Australian – Aboriginal – Wiradjuri; activist, writer, poet (1933-1993)
It seemed appropriate that I met him in the twilight at his camp-fire. The deep fire-glow reflecting all the pain he’d ever seen. Yet he had survived and conquered despite the barbs pierced through him, and mirrored in his eyes were all the horrors ever dreamed.
The sun-parched tussocks of grass sat oddly on small mounds of earth jutting out of the eroded plains country. It was a sick land, dying from overstocking and scarred by greed.
The river gums of the Lachlan were older, grayer and more tired than I had remembered them. The spirit was being sucked from this land or maybe it was just retiring from it in defeat. There was a time when it had been Wiradjuri country, the land that had been cherished in gladness by my ancestors. Now it showed only the effects of greed and soul loss. Perhaps it was just my emotions and pessimism at work but seeing how old Grandfather Koori sat at his camp-fire didn’t help either. As I drew nearer, he grunted a welcome, then wanted to know why I’d come:
Grandfather Koori: What’re you wanting? Why’d you come here? Want me to tell you a story like in the old days when you was a little snot eh? You lost your tongue or grown ignorant?
There was a silence. His aggressiveness died down only to rekindle again.
Grandfather Koori: Don’t give me any bullshit: you’re a writer of books, ain’t you? You ain’t a black power man,. Are you, because I reckon I’ve got more power in a daggy old hair on me back-side than any black power boy got in his whole body… or in the whole dog-pack that runs after him, come to that. Yellow bellied mongrels, you all are. Stand in front of a TV camera, howl about black kids dyin’ of starvation, then off to the pub with your white friends! Like the N.A.C.C. [National Aboriginal Consultative Committee] blokes screaming how they don’t get enough expenses to travel their electorates ‘n seeing their people. What do they want more expenses for? They never come near their people anyhow! It’s just a perk with nothing to do in between hot-air meetings! Na! Self first, self last, that’s the trouble.
The leaders? Ain’t no such animal! They talk fight but piss themselves in fear… not men but a pack of bludgin’, drunken, loud-mouthed mongrels hoonin’ [living-it-up] on the misery of their own people and using it [their situation] to make big men of themselves!
Don’t look like that, with you head down! If I was wrong, you’d shut me up or walk away. If I was wrong, those cringing things would be forgetting their personal fights and hates and be working at an answer together, helping their people to grow.
Every human being is born with a sense of right and wrong. Everyone knows the laws of human justice and how to deal with those who break those laws. No good you crying out for righteousness, for justice, for compassion, when you ain’t practising it yourself.
You call for Aboriginal dignity? Huh! Look how undignified you were at the [Tent] Embassy! Rolling drunk, swearing at old women, raping young black girls, bludging grog money! Christ, you shamed our nation in one of its proudest moments. You bastards’ll only be able to put in tall demands when you learn to stand tall. You’ll only be given dignity when you have dignity. You’ll only get justice when you get unity and act with pride in a just cause. The white man has taken your land, my land. He’s taken the throne and made himself king. Is he going to listen to a slave? A nothing?
Will he listen to you when he knows that you’re dust? That you’re damp-dust ashes in a dead camp-fire? You’ve got to re-kindle, blaze again. To get justice you’ve got to exercise justice. To regain respect you have to force your enemy to respect you and your rights. To get his ear and his admiration you’ve got to wrap him in your humanity because men are the same everywhere. You don’t want black power or white power but human power, human justice, human right.
I won’t tell you about the law because every man in his heart knows the law. You’re born with it and as you grow so does your knowledge of the law. That’s what life is. Isn’t it? Initiation? You’re black, aren’t you? Hear that bird that’s calling? You keep looking about and listening, eh? That’s your bird, your nulli [guide, spirit], your meat! Your soul knows this. It talks into your head. The spirit is inside your head, talking to you. Same as every Aboriginal who wants to stop and listen. What’s gone wrong with the Aboriginal people? We were once in tune with our spirits, the great creator. Was a time when we were drunk on that, not poison grog! All that the spirits created was sacred. Stones, grass, trees, animals, men — all were sacred, valuable and to be loved as sacred. Everywhere you walked was holy ground. Nothing has changed except the way you look at life. History has changed how our people look at themselves, too. When the whites came to this country, they didn’t make treaties, they started raping and killing and poisoning. Our people fought them until they had to clear out of the way and hide. Then they got the pox. The syphilis. The gonorrhea, colds, pneumonia, TB (tuberculosis), that the ships brought in. They brought in alcohol, muskets, sabres, strychnine, the flogging-whip and chains. Murderous, cruel, unholy people. The bloated. Poisoned bodies of our men, women and children couldn’t move their hearts and we weren’t prepared for hell. Wed never had hell before. Before them, everything in this sacred land had been sacred and we were one with all created life and whole until white savages came and called us ‘black apes’ and ‘primitive’. It’s past now, but we are products of the past. Our people have forgotten that there was a time when our men fought them and fought well… in the days before our souls were crushed.
The white men wouldn’t declare war and make treaties because that would’ve meant having to deal with us as people, having to care about our rights. It was much easier to steal our land and ignore their own guilt by calling us vermin. Our people, what was left of them, hid-out and starved while friendly Christianised whites led us out to the rubbish tips [fringe camps] where pox, diseases and grog eat into us. That’s how the people lost the law and lost themselves. Then they welcomed the white man who brought them the grog and tobacco and flour. They cringed to him like whipped dogs cringing to the man who kicks and feeds them. Then the towns got frightened about blacks dying around their rubbish tips [area]. They got worried about diseases spreading so they pushed the people out, out further from the towns. And our people lost all value, started spending their lives looking for grog and waiting to die.
It’s still like that. Go onto any mission, reserve. See the gins’ hair all mesed. Uncombed. It’s the surest signs of mental illness when people neglect themselves. See how fat a lot of them are from eating rubbish all the time because they got nothing else in their lives. Look in their houses. Dirt everywhere. Dogs sleeping in the baby’s cradle. Dirty clothes left wet in laundry tubs, left to stink and rot. Look at the table. Fat stains, tea stains, dirty plates, spoons, cups. Flies everywhere. Kid-shit everywhere, like untrained dogs. Kids’ noses all yellow and running men and women who stink because they ain’t old enough in the head [mind] to have a bath once a week even. Heads full of lice… and those women who say they love their kids don’t love them enough to do something about it. Because no one really gives a dam.
Get onto the men. Men? Huh! Unwashed, stinking grog and vomit on their clothes. Can’t understand how any woman could sleep with ’em. See ’em get pissed, then punch a woman up, smash her teeth, black her eyes, and when she’s smashed and bleeding on the floor, put the boot in for good measure. And they want to call themselves men! Have you seen ’em leave the kids go hungry while they scratch out their pockets for money for fags and plonk [cheap wine] ? Have you seen ’em hindering up to a captain* who’s just come onto the mission with money in his pocket? Have you seen ’em cheat and rob each other for the price of a flagon? Have you seen how they hate the cops yet run like yelping mongrel dogs to lag each other in? Have you seen ’em crying and miserable and sick and vomiting? Yeah… then you’ve seen it all. Haven’t you?
What for, you want ‘self-determination’ ? What for, when you can’t even feed or control or even wash your kids properly? The way you are, self-determination would only be a license to bugger yourselves up some more. What could any of you determine while our people stay like this? You want rights but you ain’t got the discipline or the guts to deserve them. You’re not grown up enough in yourselves to even teach your kids what’s right. And their silly mothers shield them and shelter them from everything so that they never have to face up to anything tough. How can the boys become men with mothers like that? How will they ever learn to have any guts when nobody ever expects anything from them? They can’t and they don’t. But you can’t have rights without responsibility. You keep saying you want a chance for your kids but yet you yourselves won’t give it to them. You say you want land but land can’t mean anything without soul in it. If you say you love your people, then get out onto the missions to where it hurts the most. Get out there and start making rules! Kids can’t grow up without rules.
There was a silence as he raked the coals and motioned for me to get another tree-branch. As he moved his head I saw the marks on his chest where his shirt opened out. They were his initiation scars, hard, raised-up welts that I used to finger and wonder about as a lad. Then he spoke again.
Grandfather Koori: Boy. When you ask yourself why are the women drinking why are the houses filthy, why are the kids’ noses running, kid-shit everywhere, worms, flies, misery, remember what I said earlier. When a man or a woman gets depressed and feels helpless then the first signs of madness or mental break-down shows in self-neglect. When they lose pride in themselves it’s the sure sign of soul-sickness. If you’ve got any love and an ounce of guts you’ll start the healing working. It’s a soul problem, a health problem. You have to apply the only medicine that can help them, the rules. When a man grogs up his lads’ food money you straighten him out. When he bashes his woman, a bunch of women get together and lay him out. When young men get out of control too badly, you bring ’em back under control in the night so they never know who or what hit them. That’s part of the law. When a kid shits on the doorstep you belt his arse [buttocks] and rub his nose in it. When a bludger won’t work you cast him out. When a home is filthy you send in your own committee to straighten that woman out. Aboriginality, eh? You say you want your Aboriginalitv back? That means having some rules, don’t it? And the first two orders of those rules is share and care. You go back just a little bit in time when we weren’t quite as broken as we are now. If a kid smashed a window or was cheeky, or vicious his uncle or aunt whaled his back-side. If a feller kept belting his woman and kids, one of the men called him out on the grass and punched shit out of him. If he was too big to tackle, somebody bottled him. Whatever the way, he followed the rules or he got it. Nowadays, you even talk about punching him up or yell at a lad that’s pesting and the mongrels run for the white policeman.
I don’t care how hard it is. You build Aboriginality, boy, or you got nothing. There’s no choice to it. It’ll be easier now, with bits of land handed back to us, here’n there. It means there’s no white manager for the people to dob each other in to. It means that you collect your own rents to do your own maintenance. You form a committee to collect the rent. If a family won’t pay. You throw them out. You get the young blokes to set up youth committees that backs the elders up. You inspect the houses because rules save lives and health and happiness. You give every man, woman and child his due because life is sacred. You treat your own and every life like that. Every person is entitled to be treated with good nature and dignity. You never steal from the poor. If you steal from a black family you get cast out. If you stand over or hoon from the goomees [abuse of alcohol] you get bottled or lacked. If a woman neglects her kids, the women belt her. If a black boy rapes a black girl. He gets flogged and cast out. If two or more men take a woman and abuse her they get flogged and cast out. So as to keep the camp clean.
Every month every family cooks meat, pickles, damper and pudding and the mission holds a corroboree-dance in the fire-light. Every Sunday evening, the men light fires in the open and hold sing-songs because here is a lot of happiness in doing them things. Every person on earth can share in Aboriginality. It is a blessing you can give ’em to share in. The hungry, the homeless, the poor and the beaten, all those that are unhappy or in worse circumstances than yourselves are to be welcomed around your fires but they, too, must follow the rules. You’ve got the power: it’s just a matter of giving all and everyone your nulli. That spirit, that great spirit will give you everything you need to live. That’s what Aboriginality is! Land? The five hundred tribes own all this land. That’s been taken but you have to get every area known as an Aboriginal reserve, all those little bits remembered as sacred sites and enough land besides that so that our people can have a land base for their needs, especially in the southern states where we were driven totally off our land. That’s what you and all our people have to get. That’ll be your self-determination.
It is not possible for anyone to love you unless you do something or are something worth loving. You can’t find happiness without first making rules to stamp out the things that make unhappiness. You can’t get dignity unless you follow the rules that help you to be dignified. You can’t find value in yourself until you build it by respecting yourself through living right. If you tolerate crumminess, gutlessness, meanness, wife bashing, kid bashing and neglect then you’ll never get the strength to climb out of hell.
You don’t have to try and ‘pass’ as whites to be respectable: you don’t have to hide in the borrowed respectability of some religion, either, unless you can get it to work for you and through you to help those around you. You only tolerate so much of what goes on around you because you want others to tolerate the same rottenness that is in you. If our people cannot change how it is amongst themselves, then the Aboriginal will never climb back out of hell. Each Aboriginal has to be another’s keeper, each Aboriginal has to uphold the rules of right living because if we don’t do those things then our Aboriginality will die out until there is nothing left … like the coals of a long dead camp-fire.
Author © Kevin Gilbert (R.I.P.)
* Captain: The reserve people’s name for a white man who visits them to trade money or grog for sex.