The key reason for rules governing types of behaviour in any culture can often be difficult to define, especially if the culture is not your own. But sometimes, the reason is so fundamentally simple that we tend to overlook it. This is an experience which explained that theme to me.

I was sitting in the dirt under a bough shed waiting for the meeting to start. It was a typical wet season day: steaming and I felt as if I were enveloped in a hot, wet blanket from which there was no escape. The boulders to my right looked like they were wobbling even though I knew it was heat haze. burrup-waterfall-small

As I waited, people slowly appeared to sit in a circle under the same shelter. As a whitefella, I would have preferred that we met in the air-conditioned council building back in the community rather than here. But I knew from what Patrick had told me a year ago when we first met, why the mob preferred this place.

“Too cold in that community one. Make me crook. Anyway, outside, I think like bird, free to go anyway. Inside, feel all trapped. Can’t think.”

Patrick appeared a couple of minutes later with his son, Jonno, and they came to sit with me in the dirt, Patrick to my right and Jonno on his right. The three of us chatted amiably about the weather and recent rains, the river starting to flow strongly, and whether Jonno would go to the gorge next week.

“Don’t think so,” the younger man grinned, pointing at the river raging past.fitzroy-crossing-floods

Then the meeting began with an old man holding forth in his language.1426215956609

As the old fella began to speak, Patrick whispered to me, “Old man been Traditional Owner, so we listen good way.”

While I didn’t understand what was being said, I found watching the expressions and actions of people who were listening to be very engaging. After a few sentences from the TO, however, an older woman suddenly appeared and came to sit in the circle facing Patrick, Jonno and me. Immediately, Jonno stood, came to my left side, and then sat with his back to the meeting. I wondered what it was all about

My curiosity increased further when the woman spoke to Patrick twice, both times commencing with the words, “You tell that man with you …”

At first, I thought she meant me, and then realised it was Jonno she was referring to. So when the meeting was over, I asked Patrick for the story. “Why did Jonno move and sit with is back to the meeting when that woman arrived?”

“That old lady been mother-in-law for him. Our way, son-in-law, mother-in-law don’t talk or look at each other.”

“Is that a rule all you mob always follow?”

He looked at me with his normal wry expression and intoned, “Always. Don’t look. Don’t talk.”


He chuckled softly. “Old blackfellas been clever old men. More clever than whitefella mob?”

“What do you mean?”

“Old blackfellas know if mother-in-law and son-in-law don’t look or talk, rest of us mob don’t have to hear big family shit fight!