See My Picture?
In this story, the term wajbala means whitefella and Wangka Mia means language house or language home.
I sat with the older lady and we looked across at the swollen river.
It was a hot afternoon, temperature in the forties with the usual wet season humidity and the build-up to a late afternoon thunderstorm. I’d visited her to speak about using some of her cultural group’s language in a novel I was developing. My aim on this visit was to ask if she’d be willing to check words and phrases I chose to use out of the Wangka Mia dictionary, and find the protocols to follow to access cultural permission to do so.
I added that I thought it would be a positive move to present something from an Aboriginal language. Too often, nothing is known about any of the languages, including whether they are still spoken. I also stressed to her what I wanted to do was to get some non-Aboriginal people to understand some of the difficulties created between groups with very different languages: such as her language and standard Australian English.
The point led naturally into a discussion about the education system and her desire to see her language taught in the schools to children from her language group.
“So, you’re looking for equality, Jenny,” I stated.
“No, Dave, I’m looking for the right for our kids to learn our language, and learn in our language, just like wajbala kids always have in schools. How many times do we have to say that we want things that will help us make things better for us as Aboriginal people, and you mob don’t hear what we say?”
“But Jenny, things have improved for you mob, haven’t they? I mean, these days, your kids have the legal right to go to school, they don’t have to be taught in segregated classrooms or caves like they were at Gogo Station, so they’re being treated equally with white kids. It means they have the same chances as white kids.”
At first, I thought she was nodding but I gradually realized she was rocking gently back and forth. Then she spoke, softly but firmly,
“You can look at things about us mobs in two ways, Dave. You can look at things in the way you see them, or you can look at things in the way we see them. I’m going to try and give you a blackfella picture rather than a wajbala picture. Now you’ll maybe have to think about it for a long time, to make sense of it. But you’re a smart bloke and you know a lot about us mob. So one day, you might understand my picture.
“Let me start here. You and so many wajbalas, and some blackfellas too, with wajbala in them, talk about that equality. You look at that report the government got that mining man to do. What’s its name?”
“Creating Parity,” I responded.
“That ‘parity’ one. It means the same as equality, ay? So, he’s saying we got to be equal with wajbalas. Well, he didn’t ask us if that’s what we want.”
“You mean you don’t want to be equal with whitefellas?” Her words startled me.
“No, me and my mob don’t, not the way it’s happening. But the government listened to him, a wajbala, and not us. Because of that, a lot of things he suggested are being seen as ways to fix us blackfellas up. When is the government going to learn that nothing they’ve done so far has made things better for us? When they going to learn that, Dave?”
“But what’s wrong with what’s being suggested, Jenny? Not just the people who did that report, but those in your mobs who say the same sort of things?”
“Because my picture doesn’t say anything about equality or parity. It says we’ve got to be who we are as people, and be connected to our mother, the land. If we’re not, then who are we? How can we be anyone if we lose our mother, our identity and our souls?”
She gave me a sad smile. “People who write those reports and advise governments on the sort of programs to develop are seen as wise. They’re seen as helping us by taking kids away from their families and homes, to go to schools in Hedland, Geraldton, Perth and Melbourne. So kids are taken away to be taught to read and write. While that’s happening, their heads are filled up with wajbala ways of knowing and doing. That’s what wajbalas define as making things equal. But me and a lot of my mob don’t see that as equality. It’s what we call assimilation. We say our kids are being taken away from us by stealth and being slowly turned into wajbalas. It’s what you mobs have been trying to do ever since you came here.”
“Are you saying that learning the whitefella ways of doing things is bad?”
“No, we know we have to learn wajbala ways but learn them as blackfellas, stay as blackfellas, always be us mob and be true to who we are. Learning wajbala ways shouldn’t be turning our kids into wajbalas, but it is.”
“Can you say more about that, Jenny? I’m very confused,”
She returned to rocking back and forth, which must be her way of thinking things through. After a lengthy silence, she continued to speak.
“They’re turning our kids into wajbalas because everything’s done in English: what they read, write, speak . All day long, it’s all English. And the idea is that our kids will be better equipped to get jobs, which, if they get one, means they have to work using English: the signs they read, the bits of paper with instructions about what to do and how to do it, the contracts they have to sign, the rules behind those contracts, who made them up, and all that stuff. And then there’s the whole legal system in this country, Dave. It’s all English too: thought up and written down in England, and dumped on us. How many of my mob have died in prison because we didn’t understand what we were doing was wrong under wajbala laws, ay? Sure, maybe some laws have been changed over time to suit this country, but they’re still written in the same language, thought up in that language, and produced and judged in the same way. There is nothing about what we believe is the right and proper way to do things: just what wajbalas say. Everything is still done to us or for us by wajbalas, not with us, using our values and our ways of knowing and doing.
“So we don’t want equality in the way you think about it. We don’t want to be the same as you mob. We want what you call equity, which means justice. That means we can keep our values and rules and be us, not finish up as imitation wajbala trying to do things wajbala way, and failing because it’s not who or what we are: nothing to do with our ways of knowing and doing.”
There was more rocking back and forth, then she glanced and smiled.
“Do you think you’ll ever see my picture, Dave?”