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)

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