Learning to understand

5 Jul 2018

Learning to Understand. Lee Bevan writes for IndigenousX about his experiences as an Aboriginal man in the modern world. It is his connectedness to land and culture that helps me manoeuvre his way.


“What I am really saying: we walked together over many places and areas, travelled long distances around. Every day we were learning. We got closer and we were understanding it more – the country. It came out to us. Di-di-di-di-di-di – that’s travelling across large spaces, talking, listening, all that. That’s learning to understand.” David Mowaljarlai 1993

There are times I find my enthusiasm and awe of Mowaljarlai child like. As a GenX Aboriginal man I get uncomfortable being so intellectually and spiritually giddy. I like to think I’m not that naïve.

Mowaljarlai here is talking of learning to understand country, the deep knowledge it holds and how it reveals itself to you. However, it is the philosophy in Mowaljarlai’s words that I’m always drawn to as well. In this case a philosophy of learning, of being open and receptive, and of patient observation. Stuff that none of us are taught at schools. Stuff that usually our grandparents and other senior people role model for us. Well, that is what I get from him. Maybe that’s what I need from him.

Bungal ‘David’ Mowaljarlai (c. 1925-1997) was a Ngarinyin Lawman from the northern Kimberley region in Western Australia. Like many accomplished people, he was a person of many gifts and talents. A land, and cultural rights activist for his and other Aboriginal people, an artist and philosopher. I also regard him as a poet. Like many of his people his age he spent his childhood years in the remote Kunmunya Mission before being moved into the Mowanjum settlement near Derby when the mission closed down around 1950.

As an Aboriginal person who walks in two worlds, in my Aboriginal communities and in mainstream Aussie society, I’m always going through journeys of learning to understand.

Learning to understand the personal, the social and the political. Learning to understand my cultures and how my cultures shape me. I have more than one cultural heritage as a Kimberley Aboriginal man. One side of my family is Nyul Nyul and the other Kija. They are ‘salt water’ and ‘fresh water’ people respectively to use our vernacular. If not for my step father, who was Bardi and not Nyul Nyul, my immediate family and I would not know a great deal about our culture. In the Kimberley there are what we call five ‘cultural blocs’ within which a number of language groups will share long established traditions. Nyul Nyul and Bardi come under the ‘western’ Kimberley Aboriginal cultural tradition. This is how our Dad, teaching us through Bardi, taught us about our Nyul Nyul traditions as well.

Mowaljarlai helps me to understand my Aboriginal cultures in a deeper way. My nearby grandparents passed away in the 1970’s and the 1990s, and Dad in 2002 so I didn’t have further opportunity to get that with them. In times of deep uncertainty and tumult learning through Mowaljarlai has been the tether to my cultural bedrocks.

Mowaljarlai’s culture and mine are similar but have differences too of course. As we would say back home ‘same kine but diffrent’. We have different Dreamings, stories and traditions but, as I have described to many people, it’s the values that are nearly always the same. Embedded in the story, embedded in the tradition and behaviour is a value. Mowaljarlai helps me to grasp that, as an adult Aboriginal man in the physical absence of other role models.

The philosophy of Mowaljarlai as I call it above, drawn from his culture, has made me see a lot of what my Dad and grandparents did with my siblings and I. Being open and humble to the knowledge and wisdom around us. Learning to understand my surroundings, people, and country.

When I read Mowaljarlai’s words or watch him speak in video pieces I hear and see my Dad, my Grandmothers and others. I am transported to Mowaljarlai’s Ngarinyin country and nearly always then to my country, walking or on the boat with Dad. I often feel I am in the presence of both simultaneously.

Lee's Dad on a traditional mangrove raft with a freshly caught turtle.

‘Dad (Tom Wiggan) with a freshly caught goorlil (turtle) on a gaalwa (traditional mangrove raft)’.

I have benefitted from a couple instances of serendipity to do with Mowaljarlai. The first is in my early 20s after I’d started university, only a couple years after the release of Yorro Yorro. Dad was initially perplexed why Mowaljarlai would decide to author or collaborate on a number of books when he’d first heard about the book. Whilst reading Yorro Yorro Dad said to Mum and I excitedly at the kitchen table, words to the effect ‘everything that bloke writes is true. I understand why he wanted to write that book now’. I was studying at a university campus in Broome at the time and had read a few pieces about Mowaljarlai so Dad’s praise and opinion was very important to me.

After finishing university, moving to the east coast and back to Western Australia, and building a 20 year career in the broad Aboriginal affairs arenas Mowaljarlai slipped mostly from my life and thoughts. Until the second serendipitous occasion to do with Mowaljarlai came upon me in March and April 2013.

At that time I met Hannah Rachel Bell, a white woman who had worked and collaborated with Mowaljarlai and his peers amongst the Ngarinyin people in the 1980s. Hearing Hannah speak about Mowaljarlai or reference conversations with him and others helped make my mental images clearer and my feelings stronger. I could never hope to capture Bell’s time with Mowaljarlai and his peers here and instead direct you to her book ‘Men’s Business, Women’s Business’ as a starting point.

I am back living in Perth in Whadjuk boodja where I find myself increasingly thinking on and referencing Mowaljarlai. He has helped me to interpret my Dad’s and many other’s examples and teachings. I am learning to understand more and more that living in an urbanised setting does not disconnect me from my Aboriginal identify. I am a Nyul Nyul and Kija man living in Noongar country but I am learning to understand this other country where I am conscious I am a cultural foreigner in some regards. My learning to understand helps me to connect more deeply from limited exchanges with Noongar Elders like Dr Noel Nannup, Dr Richard Walley and other Noongar Elders I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. As long as I continue to live in the philosophy of ‘learning to understand’ I know I will continue to learn from Noongar and other Elders I meet and work with. This must be what maturing is about.


Disclosure: The royalties from the sale of Yorro Yorro are donated to the Magabala Books Philanthropic Cultural Fund. This fund (kept alive by donations) keeps Magabala titles in print that are culturally, historically and philosophically important. Not only are we spreading the seeds of our culture, but we are changing the world one story at a time.

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