than anthropologist, claims the subject of an Aboriginal worldview has been irresistible ‘for those seeking primal wisdom, New Age enlightenment or cosmic awareness’ and even scholarly discussion often moves from ‘astounding superficiality to almost comical inventiveness’. [ii]

So there’s plenty of reason to stay well away from this topic, but I can’t help myself – and since Swain appears to know some of the dangers, I’ll stay with him a little longer. Swain argues that calling an Aboriginal worldview ‘timeless’ merely continues the tradition in Aboriginal studies of presenting Aboriginal ontology in its negative form. ‘Cyclical’ also doesn’t cut it, he claims, because: ‘We cannot help thinking of something cyclical except as a line returning into itself as to form a closed circle.’ [iii]

Swain would have us understand that our protagonist’s worldview prioritises ‘place’ over ‘time’. The young man is a contextualised thinker and aware of the natural rhythms of his geographical place: rhythms of the moon, sun, stars and wind; of seasons shifting, of fecundity and harvest, of migrations and movements of various animals. Time is not absent: awareness of the various intersections of all those natural rhythms can convey different ‘states of the world’ or a sense of ‘time-points of night and day’. Underpinning these rhythms, this pattern, are the ‘Abiding Stories’ and ‘Songlines’ of the place of his existence. [iv]

Bill Gammage, in The Biggest Estate on Earth (Allen & Unwin, 2012), in turn demonstrates that the sophisticated use of fire, coupled with this awareness of pattern and rhythm, enabled a life of abundance, a rich spirituality and ‘voluminous and intricate’ creative practice. [v] Not just a warrior, though revelling in contestation and challenge, our protagonist is a well brought up young boy and in learning, piece by piece, the stories of his place, he is on the way to becoming a birdiya, a master of biirt or bidi – the sinew, the energy, the path.

But this essay will not be so grand as to explain Abiding Stories, as useful as the concept is. I will discuss a few picture books only, and how they came about. In shining a little light into a dark history, I can only point to what may seem like bubbles glistening in the darkness.

HERE’S ANOTHER FRAGMENT of story, this time one from the archive of official correspondence from early nineteenth-century Albany, Western Australia:

I hope His Excellency will see how desirable it is this Gang of Natives should be broke up more especially as they are those who know our habits, and are more civilised for having been so much with the Europeans, and will therefore sanction Mr Drummond being sent here for the purpose of taking the natives. [vi]

The ‘Gang of Natives’ this writer is betraying included members of a community that another colonial writer, a little over ten years earlier, had referred to as ‘Landlords’. They were hospitable and generous landlords at that, curious about new cultural ‘devices’ and cross-culturally competent enough to display the ‘habits’ of the other in the interests of cross-cultural communication. They took to clothes and food, boats and guns, and even the English language and its forms. Take the example of the Noongar Mokare, singing the Scottish air ‘Oh where have you been all the day, Billy Boy?’ as his brother enters the hut where Mokare is sitting with soldiers, holding court. Still within the first twelve months of colonisation, Mokare is using the song to make a functional statement, to show he knows ‘their’ songs and to remain true to the classical Noongar tradition of exchanging songs and of understanding people by their sound.

Of course, it may well have been a mistake to be so curious, so accommodating and humane. Tiffany Shellam cites one concerned voice: ‘Mineng man, Oscar Colbung, told me of the ambivalence felt by some members of the Albany community about Mokare’s reconciliation statue. A peaceful warrior? What did that say about Mineng resistance, he pondered.’ [vii]  

Some might even call Mokare a ‘sellout’. I think this more than unkind.

Mokare died before seeing how the relationship between coloniser and colonised changed. More than likely, he would have acted differently once he realised that his emphasis on reciprocity and exchange was not shared. Noongar men Norn, Wylie and Bobby experienced such a change and, unable to access their land and its resources, raided stores and outwitted the forces organised against them, thus resisting the attempted imposition of values they believed destructive.

I compliment them on their resistance, but I do want to make the point that their initial response should not be dismissed as a mistake and something never to be repeated. They may have regretted some of their earlier actions, but I hope they wouldn’t want to stop ever acting in that manner. Like the boy encountering the whale, and improvising from the story he knew, it is a good thing to trust yourself and your place in an ancient heritage.

The story of our shared history is not yet over.

ONE OF THE above ‘gang of natives’, Wylie, also features in Edward John Eyre’s Journals of Expeditions of Discovery into Central Australia and Overland from Adelaide to King George’s Sound: 1840-41 (T&W Boone, 1845). Miscast as supporting actor, he is a significant figure. Eyre recounts their expedition across the Nullabor as one of deprivation and suffering, and no doubt it was. But perhaps, as Geoffrey Dutton wrote, Wylie spoke about it differently because when Eyre:

…went on board the Truelove for Adelaide after saying goodbye to his friends and to Wylie, who had given such rosy descriptions of South Australia to his tribe that dozens of them have asked Eyre to take them with him, and now as the ship worked out of the harbour boats followed it full of natives begging to let them come aboard. [viii]

Noongar people, although without seagoing technology of their own, were very enthusiastic about ships. Henry Lawson reported a kangaroo-skin-clad Noongar who, courtesy of twelve months on a French whaling ship, spoke fluent French. [ix] Tiffany Shellam reminds that a group of Noongar asked to be taken by ship from Albany to the fledging Swan River Colony, an area near the other extreme of Noongar country, clearly seeing the potential of ships as: ‘…vehicles for significantly extending kin networks and enhancing geographic knowledge and perspectives of country.’ [x]

The route whales followed along the south coast was in some places, depending on the prevailing winds, similar to that of the sailing ships. Perhaps people saw a connection between the two, with Mamang (the whale) a fundamental example of extending kin and geographic networks by maritime means.

In Mamang, the boy and the whale eventually run aground on a beach further west along the south coast. The stranded whale provides a feast, and an opportunity for people from far away to gather and feast and celebrate the protagonist. The hero is both cause and subject of songs and stories. At the end of the picture book he returns home with wives and children, enriched and better able to contribute to his home community.

Mamang rewards trust in oneself and the acceptance of challenges.


NOONGAR MAMBARA BAKITJ
(UWAP, 2011) is another of the Wirlomin picture books. Again, a young man is alone. Hunting, weaponless, he is following a very faint kangaroo trail with a concentration so intense he doesn’t realise – until they call out – it has led him to a group of what most Noongar people call mamari (mambara in the Wirlomin Noongar dialect; let us call them ‘spirit-creatures’ for now). They greet one another, Noongar and spirit-creatures. The spirit-creatures are surprised this young man can even see this trail let alone follow it. They welcome him, wave him on.

Let me stay close to my own interests, at least metaphorically, and give the word ‘literacy’ to the protagonist’s rare talent for identifying and interpreting small marks. This is not such a conceit; in Writing Never Arrives Naked (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2006), Penny van Toorn says reading and writing became ‘entangled’ with ancient oral traditions on the Australian continent and books weren’t seen as evil or irrelevant, but as curiosities to investigate. This was true of Noongar people also. Nakina, a Noongar guide, referenced the structural characteristics of one of the colonial era’s most popular literary forms when, in performing an account of an expedition he’d led, he offered ‘a detailed recollection of the various incidents and scenery, arranged in the form of a Diary, where each day was designated by some leading distinctive mark, in place of numerals.’ [xi]

This is not the only example of this group of WA’s First Peoples propensity for literacy. Gallypete, one of the intrepid party of Noongar who sailed to the Swan River Colony as a particularly early adopter of new devices, made a pen-and-ink diagram of the layout of a camp.

Sometimes, these new cultural products were exploited in tandem. As Amy Gardos wrote in her Masters thesis, ‘Several of them learned the alphabet in English very readily and I understand one boy was taught to read well by a crew of a sailing ship.’ [xii]

The archives reveal further examples of the dynamic nature of Noongar oral tradition, and its sampling of new language and forms in the attempt to capture new experience. A Noongar song collected around the turn of the twentieth century begins in English, ‘Captain on a rough sea’, and goes on to offer the point of view of a sailor looking through his telescope at the shore. [xiii]  It shows how song and story provide, in the words of the Western Australian novelist Elizabeth Jolley, ‘sophisticated spaces where people might meet’. [xiv]

What do these old stories and tales from the archives have in common? I deal them out thinking: intellectual agility, curiosity, bravery…and choose not to focus on that ubiquitous cultural device of the frontier, the gun. However, in 1851 The Inquirer, a south-west WA newspaper, shows even that from another perspective:

The natives have had so much of their own way lately, that half measures will not do with them now; for instance, a party of them came to one of the stations on the Salt River a few days ago, and they were driving away about 20 of the sheep; the shepherd pointed a gun that he had at them to frighten them, but instead of which, they came all round him with their spears fixed, and told him if he did not put it down, they would spear him; he put the gun down, and one that goes by the name of Cape Riche Bobby, and who is leader of a strong party of the natives, took hold of the gun, and took out the flint; returned the ramrod, and sprung it in the barrel; finding there was nothing in the gun, he said to the shepherd ‘that gun nothing in him; you cannot shoot him; all the same [as a] piece of wood’, and then threw the gun away from him. [xv]

Apparently, Cape Riche Bobby told the shepherd he’d be back next day for the rest of the sheep! Of course he knew about violence, but I reckon his behavior shows someone more experienced with conflict being resolved by something more akin to ritual contestation than bullying or a brutal ‘might is right’.

THE YOUNG NOONGAR man in Noongar Mambara Bakitj finally tracks down the kangaroo. He kills it with his bare hands, easily and quickly. On his return journey, as a mark of respect, he hands a portion to the spirit creatures whose permission he had earlier gained. However, another of them, a stranger, later accuses him of theft and disrespect, and challenges him to a duel with boomerangs. So begins a day-long tussle of stamina and skill, throwing and dodging missiles of which there is a never-ending supply, because each retrieves the weapons his opponent has thrown. Tiring, realising it is late in the day, the Noongar makes one last throw. His opponent recognises the boomerang, a special one from ancestors he had not intended his opponent to get hold of. He tries to catch it and then – standing beneath where it is spinning so fast that it is described as like a waterhole in the sky – is transfixed by his own reflection. The young Noongar has discovered something about himself in the handling of that boomerang. Feeling his new power, he rises into the sky. His community celebrates his return. Better than food, he has greater wealth – a story!

Meanwhile, back at the battle site… The boomerang clatters to the ground. The Noongar’s opponent picks it up. He has the boomerang, but not the power to ignite its magic. He sits alone by his campfire, weighing the boomerang in his hands, feeling its heft. But now it is inert.

Contrast the characters in this conflict: one, defensive and demanding, enclosed in a very small world, isolated. The other – our hero – polite and respectful, but curious and up for any challenge, who travels far from home, excels in new challenges and returns as the centre of celebration.

You might think a member of a community with a history of racist oppression is more likely to identify with the first of these characters. Yet two of the oldest of stories would allocate a quite different role, and one well suited to participation in a modern, globalised world. In both Mamang and Noongar Mambara Bakitj, the hero ‘orbits’.

I have dealt my hand: episodes from the archive history of the south coast of WA, bits of a couple of stories emanating from a small, language project on the south coast of WA. I say the protagonists are of a kind. Yes, from a current perspective the conduct of historical Noongar figures, who were accommodating and contributed so much to a so-called ‘friendly frontier’, can seem awkward and mistaken. Narratives of organised resistance needed to be sustained in order to move on from the accepted fantasy – familiar from the days of my schooling as a youth – that Aboriginal people were so inferior and/or lacking in backbone that they simply relented, laid down and died. But retelling stories only of military resistance while living among what often seems the consequences of defeat – the empirical evidence that creates a need to ‘close the gap’, a disenfranchised people alienated from the wider community, the seemingly endemic racism – is in itself to be trapped in a reductive loop.

Or so I might say. But I am novelist, no spokesperson; I speak only for myself. ‘To narrate is to give oneself,’ says Eduardo Galeano in his wonderful essay, ‘In Defence of the Word’. In truth, and reluctant as I am to be cast beside him, I have sometimes felt a little like that spirit-creature in Noongar Mambara Bakaitj: sitting alone, cradling the heft of an antique cultural product, unable to make it do what it might. Of course in my case, that artifact was not the boomerang but the novel.

I’d like to think there is a place for literature, for story, in social transformation. I’d like to think a ‘creative writer’ can ‘awaken consciousness’ and ‘reveal identity’, as Galeano claims. It is a small and modest thing, to attempt to say what it means to be an Aboriginal literary writer.

It is not the sort of thing of which one can complain with dignity, but I have found myself torn by literary success. I think it is some variation of that ‘postcolonial’ dilemma: writing in the language of the coloniser, for an audience overwhelmingly representing the coloniser. And if one has some success? Galeano again: ‘Mistrust applause: it may mean you have been rendered innocuous.’

But he also says – and this will be his final word (though it is a wonderful essay) –  ‘a “revolutionary” literature written for the convinced is just as much an abandonment as is a conservative literature devoted to the…contemplation of one’s own navel’. [xvi]

IT WAS PARTLY because of this ambivalence about being a novelist (and some desire to be more useful as a writer) that I began what I thought to be ‘literary work’ with elders close to me. Writing a book, Kayang and Me (Fremantle Press, 2013), with Noongar elder Hazel Brown also created, as a sort of side product, the beginning of a database of sorts that consisted of various recordings of her and her siblings, and included notes she’d made as part of research for Land Rights, as we called it before the stumbling entrance of Native Title legislation. That database included Noongar language material. I didn’t know much Noongar language. Nor did many of her children or nieces and nephews.

Cross-referencing her material with published and archival material, I encountered the papers of a linguist who’d spoken to a number of Noongar men whose names often came up in Hazel Brown’s reminiscences. She would have only been five years old in 1930 when he’d recorded their stories in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). She introduced me to a man in his seventies, the eldest son of one of the informants. Another elderly couple, brother and sister, were the children of another informant who’d passed away when they were infants. The linguist in question, Gerhardt Laves, was a student of the renowned linguist Edward Sapir, and his use of the IPA gave us a much better idea of the sounds of the language than the idiosyncratic spelling used by less professional recorders. I learned the IPA and used it to map the speech of current elders.

To shorten what might become a very long essay, let me say that, chiefly guided by Hazel Brown, her brother Lomas Roberts and sister Audrey Brown (and others close to them), we arrived at a group of people descended from all of the informants and strongly grounded in the contemporary south-coast Noongar community. We asked those people to invite others to consider what was in the collection.

There was little institutional involvement at this stage, although we’d helped a university develop a protocol around the use of a digitised part of the collection. We hired a scout camp on the outskirts of Albany and organised some food. Those identified as key descendants invited others to a gathering about language and stories that was held on a cold and bright Saturday morning. There were perhaps fifty people. Within ten minutes of beginning the meeting – still at the stage of welcomes and introductions – nearly everyone in the room was in tears.

Why? Nowadays we only get together like this at funerals, the elders said. Perhaps our emotion was a response to loss – the sheer number of those funerals and of the knowledge that had died with people – and yet it might have been that, somehow, by gathering around words on bits of paper and pieces of plastic we thought we could restore a connection to them, to an ancient heritage we thought so very special and threatened. The stories, like the heroes that featured in some of them, had orbited back to us.

We had no definite strategy, but we knew we didn’t want these stories to be hidden in the custody of a few, to become the stuff of brokerage, and that we hoped to find a way – despite the inaccessibility of an esoteric alphabet and our limited skills – to bring them to life.

We only had rather vague ideas for how to do that. It is much easier to collect in retrospect what we improvised from our own limited resources.

One by one, individuals and couples were called to the front of the group and handed their elders’ stories.

Three or four of the stories that seemed relatively accessible were written on large sheets of paper spread across the floor. The writing was not only in the IPA but also in contemporary Noongar orthography and vocabulary, along with some alternatives drawn from our own elders. The appropriate elders worked through these, with others in the background. A number of us scribbled over these nascent texts as we spoke. We recorded the discussion.

Details were added, memories of the informants shared; we sounded the words, felt for the link between print and sound and ourselves, where it felt right and wrong. What was this paperwork and scholarship? Maybe the linguist got it wrong? Language changed. How much? This ‘value-adding’ came from a rare co-location of archive and oral history. Eventually, Hazel Brown surmounted the distrust of ‘paperwork’. As she said at the Wirlomin workshop in 2006: ‘Well, they were our elders, unna? They would know more than us.’

A beginning.

Something resembling what I have described continues, as the first in each series of workshops. A number of such series have been conducted. Some of the stories arising from the workshop drafts, and later cross-referenced with other archival and published language sources, have become picture books. Sometimes they have been close versions of the archive, sometimes merely inspired by them and sometimes the result of tangential discussion.

The second workshop is to illustrate the stories. You get closer to a story that way. It’s also about ways of sharing stories and finding new skills and forms. Usually one person is selected to illustrate a particular story, though sometimes it’s a collective effort.

At a third workshop, somewhere between fifty and a hundred draft picture books – each with an accompanying CD of the story being read aloud – are formally handed out at a community meeting: gifts to recognise allies, to consolidate stories, to invite critique and comment.

Twice now we have then made a trip with about thirty core individuals to ‘reinsert’ stories in their landscape. For some, this has meant returning to ancestral country for the first time. As Roma Winmar said at the Wirlomin Camp in 2008:

It’s very emotional. I feel full. I feel full of tears, I feel full of joy. It’s hard to explain, like when somebody’s been away for a very long time and they’ve returned on a journey and you rush out to meet them and there’s all these hugs and tears and… It’s a joy, but you’re shedding tears and it’s the same sort of thing… Being here with this mob it’s great. Before my mother died – she had a massive stroke – and before she died she said, ‘Roma, soon as I get better I’ll take you back down to where I came from and I’ll take you to all these places’. The project now has enabled me to come to these places but without my mother, and I suppose it’s feeling the loss of her not being here… But maybe she is here, in spirit, and that dream is being fulfilled for me I just…(indicates tears)… Take no notice. It’s a spiritual journey, to be walking this way again, reinforcing that bond to country.

We film memories of camping grounds, dance sites, show bush tucker in the places it’s always been, feel for the pulse of an old land.

The fourth prepublication stage involves presentations to schools and community groups. There’s usually about eight people sharing the stories, singing songs, showing how we put them together and generally raising awareness of Noongar culture.

Noongar stories and language have not been central to the school curriculum in the Great Southern region of WA. But students and teachers have asked to attend our sessions, and Noongar students speak up in recognition of names and faces in the project and with their own versions of the stories and characters in them. A song in Noongar language, written by a parent, was sung at a school assembly. These are small things in the scheme of things, but the rarity is a measure of their value. It’s a double journey for most of the presenters: from the periphery to the centre and from the inside, outward. After the Wirlomin school tour in 2010, Connie Moses said:

I’m just so proud to be part of the journey. We are a team, you know, and we’re growing together. I just can’t wait to get up and dance and sing. It’s just so wonderful to hear everyone speak, especially the elders. Uncle Russell, from earlier in the week to now has just been inspiring, listening to you. Fantastic.

Russell Nelly echoed similar sentiments in the same tour:

I wanna tell you it’s a privilege to share what we feel with the kids… I get emotional at times, but when I get emotional I’m listening to the old fellas. Because they’re talking to me, along with them talking to you guys… Prior to this I was lost. I had circumnavigated Australia three times looking for my identity and it brought me all the way back to Katanning. I heard of the Wirlomin mob, I thought no, they don’t want me. That’s all changed now. We’ve got something tangible, I always tell you we’ve got something tangible. What we’ve lost, we are resurrecting it. So my people, we go with our head up high, proudly.

I think the satisfaction and strength articulated in these comments, made at the end of a week of presentations to schools and small community groups, comes from being at the centre rather than the periphery of things and seeing one’s identity and heritage validated and affirmed. This empowerment – if we may call it that – has come from giving. That is the curious paradox of telling a story to an audience. Satisfaction and strength comes both from the stories, and from sharing them.

I can’t pretend that the process I’ve described is a result of careful and strategic planning. Much of it has been improvised according to developments and the people available, and is motivated by a conviction that this heritage of stories and language is important; all the more so when it occurs in their place of origin and with the attention of a home community of descendants.

The project chose picture books as a form merely because they allow for multiple producers and presenters. Publication happens toward the end of the series of workshops I’ve described, and by then a relatively large number of people know the stories and how they’ve come to fruition, and are available to help schools and students engage with them. We have formed an incorporated body to which artists and authors give their copyright, and into which royalties are paid to help fund the continuation of the project.

This process – of ever-widening, concentric circles – allows a drip-feed of stories to a wider audience, even as a specific heritage is both consolidated and enhanced.

Sometimes the sense of empowerment is surprising. Sometimes the process seems almost transformative. Let me give some examples.

On the occasion of a presentation of storybooks to significant people in the local Noongar community in Albany, our advising elders insisted we invite a certain elderly member of a local pioneering farming family. I resisted this, pointing out that the man’s family had stolen our land and had generations of our clan working as virtual slaves on their properties. Yes, yes, the elders agreed, that cannot be denied. But, they continued, he grew up with us. He had spoken Noongar language as a child and still knows the language and songs today.

So he was called to the front of an almost exclusively Noongar gathering and formally presented with a set of stories. There were tears in his eyes as he returned to his seat. Those tears alerted me to a curious transfer of power.

IN ANOTHER INSTANCE, we took a story back to a region infamous for the killing of Noongar people in the late nineteenth century, which for that reason is still today regarded by some as ‘taboo’. The river that runs between properties owned by a particular family is a key feature of this story, and one of those properties is the one where much of the killing had reportedly been initiated. We thought ourselves intrepid to be returning to the region with the stories and sounds of ancestors, but had not anticipated being invited onto the property itself. Two old brothers whose family had bought the property in the 1920s, some four decades after the infamous killing began, issued the invitation. They prepared a barbeque for us, offered a speech acknowledging prior ownership by our community and expressing their grief at the horror of shared history. They presented us with grinding stones collected – they said with embarrassment – further up river. They took us to sites on their properties: rock waterholes still covered with slabs, freshwater springs in the rocky bed of a salt river, an area rich with yams. After asking about a site mentioned in the story that had brought us back to this region, they led us to what had been a dancing ground. Even now, nothing but grass grew within the rough circle of old and dying sandalwood trees. Such sites are integral to a reconnection with the past, but also to filling in the gaps in the network of the region’s sites, its pathways and stopping points.

The elders in our group had not thought they would ever return, even temporarily, to this particular area of ancestral country in their lifetimes – let alone with its stories and language – and to be acknowledged in this way.

Who knows? Such things, humble as they are, may be the harbingers of social transformation. For a moment, let us be grandiose. There is a theory, articulated in Dark Side of the Dream (Allen & Unwin, 1990), that Australian society is characterised by the fissure between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal society, that the fragments of the mother colony have long been held together by the threat of the Aboriginal other, which must remain outside of the social pact. This structure, they say, creates a distinctively Australian psychosis.

Some of the things I have described – the empowerment arising from the school tours, the alteration in power relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people at the community meeting and on the farm – hint at the possibility of a change to this structural situation, a change that stems from the merest fragments of ‘Abiding Stories’ and their language being rejoined with their rightful owners.

Programs of Aboriginal language revitalisation are often claimed to have a benefit beyond their more immediate concerns. Thus, Lesley Jolly wrote in 1995: ‘Language loss, language retention, and the possibility of language revitalisation, then, can be emblematic of the whole history of colonial dispossession, Aboriginal persistence and a self-assertive and self-determined future.’ [xvii]

Much can be said of the healing and improved social outcomes for Aboriginal people that can result from reconnection to a pre-colonial cultural heritage. But there may also be the possibility of a wider social transformation in such programs.

Regional Aboriginal heritages are major denominations in a currency of identity and belonging: of what it is to be Australian. This is an exchange to be negotiated, of course, but the very structure of storytelling puts the storyteller at the centre, not locked out of the relationship. And there is that paradox of empowerment through giving. Perhaps this is further reason, beyond some desire to ‘close the gap’, for being an ally in the ‘healing’ of regional Aboriginal communities, because only through relationships with these communities can other Australians have the possibility of resonating with the deep rhythms of a continent’s Abiding Stories.


[i] Crystal, D 2000, Language Death, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p. 38.

[ii] Swain, T 1993 A Place for Strangers, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p 14.

[iii] Swain, p.17.

[iv] Swain, p. 19–28

[v] Gammage, B 2012, The Biggest Estate on Earth, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, p. 138.

[vi] Colonial Secretary’s Office Records, 1829–1860, CSR V 130/62, May 20 1844, Battye Library, Perth.

[vii] Shellam, T 2012, ‘Tropes of friendship, undercurrents of fear: alternative emotions on the “Friendly Frontier”’, Westerly, vol. 57, no. 2, p.21.

[viii] Dutton, G 1967, The Hero as Murderer: the Life of Edward John Eyre, Australian Explorer and Governor of Jamaica 1815-1901, Collins, Sydney, p.144.

[ix] Lawson, H ‘The Golden Nineties’ in First Impressions: Albany: Travellers’ Tales 1791–1901, compiled by Douglas, R & Sellick, G for the Western Australian Museum, Perth, p. 189.

[x] Shellam, T 2009, Shaking Hands on the Fringe: Negotiating the Aboriginal World at King George’s Sound, UWAP, Crawley, p.249.

[xi] Collie, A 1834, ‘Anecdotes and Remarks relative to the Aborigines at King George’s Sound,’ in Green, N (ed.) 1979, Nyungar, the People: Aboriginal Customs in the South-west of Australia, Creative Research, p.56.

[xii] Gardos, A 2004, ‘The Historical Archeology of the Old Farm on Strawberry Hill: A Rural Estate 1827–1889’, MA thesis, UWA, Perth.

[xiii] Bates, D & White, I (ed.) 1985, The Native Tribes of Western Australia, National Library of Australia, Canberra, p. 340.

[xiv] Dibble, B, Doing Life: A Biography of Elizabeth Jolley, UWAP, Crawley, p. 252.

[xv] Inquirer, 7 May 1851, Battye Library, Perth.

[xvi] Galeano, p. 116.

[xvii] Jolly, L 1995, Waving a Tattered Banner?: Aboriginal Language Revitalisation, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit, University of Queensland, Brisbane, p. 4.


From Griffith Review Edition 47: Looking West © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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