Walking country

I wrote this reflection after a fieldtrip to Gamilaraay country, which I facilitated with the support of a grant from the College of Arts and Social Sciences, ANU. This was a chance for students of Gamilaraay to contextualise their language learning and reflect on what it means to learn an Aboriginal language in revival.

Golliwogs in the community development café.

Handpainted beer bottles, covered in precise dots, for 12 bucks. Meanwhile an enormous scented candle in an ornate mixing bowl goes for $265 (on sale) in the homewares shop across the road.

In Walgett in the 1950s, Aboriginal women couldn’t try on clothes in shops. If they wanted a dress, they just had to buy it off the rack.

At Cumborah, a spot out of Walgett you go to disappear, there’s a sacred pool, part of the Gali Gurunha songline. It’s covered by car tyres and a rusty bit of old grid, and fenced off with green panels covered in chipped green paint.

Katie Langloh-Parker recorded stories in Yuwaalalaay at Bangate Station in the late 1800s. Bangate Weir has the eerie feeling of an abandoned city. Native parsnip carpets the ground.

Scar trees at least 150 years old. Ripples in the scar, bark swollen up around it.

Uncle Ted Fields remembers being herded onto trucks at 6 years old at Angledool and taken to Brewarrina Mission. When they went through Goodooga, they were told to sing. “Sing, you blokes! You’re happy! You’re going to a new home!”

The Weilwan people came to “Bre” in trucks too. They had covered themselves in guvvie blankets and were weeping.

Uncle Roy Barker joined the Diggers to get away from the mission. He put his age up from 16 to 18. Coming back, he wasn’t allowed to join the RSL and he couldn’t get a returned serviceman’s block. He ended up working for a surveyor, drawing up blocks of land for white settlers on his country. 

Aunty Fay Green was sent away from her family at 14 to work on a station. “Those kids called me mum.” There was no choice of continuing at school. If you didn’t send your children out to “an apprenticeship”, your rations got cut.

Aboriginal people at Moree Top Camp put old junk on the roofs of their houses to hold them down. If they used nails, the authorities would fine them for erecting an illegal dwelling.

Murrgu walaay: sacred site where cruel people who didn’t help a mother with her dying children were turned into casuarinas. Caravans and road trains roar past on the thin stick of asphalt running through the bush.

Cocky’s wife in the gift shop: “Oh yes, my kids can sing the national anthem in the Aboriginal language. Quite funny really.”

Guy behind the counter at the servo in the Ridge. “Learning an Aboriginal language? What job will that get you?”

Roadside covered in plastic bottles and balls of cotton. 

Angledool deserted. Bunch of scrabbly little homes in the bush. Angry dog on a chain. Bumping about on silky red soil, trying to find the mission memorial. Later on we find it’s behind some gates, “where the asphalt runs out”.

Flock of Major Mitchell’s cockatoos, wings lifting to reveal secret, audacious salmon pink underneath.

Yuwaalaraay woman with a tiny silver emu earring in each ear. 

“He had big troubles with grog,” someone says. “Language saved him.”

Kids are doing bird dances in Yuwaalaraay class. “Watch that one girl,” says the teacher at the back of the room. “She really transforms into a brolga, it’s amazing to watch.”

“Listen you kids,” says Aunty Fay. “You’re not doing the emu right. Put your hand like this, not like this. Emu don’t wave!”

Aunty Noely Briggs has spent the past 30 years transforming the “Abo section” of the Moree Cemetery. Now plaques and plastic flowers adorn the graves, where before were swathes of waist-high grass. A sign reads, “Ngindi Baabili Tubbiabri. They Sleep in Place of Quietness.”

Aunty Fay: “When they brought the language back, that was the happiest day of my life.”

“Aunty Sue, Aunty Sue!” Bloke at the bar in Coona, beaten-up cap on a mop of sandy curls. “She taught me language!”

Myall Creek. White ochre in a tub of Peter’s Blue Ribbon. “Clap, all of yez! We gotta wake them old people up!”

At the Collarenebri Aboriginal cemetery, smiling potbellied bloke in a bright blue shirt burning bottles to chip and scatter on the graves. Kids pile out of a hatchback and play among the piles of white and brown glass.

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