Day 31, Across the Sturt Stony Desert to Birdsville

Waddi-tree-Birdsville

Waddi Trees

26 August 2013

I am on the edge of the Simpson Desert, Munga-Thirri National Park. Munga-Thirri means Big Sand Hill.

For this stage of the journey I was kindly offered a lift; there are not many other ways to get the 700km from Longreach to Birdsville.

We drive in a straight red line, past silver grass plains and on through the carpets of rusty round gibber, a great, red-desert pavement of pebbles locked in the clay. The sun beats relentlessly down from an empty bucket of blue.

We have crossed the Sturt Stony Desert when Birdsville, on the traditional land of the Wangkangurru-Yarluyandi people, appears through a dusty flat haze. With its population of only 150 people in such an expanse of space, the roads spread themselves comfortably wide. And with no need to hold in their breath, the roads flop on the landscape in the heat. The houses spread themselves with arms out-flung, saying, ”Look – we have all this room. We hardly know what to do with ourselves!” Such is the grid of four spread-eagled streets; a baker, a hotel, a visitor centre and a caravan park that make up Birdsville.

I am here to meet with Don Rowlands and Lynn, his wife, and Koopah, the beautiful, faithful, little brown dog who is to come everywhere with us; Koopah after the Kallakoopah River.

Don is Wangkangurru Elder and National Park Ranger for Munga-Thirri (the Simpson Desert), and I found him in my research, through ABC radio interviews he had done, talking of the importance of culture and land, and the sharing of this knowledge.

I am staying in a traditional style caravan in his yard, and as he shows me to the corner of the yard, an enormous welcome awaits me; a big sign saying “Parrott Hilton”. How welcome it makes me feel! And how much like Don it is, I am to discover, with his wry humour and his warmth. The town water comes from the Artesian Basin and my caravan sits under one of the water-cooling towers. What a very desert Australia scene my new home is.

Everything out here is continuously covered in a soft mat of fine red dust, picked up by the hot desert winds and scattered unceremoniously on every surface. Tinfoil taped over the caravan window struggles to keep it out. I am here in the hottest September on record with temperatures hovering around 40 degrees and there isn’t much shade. I feel my brain adjusting and clicking down gears for what is going to be for me a very hot week.

I have to shift my whole being into the new time zone. There isn’t much hurry for anything out here. One thing drifts into another under the dripping blue sun. In contradiction, there is always the quiet voice at the back of my head urging me on to complete the work that needs to be done. I must balance the two opposing forces and blend them somewhere into a delicious sweet soup.

Don takes me, on my first afternoon, for a tour of the area. It is a well thought out introduction to Wangkangurru traditional culture. We go to see the Waddi trees, part of the Wangkangurru Thutirla Pula (Two Boys Dreaming) Creation Story. What beautiful old trees they are, thin and bent, brushed over with soft-hanging needles that drip a warm gold-green in the setting sun.

Thutirla Pula Creation story, consists of a series of connected stories about two boys who travelled across the desert from west to east.

The two boys stayed a night at the Waddi trees. When they woke up in the morning they saw tall men all around. The boys were being challenged for passing through someone else’s country. As I sit under the tree, looking up and listening to Don’s story, I can see clearly the man in the tree, arms outstretched.

Creation stories such as Thutirla Pula serve to map routes for navigation across the country. The stories also helped the Aboriginal people find the water wells and survive in the desert. They provided wisdom and a sense of place. Many of the stories cross language groups and also follow trade routes.

Waddis are a rare and ancient desert tree, found in only three locations in Australia. All the stands are on the fringes of the Simpson Desert, separated by hundreds of kilometers.

The timber is so hard it damages axes and saws. Waddi wood has Aboriginal totemic significance, and was used by local groups to transport fire.

(Links to further information on Waddi trees, Munga-Thirri National Park, Thutirla Pula Dreaming and the Sturt Stony Desert have been uploaded to the Australia Digital Resources page of this blog)

Day 30, More tales of resilience and courage

winton-grass-plains-australia-Queensland

23 August 2013

I am driving to Winton today; the long road, taught as stretched elastic ready to fire backwards in my face. I follow the high oblong box of a road train shimmering on the horizon ahead; in my side vision, the dull blue-grey of the grasslands sweeping outwards.

Winton is the first town I arrive at, two hours down the road, and I check into my hotel, climbing the stairs to a narrow corridor with closed doors disappearing to the distance down either side, and my room number stuck to the front of one. Each room has doors leading onto a communal concrete verandah which overlooks the car park, the sounds of the TV and the bar drifting up from below. The room has that same pink smell of all these country motels; mixed with the cigarette ash of the ashtrays outside.

I am here to run some photography workshops but have also been put in touch with Pearl, by my friends in Barcaldine.

When I arrive at Pearl’s home, her paintings are turned to the wall. Aboriginal paintings are based on stories and images centered on the Dreaming and as such are deeply significant and spiritual. I respect that she has let me into her home despite obviously being unsure of who I am and what I am about. We talk for a short while before she turns the paintings around to show me, and I am grateful for this action.

Pearl prefers that I do not record our conversation. I listen instead to her stories, and hear once more the tales of injustice, the hurt and the damage that have been done. After a couple of hours she says, “I wish you had recorded. It is the first time I have had the opportunity to tell a white person”.

Pearl then decides to invite Jocelyn, her mother, down to talk to me. Jocelyn’s mother and father were married before they were even born. They were selected to be married, because their bloodline relates them to the Kings and Queens of their country. Jocelyn’s mother, Alice Wilson, was involved with the big Land Rights marches in the 1960’s, and she received the Order of Australia medal for her work on behalf of Aboriginal people.

Jocylen tells me her language groups are Murrawarri, Kurawarri and Pitapita. But Jocelyn was never allowed to speak her language nor ever taught it. To teach language and culture to children resulted in having them forcibly removed from the family and sent to live at a mission. “Growing up was tough”, she says, “because of the racism”. “We weren’t allowed to dance”. She was taught to survive ‘by being the white way’.

Jocelyn bought a taxi and became a taxi driver to support her children She also completed an Aboriginal cultural course in Geelong and spent much time researching the stories and ways of life that should have been passed onto her. Jocelyn and Pearl share aspects of these for the sound recordings I gather.

With the sinking of the sun, I finally head on my way. I am full of respect for the strength and courage of Pearl and Jocelyn, and so many others I have met like them on this journey; And with sadness for what they have endured.

I hope with each sharing of the sadness, the weight can somehow, in some small way, be reduced; the apparent cloak of invisibility surrounding this sadness when one lives a day-to-day life on the affluent east coat of Australia, removed; and respect for Australian Aboriginal people and their rich culture increased.

(A link to information about Aboriginal Art has been added to the Australia Digital Resources page of the blog)

Day 29, The Importance of Belonging for Personal Wellbeing

grass-plains-australia

21 August 2013

I drive the kangaroo marathon to Barcaldine again today. I have learned to drive after 8am and return before 5pm to avoid the chance of meeting one of these great animals head on. I scan the far horizon to the sides of the road, not just for the kangaroos, but also the emus that can appear from nowhere and dart out in front of the car.

But in the middle of the day the biggest problem is the carcasses that litter the road; the ones not yet pulled to the side that can appear too suddenly from under the vehicle ahead.

I arrive in Barcaldine and make my way back to the now familiar Red Shed. It is a warm and homely welcome that I get on meeting the team again.

Darryl shows me his painting of the Southern Cross and Rainbow Serpent. Rings of dots, to represent the waterholes that the Rainbow Serpent has created, are in the position of the constellation of the Southern Cross. The Rainbow Serpent is spiritual to Aboriginal people. It is the creator of the waterholes and rivers and land formations of Australia.

“I like being on country”, he says. “I’d feel weird if I wasn’t”. On country, he explains, means being on the land that you are from, where you have been brought up. If you are off country you know that you are on other people’s land.

Darryl explains how the Iningai people of this area were slaughtered, and if they weren’t slaughtered they were moved onto the missions, like Cherbourg nearer the coast. It affects him daily, he says. He still thinks about it. “But we are still here”, he says, “strains of us”.

I learn a lot more of the Native Title Claim by the Iningai, and of what it is to live as a Bidjara Person in Western Queensland, as people generously share their thoughts and stories for the sound recordings I am gathering.

I leave feeling confused by the details of the Iningai claim on land that is currently under Bidjara custodianship, but understand that my confusion reflects an existing confusion resulting from historical removal of people from their land.

As Donna tells me, “I thought I was Bidjara but my family has told me I am Iningai. We have to find out who is the rightful owner of the land. Perhaps some Iningai escaped from the massacre in the cave. There’s a lot of Bidjara around and we thought there were no Iningai, but now I’ve been told I’m Iningai and we don’t know anything about ourselves. Thinking I was Bidjara and being told I was Iningai, I was confused. It took me forty-one years to work out who I am and then they tell me I’m a completely different tribe. You just don’t know who you are. You have to work out who you are to be the person you are.”

(On the Australia Digital Resources Page of the blog I have now added articles on language resources for Central-West Queensland, Iningai Keeping Place and Searching for the lost Iningai)

 

 

Day28, The swag

stockman swag australia aboriginal

Jack

20 August 2013

I meet with Jack this morning, at his pensioner unit near the hospital, which he keeps in perfect, sparkling order. The front door is open awaiting my arrival. His movements are slow and gentle as he comes to greet me; his eyes are kind.

Jack worked all his life with the stations, like many of the Aboriginal men: as stockman, drover, horse breaker, horse tailing hand, and camp cook. He tells me stories of droving the cattle from Alexander Station in the Northern territory; his longest journey to the Cooper Country was 19 weeks away. They covered 8 – 10 miles a day, resting when the cattle needed to rest, before they reached the small creeks and plentiful feed of the Cooper Country. On a night watch Jack would ride around singing or whistling to prevent any dozing cattle from taking fright and causing a rush.

But when the trucks came in, many drovers lost their jobs; and with the helicopters, motorbikes and 4WDs for mustering, many of the horse workers and horses were also lost. Jack tells me of the time they led the horses to the meat works, gathering more along route, so that by the time they got to the meat works they had eleven hundred head of horses.

He gets up from his chair and signals me to follow. Opening the wardrobe, his neatly rolled swag is revealed, still lying there.

Day 27, Consequences of a massacre; And a rodeo

rodeo stockman horses australia

16 August 2013

I am perched on the patchwork quilt that covers my little bed, the Calico curtains tied up in a knot to calm their mad flapping in the breeze. The wooden veranda doors are pinned back and I look past my verandah to the latticework and a dusty street beyond. My portable air conditioner hums, cooling the room that sweats under its tin roof despite the hot breeze flowing through. Everything has the feeling of being coated in a layer of dust; even the air has a certain gritty quality. Something in the environment does seem to leave a vague gloss of chaos over how events evolve here, but most of it does seem to happen in its own way, and after various incarnations of how an outcome might be reached. I follow these threads to wherever they might lead. Right now, I am preparing for some photography workshops I am running here as part of the residency, which has been achieved by bringing together many organisations to help fund it.

In the afternoon I meet with Tony Weldon, custodian of the Longreach area. Tony was brought up on a sheep and cattle station west of Longreach. He left home at 14 to work on stations, doing fencing, ringing and droving before leaving the bush to work for Telstra.

Tony tells me of how a map was once drawn, marking Longreach as Iningai territory, but no Iningai people have been found in and around the town. He talks of the massacre in the area that wiped out the Iningai population, and subsequent removal of the bones to a museum in England. At least the bones have at last been returned to their keeping place in Longreach.

As Custodian of Iningai country, Tony is involved with Aboriginal health and housing, and helping the young people into the workforce. Aboriginal people can be shy and find it hard to communicate, he says. If there is any disturbance and police are involved, the police might get angry at these young people for not talking, and want to lock them up. Tony intervenes to help the young people communicate. But there isn’t much trouble, he says.

He tells me he was brought up in a white man’s world. “I’m lucky”, he says. “It is easier for me to fit in. For others who have come from smaller communities to the town it is much harder for them to adapt. But they are talented and strong”.

I am saddened that the adaptation seems to only be one way; that these young Aboriginal people must adapt to the dominant culture; this just seems to be taken for granted, like a rosy woolen blanket obscuring other possibilities. I can’t help but feel that the dominant culture has much to learn from the Aboriginal communities. But such an idea seems lost in the heat and the history and the marching forwards of every-day life.

Like Tony, many Aboriginal men worked as drovers and stockmen in their adaptation to colonisation, riding the horses with the cattle. And tonight is my opportunity to see these skills in action as the rodeo is in town.

The oval in Longreach is small but that is good as we can get up close. Around the oval are stalls of salty popcorn; dazzling red and green, iced slushies; hot dogs and burgers. A bar area is sectioned off from the ring. Along one side of the oval is a raised terrace of wooden benches. Many bring their own fold up chairs and sit pressed up against the oval fence – a solid wooden base supporting wires, widely spread for visibility, but strong and thick. Country music is jangling loudly through big black speakers. And the air… dust settles on everything.

Beside the stalls where the horses and bulls are kept, cowboys in dusty jeans and battered hats lean against the fence of the floodlit oval, or swing their legs over to perch on the wires, intently cupping their face in their hands for a better view, spurs hooked along in the wire. Under a shimmer of dust their faces are swarthy and strong, fixed with a determined set or breaking into a sudden grin. They stand straight and lithe, these men of the horses.

I never really expected to enjoy the rodeo but I do. The music matches the fierce energy of the horse and rider as they burst through the metal gate and into the ring; bucking horses and bucking bulls, men thrown and rolling away from reared hind legs, the clowns who rush to the ring to divert a bull away from a fallen rider, dust flying, and Lockie, the compère, calling the women in the crowds to fever pitch over the masculinity of these rugged young men.

I move around the fence for different vantage points and settle after a while opposite the gates from which the riders burst forth. A sudden pull of a rope from inside of the ring releases the riders, and is quickly followed by a leap back over the fence by the puller of the rope.

I am positioned next to an elderly couple with their fold up chairs pressed tight against the fence, when an almighty horse comes hurtling through the gate and gallops like the wind in a dead straight line towards us. Looking through a telephoto lens it is not long before I am running up the bank in the opposite direction, and I am alarmed to see this old couple do not even flinch as the horse crashes its sweating bulk into the fence in front of them, the rider thrown from its back. He grabs the fence to gracefully somersault and twist his body, avoiding the laps of the elderly couple, who are still sitting smiling in their seats. A great pile of dust comes over the fence with him and covers my camera bag, abandoned at the scene, in deep red.

I stay until midnight.

(For more reference links visit the Australia Digital Resources page of the blog)

Day 26, Culture and Country in Barcaldine

Barcaldine art redshed

Janeece in the orange grove of the Red Shed, Barcaldine

14 August 2013

I am in my hire car, driving the straight and dusty road to Barcaldine in Bidjara Country. The sun bounces and spits on the asphalt and the air is heavy with the rich decaying carcasses of kangaroos that lie at twenty-yard intervals the entire 110km section of the road I travel. They have been pulled to the side, or still lie heaped in the middle of the road, to appear suddenly from under the high clearance of the vehicle in front.

I am going to meet Janeece, Gerry, Phyllis and others at the Red Shed where paintings are being prepared for the My Earth Calls art exhibition at Stockman’s Hall of Fame in Longreach. Aboriginal artists from around Western Queensland are exhibiting.

I receive a warm welcome at The Shed. Doors on one side open onto an orange grove, and on the other to a sheltered patio, set up with a few plastic chairs and a table for smoko and cups of tea. Parrots haggle over the juicy flowers in a nearby tree. Inside the shed benches are strewn with paints and canvases. There is an air of quiet industry.

Phyllis, an Elder of Bidjara Country, shows me her painting.

“It represents the night sky and spirituality and the earth. The dots around the outside represent our mob trying to reach their spirituality”.

Phyllis shows me a face that has emerged in the middle of the painting.

“I left the centre of the painting bare, and as I was taking photos of my work to document the progress, there was a face appeared in there. It used to be the face of my cousin. I haven’t worked the painting at all. I didn’t put the face there, but it changed to the face of my mother. Now it has changed again to the face of an unknown young girl. We believe strongly in our spirituality and in our ancestors. They let us know things, or that they are with us. If we look after our land and our law and heritage, they will look after us and guide us.”

I look at the painting and very clearly the beautiful face of a young girl emerges at the very heart of the work.

Phyllis tells me about the strict traditional laws; affecting everything from the relations between boys and girls, to the details of how food was distributed, and what animal or part of each animal could be eaten, by whom. The rules around food ensured the survival of all the species.

Phyllis believes the loss of laws through non-Aboriginal intervention has led to loss of respect and contributes to the problems seen today in drug and alcohol abuse. “The people have forgotten their roots”, she says. “It worked for thousands of years”.

“But we still teach our children the bush medicines and bush foods. We share this knowledge orally only to the people we want to know. There are people who will take advantage and exploit the knowledge; people who aren’t Australian Aboriginal are selling traditional medicines for big money”.

It seems a recurring theme that I am told by the elders and Aboriginal people I meet; that one way to solve the social problems that exist today in Australian Aboriginal communities, the poor health and the early deaths, might be to take the people back and re-teach them traditional ways, about culture and living on their land; to undo the shame that was taught by the banning of language and traditional ways, and replace it with a very worthy pride.

Gerry tells me of the mining threats to the Diamantina, Cooper Creek and Georgina Rivers of the Lake Eyre river systems and the government support for fracking in the area, revoking the Wild Rivers protection. I think how destructive that will be, not just for the fragile environment, but also for any progress in the wellbeing of the Aboriginal people of the area, if progress is to come from re-teaching traditional ways and living on the land.

Gerry, Phyllis and I pile into the car to travel out to some country. They take me to the place they bring the children to teach them about their heritage and show me the traditional tree-branch shelters the children have built. Phyllis bends down to pick up flints from ancient stone tools, which are lying everywhere on the sand; and they lead me to a scar tree, an old tree with a scar where a Coolamon (a carrying vessel) has been carved from the bark.

I stand for a while to listen to the landscape. The creeks are dry; gum leaves rustle in the breeze. And there is a complete stillness in the air that hangs behind the sighing trees like a mantle to another world, somewhere between the stark blue sky and the silvery green scrub.

(I have added some more reference links to the Australia Digital Resources page of the blog)

Day 25, The strength to turn life around through cultural pride

Koondi (throwing sticks) from Donna's ancestry, displayed on the clay pan beside an ancient gibber circle.

Koondi (throwing sticks) from Donna and Lyndall’s Wangkangurru ancestry, displayed on the clay pan beside an ancient gibber circle.

13 August 2013

The kites are circling in the sky, layering on the up-draught, black against stark blue, the highest fading to a prick of pale grey. But on the ground around my feet they are all large shadows spinning out like dancers on the ropes of a fairground maypole; or like shadows of a mobile by low candlelight, on a child’s bedroom wall.

I am walking to Lyndall’s place; a long hot walk, no shade on the wide empty streets, and no pedestrians. No lack though of inflated long-distance trucks and dusty 4WD’s with their enormous touring trailers.

Jacinta greets me at the fly-screen door, with the shining smile and swiftly alternating mixture of curiosity and shyness of a three-year-old. We all three have a coffee, sitting in the shade on the steps, the heat of the day building around us. Lyndall’s brothers and cousins are traveling from all around for the Rodeo in town this weekend, so the time is not right for talking about her stories and paintings. But she introduces me to a fascinating array of rodeo magazines and videos in preparation for what I should expect at the rodeo in town on Friday. Jacinta and I draw horses on the whitewashed wall. My first rodeo! I feel more prepared now.

I leave Lyndall at just past noon, and the day is pressing in with heavy, hot layers, matting my hair with dust. I am wearing long sleeves and loose trousers to protect my skin but I have changed my mind on this and head home to dress in something cooler before meeting Donna this afternoon.

Donna is the daughter of Don Rowlands, Wangkangurru Elder of the Simpson Desert. My time in Longreach is en route to spending time with Don in Birdsville.

Donna works at the visitor information centre in town. She is bright and strong and her smile belies the tales she is telling of how hard it is to stay strong as an Aboriginal person in a largely Anglo-Saxon town.

As a young child growing up in Birdsville it was not so cool to learn about heritage and listen to the knowledge of the Wangkangurru. And at boarding school, Donna talks of the racial attacks. She tells me how hurt she used to be by the name-calling and stone throwing, but how she would never talk about it because of the shame she felt.

Now she is older and with children herself, she realizes the richness of her cultural heritage; the opportunities she missed not going more often into the desert. Now she knows and teaches her children, in the same way as her father taught her.

My daughter has also been bullied in recent times, she says. “You have to be proud of who you are”, Donna tells her. “You have to be proud of your skin and what your roots are”.

“She has bounced back”, Donna says. “She is strong. My daughter is a tall, proud, Indigenous girl”. I met Donna’s daughter. What a beautiful girl she is.

Donna is very proud of her father and what he has done to pass on the traditional knowledge. She tells me it was when the land title was finally given back to the Wangkangurru people of the Simpson Desert, that Don decided it was vital to teach the importance of having the culture within themselves. She talks of how there was only Don and a few others who remained; who still knew the language and stories, and how he realized he had to act before it was all lost.

“My father took me to a massacre sight in the desert. The skeletons were still there”, she says, “and it hit me from that day on how important it was; how my father felt being one of the last traditional owners”. Donna also realized then that they had to do something about it.

Donna has been through a nervous breakdown to get to where she is today, and her daughter has suffered in the same way too. “I knew I had to reach inside myself and trust in my culture and roots”, Donna says. “My dad and my mum make me the proudest daughter in the world; knowing how proud my dad is of his culture makes me proud to be a part of that. It just makes me feel so strong.”

What beautiful, strong, proud people this family is today, with so much to offer the world. I deeply appreciate the generous sharing of their story.

(There are some links to Wangkangurru information on the Australia Digital Resources page of the blog)