My grandfather, Colin Walker, is a Yorta Yorta man born on the banks of Dhunagla (the Murray River) at Cummeragunja in a small tin hut with a dirt floor, no windows – a corrugated iron structure that is long gone. A stone’s throw from the site of Pop’s birth is the Cummeragunja School House where my mother May went to school.
Pop prides himself on having never lived anywhere but Cummeragunja, which in his tongue, in our language, means “our home”. The longest he’s been away from home was two months when he was away shearing; that stint was a bit longer than the time that he and Nan drove from Cummeragunja to Uluru after Nan retired from her job as a cleaner at the Echuca Hospital.
My grandmother, Faye Walker, was born in Narrandera. Nan is a Wiradjuri woman, and she was raised on the freshwater fish and crays from the Murrumbidgee (“big water” in my Nan’s tongue), and the rabbits that rambled the vast plains of her country, Wiradjuri country. Nan’s father served in both world wars and Nan once told me of the anguish she felt when she first saw her father in a soldier’s uniform. The root of her anguish was in her instinct to run and hide.
My Nan and Pop are spellbinding story tellers, and I love being with them at Cummeragunja, by their fire, sipping milky tea, and hearing yarns about their lives. They’re generous with their insights and both of them are deeply, deeply humbling. They have nurtured me and my family with stories of their lives and our culture.
This week I felt both my Nan and Pop as I sat by the fire bucket out the back of Weelam Ngalut (“our place”) with Bigambul elder Uncle Wes Marne at the Yirramboi First Nations Arts Festival. At 95, he’s had an extraordinary life, a life nurtured and empowered by the stories of his people and culture, stories that he in turn offers with authority, humour, insight and warmth.
Uncle Wes welcomed us to his fire bucket explaining why we were smoked as we entered the sand-covered area that formed his stage. We were smoked, he told us, in order to rid us all of the bad energy and spirits that we may be carrying. “Whatever has happened before the smoking,” he said, “is gone”. He explained why babies are smoked when they’re born – to remove the traumatic energy of birth – before lulling each and every one of us into his world, around his fire bucket.
Uncle Wes’ world is one with no mind-numbing televisions, just epic stories featuring wallabies, kangaroos, greedy king browns, and spiteful song-less kookaburras. I heard the voices of my Nan and Pop as Uncle Wes spoke of our god Biami, and the one constant in all Aboriginal Dreaming stories, the Rainbow Serpent.
Uncle Wes lived in the mountains until he was 10, before going to school for just one day. The school he attended had a series of buildings shaped in a horse shoe configuration, but Uncle Wes and his fifteen-or-so Aboriginal classmates weren’t allowed in the buildings, instead they were taught in a bough shed – a wall-less structure made of tree branches on the fringe of the school site.
That was when we heard of the restrictions imposed on Uncle Wes’ life. Aided by a torch so he could read by the fire light, Uncle Wes read from a laminated copy of a certificate of exemption in a harsh vision that cast white light on the faces of those who sat by his side. Commonly known as a “dog tag”, the certificate outlined the conditions that Aboriginal people lived under in the 1940s in New South Wales. I thought of the similar conditions imposed on Aboriginal people living in the Northern Territory under the Intervention in Australia 2017 – almost a century since Uncle Wes was born – and looked to the fire to relieve my eyes from the blinding light.
Without any sense of bitterness Uncle Wes told us his favourite story, that of the quinnies (“moon creatures”) and their constant nocturnal quest for honey. It was then that he called upon all of the mothers present and asked them whether they ever noticed their babies smiling in their sleep, all the mothers nodded knowingly, as Uncle Wes told us under a city sky how that was the work of the quinnies. A collective sigh swept across those of us gathered around the fire bucket as we all sat under an almost full moon.
Uncle Wes is an exquisite and charismatic storyteller, and he proudly asserts that storytelling is his Dreaming. He comes from a long line of storytellers – “many, many thousands” – and he made me realise how blessed I am to have access to Aboriginal voices. We are so blessed to be surrounded by Aboriginal voices.
This article was first published by Guardian Australian on 11 May as part of their collaboration with IndigenousX.
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