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 #4 "Interrelated"

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Letter #4 “Interrelated" 

On the night before I left Sydney I sat with my mum in her living room. My mood was depressed. Hers was a typical mix of ease and angst, comfortable in her own skin yet tortured by the fear that her children might be suffering. She asked me a question I’d been asking myself. What did I hope to get out of this trip? I said that for as long as I can remember I’ve been searching for the sound of my own voice. That I hoped to discover which of the contradictory stories I tell myself about who I am and what I’m doing is true. That it would save me a lot of time spent turning down paths for the sake of strangers who scrawl their directions on the inside of my head. At which point she seemed a little less at ease. But to her credit conducted no further investigation. Instead we simply sat together, in the silent wake of my confession.

Early in the piece there were times I’d wake from a restless sleep full of frightful dreams to a feeling of intolerable dread. Periods of hell that lasted several days. At first I suspected a delayed reaction to so rapidly adjusting my diet and climate. Then I suspected a virus or some other contagion. But neither diagnosis accounted adequately for what was not an unfamiliar feeling. In fact I knew it well, felt it for as long as I could remember and most acutely in my stomach. As the phantom pain of a severed cord that once nourished and nurtured me. Only this time it wasn’t food I was going without. It was nourishment of a kind sought by the soul. That voice beneath the surface we take for self. By now I’d run far enough to know that this time I’d do well to turn around and listen. So I did. And there I found a dreamer, holding a pen, longing to tell his story. I gathered him in my arms and carried him to a desk and chair. While his fingers tumbled sentences I made him cups of tea. And when he finished a page I read it back to him and listened for his suggestions. We sat together, the way we’re sitting now, grateful to have found a way to be heard.

And I’ve made progress on other fronts. I set up a new workshop space for high school kids who aren’t managing regular attendance, called it ‘Young Artists’. We meet Monday and Tuesday afternoons to hang out and paint whatever’s on hand. And there’s plenty on hand. I chose an area of the school formerly occupied by discarded building materials. Sheets of corrugated iron, concrete boards, pieces of timber and decommissioned wheelbarrows. There’s also a picnic table for those preferring to sip cold water and shoot the breeze. I seek out the kids who’ve taken to scribbling insolent tags on walls and doors. I say to them, "Practice here as much as you want, because honestly, the way you write 'Fuck You’ is pretty amateurish.” They laugh. We both know I’m not going to solve the graffiti problem, but at the very least I’m hoping to improve the graffiti standard. And deeper than that, I’m hoping to provide a space for these kids to play out the tension between the kind of individualism they see on the internet, and the kind of interrelatedness they’ve inherited.

Since my official adoption by a Yolngu family I’ve caught a glimpse of that interrelatedness. Before I describe it let me just say, I am by no means an expert in Yolngu kinship. My only hope for this incomplete account is to communicate something of its staggering sublimity.

"Ngarraku gnama dhuwal R—.” 
“My adopted mother is R—.” 

Strange as it may seem, that simple phrase connects me to a living system of information so complex that comparing it to the whole of the internet is an oversimplification. When I tell it to someone that person knows immediately by what familial title I’m to be called. Examples include Wawa, which means uncle; Mukul, which means aunty; Yapa, which means sister and Wakū (pronounced wa-ko), which as it turns out, means son. Confused? I was too. But then I learned about an important aspect of the system. That is, upon adoption I was assigned one of eight possible skin names. You can think of a skin name like a tribal affiliation. But children are not born into the same tribe as their parents. Instead they’re assigned a skin name on a rotating basis. And marriages are predestined by lore and custom to take place between particular tribes. So assuming I were to marry according to lore and custom, its effectively possible to know the set of people who would make up my kin and in-laws. Hence there are people in my network that call me Bapi, which means father. Again, its worth emphasising that we don’t really have English words for the kind of kin relationships that exist in Yolngu culture. But for the purposes of this account I’m going to talk about the relationship between Gnama and Wakū using the English words mother and son. As in Western culture, mother and son interact in a customary way. Son is nurtured by mother, who in turn fulfils an obligation to guide and instruct. That includes passing on specific knowledge that son needs to know. And the way that knowledge is passed on is through song, story, dance and ritual. In Yolngu culture as in Western culture, there are songs that mothers traditionally sing to their sons. However, where things differ is that in Yolngu culture the songs that mothers sing are not generic. To understand what I mean you need to know two details about Yolngu personhood. First, every Yolngu person is related to a specific geographic location, determined by the moment during pregnancy when the spirit of the person is said to have entered the body. Thus, when a mother sings to her son, she sings from one specific place to another. Hence the term ‘songline'. Her songs may include information about the history of the place, where it is, how to take care of it, and the kinds of things that might be sought there. Second, every kin relationship is mapped onto specific parts of the body. For example, Gnama relates to the heart and belly. Thus the songlines weave psychosomatic connections between people and places. So much so that sons relate to the land of their mothers in the same way they relate to the mothers themselves. Mind blown? I hope so. Its a lot to take in. So Yolngu people keep track of it all through a host of rituals and ceremonies. For example, they might paint colours and patterns that symbolise particular kin relationships on specific parts of the body during ceremony. Along with other kinds of information, such as relationships with totem animals, elements and groups of people. But I’ll leave that for another day. For now its enough to consider what it might be like for a teenager born into a network of cosmic interrelatedness to listen to songs from the canon of Western pop-culture. Its no wonder they’re responding well to the offer of a space to hang out and paint the walls.

Young Artists is a refuge. And so far its working. As are my formal classes. I’ve made sure to focus them entirely on place, using maps as a scaffold for various kinds of learning. As you might expect given what I’ve described in this and previous letters, nature and arts based education are no brainers out here. That anyone considers it remotely appropriate to apply a national education standard in a place so self evidently unique is at best an absurdity. At worst it runs the risk of repeating the mistakes made by assimilationists in the early part of the twentieth century, who lined people up for a standard mix of force-fed information and washed it down with some superficial accolade. If we only turned around and listened, we’d realise that a disinterested child is more likely the result of inaccessible content than an inability to concentrate. That should be obvious to anyone who’s ever put down a book and said something like, “I just can’t get into it.”

To which I’d respond, “If that’s the case then one of two things is true. Either the writing is of a quality incapable of conjuring sufficient depth of field. Or you don’t have the cultural capital to turn the descriptive language into a meaningful reality.”
Then you might say, “What do you mean?”
And I’d say, “Well, to find a text interesting, its not enough to simply know how to read. The author’s words create a world that you can actually get in to. But the author can’t describe every aspect of that world. He or she assumes you’ll bring a certain amount of prior understanding to the table. To fill in the gaps. If you don’t have that prior understanding, the world the text creates will remain out of reach. It will lack meaning.”
“But some books are read by lots of people across cultures and contexts. How is that possible?”
“Because people are far more alike than different. There are lots of things that overlap cultural boundaries. The more boundaries a thing overlaps the closer it gets to being universal. But the list of books that approach universality is a lot shorter than the list of books per se.”
“Okay, so what you’re saying is kids need to read and write about things they’re interested in. And their interests have a lot to do with culture?”
“Yes.”
“So, what are Yolngu kids interested in?”
“They’re interested in place. They love being on country, making things with their hands and physical activities like sport and hunting.”
“Great. So we should get them to read and write about that!”
“Not so fast.”
“Why?”
“Because they’re not used to reading and writing about those things. They’re used to dancing, singing and painting about them.”
“Does that mean we need to consider alternative approaches to teaching literacy in a Yolngu context?”
“Yes.”
“Sounds challenging. Where do we start?”
“We start by understanding what literacy is at the deepest possible level of interpretation. That way we can create the substructure on which a contextualised form of it can be built.”
“I’d rather not think so deeply about things.”
“I know.”
“So what is literacy at the deepest possible level of interpretation?”
“Its the abstraction of meaning into recognisable symbolic representations arranged relative to one another in space and time.”
“Please explain.”
“Okay. You can’t read a sentence if you don’t know what the words mean. But you also can’t read it if the words aren’t in the correct order, with adequate space between them.”
“So we should begin by teaching kids to abstract information into symbols?”
“Yes.”
“Then arrange those symbols in ways that make them readable?”
“Exactly.”
“And to make things meaningful we should relate everything to nature, art and physical activity?”
“Now you’re getting it.”
“If only there was an art form that used symbols to represent features of specific places in nature. Something that also lent itself to physical activities. Wait a minute… maps!”
“Yep."
“We could create maps of this place! Then add symbols to represent its features and inhabitants. We could go places and visually represent our journeys. Eventually we could even write stories about them, turn them to into maths problems and science experiments! And we’d end up with beautiful artworks that reflected our learning. Would that work?”
“I don’t know. But I’m going to try it. Because the price we pay for dumbing down our language to the point where it can be understood by people we’ve not sought to understand, is a lack of depth. And I’m tired of teaching the dazed and confused."

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Postscripts
Since writing this I caught wind of a program called Learning on Country, which uses 'both-ways' education. It looks really interesting. I'll find out more and write a post about it soon.