Gulun Story

In this post I describe a recent bilingual walking, talking, story project aimed at connecting students in years 2 and 3 at Gapwiyak School with traditional ways of knowing and being. The project was inspired by The History of Bilingual Education in the Northern Territory (Springer 2017), which I read in my first few weeks as a volunteer art educator at the school. I’d been puzzling over the problem of literacy in community and trying to understand why kids in a region with a first language other than English are taught solely in English. What I discovered in that book and by speaking with other members of the community is a stunning story of undertaking in the 1970s to make written words from a set of languages that for 40,000 years had only ever been spoken. I won’t go into more detail than that in this post but if you’d like to know the full story about how I came to be doing this project you can read my letters titled “Speechless” and "The Light Side".

After speaking with some Yolngu teachers we decided the best way to start a project like this was with a walk to the lake. There we’d split the boys and girls and the former would learn to build a traditional shade shelter and the latter would make mud babies our of clay wrapped in paperbark and learn about traditional ways to care for the young. The whole experience would be framed with a playful narrative, like a game of ‘house’. And afterwards we’d retell the story in English and in Yolngu Matha and create a storybook.

We made sure that the experience would be open ended, that is, we didn't know what the story would be, only that the theme would be traditional ways of living. What ended up happening was both comical and also tragic (something we hoped would happen) and ever since the kids haven't stopped talking about it. Some highlights were the boys making spears and getting painted up by one of the older boys like warriors, and the infamous snatching of one of the girl's babies by a dingo, which catalysed a group effort to find the baby. Unfortunately she didn't make it, but the story has become a legend. It brought everyone together, provided an opportunity to nurture empathy and inspired a possible direction for the next chapter, the story of death. 

Since that first day, walking to the lake has become a much loved weekly experience. On the days without a Yolngu teacher to accompany us I run the sessions in the way of Nature Education, which I learned to do in my time leading bush school at Centennial Park in Sydney. That approach is a great fit for the Yolngu kids. It involves nature play, eco art, some bushcraft and storytelling.

The success of this project was a collaborative effort between myself, the classroom teacher and two Yolngu assistant teachers. I loved working with them and we continue to have a blast every week. Already new stories are bubbling to the surface to be captured in future books and to inform classroom learning through a ‘both-ways’ frame of reference.

After finishing the book, Jess, the classroom teacher recorded the students and some staff reading the pages and made an audio book that she showcased at a student assembly. I took the recordings and made this video version.

Improvements to the project would be to more carefully transcribe the Yolngu Matha and English translations. I found that when I consulted a few different Yolngu teachers to help with translation, it was hard to know which changes were stylistic and which were linguistic. Of course the days are gone when a team of linguists would be on hand to help but its a start and in the coming weeks we will water this seed and rejoice to discover the last of its fruit.

Letters Home #5 "Speechless"

Notes
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Letter #5 “Speechless"

Each day before setting the sun exhales a warm breeze, to brush from the sky any lingering clouds that a few lost souls might navigate by the stars. Then the crackle of burning grass rises from fires in front of every home. And the street lights, stationed to preside over vacant patches of territory like soldiers of the Queen’s Guard, flicker into resolute attention. Its in the uncertain, in between stretches of shadowy dust that a mix of humble glow and determined incandescence do their best to share responsibility for lighting the way. 

In Arnhem Land the saying goes that foreigners are either missionaries, misfits, mercenaries or madmen. Which am I? Perhaps I’m a missionary. I come with books about history and talk passionately about ways we can work together for a better future. I frame the world in stories and revere the depth that lurks between their lines. I’m forever seeking the answers to an endless list of questions I scribble on pieces of paper that I stuff into a hand stitched shoulder bag, patched in places with the discarded artwork of children under ten. So I could be a madman. Yet I’m also a misfit. I enjoy the solitude out here, space to think and feel in my own time, far from crowds and traffic and banal conversation. There’s no pressure to fit in where a little strangeness is expected. As for a mercenary, well… 

The other day, in preparation to teach a group of kindergarteners, I approached one of the Yolngu assistants who sits in on every class. Like many Yolngu women in their late forties, B— is overweight, diabetic and moves languidly on skinny legs and bare feet. She is humble to the point of timidity - but when I asked her for a quick chat - I saw in her eyes that she is also fierce. I told B— that I wanted to try something different that day. That I would sit the kids in a circle and give them each a piece of paper and some crayons. Then I would tell them that they were going to hear a very special story. At that point, when their little minds were tickled with anticipation, I’d give B— the signal to begin telling the children about her life as a young girl in Gapuwiyak. B— was initially shy about the idea, but it didn’t take much in the way of encouragement to get her on board and together we walked into the classroom.

In the story she told, B— was a young girl playing by the lake. Her favourite game was to gather some mud from the bank and fashion it into a little baby doll, then wrap the doll in paperbark and carry it around like the mother she would one day become. She’d carry it home to a nearby shelter she shared with her parents and siblings. It consisted of a raised platform of sticks suspended between four trees. There was a small fire underneath and a ladder to climb to and from the landing, on which spread out a few beds of soft paperbark beneath a slanted roof. When B—’s family had to leave town to visit some nearby kin for a ceremony, or to gather seasonal foods, they would burn the shelter to the ground. And when eventually they returned, her father, brothers and uncles would build it again. That was less than fifty years ago.

By the end of the story the children were rapt. They asked B— questions and were given explanations for some of the details. Most of them seldom hear stories like that one. I suspect because its hard for people to talk about the old times. So much has changed. So they settle for a fire every night, and they search for somewhere to store the past in houses made of stone.  B— drew a picture of her story on the board and invited the children to do the same. Which they did. Then one by one they carried their pictures to me and I patiently asked them questions about what they’d drawn. Only then, when the children were telling me about their work, were the first words of English spoken. Up to that point everything had been in Yolngu Matha, the language children speak at home and in the playground. The language of their parents and grandparents, the language of their world. 

In the seventies a team of linguists arrived in Arnhem Land to learn that language. Their efforts resulted in the production of an entire body of literature, made up of people's stories, along with an entirely new alphabet to store them in print. They also developed a method of instruction to teach a generation of Yolngu people how to read and write a language that for 40,000 years had only ever been spoken. I think sometimes we forget that we had to learn English at school to be able to read and write - that literacy isn’t the same as learning to speak. And sometimes we forget that no matter how many classes we took in French, the only people to learn it had to go to France. Important things to remember in Arnhem Land. Because there hasn’t been bilingual education here since the turn of the century. So children can’t read or write the language that they speak. And beyond the school walls no one speaks English, so they can’t really speak it either. I mean they can ask for a glass of water. But they can’t describe what it feels like to be unable to read letters from their grandparents or write letters to their future children. What it feels like to live in the shadowy dust between worlds, where a dying language struggles to be understood, with every laboured breath.

I can tell you what that looks like. One day I saw it, sitting with a teacher and some children. It was World Indigenous People Day and she was trying to teach them about goko (honey). She said, “We have fifteen words for goko, each with a story to tell. You can use the stories to find the goko in the bush.” The children smiled and listened. Most of them no longer learn this sort of thing from their parents. Then the teacher wrote the fifteen words for honey on fifteen pieces of paper and handed them to the children. Their expressions flattened. They no longer understood. I watched the teacher take a deep breath and plead with the children to concentrate. A dog started barking and over the noise they could barely hear her. She cried, “Someone needs to know these words! Each one has a story to tell!” But the children couldn’t help her. Then a man arrived. He had clap sticks and he tried to teach the children to dance. He told them it would help them learn the words. But the children were too shy and the dog wouldn’t stop barking, they couldn’t feel the rhythm and the words blew away. Then the teacher turned to me. I didn’t know what to say. I felt so helpless. And angry too. Enough to take up arms and join the resistance. I went home and read the biographies of Nelson Mandela and Mandawuy Yunupingu, the entire History of Bilingual Education in the Northern Territory and various articles on the related politics. Then I wrote down step by step instructions for how to organise a socio-political movement to bring back bilingual education. By the time I’d finished it was late at night. I was sitting in a candlelit room clutching my marching orders between clenched fists, listening to Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate. I made it to Track 3: Dress Rehearsal Rag.

"It’s come to this, 
Yes it’s come to this,
And wasn’t it a long way down, 
Wasn’t it a strange way down?”

Full of taunts and tenderness that song is written to a man on the verge of suicide. Its a chilling reminder of just how quickly a broken heart begins to lust for blood. When the song finished I shivered and chuckled to myself. How close I'd come to joining a war. Then I folded my marching orders and held them to the flame. 

I may be a missionary, a misfit and a madman, but watching that paper burn I made a promise to myself that I would not become a martyr. But instead remain a dreamer, with stories to tell.

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Letters Home #3 "Remote Voices"

Notes
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,
Yolngu 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.

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Background Reading

Davey, G & J (2014). 'A Brief History of Gapuwiyak 1969 - 1975' unpublished pdf, accessed from Gapuwiyak Art Centre Archive, July 2018.

Dewar, M. (1995). ‘The ‘Black War’ in Arnhem Land’, The Australian National University North Australia Research Unit, Canberra.

Kadiba, J. 1998. ‘The Methodist Mission and the emerging Aboriginal Church in Arnhem Land 1916 – 1977’, Thesis submitted for Doctor of Philosophy through the Faculty of Education, Northern Territory University.