from the editor's desk

The Environment: A Bran Nue Dae or a Very Ancient One?

Veronica Brady

One would not – or better perhaps, should not – think of Aboriginal people in connection with “Green” issues. The Green Movement’s concern with the environment, with the natural world which surrounds us, is very different from traditional Aboriginal people’s sense of the world they live in. For though it is taken for granted, it is not merely their milieu, something outside but an aspect of living, like breathing, the larger life in which they live and move and have their being. As Bill Neidjie puts it in Story About Feeling, for instance, the wind can be seen as the blood pressure of a cosmic body under which tree, grass, stars work with one another:

Tree, grass star …
because star and tree working with you.
We got blood pressure
but same thing … spirit on your body,
but e working with you.

“Reality”, after all, is a social construction, and reality for Aboriginal people does not involve the same separation of self from world which we assume in our culture – the separation which has given rise to the concerns of the environmental movement and has, indeed, created the notion of the “environment” itself as the world which exists “out there” more or less independent of us. What we need to do here, therefore, in discussing a range of recent books written by Aboriginal people about Aboriginal people is to consider this question of the difference between our two cultures and see what emerges for an understanding of its significant.

First of all some thoughts on the difficulties involved. On the one hand it is difficult for non-Aboriginal people to read Aboriginal writing properly yet, paradoxically, it is all too easy. Reading is always culturally conditioned yet our western culture constitutes the great problem for Aboriginal people. The rape of the soul which they have undergone since 1788 was not just a matter of physical violence. It was also a matter of culture, of a systematic and sustained attempt to destroy their beliefs, values and whole way of life and tum Aborigines in effect into white people. True, this attempt was not entirely vicious. Most of the settlers were, and many non-Aboriginal Australians are still, absolutely convinced that our European culture is the only culture worthy of that name and superior to all others. We are civilised, we believe, and all others non-civilised, if not savages. If we try to assimilate others to our ways, the argument goes, that is only for their own good.

Racism, the conviction that we, our people and culture are superior to all others is a pervasive feature of Australian society since it is based on this belief in our superiority and our right to the land. As David Headon puts it in the Introduction to his collection of Northern Territory writing, this dominance of European interests has therefore tended to reduce the realities of black/white relations “to a melancholy footnote”.

Inattention on such a scale cannot possibly be explained by absentmindedness. It is a structural matter, a view from a window which has been carefully placed to exclude a whole quadrant of landscape.

Aboriginal history and culture may be, as Paul Carter remarks, the prehistory which our history has to face. But very few of us are aware of this. As we read and write history it tells the story of our triumph over the wilderness and its savage inhabitants. In terms of our present concerns with the environment, however, this inattention to the original people and their culture is maybe one of the reasons why we are faced with such environmental problems. We needed to declare the land empty if we were to occupy it and thus to write out Aboriginal people and their culture. But one result of that declaration was that we thus also write out Aboriginal knowledge of the land and the skills with which they had for thousands of years so carefully cultivated and preserved such a fragile environment.

For all of us, then, the emergence of Aboriginal writing is important. For Aboriginal people it means writing themselves back into the society which have not only excluded them but rendered them more or less invisible, even to themselves.

Thus Aboriginal writer Maureen Watson reflects on her experience as an Aboriginal child:

Black reflections aren’t in white mirrors, you know. We live in our land. We are, we have all around us people who are not of us. We have in our land – there are people all over our land – who are not of our land. Aboriginal people might as well be in a foreign country, you know?… Everywhere around us are the reflections of a foreign race, a foreign people, and they are making us foreigners in our own country.

In writing about themselves as Aboriginal they are thus writing themselves out of invisibility and into history, helping to develop self-confidence and pride, even pride in the indignities which they have had to endure and which have not destroyed them, thus in Maureen Watson’s words, “holding up black mirrors for black reflections” .

For non-Aboriginal readers, however, the situation is quite different and more complex. Reading Aboriginal writing, it is all too easy for us to continue the old history, to attempt to assimilate it into our culture, to read it entirely in our terms and ignore our aesthetic judgements on it, demanding that Aboriginal writing conform to our standards, even to use it for our own ends. Aboriginal writer Kevin Gilbert notes, for instance, a “whole new education industry” which has arisen “where it would appear that every student is doing his or her PhD English thesis on ‘Aboriginal literature'” and also – though Gilbert does not say this – many academics making reputations writing about it. This is not to deny good intentions, the desire to understand Aboriginal culture and to make amends for the past. But it is to note the difficulties involved. If it is true that Aboriginal writing is by definition political, what Gilbert calls “freedom writing”, part of the struggle to regain identity, dignity and power, then those of us belonging to the culture which has denied this freedom, need to allow them to write from where they are as they are, from the fringes of our society – this, of course, is the thesis of Mudrooroo Narogin’s essay on Aboriginal writing, Writing From the Fringe.

This also means respecting Aboriginal writer’s right to devise their own forms, and to be more concerned with the political than with the literary. Most of the books discussed here, for instance, have more to do with matters of fact than with fiction since it is more important for them to write themselves back into history than to transform matters of fact into fiction. They must establish the conditions for its fulfilment before they celebrate desire.

Just as importantly, the style here is mostly colloquial, the voice of people speaking rather than writing, and this is true even for a sophisticated writer and thinker like Jack Davis. A Boy’s Life, autobiographical reflections of his childhood and youth, is written simply, recording facts and experience innocently without introspection and without speculation. But this is entirely appropriate since on the one hand traditional Aboriginal culture is oral rather than written and on the other hand Davis is writing about a situation of dispossession in the language of the dispossessors, English. Moreover, the point of his writing is sharing, to speak for and with others who shared his experiences. So it is important to preserve the personal quality. Writing, after all, represents a kind of closure; the book becomes an object in itself a substitute for personal communication. What is written down is by definition at a distance and what is written about exists in the past tense. But for Jack Davis as for all the other writers here, this past lives in the present, continues in its effects which they feel still in their bodies as in their social relations. Besides Aboriginal culture is a matter of participation and involvement rather than abstraction. Just as the individual self is not separated from others or from the world but part of one living whole, so past, present and future and fused in the one experience.

The first book to begin with for us non-Aboriginal readers, is perhaps David Headon’s collection of writings about the Northern Territory, North of the Ten Commandments. As a non Aboriginal Australian, Headon sets up the historical context of Aboriginal writing in the Northern Territory and thus also, due allowances being made for the fact that settlement in the Territory occurred more recently and perhaps more brutally, for Aboriginal writing in the rest of Australia. Most of the extracts he chooses, from diaries and explorers’ journals, letters, newspapers, fiction and poetry, are by white people. But there are some significant transcriptions of Aboriginal recollections, and commentaries on their situation and on white people.

The book’s shape and scope appears in its headings and in their arrangement. The first section “Origins” sets side by side Aboriginal myths about the beginnings, the deeds of the great ancestral figures of the dreamtime, and non Aboriginal accounts of the first sightings of the coast, the first settlement and subsequent explorations. The headings of the following sections suggest the grim story of the collision between the two cultures: “Bond-Piled Spots”, “The Whites Dig In”, “The Black View”, “Pilgrims” (the adventurers, explorers, prospectors, outcasts, Afghans and Chinese as well as whites of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries), “My Spirit My Country” (which contrasts Aboriginal belonging with the adventurer’s placelessness), “A Bastard of a Place”, “Sites and Sighting”, “Darwin the Mad Capital of the North”, “Adventurers, Incongruities, Incredulities”, “Nature’s Stage” – for the white man the place was not home but a kind of bizarre display of what was strange and uncontrollable, from floods and storms to white ants, geckos and crocodiles – “Sprees, Drunks, Race Meetings”, “Opening Up the Country”, that is, stories about drovers buffalo hunters and missionaries whose opening represented and ending for many Aborigines, “Rock Belong Jesus Dreaming” about the attempt to replace Aboriginal beliefs with Christianity and, finally, “Hand On Like Done” in which Headon’s sympathies emerge and his belief that Aboriginal people will survive and that, despite everything the Territory is and remains theirs.

Read in the context North of the Ten Commandments sets up Diane Smith and Boronia Halstead’s Lookin For Your Mob, a handbook about ways and means for Aboriginal people who have been taken away from their people and their country to find them again takes on even greater poignancy. For a long time one of the central white commandments was that Aboriginal children, especially half-caste children, should be taken away and assimilated into white culture. This is a book to contest that view and to redirect history, helping regain their Aboriginality.

In Hidden History: Black Stories From Victoria River Downs, Humbert River and Wave Hill Stations Deborah Bird Rose rewrites the history of pioneering days from an Aboriginal perspective. The “heroic pioneers” of legend were also great destroyers of Aboriginal people and culture, the bringers of fear, invaders and persecutors. It is a grim story: stolen women, sexually abused and enslaved, and men killed or treated also like slaves in their own country. Victoria River Downs Station, romanticised in the white story of settlement was for Aborigines a “death space:

Europeans bought and sold human beings, children were captured, placed and used as household adjuncts, women were captured, raped and used to track their relations; the hunters became the hunted, like vermin to be exterminated, as slaves of sexual and murderous violence.

These stories tum Xavier Herbert’s words, used by Headon as one of his headings, from fictional exaggeration to grim reality: “All over the land were bonepiled spots where ‘lazy Aborigines’ had been taught not to steal the white man’s bullocks”. Seen through Aboriginal eyes, the white man is not a figure of civilisation but of brutality, armed with a gun, proving himself and dominating by violence rather than persuasion.

Exaggerated as it sounds, this throws light on the violence detailed by Aboriginal people in these books and by many whites themselves in Headon’s collection. In the latter it is also clear that many tended to project their own violence outwards upon the Aborigines. One passage, for instance, accuses them of cannibalism, the ultimate sign of savagery and all that is grotesquely different. It could also be argued, however, that it is also an image of the white occupation which also consumed people and dismembered them from themselves and their culture. According to Michael Toussig, the accusation of cannibalism also betrays the whites’ deep-seated fears of themselves being consumed by the differences they experienced in the land and in its inhabitants, an unconscious fear on the part of the devourers of being themselves devoured.

Whatever is to be said of these speculations, the whites evidently projected much of their own behaviour on the Aborigines. They are “treacherous, not men but wolves”, “monkeys”, and must be given no quarter”. As one settler put it, there must be no concessions to “sickly sentiment” until “the soil is ours”. Nor was there much attempt to deny the violence. A letter to the Northern Territory Times in 1885, for instance, describes a recent raid against local Aboriginal people, remarking that “it was difficult to say how many natives have been killed altogether” but concludes that it was probably “not less than 150, mostly women and children”.

Some may call this justice [the writer goes on] others may say that it is not exactly right, but then how is the country to be stocked unless something of the sort is done.

It was a matter, it seems, not just of taking the land but of emptying it of people so that it could be filled with cattle. Hence the phrase “Go for the breeders!” which one of Headon’s extracts says “echoed through the territory”. If the women and children were killed off, settlement would be assured.

True it appears that the women also had their uses. One pioneering cattleman wrote; “Aborigines certainly did have their good points – and particularly the women”. Men could be made to work as stockmen when their spirit had been broken. But “None of us would have come up here and lived like a hermit. Even the married blokes liked a bit of variety in their lives. The lubras were the real pioneers”. One passage headed “Bringing In A New Wild Gin” describes the process providing this variety, hunting down a woman as if she were an animal, and bringing her back chained, running behind her new master’s horse. As another writer notes, station owners were like medieval barons with their droit de seigneus, the right, they assumed, to claim any woman on their estate.

If one sets these stories in the context of the Aboriginal, Bill Neidjie’s

I give you this story
This proper, true story
People can listen

They become a powerful indictment of the myth of settlement. For Aboriginal Australians history is anything but a story of progress and Australian society anything but a society in which everyone has a “fair go”. Hobbles Danyarru sums it up in his reflections “Captain Cook”:

Now Captain Cook didn’t give em fair go people
All over Australia today
That before he should have given him a fair go,
Askem people, Aboriginal people.
They own the Northern Territory.
Because Captain Cook should give em fair go
Whether he says ‘gooday’.
Whether he says ‘hello’,
That’s be all right.
But my people,
My people Aboriginal people
They been fright for Captain Cook.
He’s a white fellow.

Nor is this just in the past. The post primary boys at Papunya today, for instance, see “white fellas” as crude, greedy, gross, essentially uncivilised and destructive to the environment as well as to people.

All this, then, is an ironical comment on the hopes of the exmplorer John McDouall Stuart who wrote in his journal on 23rd April 1860:

We gave three hearty cheers for the flag, the emblem of civilisation and religious liberty, and may it be a sign to the natives that the dawn of liberty, civilisation and Christianity is about the break upon them.

Elsewhere, too, we see just what this “liberty, civilisation and Christianity” meant for Aborigines. Barbara Cummings’ Take This Child : From Kahlin Compound To The Rella Dixon Children’s Home tells the story of children taken from their parents and sent to white school separated not only from their families but also from their culture. Nevertheless some Aboriginal people were able to fight back and to survive in their own way. Wreck Bay: An Aboriginal Fishing Village describes the way in which, driven away from the rich coastal area around Jervis Bay, the people returned at the end of the nineteenth century and have survived to this day, using their traditional skills living by fishing and defending their rights to the land against encroaching developers and white holiday makers.

In Growing Up Walgett Cilka Zargan gives a picture of life as an Aborigine in a NSW country town, where living as fringe dwellers in country which they and their ancestors inhabited for thousands of years:

This book [as one of them, Pauline Dennis says], shows what happened to my people. Children these days know nothing about Aboriginal culture. In olden days, children never thought about drinking and stealing or coming to town.

They also tell how all this came about, how in the early days even the convicts were able to take their pick of Aboriginal women and the land was taken from them and jobs denied them. Few Aboriginal people in Walgett have jobs, most of them depend on welfare and without incentives and with little interest in a curriculum which is alien to them and their story most children leave school early:

Nothing to do
People stare at you
I don’t care, let them stare.
There’s nothing I can do,
Nothing to do but drinks and fights.

Yet for all that, the traditional feeling for the land and one’s place in it remains. So Vanessa says,

I don’t think I’d be the same if I went away from Walgett. Here you know people and get along with everyone. To me it is “home sweet home”. Once you live in Walgett all your life, you don’t like leaving it.

But the book which perhaps gives the clearest view of Aboriginal life in between cultures, where most Aborigines have to live – traditional culture survives relatively intact only in remote areas – is Jack Davis’ autobiography, A Boy’s Life. Davis’ mother and father were Aboriginal, but they had been obliged to come to terms also with white culture. His father worked for Bunnings at the timber mill, and was obviously a first class and valued worker, and his mother was as good a manager as any white woman, cooking, sewing and looking after a large family. As a result they had little knowledge of their own traditions when the boy sensed presences in the bush he saw them in terms of “gnomes and fairies”, for instance, and his father even seems to have been a little embarrassed by the boy’s questions. But bush skills remained. His father knew how to supplement their diet with bush tucker, for instance, and loved to take the boys with him into the bush. The Davis boys, too, could out-run, out-swim and out-climb any of their white friends – there is one lively story, for instance, of the white boy, whose family rejoiced in a sea captain grandfather, climbing up a tree with them for a dare, unable to get down again.

For once, Davis’ is a success story, the story of one Aboriginal boy who has become a successful writer and distinguished citizen, though this is presumably only the first instalment since it ends with his father’s death and the break up of the family with Jack going north to work as a stockman, still a typical Aboriginal “nobody”. It also shows the odds against which he achieved his later success. As we said, not surprisingly, his parents seem to have more or less given up on their own Aboriginality and to have made some kind of unconscious agreement to become part of white society – they sent Jack to the Moore River Settlement (which he was later in his plays to show up as a place of humiliation and degradation, almost a prison), for instance, to get an education and a better start in life. But it was there meeting old people “just sitting staring into the fire” and watching young Aborigines become embittered and hopeless, that he took stock, saw through white promises and realised the need to hold on to his identity as an Aborigine and thus to his dignity. But it was also there it seems, that he began to understand the worth of songs and stories of a culture that might give life rather than the death he saw around him.

Nobody seemed to question why or when people died, though there would be lots of wailing. Somehow, I thought, there was too ready an acceptance of dying.

The rest of his career shows his struggle to give life, keeping the stories alive.

This brings us to the last of these books, the text of the musical Bran Nue Dae which was the great success of the 1990 Perth Festival, has since toured triumphantly throughout Australia and is soon to go to London. It is appropriate to end with this book, however, because it represents a triumph of spirit as well as of theatre. Written by Jimmy Chi, it draws on the resources of the whole community of Aboriginal people in Broome and celebrates their life, resourcefulness, humour and sheer will to survive, enjoy life to remain at home in an environment which has in so many ways turned against them. There is no acceptance of dying here, but neither is there any bitterness or hate. White people appear as blundering rather than brutal, out of our depth in comparison with Aboriginal subtlety and adaptability. Few others believe in them, it seems, but Aboriginal people continue to believe in themselves – and so, when they act this out on stage, to compel our admiration. As the final chorus bas it, they and we are

On the way to a Bran Nue Dae
Everybody everybody say
On the way to a Bran Nue Dae
Everybody everybody say

To come back, then, to the question of the environment, each of these books in its own way directs our attention to a larger definition of the environment. It is not simply a matter of physical space but of psychic space also, history and culture as well as nature. If we in this country have damaged the land we have also damaged the people and the culture who lived so intimately with it. Perhaps one answer to our environmental problems is suggested in Bill Bart-Smith’s poem “Reconnaissance” which begins with the image of a group of armed white men marching into the wilderness:

They are soon lost.
The trees flow back silently
across the hole that was made;
Men have gone into it armed
and become as nothing;
Of their purposefulness and commotion
Nothing remains.

What remains, however, is another way of being in the world, summed up by Riley Young Winpilin in a statement in defence of his land in 1985: “this ground is mother. This ground, he’s my mother. He’s mother for everybody. We born top of this ground. This is our mother. That’s why we worry about this ground.


Jimmy Chi and Knuckles, Bran Nue Dae, Currency Press & Magabala Books, 1991.
Barbara Cummings, Take this Child From Kahlin Compound to the Relta Dixon Children’s Home.
Aboriginal Studies Press, 1990.
Jack Davis, A Boy’s Life. Magabala Books, 1991.
Brian J. Egloff in association with members of the Wreck Bay Community, Wreck Bay: An Aboriginal
Fishing Community. Aboriginal Studies Press, 1990.
David Headon (ed), North of the Ten Commandments, Hodder & Stoughton, 1991.
Deborah Bird Rose, Hidden Histories: Black Stories From Victoria River Downs, Humbert River and
Wave Hill Stations, Aboriginal Studies Press, 1991.
Diane Smith & Boronia Halstead, Lookin For Your Mob: A Guide to Tracing Aboriginal Family Trees.
Aboriginal Studies Press, 1990.
Cilka Zagar (ed) Growing Up Walgett, Aboriginal Studies Press, 1990.

This article first appeared in Westerly’s December 1991 issue, 36:4.

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