Thanks to everyone for your continuing support in reading these letters. I've posted a collection of photos relating to this one at the end of the post.
Letter #3 "Remote Voices"
The other night I dreamed I was in a park, waiting to see a man about a horse. It was a white horse and I planned to have my photo taken with it. But when the man arrived I saw that the horse was emaciated. Through its white skin I could see every one of its ribs. I gathered some hay and went to offer food to the horse. But the man stopped me. He said the horse was on a strict diet. I implored the man to let me feed the horse but he was adamant. I said he was abusing the horse, that I had no choice but to call the Police. An officer arrived but he was unable to help. So I went with him to petition the superintendent. He too was unable to help. So I met with the lawyer, who tried to make a case but eventually had to give up. Thus I found myself standing in the hall of the President. I was nervous but pretended not to be when I barged into his office and sat down. The President was a fat man with an oversized monobrow pasted to his forehead. He sat behind a large wooden desk. I wasn’t sure whether to trust the President but I told him that something ought to be done. He responded calmly and somewhat assured. He said the problem was more complex than I knew, that I hadn’t every side of the story. I was unsatisfied, but I’d reached the end of a road and I woke up.
On my second day in Gapuwiyak I met Judy Davey. Judy was one of a handful of pioneering missionaries to arrive here in 1969 with enough saw milling equipment to start a town. She was sent by an organisation called Methodist Overseas Mission (MOM), one of two organisations that many people hold responsible for some of the darkest social policies in Australia’s history. In the first half of the twentieth century, efforts to ‘protect’ and ‘assimilate’ Aboriginal people achieved stolen children and terrestrial alienation. Yet for all the tragedy that lies at the feet of MOM - and there is no shortage of it - by the time Gapuwiyak was established the missionaries were in principle committed to non-interference with Yolngu tradition, self-determination and claims for land rights, and they preached a contextualised brand of Christianity that allowed Yolngu to appropriate tenets of the faith from their own frames of reference. I don’t intend to go any further than those principles down the rabbit hole of validity. Suffice to say that Judy told me Gapuwiyak was established in response to fears that BHP, who were mining further north, would make their way into the area. That representatives of 7 or so clans, with homelands stretching 30km in every direction, shared with missionaries a vision for a self sustaining centre for commerce and spirit that would send a message to the mining juggernauts to keep their distance. Several town elders corroborate Judy's story. And so it was that 30 people from a disparate set of distinct groups came together to mill timber, build roads and maintain supplies of water and power. In exchange they received food, tobacco, medical care, protection and education.
According to Judy, in the early days of Gapuwiyak all decisions were left to a group of community elders. That included the allocation of jobs, the resolution of disputes and the transmission of lore and custom. The missionaries refrained from interfering in traditional ceremonies, of which funerals in particular were a significant part of people’s lives and still are today. In fact, on the day I arrived in Gapuwiyak a funeral ceremony that had been going for two weeks was coming to an end. The sound of clap sticks echoed day and night from the ceremonial grounds in the centre of town. It was too soon after my arrival to presume an invitation but I look forward to satisfying the curiosity summoned by the sound of those clap sticks. Like Judy I came to Gapuwiyak in response to a call to serve this community. In my first four days here I’d already come up with at least that many revolutionary ideas. And on the night before my first day at Gapuwiyak School as a volunteer arts educator, enlisted to run various art projects for community development, I went to bed positively enchanted. That same night I dreamt of the white horse.
The next day only 30 of the 220 children enrolled were in attendance at Gapuwiyak School. The day started with a school-wide march in the streets. Two Yolngu teachers corralled the students and played call and response with slogans beckoning more to attend. Through a loudspeaker they pleaded with a silent town, imploring parents to send their children. It was a demonstration that I’m told takes place twice per term. And during each school day a team of Yolngu Attendance Officers are on alert to dissuade children from leaving during recess and lunch. Inevitably though days end with fewer than they begin, leaving fingers to point in many directions, each a story to tell.
Having left Gapuwiyak in 1975 Judy returned in the late 1990s. By then things were very different. Though they welcomed her with familial affection the people were largely unemployed and disaffected. The growing town had attracted new infrastructure but local people were never trained to sustain it. Changes to building regulations in the wake of Cyclone Tracey meant civil works were completed entirely by FIFO contractors. Only the General Store remained a source of stable employment. For others it was enough to collect 'sit down money' from Government leases. In Judy’s words, whereas before she was here to build a town and church, when she returned in the '90s her mission was of a different nature. This time she was a symbol of the past. Here “to rise up the old memories and spirits [and say] this is what your fathers were like, this is what your grandfathers… a reminder of what was done in the past. A reminder of where the community had come from. A reminder of what could be achieved.”
Judy’s story is call to remember that what brought people together here was never easy access to food or state of the art facilities. It was never token pleasantries exchanged from behind thin veils of proclaimed respect. It was the shared responsibility of carrying out a shared vision. So what’s the vision now? The windscreen is foggy at best. But clues lie in the rear view mirror. In the stories that stretch from the present moment to the distant past, remote voices of grandmothers and grandfathers, their triumphs and mistakes, their hopes and dreams.
When the early missionaries arrived in Arnhem Land they carried a story. A story that remains deep in the fabric of our Judaeo-Christian culture to this day. The story goes that following the great flood the people of earth proceeded to build a city and tower that would reach to heaven. But their efforts were thwarted by God, who scattered them into nations with different languages, each unable to understand the others. The early missionaries interpreted the story to mean that no heavenly tower would ever be built until everyone was the same. Later missionaries like Judy began to see their tower for what it really was - a problem more complex than any one interpretation can resolve, a white horse. After all, from God’s perspective the story of Babel is a warning not to attempt the hubristic task of heavenly infrastructure.
In contrast there is one of the histories of Gapuwiyak as dreamed by the Yolngu. In that story two men were walking from Yirrkala when they saw a small pond with a little bit of water but not enough to drink. They walked to a nearby site of sacred men’s business and found a tree suitable for yidaki (didgeridoo). They chopped it down and painted it beautifully. Then the two men danced and one man was singing and one man was dancing. They sang about the Wurran bird. Then they saw the Wurran was flying to the small pond and was carrying a small fish but there was not enough water in the pond to put the fish in. So the fish started talking to the men and said “Can you get the yidaki and put it in the middle of the pond.” The two men slammed the yidaki down in the middle of the pond and gapu (water) began coming up through its middle. It kept coming until their was a huge lake of water. The men, the bird and the yidaki are still there today. From a version of the story published by Brendon Ganambarr
The two stories, together with that of Judy Davey, begin to paint a composite picture of Gapuwiyak. Its a complex history through which no simple story can chart a course. And yet, perhaps a simple story is the first step towards a shared vision. So I wrote one. And together with two Yolngu teachers, we translated it and told it to the kids at Gapuwiyak School. The story goes...
A long time ago
Near a big lake
There were some people,
And Balanda people,
They needed to build a town.
The Balanda people were good at building
And the Yolngu people knew the history of the lake and how to find food,
So they decided to work together.
But there was a problem.
The Balanda people spoke English
And the Yolngu people spoke Yolngu Matha,
So even though they were standing together they couldn’t speak.
It was becoming dark so the people lit a fire.
Suddenly a bird landed nearby.
It was a big black bird and it made a loud sound.
The Yolngu people saw the bird and called its name, “Wak!"
The Balanda people saw the bird too and called its name, “Crow!"
The people looked across and they understood -
To work together
They must first learn each other’s names.
With that I enlisted the help of a man called P--- to commence teaching me Yolngu Matha. I’ve no idea how far I’ll get. But as far as the question of how best to serve this community, it’s the way forward. And in the meantime I’ll continue to work diligently to provide the young people here with every opportunity to express themselves in the only universal language that no one understands. Art.
And of course I’ll keep writing about it in English.