Linking Schooling and Culture
This story follows a previous one called “Cultural Learning about Sharing”. It’s my way of explaining my difficulty in coming to terms with a different culture. The issue for me lay in understanding the reasons why things were done as they were. It took a while to happen, but I started to understand, with some help from some older Aboriginal men and women, what I needed to do was focus on why people from the other culture believed something was important. What they gently implied in their respectful ways was that I tended to slip, however unintentionally, into my sense of right and wrong and make a judgement from my English cultural heritage instead of asking a question. As an old man once told me, “Daybt, if you dunno, you arks, don’t tell”. As that learning began to take effect, I started to sit and listen a lot more, and gradually came to get better at the art of questioning in a non-judgemental sense: to ask why things were important to the other culture.
But I think the major breakthrough came when I was working to help create a project that would assist Aboriginal students to complete Year 12 at High School and gain university admission or apprenticeships. While my role was to create a structure that achieve those two outcomes, as I undertook it, I kept colliding with ideas and inferences from Aboriginal people about how Aboriginal culture should be part of the project. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t work out why that was needed. Surely, teaching their kids to read and write to get jobs was what schools had to do; not become involved in developing values from another culture. But I kept feeling like I’d missed something. So one day, when the project had been operating for a few months, I took it on myself to see the old people whose ideas had been crucial in helping me devise the structure for the original project, particularly two old men and some older ladies.
I hadn’t found the old men in town yesterday, so I’d asked Jimmy tocome with this morning to help. He said maybe they had ‘gone country’ or to meetings in one of the inland towns but he was happy to help. He drove behind me in an HMC vehicle. We connected with Aunty Alice at the store in town and she’d told us the two men had returned late yesterday in their old landrover.
“You find them at Little Park,” she’d announced.
I slowly down the main road in the middle of the town, heading for the Park. A large group of people, including kids who should have been at home having breakfast and getting ready for school, were there. Older people and kids sat on the small grassed area overlooking the river pool. A smaller group of younger men and women were down on the river bank already drinking grog.
The two old men nodded as I arrived. I asked if we could yarn. After a quick chat in language, the old men slowly led further down the highway to the Old Crossing, Norman shuffling beside Patrick.
At the Crossing, they sat side-by-side on the edge of the bridge, looking up river, and I sat beside Norman. Patrick immediately began to flick small stones up river by using his thumb and finger, like I had done when I was a kid playing marbles.
After silence, Norman started the conversation by telling a story about the old days at the Reserve. I guess he talked about it because it had been located just to left of where we sat, across the river from the town. Norman’s story was of the kardiya Superintendent of the Reserve who decided to improve the cleanliness of the whole site, and in particular, the humpies.
“He tell us we got to sweep humpies every morning when he ring big bell. Them womans, they sweep and sweep like boss man say and big mob dust and shit go everywhere: floor of them humpies been all dirt. Sweeping thing make everything big mob dirty. But womans do like boss man say and they laugh and laugh at bullshit thing.”
Patrick and Norman laughed loudly, before Patrick spoke of his boyhood before the Reserve days: about the river, gorges and ranges inland from this town. “One day, Daybt, you see my place, and this old man’s place too. Now, why you want to yarn?”
I fumbled for words before managing, “Old men, I need to ask something. Maybe it’s not my business, and if it’s not, say so. I won’t be offended. But first time we met you spoke of kids having to reconnect with culture to be good at school. Then there was the brawl I saw and things Patrick said later makes me ask if there’s anything this project can do to try and stop that sort of, that sort of …”
I stopped and searched for a polite phrase.
“Goona,” Norman intoned and both old men chuckled.
I looked questioningly.
“Goona mean shit, Daybt.” Patrick kept chuckling. “Now you do good to come arks old fellas. Most time, kardiya don’t.” He sighed. “Yuwa, kids don’t know culture, like I tell you one time. They don’t know which mob they been. 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 to country, and they got to go and learn from their place who they been.”
The old man continued to flick rocks through a long silence.
He finally looked at me. “This project thing been good idea. Help them learn about you kardiya mob and doing work stuff. But them kids got to know who their mob and where they from, too. If they stay like now, they been big mob nowhere. They wear jeans, cap and talk silly shit, full of grog and gunja like young ones at Park now. They got to know, Daybt. How they know where they stop if they don’t know where they start? They just go round and round big bit long time and go nowhere.” He whirled a hand in a vertical circle. “Waldja waldja pidtja ni yinmi—round, round, go no place.”
“Why don’t kids know culture?” I frowned. “You two know it.”
“Culture get lost for kids when kardiya do schooling thing to get job kardiya way, or when whitefella law stop us do things our way, or when kids see yankee shit on TV or computer and do him, and we got no time to teach our way like old ones teach us,” Norman told me with no animosity. “Kids not hear me or this old man. My language and his say all about culture and lore but kids don’t know how to talk our ways: talk pidgin or rap shit, but not language.”
“Okay, so tell me, is there anything this project can do to help kids connect with culture?”
“Yuwa, go bush with us.” Norman looked at water trickling under the bridge.
Nothing more was said for a long time. I figured it was up to me to speak again.
“So you want the project take kids into country: go with old people to teach them language and culture and connect them with themselves and with …” a sense of anxiety rose and I stopped speaking,
“What word you want to say, Daybt?” Patrick asked, fixing me with a penetrating stare.
“I guess I’m thinking, like, your ways of knowing and doing and your…” I cleared my throat, “spirit,”
Norman glanced with narrowed eyes. My anxiety level increased further. Should I be speaking this way, I wondered as Norman stroking his beard? He suddenly spoke language to Patrick who smiled and nodded before silence resumed.
I steeled myself again to push on further. “How would it happen, old men? I mean, like how often would you want to take kids to country? How often would it happen? Do you mean a couple of days each week or month or something else?”
“When I walk from Dingo Hill to Chiltern, I take big mob steps,” Patrick grinned, “but till I take first one, I go no place.”
The touch of humour in the reply eased my anxiety level. “So, you want the project to take your kids to your places first and work out what happens next after that?”
Patrick and Norman both nodded slowly without looking at each other or conversing.
I finally realised how important the preservation of culture and language was to these old men and how they seemed to desperately need to integrate cultural learning into the project. The whole conversation left me with the impression that unless something was done, they could see their cultures and spirit disappearing. But now wasn’t the time to check that with them. I still had to speak with other older people and see if their views matched those of the old fellas.
“I’ll tell Mal, Terry and Jimmy what you’ve said,” I blurted. “So will you two talk with Jimmy and the rest of your mobs, to see what they reckon?”
Patrick’s looked quizzical, if not bewildered. “We not talk to Jimmy and our mobs. We done that already. Mobs been say long time what we say but no kardiya hear us, until maybe this day.” His expression changed to a grin. “So we arks you to tell wurdimala kardiya what we say.”
“Pardon, old man?” I shook my head slightly at the language.
Patrick kept grinning. “In my language Daybt, that mean big boss kardiya and I mean Mal and Terry.”
“Okay, I’ll let you know what they say after I’ve talked to them and tell you later this week.”
“No rush, Dan,” Norman told him. “Us mobs been here big bit long time and we go slow way. Kardiya mob always hurry. Maybe slow down, sit by river and yarn more.”
After thanking the old men, I found some older women, Agnes, Mary and Charlene, in the art centre opposite the local School. They were painting evocative, two-dimensional canvasses in striking ochre colours.
“Hey, Daybt,” Agnes smiled. “Good to see you. You come to old womans, ay? That mean you want to yarn?”
I smiled. They could read me like a book.
“Yes Agnes, but first, will you explain what your painting is about?”
She told me it was of a big meeting or corroboree and lots of Aboriginal mobs gathering for it at a yaramula or pool of water. Separate mobs were each represented by large white shapes filled with small brown ‘u-shapes’. Each mob faced a circle of blue: the yaramula with tracks between the mobs being ‘us mobs meet other mobs’. Around the mobs were vibrant coloured shapes which she said were hills.
“So the yaramula is on your country, maybe up near Dingo Hill?”
“Yuwa, and you been smart kardiya. You know stories tell peoples where to go.”
“What does ‘tell people where to go’ mean Agnes?
“You come see other paintings.”
Mary and Charlene sat facing their pieces as Agnes explained them. Mary’s was the legend of a wedge-tailed eagle flying from Yaarramani to country, while Charlene’s was of dogs, probably dingos, travelling to Dingo Hill.
“We tell big mob stories, like them ones,” she pointed at Mary’s and Charlene’s paintings, “so kids know which way they go.”
“Say more what you mean, old woman?”
She smiled graciously and pointed at Mary’s work. “That one like road map: tell kids how to go from this place to country. Eagle fly over country. He bapana, mean go over, two big river and big hill and then stop to drink. Then he go up big valley to her place, country, and stop again. But this time, he been turned to stone by old man lizard. So kids know to look for big rock shape like eagle head and beak for where they go and when they stop.”
She then told Charlene’s story about dingoes: a similar story of a journey concluding when the shape of a dingo’s head was visible at the town that is known as Dingo Hill. It had never occurred to me that the stories and paintings were not just fantasies from the dreamtime transposed to canvas. These had a distinct purpose. And I could imagine the old people orally recounting a journey as Agnes had done to explain Mary’s work to me, as a way to guide people across country.
“Now, what you want to arks about, Daybt?”
I talked with the three women as I had with the old men, and ultimately asked if the project could do anything to change the way things were happening for them and their children. As I finished, the old women came alive, giving the same message as the old men: young people needing to know their culture and the starting point was in country with the older people.
That night, I kept trying to comprehend what had happened. But all I understood was that I’d asked a lot of questions and limited my sense of being judgemental about the answers received. I told myself it couldn’t be that simple. There must be more to the process.
Now, two decades on from that experience, I am convinced there isn’t. And each time I doubt it, I go back to these conversations to refresh my belief.