Making contact

About half way through our three-month trip around Australia, She Who No Longer Reads Newspapers asked if she could contribute a guest column on our return. So here it is:

Laurel Wilson

By Laurel Wilson

On our 14 week road trip to WA and back this year, I shared a cup of tea with three ladies in Alice Springs; had a chat with a local in a pub at Fitzroy Crossing; got some directions to a campsite from a young man at Karajini National Park; learnt something of the history of the Gascoyne region of WA and bought a souvenir from a young woman there; and in Ceduna chatted to the painter of a picture of whales which caught my eye. “Well that sounds pretty unremarkable,” I hear you say. And so it should be, but in each of these conversations, I talked to one of the ‘real locals’:

Three Aboriginal women of indeterminate age are sitting on the footpath near where we’ve parked the caravan in a back street of Alice Springs. One asks me if I’d like to buy one of the paintings they are working on. “No, sorry, not buying today,” I reply. But it set me to thinking about how to approach these women. It was morning tea time, so what to do next seemed obvious. I asked them if they’d like a cup of tea – quite easy to provide, as the caravan, with its efficient gas stove, was right there. They didn’t have cups with them (or indeed any sort of container, apart from their painting equipment, so I did wonder how they would get a drink of water if they needed one). I managed to find four cups, though I kept the one with the Australian flag to myself, thinking it was a bit insensitive to offer it. Oops. Forgot the sugar at first. Bikkies were appreciated though.

I asked if I could sit down with them and received a nod of assent. Conversation ensued? No, not really. There are over 200 Aboriginal languages extant in Australia. These ladies spoke one of them. I didn’t. “Are you from around here?” I asked, after telling them where I lived. “Yes”. “What area?” I said. “Bush,” was the reply. Which may have been the extent of their English, or could well have been an admonition not to be so nosy.

“Hi – my name’s Davey. Where are you folks from?” asked the youngish Aboriginal man as we sat by ourselves in a historic pub at Fitzroy Crossing. He was drinking a glass of water. I was having a light beer, as that’s all there was on offer that day. I told him where we lived and offered practically the only word in language that I know. “Nara,” I said, then asked him what the greeting word was in his area. “That’s a hard one,” he replied. “There are people from so many language groups here that there’s not just one word.”

Karajini National Park

Onwards to the beautiful Karajini National Park – not far East of the spectacularly ugly Tom Price.
Me: I get kind of confused about directions over here – can you show me which way the campsite is?
Him: Where are you from?
Me: Queensland
Him: Well, does the sun rise in the East and set in the West over there?
Me: Um, yes.
Him: Well, what’s the problem, then?

Tom Price Mine

It’s not often that someone can take the piss in such a gentle but effective way.
This conversation was with a young Indigenous man who sold me the T-shirt which says: ‘Go with a clear open and accepting spirit and the country will not treat you badly’.

Carnarvon’s Gascoyne Aboriginal Heritage and Cultural Centre was built when local land title claimants agreed to substitute the Centre for their claim on waterfront land. Despite the dubious generosity of this bargain, the Centre is most impressive. It includes an art and craft gallery, conference rooms and a café, as well as a permanent interpretive exhibition which outlines the Aboriginal history of the area, before and after the coming of Europeans.

“Come here, sit down, listen and learn,” said the elderly Aboriginal man – projected on a screen, but it did seem as if he was talking directly to his listener. Burlganyja Wanggaya – Old People Talking. All of the elders spoke in a matter of fact way about their experiences within their family groups as well as their interactions with non-Aboriginal people. But it would be a hard heart indeed that didn’t feel a wrench at the tale of the married Aboriginal stockman whose daughter was taken away and who was denied access to her, despite numerous attempts. The young girl was told her parents didn’t want her. Only when her niece tracked her down many years later, did the young girl, by now an elderly woman with her parents long gone, become re-united with what remained of her family.

In Ceduna SA we dropped into an Art and Craft gallery run by local Indigenous people. A painting of whales caught my eye, as we had recently seen them swimming close to shore at the ‘Head of Bight’. Luckily for me, the painter of that work was at the attached studio that day. I met her and had a brief chat as she proudly showed me some of her other work in the exhibition.

According to the recent SBS TV show ‘First Contact’, 6 out of 10 Australians have had ‘very little or nothing’ to do with Indigenous people – or at least with people they recognise as Indigenous. The show took six young Australians, who had never met an Indigenous person, on a journey to various parts of Australia, where they met Indigenous people. Four of the participants had very negative attitudes, considering Aboriginal people were ‘dirty’, ‘alcoholics’, ‘welfare cheats’ and/or obtained benefits unavailable to non-Aboriginal Australians. The shock jocks would be proud of how well their propaganda has spread. By the end of the three part programme, one of the people with negative attitudes had left the show. The other three were gracious enough to acknowledge that their original prejudices were unjustified.
So, how would you go in the same situation? You’re unlikely to have Ray Martin come knocking on your door offering a month’s tour of Australia, so as an alternative, how about going out of your way to meet and talk to an Indigenous person?

Feel like helping to redress the balance?
Check out and ‘like’ local non-profit organisation Mimburi Upper Mary Aboriginal Association’ on Facebook.
Read about the remarkable Aboriginal women elders (and those who assist them) who live in the remote WA desert – Kapululangu Women’s Law and Culture Centre