This story follows from an earlier one called “Cultural Learning about Sharing’. Both of these come from an as-yet-unpublished-novel called “Life on a Ferris Wheel”. The conversation occurred between me and two old men, both of whom are now with their ancestors. I have changed their names to be respectful and also changed the site of the conversation. But the essence of the exchange is one to constantly recall: that language carries culture and tells us who we are by explaining where we’ve come from. That doesn’t mean culture won’t change: it always does in small or big ways because of external interventions, like climatic change or foreign incursions. But knowing the past gives information about the present and the potential future of a group and for that reason, we should always value it and find ways to nurture it. .
A large group of people, including kids who should have been at home or having breakfast, were at Little Park. Older people and the kids sat on a small grassed area above a large river pool, while a group of younger men and women were down the river bank, already drinking grog.
The two old men nodded as I arrived. I asked if we could yarn and both slowly stood and walked towards Old Crossing, Norman shuffling beside Patrick, with me behind them. At the Crossing, Patrick and Norman sat on the edge of the concrete bridge looking up the river. I sat next to them.
There was silence for a while before the old men went to the past to start the conversation. Both spoke of ‘old days at the Reserve’. The former ‘Reserve’ was to the left of where we sat, conveniently placed outside of town to meet the original restrictions on where Aboriginal people were allowed after nightfall.
Norman told of a kardiya Superintendent of the Reserve who decided that cleanliness needed strict attention. “He tell us, humpies got to be swept in morning when he ring big bell.” He paused and smiled. “Those womans, they sweep and sweep like boss man say and big mob dirt and shit fly everywhere. Floor of humpies all dirt so sweep only make everythings more dirty. But those womans do like he say and they laugh and laugh at bullshit thing.”
Patrick and Norman chuckled, making me grin as always. Patrick then spoke gently about visiting his country to the east; beautiful sites like Deep River, Tamaru and the Tanault Ranges.“One day, Davey boy, you see my yinmi and this old man’s too. Now why you want to yarn?”
“Old men, I need to ask you something. Maybe it’s not my business, and if that right, tell me and I won’t be offended.” I took a deep breath. “But first time we met, you talked of kids needing to reconnect with culture if they were to be successful at school. Norman, as you know, I got thumped in that fight outside this old man’s place. What I saw then,” I began stumbling, “and what he said later … makes me want to ask if there’s … anything … this Project … can do to try and … stop that sort of … that sort of …” and I searched for an appropriate word.
“Goona,” Norman intoned looking up the River. Both old men chuckled softly again as I looked confused.
“Goona mean ‘shit’, Davey boy.” Patrick chuckled again before continuing. “You do good to come ask. Most time, kardiya don’t ask.” He sighed. “Yuwa, kids lose culture like I tell you one time. They don’t know which mob they belong. They stuck between you mob, us mob and yankee shit on TV. They been nowhere—don’t know proper way to be blackfella. Some never been yinmi, and they got to go to learn from their place who they been.”
I watched as the old man occasionally flicked small, round rocks from between his thumb and forefinger into the water, twenty metres and more away.
“That Project thing been good one.” Patrick finally looked at me, “But kids got to know who they been and where they been from. If they been like now, they been little bit kardiya, little bit blackfella and big mob no way. They wear jeans and cap and talk silly way, full of grog and shit like young ones at Park now. They got to know, Davey boy. How they know to stop if they don’t know where they start? They just go round and round big bit long time but go nowhere.” He whirled his hand in a vertical circle in front of him. “Waldja waldja pidtja ni yinmi—round, round, go no place.”
“How does culture get lost?” I scratched my head. “You two still have it.”
“Culture get lost when kardiya mob teach kids things in schooling or mission that not our way, when kids see yankee shit on TV or computer thing and do him that way, and don’t know our way,” Norman told me with no animosity. “Most kids not listen to talk in our language. Our language say about our culture and lore but kids don’t talk him. They talk pidgin and kriol and rap shit, but not language.”
“So is there anything the Project can do to help kids get in touch with culture?”
“Go bush with us.” Norman looked at the water beneath the Crossing as he spoke.
Nothing was said for a long time until I broke the silence.
“Do you mean this Project could take the kids into country—go with people like you to teach them about culture and language and connect them with themselves and with …” a sense of fear rose and I scrambled hesitantly over it, “… their spirit: your spirit?”
Norman glanced with narrowed eyes, stroking his beard. It caused my sense of fear to rise further. Shit, maybe I shouldn’t have used words like that, I thought.
Norman spoke language to Patrick. Both old men nodded before silence returned.
I took a deep breath, steeled myself and, again, broke the long hush. “So how often would it happen? Do you mean like every week or every month or something else?”
“When I walk from Dingo Hill to this place, I take big mob steps,” Patrick smiled, “but till I take first one, I go nowhere.”
For a reason I didn’t understand, my sense of fear began to ease. “So are you saying to ask the Project to take the kids to your places as a first step and work out the rest later?”
Patrick and Norman both nodded slowly again, this time without conversing.
“I’ll talk to Mal, Terry and Jimmy and let them know what you’ve told me. So will you fellas talk to Jimmy about it and then with the rest of your mobs, to see what they reckon?”
“We don’t need to talk to Jimmy and the mobs. We just say what mobs been say big bit long time.” Patrick grinned at Dan. “We say it long time and nobody hear—until maybe now, Davey boy. But we know what need to happen.”
“I’ll let you know what Mal, Terry and Jimmy have to say when I’ve talked to them. Maybe I can let you know later this week, and if not, in a couple of weeks.”
“No rush, Daybt,” Norman told me softly. “Us mobs, we been here big bit long time and we not go away quick. You kardiya mob all hurry big mob. Maybe slow down, sit by river and yarn more. Maybe learn a lot from yarning.”