Boodjar ngan djoorla - Griffith Review
Essay

Boodjar ngan djoorla

Country, my bones

MY BONES ARE in the soul of Country, and Country is in my bones. My veins are the creeks that flow to the sea and never quite reach it; walled off by sand, drying up in the sun. They only flow out, break the walls when the sky cries. The sky is all cried out.

In Kaurna Country[i] I found a Peppermint tree[ii]
I plucked a leaf and crushed it,
Held its scent to my nose
The scent called me home

But I have no home but the home in my bones
And the bones of my family scattered down the creek

I see a Hakea, they belong on Country, we have more of them in that place than anywhere else in the world. I see a Banksia, my Country is a theme park for lovers of Banksias. Those trees stride and sneak and flounce on Country. Trees so thick you can’t walk through them if nobody is caring for Country. Banksias so thick that the creeks were our walking paths.

Banksias grow so short on the dunes, in Country, if you stand up you can almost see over them.

The smell of a Peppermint tree, grown by those wadjela[iii] as an ornamental all along the south of this continent (wadjela calls this place ‘Australia’), is like a slap across the face from a relative; angry because I have not been home for so long. The easternmost natural grove of that tree is in my Country. Yet I have smelled them in places wadjela call South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales, everywhere. They belong to Noongar[iv] Boodjar[v], in the south-west, they belong back home.

The home in my bones.

 

THE PLACE OF my grandfather’s birth was said to be taboo. No blackfella ever dared to go there, my dad used to tell me, too many ghosts, he said, too much death, too many bones in the ground. It would make you sick if you were dumb enough to go there. My dad told me that blackfella drove through that town with their windows closed tight, not to breathe the air, not to get the bad stuff on them.

The bad stuff, the souls of the dead that whitefella killed. So many died there, they were shot, those that survived ran away, those that returned drank poisoned water. Poison in the waterhole, lot less blackfella.

My dad never told me the bones in the ground were my family. He never told me the bones of Country were my family. I don’t think he knew.

That story was distant, that story was just a story until I knew better.

John Dunn was killed there in 1880 they say, my family, my mob did it they say, that’s why whitefella killed everyone they say. Well he raped a girl, a girl of my mob we say, not a surprise. The first white women there didn’t get there for years later and that was his sister. We say he, he and his mob, only had black women to do that stuff to. How are his mob going to argue?

In Naarm[vi] there are Banksias, grey-green-grey.
The colour of them, not like other trees, called me home
But I have no home but the home in my bones
and the bones of my ancestors scattered down the creek

I am that place, where those people died, that taboo place. We are where our ancestors’ bones lay. They enter the soil, go home to Country, that soil is in our souls. That Country is family.

An old man told me, no matter where we go Country calls out to us; we always go there in the end. If we die, our soul is what returns there, to the bones of our Country, to the souls of our people.

I didn’t go there until 2015, that place changed my life forever, my world, my life, even the way I breathed. I took the taboo air into my lungs and I did not die or maybe I did. The bones of my feet landed on the sand and returned to life, I was born again on Country. The story of that place made me a storyteller; story is in my veins.

My bones, and the bones of my ancestors.
The water in the creek they are scattered down is in my blood.

I felt like every moment in my life was building up to the point when my feet sunk into that white, white sand, whitest sand in the world they say. That moment was the beginning, my life began again, began then. Salt air filled my lungs, harsh sunlight glistened on grey stone like moonlight on the hair of the grandfather I never knew.

That place, my grandfather’s Country, my Country, the place where my Aboriginal ancestors have lived forever, the town where my grandfather was born, where my father lived as a toddler. The place made from the bones of my ancestors.

The place of death, of taboo. The place of the Wirlo[vii].

I knew those stories from my childhood but I did not know until way later that they were about my family. If you go there, that memorial park, that memorial to the massacre, my family name is one of the names in the story. Our history was used to build that memory into the landscape, that place, that park. Our history was the history of that Country.

Even before history my family were there.

In Gimuy[viii] I first heard the cry of the Wirlo
A death-bird to many
To me and mine they are family
Though almost extinct, finished, on Country
I have death-bird family everywhere.

That scream calls me home, to where
Our bones are in the soil
And I have no home but the home in my bones
And the bones of my ancestors scattered down the creek

 

I AM FAR from that place but it is in my blood, sparks angrily along my nerves. Every other place is compared to that place, to Country, is understood according to that place. No matter where I live, that place is home, will always be. The story of that place runs in fury through me, forces itself out through my twitching fingers.

That Country runs in my veins, like water down those creeks. Forty years I burned looking for somewhere, but never looking in my grandfather’s Country, my grandfather’s sand dunes, for it. I would find an estuary, not quite there, beach and rolling sand dunes, not quite what I was looking for. A stand of Banksias would remind me of something, something I could not remember seeing.

Then I went to a place called Starvation Bay in my Country and I knew I had finally found that place, that place I was looking for, forever.

It’s called Starvation Bay but I will never starve there. Nowhere can I find, even on the internet, why it was called that but I can well imagine. Whitefella must have starved there, sat on the beach by the water, sat in a boat on water filled with fish and gone hungry.

The rocks there, my family.

Blackfella everywhere I have been talk of Country caring for them as they cared for Country but I had never felt that until that place. When I travel I see it, people on Country, everywhere, catch fish when whitefella can only dream of it.

A rock, the bones of the land, called me. I stood on that rock, a short jump over water from the shore, fished from that rock, like I had fished from many places. It was not like other places. No matter what I did, what crazy thing I tried, I caught.

I tried bait, caught fish; Japanese style fly fishing, caught fish; a squid tried to eat my float, I dropped in a squid jig and caught that too. I caught our dinner in no time, went back the next day to my rock caught our dinner again. Went back weeks later, caught enough to feed my mother, my father, fed the beautiful love of my life. Fished until we were all sick of fish. In that place, my Country, my water cared for me.

I wept when I realised Country had not forgotten me even when I did not know Country. My old-people, my ancestors, would care for me.

Country is part of me and I am part of Country. When I die I have asked that my ashes be taken there, scattered to the fish at that fishing hole, off that rock, the place where I began to properly understand Country. I have no land on my Country, what is there does not belong to me, what is there was stolen, what is there is degraded.

They can take the land but they can’t take the sea.

The bones of my ancestors.
They torture that Country, my Boodjar, my bones
They dig holes in Country and take stuff out
Country gets nothing back.

They killed everybody there, dumped our bodies in a mass grave, on Country. Poisoned our water so those who returned would drink that and die too.

He raped a girl there, that whitefella who that brave blackfella speared, he raped a girl, she was my family too. The man who carried out that justice, spearman, strong man, he was my family too. Whitefella could have shot a blackfella who had raped a white woman without reprisals. That Dunn fella got permission (really, he did) to kill all the blackfella.

I still have water
Sand the colour of ash.
My bones.
My bones.
My ashes and dust
Water

When I am dead, I will finally return to Country, I have said I want my ashes in the water off my fishing rock. Fire was a sacrament for my people, but we did not burn bodies. Yet if I can’t be buried on Country the fire will take my flesh, the water will take my ash, the sky will take my smoke. No matter what else happens. My bay, where whitefella must have starved, or they would not have called it that, will still be there.

Even if climate change floods Country, if home disappears under the waves, Starvation Bay will be there, further out from the beach, safe from whitefella in deeper water. My soul, my ashes will rest easy there, in deep water even as Country drowns. Country has drowned before. Maybe if the sea rises far enough that town in country, the one near the sea, will be washed away, maybe the bones in country will join my ash. The sea, it’s ours too, unlike the land it has not been bought, no freehold to extinguish our sea-rights, nothing to extinguish the fire.

I have no home but the home in my bones;
And the bones of my ancestors scattered down the creek.

 

MY DADDY’S UNCLE was the last blackfella from my family to live in that town on Country, that town where they killed us. His bones are in the cemetery there, on Country, the new one, not the one where his grandfather was buried, the one where an unmarked grave might hold the bones of his grandmother. We cannot be sure. Black woman, unmarked grave.

When that wadjela died, when that Noongar speared him to death, they put his bones in the ground; in my Country. His grave, the stone that marks it is a historical site. Where my family, my old-people died, where that whitefella’s brothers killed us, the grave was unmarked. Who cared, it was only blackfellas.

The grave remains unmarked, will remain so. My family now don’t want tourists walking on our bones. Our mass grave is not a tourist attraction. We are not a curio, we are people.

Bones in my home in my bones.

Whitefella tourist, they like my Country, like the bone-white sand that squeaks under their feet. I bet whitefella don’t know whose country they walk on, don’t know what place it is. They think this place is called Australia.

But.

You can’t hide bones forever; creeks move, flood, cut through soil. Bones scatter, escape, tumble with the water, dance one last time. Bones become fossils, new water cuts them free. Truth escapes in the end, lies cannot live forever. Home is in my bones and our bones are in my home.

Bones in our home
Home in our bones

For I have no home but the home in my bones;
And the bones of my ancestors scattered down the creek.

 

Notes

[i] The Kaurna are the sovereign owners of the Adelaide plains.

[ii] Agonis flexuosa, also known as a willow myrtle

[iii] Whitefella

[iv] The Aboriginal people of the South West of Western Australia. My family.

[v] Country

[vi] Melbourne

[vii] Bush Stone Curlew

[viii] Cairns

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