Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray by Anita Heiss – Book Review

This is the first novel that has broken through my brain fog, courtesy of Covid, for quite some time

Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray (River of Dreams) is an epic story of love, loss and belonging.”

Set in 1852, the Marrambidya – what we know as the Murrumbidgee – floods through the newly established township of Gundagai, leaving death and destruction in its wake. The local indigenous had warned the colonists though this went unheeded. It is a stark reminder that while the river can give life, it can just as easily take it away.

Wagadhaany is a 13 year old Aboriginal lass and considered to be one of the lucky ones because she survives the flood and lives in a settler’s home as a domestic. When she is forced to move away from her “mob” her spirit is crushed despite forging a friendship of sorts with the new mistress of the house. Her heart slowly heals when she meets a Wiradyuri stockman and she dreams of escaping from servitude and returning to the river of her ancestors, though there is danger in escaping from the white man.

Beautifully written with a nod to indigenous language, the images of rural NSW with its flocks of noisy cockatoo and the swirling currents of the river and dry plains are almost lyrical. The ugly events of our past are covered, such as the massacres, payment to workers by way of rations, abuse and mistreatment of the women, and early days of mission life. It’s not pretty.

Wagadhaany’s partner takes their twin sons camping on their first “walkabout”
to learn many of the Indigenous ways and I felt as a reader that I too was being educated in bush craft. I will never again move a log with my hands until testing first with my feet ( in case of snakes)! I particularly enjoyed the lessons gained from looking at the night sky given my recent reading about Aboriginal Astronomy.

In Gundagai today there is a sculpture of Yarri (Wagadhaany’s father in the novel) and Jackey Jackey commemorating how many of the colonists were saved during the flood in those early days.

Though not an in-your-face, aggressive look-what-you-done look back at historical events which is so very prevalent in other recent publications, this story is no less forgiving. It in no way detracts from the appalling treatment that our Aboriginals suffered but rather confirms that you can ” catch more flys with honey than with vinegar”.

Great read!

About the Author

Anita Heiss (born 1968) is an Aboriginal Australian author, poet, cultural activist and social commentator. She is an advocate for Indigenous Australian literature and literacy, through her writing for adults and children and her membership of boards and committees.

First Nation’s Storytellers


It is only over recent months that I became aware of Australian Aboriginal Astronomy after having listened to Astrophysicist and Science Communicator, Kirsten Banks, on of all things, a home renovation show.

Of Wiradjuri descent Kirsten has a particular interest in how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have used the stars for over 65,000 years for navigation purposes, predicting weather seasons, and for determining when the best time is to hunt for certain foods such as emu eggs. “ Aboriginal Astronomy can teach us about the link between the sky and the land”, she said.

My interest was further piqued on my recent outback Queensland travels and in particular Winton. Winton’s small population, low humidity, and low light pollution make it the ideal location to stargaze and the area around the Australian Age of Dinosaurs is now one of only ten internationally recognised areas certified as a Dark Sky Sanctuary.


Since then I have been receiving social media alerts regarding Aboriginal artwork related to the skies. ( see Aboriginal Skies)

With a daughter in Nhulunbuy, Northern Territory – which I grew up calling Gove – an area in East Arnham land populated for some 40,000 years by the Yolgnu people, we all have a new appreciation for the story tellers from our First Nation. Contemporary Australian Indigenous art often references astronomical subjects and their related lore such as the Seven Sisters.

Here are examples of some of the art works:

This fabulous artwork was submitted by Annette Joy. Annette is a Gourmanjanyuk/Wergaia artist and the painting represents Yerrerdetkurrk, which is the star Achernar. Yerrerdetkurrk is the ‘Nalwinkurrk’, or mother of Totyarguil’s wives. The ‘Nalwinkurrk’ never allows’ her son-in law to see her. Achernar is a bright, binary star system located in the constellation Eridanus, and is the ninth-brightest star in the night sky.

“Hydra the Water Serpent” from the ‘Shared Sky Exhibition’. This exhibition highlighted the connections between Aboriginal & contemporary astronomy. This artwork is acrylic on linen (70cm x 52cm) and the artist is Nerolie Blurton. “The Water Serpent, stretched across the sky with its many heads, was a monster until it was cut and killed. The red blood drips down from the clot. The browns and orange show that the Hydra can be seen best in autumn.”

If Aboriginal Astronomy intrigues you I recommend reading the story of The Emu In The Sky by Ray and Cilla Norris. Fascinating and guaranteed to give you a brand new perspective.

Dark Sky and Dinosaur Country at Winton overlooking Banjo’s “plains extended” and “vision splendid”.

Isn’t it bizarre how watching something on TV simply to learn how to stop bugs eating young eggplants can take you on such a convoluted journey ? * shaking head and muttering.

Barcaldine, Western Queensland

Barcaldine is a sheep and cattle town 520 kms by road west of Rockhampton, and over 1000 kms from Brisbane, on route to the popular tourist destinations of Longreach and Winton. 

Affectionately known as Barcy, most travellers on the road through town stop to peruse the Tree of Knowledge. The current tree is a copy, the original having been vandalised in 2006, and represents the trials and tribulations of the Great Shearers Strike, one of Australia’s earliest disputes between union and non-union labour, and an event that is today acknowledged as having led to the formation of the Australian Labor Party. It is a glorious sight by night and the original rootball remains under glass – even Liberal voters are impressed.

A recent addition to Barcaldine is the Desert Dreaming Centre.

Local First Nation woman, Cheryl Thompson, is a big believer in “closing the gap” and “sharing the Dreaming” and runs a hostel in town, with no Government funding, for children from indigenous communities who want to complete their secondary schooling. Remote areas do not have internet or other facilities so the School of Air is not an option. These students learn about work ethic and managing finances through weekend shifts at the Ridgee Didge Cafe, and are also involved in traditional Aboriginal activities and learn about the local Iningai history of the area through Thompson’s Desert Dreaming Centre, where they follow a curriculum that combines school work with learning about culture, art and tourism. 

There is a dedicated work room which is strewn with artists’ materials where the students work on projects which are then sold at the Desert Dreaming Centre’s Gallery.

The Desert Dreaming Centre is also a tourist destination from which Thompson offers a variety of authentic aboriginal cultural experiences. Activities include :

Ocre Workshops, 

Boomerang Workshops

Creating artworks and message sticks. 

Sitting around a corroboree ring stories, song, and dances are shared, often involving the students, who are also being trained in other arms of Cheryl’s business activities such as the Barcy Base Camp (hospitality) and Trackers Tour Company( tourism). The latter includes the concept of Dreamtime Guides who are trained by Thompson to present culturally appropriate and culturally safe information.

We enjoyed the Desert Dreaming Dance and Dinner Experience around burning log fires whilst being entertained by the young dancers who explained the cultural significance of each performance.

Cheryl’s partner, Paul Stumkat, is a renown palaeontologist with a passion to further open up the Queensland Outback’s Dinosaur Trail. Together they present a blend of palaeontology and living cultures in order that tourists gain a better understanding of both the past and present life of outback Australia.

Paul has developed workshops that he uses to this result which I found both fun and educational. Here’s my caste of a fossil footprint of a small dinosaur, and I’ve also gained some experience in identifying the tracks of both kangaroos and emus. For the Little People there is even a sandpit where they can unearth a dinosaur skeleton. I warned you : mega fauna freaks are everywhere in the outback!


Yeah, so artwork is not my forte……..

NOTE: The students currently participating in Thompson’s dream have a 100 per cent school attendance rate. Now that’s called ” closing the gap”!

LIFE LESSON :

A reminder to never dismiss a country town. You would be surprised by what lies lurking…..

Aboriginal Literacy

September 1st is National Indigenous Literacy Day, a day designed to bring awareness to the general community about the rate of literacy amongst our Indigenous communities.

“Only 36% of Indigenous Year 5 students in very remote areas are at or above national minimum reading standards, compared to 96% for non-Indigenous students in major cities.” –  2019 NAPLAN.

The Indigenous Literacy Foundation’s approach to raising literacy levels starts at a community level with the supply of books. They have worked with many remote communities and published books reflecting up to 26 Indigenous languages from all across Australia.

These new and culturally appropriate books are gifted to schools and organisations operating in remote communities with an aim to develop familiarity and engagement with books for children under five through a daily dedicated Story Time session, so children can start school with some basic pre-literacy skills. 

The current COVID climate makes it difficult to raise funds for any charity especially after Australia’s recent frolic with bushfires, floods and drought. I can only ask, what’s next? Oh, yeah, a mouse plague.

What I have discovered is a range of picture books for the very young at my local Australia Post ( Post Office) published by Little Book Press. One of their projects is the Emerging Indigenous Picture Book Mentoring Project.

These books cost $4, have wonderful illustrations, and are written in both English and the local Aboriginal language. At the back there is also a QR code where you can listen to the author read the story in the Aboriginal dialect.

$4.

Just delightful for all kiddies, whether they be black, white, green or purple. Added bonus : light to put in the mail.


AFTERTHOUGHT :

My daughter who has been living in East Arnham land for over twelve months now – the one who gifts her hair to the local First Nation elders after a hair trim so that they can make new paint brushes – sent me a text over Easter. It said “ Mo, they caught a baru off the beach”.

Baru is a crocodile. By sharing communication, by acknowledging language, I hope that we can move towards closing the divide between our peoples.

AND ANOTHER AFTERTHOUGHT :

Watched the 2007 film Rogue on the weekend. Filmed in the Northern Territory by the same Director as Wolf Creek, the movie opens with some truly stunning images of the Territory. Absolutely gorgeous. Doesn’t last long unfortunately because it quickly becomes the crocodilian version of JAWS. OMG. Had to walk away but you’ll be pleased to hear it has a happy ending. But I‘m never, ever going on a Kakadu boat cruise.

Two Things : Magabala Books and the Little Library.

It was recently announced that Magabala Books won the Australian Book Industry Small Publisher of the Year Award.

Based in Broome, Western Australia, Magabala publish Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors, artists and illustrators from all over Australia. An independent, not-for-profit Indigenous Corporation, Magabala is governed by a dedicated Board of Kimberley Aboriginal cultural leaders, educators, business professionals and creative practitioners.

Magabala publishes up to 15 new titles annually across a range of genres: children’s picture books, memoir, fiction (junior, YA and adult), non-fiction, graphic novels, social history and poetry.

What I found interesting was that Magabala also delivers a range of social and cultural initiatives, including providing books to parents in correctional centres so that they can record the stories for their children whilst in isolation. What a wonderful concept!


Restrictions were eased last weekend allowing parks and playground equipment to reopen. This called for a dose of disinfectant to the Little Community Library located in our local parkland which has been much utilised over the past months with our Council Libraries closed and only re-opening last week (for ten people at a time).

Many thanks to the Rotary Club of Capalaba who came to the rescue with much needed children’s books to restock our Library in the park. Little People aren’t fond of ebooks or kindles……as it should be…..

A Mother’s Day Story….

My mother had long blonde hair the colour of corn. My strongest memory is of her nightly ritual of curling her hair into little pinwheels which she would tightly fasten to her scalp with a collection of bobby pins. When this task was completed she would dampen the pinwheels and then cover her hair with a scarf ready for bed. In the morning, after she had removed the pins, her long hair would be wavy and beautiful – reminiscent of Rita Hayworth’s hair in Gilda.

I’ve generally worn my hair long over the years. Mousy in colour, or Rat Blonde by those more charitable, it is dead straight and totally devoid of any waves, bounce, curls or anything else to make it of any interest.  And I’m certainly not fussed or vain enough to try curling rods or the like.

Both my daughters have inherited my hair, though one is blonde as in creamy coloured, and the other is dark. Very dark. So dark that she believes her true ancestry to be Persian. (She’s also inherited her mother’s imagination.)

Over a lengthy phone chat with my eldest for Mother’s Day, my pearl-and-stiletto loving child who moved to rural and remote East Arnham Land earlier in the year, advised that her hair is the topic of much discussion within the community. Long straight hair makes for great paintbrushes for our First Australian artists apparently. She has been asked to donate to the cause.

This weeks task is to research Indigenous artwork. I’m wondering if there is a market niche that the three of us could satisfy.

Interestingly, my sister scored the naturally thick wavy hair with matching eyelashes. That’s how most sibling rivalry starts.


Rabbit Proof Fence

Indigenous Author Doris Pilkington was born Nugi Garimara under a Wintamarra tree in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. At four years of age Doris, her mother Molly, and her baby sister were taken against their will to the Moore River Native Settlement in Western Australia. This is where many children of mixed race families were interred in the early 20th Century to be trained as domestic staff and which we now know as the Stolen Generation.

It wasn’t long before Molly escaped the Settlement with her baby, though Doris remained incarcerated until she was twelve years of age at which time she  was transferred to a nearby mission. Conditions at the mission were worse though she was given the opportunity to train as a nursing assistant in Perth. 

It took 21 years before Doris was reunited with her mother and some time after her Aunt Daisy shared the story of how her mother Molly had previously been a captive of the Settlement as a child and had escaped with her half sister, Daisy, and cousin Grace. These three little aboriginal girls trekked over 1600 klms following the rabit proof fence, a massive pest-exclusion fence which crossed WA from north to south, in order to return home.

Follow The Rabbit Proof Fence, released in 1996, is the true story of Doris’ mother and her Aunties. Three little girls pulled from their families, desperate to return to the only world they knew, walking across rugged outback terrain, often eating off the land and chased down by black trackers. The book includes copies of Government documentation and newspaper clippings from the 1930’s which confirm the story of these three brave children. It’s a confronting, shameful story and one which should be shared.

The film, Rabbit Proof Fence, directed by Hollywood-based Australian, Philip Noyce, was released in 2002 and is based on the book. Both the book and movie are worth while visiting – just ensure there is a box of Kleenex handy.

Interestingly, after having raised her family, Pilkington completed secondary education, going on to complete a Degree in Journalism. She was awarded the Member of the Order of Australia in 2006 for her services to the arts in the area of Indigenous literature, particularly through the genre of life-storytelling to raise awareness of Indigenous history, culture and social conditions.

TRIVIA:

Rabbits were an introduced species and were both devastating and destructive. The Australian Government decided to build a barrier fence from a point on the south coast through to a location on the north coast which became known as the No.1 Rabbit-Proof Fence. Completed in 1907, the Rabbit-Proof Fence was the longest unbroken line of fence in the world. Today, long sections of the original fence are still maintained as a barrier against wild animals, particularly the Emu.

Screenwriter Christine Olsen felt that the fence was very symbolic in that “the fence is always such an amazing symbol for the Europeans’ attempt to tame the land: to draw a line in it to keep out rabbits, the pests they had introduced. It is such a magnificent symbol for a lot of what’s happened to Australia.”

Rachael Maza , drama coach, said the three central young Aboriginal (untrained) actresses had an innate understanding of the story. “That’s one thing I don’t have to teach them. I don’t think there’s an Aboriginal in this country who doesn’t understand this story, if not them personally, their parents or their very immediate family. It’s something we all share.” 

Dreamtime Journey Coach At Drayton, S E Qld.

I’m a little concerned that my last post about the Miles Franklin Award winning book, Too Much Lip, may have provided too many negative connotations about our First Australians.

So I thought I’de even the score by sharing a positive Indigenous experience from my recent road trip.

DownsSteam Tourist Railway & Museum is located at Drayton, an outer southwestern suburb of Toowoomba, South East Queensland, which makes it a perfect day trip to escape from the Big Smoke.

Toowoomba is on the crest of the Great Dividing Range, around 700 metres (2,300 ft) above sea level. This makes it substantially cooler, or less humid, than Brisbane with defined seasonal changes. Thus, the annual Carnival of Flowers to which those on the coastal fringe have been flocking each September to view the beautiful gardens for the past 70 years.

Operated by the Darling Downs Historical Railway Society and staffed wholly by volunteers, DownsStream Tourist Railway and Museum is dedicated to the establishment and preservation of a tourist railway for the Darling Downs region.

And the big bonus? You don’t have to be a train buff to enjoy this environment – it’s got this really pleasant vibe…..

The gardens are beautiful, you can enjoy a coffee on the station, and view the restoration of Toowooomba’s very own steam locomotive the “Pride of Toowoomba” which was built locally in 1915. After a little more than a century and well over a million miles steaming her way around Queensland, this once proud steam engine is now the only one of her class not to be scrapped. She is being restored to fully operational condition by volunteer craftsmen for mainline tours across the Darling Downs. (Keep an eye open for updates : there’s plans for train travel to the Granite Belt for wine tasting).

You can even enjoy a light lunch in one of the rail carriages!

The highlight of my visit was a tour of the Dreamtime Journey Coach which is a fascinating insight into Indigenous culture.

To acknowledge the contribution made by the indigenous workers to the construction of the railway up the range, an indigenous inmate from the Westbrook Correctional Centre volunteered to paint one of our carriages as part of his prison rehabilitation program.

Inmate “Domi” commenced painting the carriage in 2012, taking 19 weeks to complete his awe-inspiring, unique Indigenous Art Gallery on wheels (static exhibit).

The coach depicts the Aboriginal theme based on ‘Baiami’ who created the earth and all the wonderful landscape, mountains, lakes, rivers, billabongs, oceans and islands.

Experiencing our ‘Dreamtime Journey Coach’ is to take a spiritual journey from dawn to dusk. Domi’s paintings represent the traverse of a day, starting from the entrance with the orange and yellow colours of the dawn, then in the middle of the carriage the bright colours of the day and the other end of the carriage with the pink and purple colours of the dusk.

                – from website http://www.downstream.com

The twenty minute tour of this carriage, which included an explanation of characters, symbolism and meaning, tells a truly interesting and colourful story. Add to MUST DO LIST.

Located at 16 Cambooya Street, Drayton

Note : No, I do not collect tea towels. Not even good at using them.

Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko : Book Review

Published in 2018 by University of Queensland Press.

A few years ago I was a regular attendee at a local Bookclub. Lovely women though lots of Jane Austen and Alice Walker novels and strictly no consumption of food or alcohol. Not even a coffee. These old dears took their reading very seriously…….

When it was my turn to nominate a book I suggested something recent and by an Australian author : Melissa Lucashenko, an Indigenous Australian writer of adult literary fiction and non-fiction, and novels for teenagers.  Can’t get more Dinky-Di than that, can you?

I thoroughly enjoyed Mullumbimby as it was familiar in both location and context as well as being contemporary. It did not go down well with the old dears who were appalled by the language and the sex scenes. 

That marked the end of my Bookclub period.

Lucashenko’s latest book Too Much Lip won the 2019 Miles Franklin Award, awarded to “a novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases”.

This is one confrontational novel with an uncomfortable depiction of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. I’m even more uncomfortable in that as a non- Indigenous person I would be made a pariah if I even suggested some of the things which are in the book.

Protagonist Kerry returns to her hometown of Durrongo, just over the Qld border, on a stolen Harley to bid farewell to her dying grandfather. A fugitive with warrants out for her arrest, she intends to stay in town for the funeral only. However she soon becomes embroiled in dramas with regards to her family, her local family history, and the overdevelopment of the local community, and unexpectedly finds love with a white fella despite previously being a proud lesbian.

All of the characters are flawed and totally devoid of charm. There’s domestic violence, fraud, alcoholism, welfare, pedophilia and child neglect issues. There’s White colonisation, aboriginal massacres and the Stolen Generation issues to boot. Yet within all this ugliness and brutality entwined are beautiful things such as Dreamtime stories, connection to country, communication with animals (totems) and ancestors.

In the Afterword Lucashenko writes that while Too Much Lip is a work of fiction “lest any readers assume this portrayal of Aboriginal lives is exaggerated, I would add that virtually every incidence of violence in these pages has occurred within my extended family at least once. The (very) few exceptions are drawn either from the historical record or from Aboriginal oral history”.

Gulp!

Compelling reading.

Warning : I must be getting old. The language is more contemporary than contemporary. But not too old – if my daughters spoke like this they’d still cop a hiding.


The Year of Indigenous Languages.

The United Nations has declared 2019 as the Year of Indigenous Languages.

According to NAPLAN (who measure literacy levels) only 34% of Indigenous Year 5 students in very remote areas are at or above national minimum reading standards, compared to 95% for non-Indigenous students in major cities. Apart from the historical, health, social, and educational disadvantage issues, many remote communities don’t have many, if any, books. Most of the remote communities report there are fewer than five books in family homes.

The Great Book Swap is an annual event and a fantastic way to celebrate reading locally, and raise much-needed funds for remote communities. Schools, workplaces, libraries, universities, book clubs, individuals and all kinds of organisations can host one. The idea is to swap a favourite book in exchange for a gold coin donation. This year, the goal is to raise $350,000 to gift 35,000 new, carefully-chosen books to children who need them the most.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by American author Eric Carle was first published 50 years ago, and has been translated into at least 40 languages.

The Yuwi language of the Yuibera and Yuwibara traditional owners in the Mackay region has no fluent living speakers, and was considered extinct by the State Library of Queensland in 2015. But thanks to a massive revival effort, a small group of volunteers has collated 1,000 words of Yuwi vocabulary, enough to translate The Very Hungry Caterpiller. Yuibera and Yuwibara children in Mackay can now hear the story in their ancestors’ words and the volunteers plan to translate local Indigenous stories into children’s books next.

Awesome. Simply awesome.

For further information go to http://www.indigenousliteracyfoundation.com.au.