Listening is harder than you think

ON THE VARNISHED surface of the table at which I sit to write someone has scored the three quarter view of a naked girl looking over her shoulder. It has a certain copyist facility; the hand spread coquettishly on the hip is surprisingly well drawn, proportionally correct, with the angled jut of wrist-bones allowing for the space between forearm and hand that is left out by amateurs. The artist has botched the face with too much detail, the mouth too high and pursed, the nose a shapeless blob. He has given up altogether with the eyes, producing a kind of lewd squint. Beside the figure the word ‘CUNT' has been scratched in scrawling capitals.

The annexe in which I stay when I live in the community was built several years ago as temporary accommodation for the builders contracted to erect a number of new houses. When I first moved in there was a poster on the wall, larger than life size, of a pouting blonde in flimsy underwear, airbrushed to such saccharine perfection that she might have been created for a comic strip. For a time I left her there, companion to the nude inscribed on the table, twin genius loci of generic male fantasy and a reminder of the contradictions of this place. The young women here are black-skinned, dark-haired, already overweight from fat and sugar, underemployment and early pregnancy. In the end the pouting blonde's vacuity irritated me too much, and I used her to light my winter fire-drum, watching with satisfaction the vapid blue eyes flame briefly before curling into ash.

In the distance I can hear the hum of the generator and the unmuffled roar of a vehicle driving up the hill. I can guess who it belongs to, leaving the community at this hour of the morning. Over time one develops the ability to identify individual vehicles by their roars, whines, squeals and clunks.

‘Community' is shorthand for Aboriginal community. I have just returned for the fourth year to spend several months here, my compromise between the need to revisit and my inability to live in this world. As always the first days are daunting, my body registering its revolt by becoming sluggish and sleepless, my mind dissolving into helpless ennui. As always I ask why I put myself through this dislocation. Why can I not be content with the life I've created half a continent away, anchored in friendships, work, camaraderie, the rhythm of gardens and seasons, conversations that arc and segue through the architecture of ideas. To leave that and return to this is like leaving a good marriage to revisit the troubled passion of a consuming love affair. Except that this passion pre-empted the marriage, a blueprint laid down in childhood, irreconcilable and inescapable.

Fifteen years ago I made what amounted to a pilgrimage back to this country in which I'd lived as a child and teenager. Precipitated by my father's death, it was a journey into grief, memory, and a confrontingly changed present. The grief and memory found their resolution through the book I subsequently wroteBut the present remained insistent, my sense of being implicated in it re-ignited by the power of the country and the recognition that for me a life without Aboriginal people in it was a life that lacked a central core. That presence was not an abstraction. It was the families and individuals with whom I had old connections and the places that infused their lives with meaning, as they had infused mine when I was growing up.

At least part of the motivation for these return journeys is the search for an authentic voice to tell the story lodged at the centre of my preoccupations as an artist and a writer. Thoreau wrote, ‘Know your own bone: gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw at it still.' This is my bone. It feels sometimes as if it is attached to my own body, that I am gnawing through meat and sinew to reach it. It is buried under the skin of the country and embedded in the flesh of its people.

How does place construct the psychology of the people who live in it? And what happens at the interface between a people whose lineage goes back to the ancestral beings who created country, and a settler people whose ancestry belongs to another hemisphere?

It seems to me that this is at the heart of Australian cultural reality, pushed further here than in any other country because the gap is so much greater. And yet, and yet ... all of us have in the lineaments of our nervous system and the infrastructure of our bodies the legacy of ancestors whose survival and sense of being were inextricably bound to their capacity to interpret place.


WHERE ABORIGINAL PEOPLE are concerned, the twin strands of dysfunction and idealisation weave a highly-coloured thread through the fabric of Australian culture. The strand that remains all but invisible is that of ordinary Aboriginal lives, the preoccupations and pleasures that amidst all the furore and sentiment remain robust and sustaining.

This essay does not claim any great insights into how the future can be addressed, or underplay the crisis currently facing remote communities. What it does set out to do is tell stories that bring those ordinary lives into focus, to give a picture of daily life, of the vibrant cast of characters that populate my small desert community, and whose lives have become an intricate and necessary part of my own. It is also a plea to understand how essential the link is between the people and their country, and how important it is that ways be found to sustain that link.

As communities go this is one of the more functional ones. Situated at the cusp of the Tanami and Great Sandy Deserts, it is in Western Australia, not directly affected by the recent government intervention in the Northern Territory. Its people belong to the same language group, their extended families share links through common ancestors to traditional country. The country itself is a vast inland lake system and delta, remnant of a palaeo-lake once part of an ancient waterway to the Indian Ocean. It is dense with dreamings, rich in artefacts and stories, numinous ground for those to whom it belongs and of national environmental and archaeological significance.

The population ranges from a hundred to a hundred and sixty people. If one compared it to an outback town I suspect that the alcohol intake, the child abuse and the domestic violence would be comparable. Where it differs is in the prevalence of diabetes and trachoma, the mobility of its population, the lack of job opportunities, and the number of young children.

Within a day of my arrival I find myself with Fatima, Anna and a car-load of kids, driving out to collect bark from a white coolibah tree at the edge of the lake. Anna has had her eye on it for some time, waiting for a vehicle to make the trip. She has a small enterprise, collecting the bark and reducing it to the fine white ash people add to Log Cabin tobacco, its long treacly strands the nearest substitute for the chewing tobacco plugs of the ration era. Once the ash is prepared she sells it in Halls Creek – $50 for a milk tin full. The tree is recently dead, sloughing curled disks of bark, and we fill a garbage bag Anna has brought.

‘Manga, you got a tomahawk?' she asks me, and I dutifully fish it out of my toolbox and knock the bark from the higher branches. Manga – pronounced munga, with the g soft as in sing – means young girl, its implication that I am young and strong and expected to do the hard work, although I am not much younger than either of the women. Anna is barely five feet tall, maybe forty kilos, with a wild bush of greying hair, and resembles a star picket wearing a woolly mop. Fatima is heavier than last year, slower, breathing with difficulty, but her voice has the same confidential, portentous tone.

‘You know what, Napuru,' she says, ‘this year I'm working for IPA [Indigenous Protected Area] and that Palyalatju health mob. And for Tjurabalan too, on the committee. And I'm painting now. They took me to Singapore for that exhibition. But now you back I'll be working with you.'

The lake is a blue gleam through the trees, the brolgas beginning their stately afternoon parade along the shoreline, animated hieroglyphs that speak one of the many languages of the lake. The kids have found a goanna track, and are off in a scamper through the vivid green pin-cushions of recently burned spinifex.

Later, driving home in the twilight, Fatima plays a scratchy Charley Pride tape. A child rests her chin on my shoulder, another runs sticky hands through my hair. I remind myself to put away everything that can be pilfered or broken, my sunglasses, the GPS, my leatherman pocket knife. The women fill me in on who has married, who has had babies, who is in and out of jail. My inner ear begins its process of recalibration, remembering how to listen for the subtexts. Bessie is not happy. There's some humbug going on about whether she is really a traditional owner for the lake. ‘She's looking for you. You go and talk to her tomorrow. She's been worrying for you.'

The conversation spins out its threads of obligation and expectation, casting the delicate trap of country and family. It will be some days until my re-entry is complete, my introspective self put away for the duration and replaced by a simplified, more robust persona that can engage in the theatre of relationships, negotiate the undertow of manipulation, field and pass off with humour the potential misunderstandings and tensions that are part of daily life. It's a provisional equanimity, dependent on staying physically healthy and psychologically grounded – something only time and experience can teach, and never to be taken for granted.


MY FIRST EXCHANGE with Bessie is an embrace that acknowledges sorry business, the recent death of the man who fathered her first daughter, the head stockman for my family in the years we lived in the Tanami. Most of the locals take my annual reappearance in their stride, but Bessie is genuinely happy to see me. ‘How long you staying?' she wants to know, reminding me of my mother.

Bessie is troubled. It doesn't take long for the reasons to emerge. She feels keenly her responsibility to have her knowledge recorded, fearing that her mind and memory are going.

‘Might be I'm going mad. I bin forget too many things.'

‘Too many stories in that old head. We better get them out so you can go mad in peace, no more worrying.'

She gives the throaty chuckle that delights in her own absurdity. But her deeper concerns are the challenge to her credentials as a traditional owner for the lake country. The suggestion has wounded her deeply.

There's an undercurrent in the community I don't yet grasp, and I know better than to ask direct questions. It will reveal itself in time. What I do know is that traditional ownership is rearing its head everywhere, a legacy of the competition for mining royalties, but also the shifting crisis of identity as bloodlines and traditional alliances become muddied and confused.

I reassure Bessie I will take her to the places she wants to visit and video the stories she wants to tell. There is no gainsaying her when she has a plan. Bessie on a mission is an irresistible force, giving the lie to the notion that Aboriginal people lack the motivation to follow through.

She is troubled too by the knowledge that she is the last fluent speaker of the local language in the community. The other elders of equivalent status speak the adjoining languages, Jaru or Kukatja. Although some of the younger people, in particular her second daughter May, have a working knowledge of the local Walmajarri dialect, Kukatja is the language of daily use, with a Walmajarri inflection. Most of the people under fifty were raised in the dormitory system of the nearby Catholic mission of Balgo, and educated in Kukatja.


IN THE AFTERNOON I take Bessie and Fatima, her younger sister, for a drive to a favoured fishing and swimming location on the northern side of the lake, in the heart of the area Bessie claims as her country. It is the place where the rain is made, the home of one of the manifestations of the rainbow snake.

Short and square and purposeful, dressed in matching skirt and blouse of aquamarine and pink, Bessie stalks towards the shoreline, calling out in the tone appropriate for addressing ancestral beings, alerting them to our presence and reassuring them that we are of the country. When the invocation is finished she says, ‘When I'm dead there'll be nobody left to talk to the lake in its own language.'

It's one of those moments when a number of half-apprehended intuitions fall into place, the shudder of realignments travelling through the body like an electric current, raising goose bumps that herald the imaginative grasp of a truth.

The words hang in the air. ‘When I'm gone there'll be nobody left to talk to the lake in its own language.'

And so it must have happened by increments across the continent, that slow withdrawal of voices, the silence falling as the conversation between people and country lost the languages in which it could be spoken. Did the ancestors lie in the hills and watercourses, waiting to be called, wondering at the unfamiliar sounds that suggested something new and strange was taking place. Did they fade and disappear without the songs and ceremonies to invoke them, or are they waiting still?

There's a shiver of movement far out on the lake, a muscular convulsion that reaches the shore in a slow wave as the old snake turns in his muddy bed, acknowledging Bessie's homage. I don't believe in the snake the way Bessie does, or the entities that inhabit every rock and tree and gully, but I witness the evidence of their reality around me all the time.

The years of spending time with people in their country, taking them to the places which hold special significance, have convinced me I'm witnessing a form of consciousness in which the landforms are the psychological terrain of the people who inhabit them. I mean this literally, not metaphorically. To revisit country is not only to reanimate it but to walk the contours of one's own deep self, both individual and shared.


THE STORE IS the social centre of the town, the place to hang out for half an hour in the morning to casually re-establish my presence and plot the day's trajectory. I nod to old Doonday, Bessie's husband, who sits speechless as a Buddha on the wooden bench outside the store, his belly hanging over his trousers and straining the buttons on his shirt. I get a grunt of acknowledgement, which from him is almost effusive. Bessie sits beside him clutching her handbag, woollen beanie snug as a tea cosy on her grey curls.

‘Manga, when we going out to do those stories?'

This provokes another subterranean mutter from Doonday, who is unhappy about Bessie's intention to talk about the old stock camp days – that is his territory.

‘Maybe this afternoon. I'll see what else is happening.'

Anna's daughter Rebecca beams her hundred watt grin. I squeeze into the space made for me by shuffling backsides along the bench. Rebecca takes my hand and checks it for nicotine stains.

‘I gave up,' she tells me proudly. ‘When you come back?'

I know she knows the answer, the comings and goings of kartiya (white fellas) is monitored automatically on the community radar, but I tell her anyway.

‘Day before yesterday. I been hiding in case you humbug me.'

She scowls at me theatrically, and her youngest son Johari leans against my knee and gazes up, imp of Satan with the face of an angel. Rebecca's brother Geoffrey, bandanna tied over his head, presents me with his new daughter, a tiny bat-eared creature called Dakota.

Kids swarm and cluster, embrace by stealth, arms wrapping about my waist and wrists and neck. Touch flows freely, skin on skin, sensual as water. Latoya, Petronella, Terrazitta, Nicodemus, Sarema, Delton, Mikayla, the wonderful inventiveness of the names designed to outwit the kumanjayi law that prohibits the name of a dead person being spoken.

Around the store entrance half a dozen dogs lie comatose until a pariah crosses the threshold of their territory, provoking an eruption of snarls and squeals. The cur bolts for cover under the bench, precipitating equal furore among the humans, and brings the owner of most of the dogs to the doorway, the bearded, bald, tattooed kartiya store assistant known as ‘My Wife' for his constant references to his Aboriginal wife. He lights a cigarette, and asks me if I've visited ‘my wife's father' yet. The school troop carrier pulls up, the headmistress on the hunt for kids who should be in school, closely followed by Rebecca's sister and her husband in the pastoral company Landcruiser, Steven – cool and laconic in cowboy shirt, wraparound sunglasses and Akubra, Julianne round as a beach ball with Anna's wild hair pulled into a topknot that blossoms like an exploding firework. Evelyn, cultural authority extraordinaire and my skin sister, suggests I buy her a tin of munju (tobacco), for which she will pay me back.

Touch, sound, smells, brilliant colour against dark skin. Re-entry is complete.


MY FIRST PROJECT is to co-ordinate a trip to map the top end of the Canning Stock Route, which travels through the country held under native title by the local Walmajarri people, encompassing the former cattle stations of Billiluna and Lake Gregory. It is part of an ambitious project to represent the entire stock route in a series of paintings by the traditional custodians of the country it traverses.

There are some highly accomplished painters among them, but Fatima is the only painter of any note in my group. We have agreed to make one of the large painted canvas maps that have become a feature of my work with the community. The maps are cross-cultural documents, topographically accurate and immediately recognisable to a white viewer, but bearing the imprint of Aboriginal ways of recording place names, dreaming tracks, birth and conception sites, traditional campsites and ancestral names. The process records people's stories, oral histories and traditional knowledge, using video and simply-produced large-format books. It gives access to material already gathered by professionals, archived in reports in the bowels of some agency or other, written in language that tests even my literacy.

So far we have mapped the lake system and the braided channels of Sturt Creek that feed into it, but this map will cover the connecting delta where the creek divides and forms a vast region of creeks, claypans and flood plains. The original stock route travelled through the flood plain along the eastern channel of the creek, but since it has become a tourist 4WD route it skirts to the west of the delta, which in the recent years of high rainfall is often not negotiable by vehicle.

My diary records the usual organisational challenges preceding the trip: ‘Looking about as expected. Canvas for the map hasn't arrived, next truck due in two weeks. Paint is here, enough to chart the entire Kimberley, and for some inscrutable reason a box containing nine hundred paintbrushes. Half the mob who signed up for the trip are heading out to Halls Creek for a ten-day Assembly of God camp.'

From my point of view a smaller group makes the logisitics simpler, and I can borrow some canvas from the art centre at Balgo. We set out with a party of ten and two vehicles, my Hi-lux and a troop carrier driven by Wade, the kartiya co-oordinator of the Paruku Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) which encompasses the lake and its environs. The group includes Bessie and Doonday, Wendy, Fatima, and four people from Billiluna, the other community in the area. Among them is Charmia, one of my favourites, with whom I share the skin name Napurrurla and an ongoing joke about her search for a Japanangka (right skin husband) for me.

‘Where's that Japanangka you promised me? You been keeping them all for yourself,' I accuse her. She chortles gleefully.

‘I bin hidem la bush,' she says. ‘I'll show you when we come back. Might be one young fella you can ‘ave.' Charmia is about seventy, like Bessie a speaker of high Walmajarri and a repository of cultural knowledge.

We are travelling into Daisy's country, towards Kaningarra, a permanent rockhole deep in the hills. Daisy has proved an asset on the trip, gathering firewood and washing dishes with imperturbable good humour. She's around fifty, grey hair cropped short to indicate some recent sorry business, and a marvellous rolling eye that gives her a crazed expression. There was a tense moment the previous day at Well 50 when the consensus was that we should turn back, having passed beyond the boundary of all but Daisy's traditional country.

The corrugated track had already claimed our trailer, and Doonday and Bessie bickered relentlessly, driving everyone mad. Daisy wasn't having any of it, delivering a blistering critique of their selfishness, her wild and wandering eye lending an intimidating authority. I told Doonday and Bessie that if they couldn't settle their differences we would leave them to hitch a ride home with the next batch of tourists. For the next few hours Bessie sat in the passenger seat flicking through a battered Bible taken from her handbag and murmuring in a sad, small croaky voice that made me feel like a bully. At camp that night I massaged her aching leg, and she forgave me.


DAISY IS ANIMATED and excited as we approach her country. She draws our attention to the magnificent twin peaks of a great bluff, two women – Nangalas – who stopped to groom each other's hair for lice. We stop and take a photograph of Daisy at their feet, and make camp at the base of the next bluff. Wade and I have travelled together before, and co-operate seamlessly in making and breaking camp. Our arguments are amiable, our differences too unimportant to affect the trip or our mutual respect. The women make regular threats to cut Wade's shoulder-length, red-dyed ringlets.

‘He's Japanangka,' Charmia says, ‘what about him? We'll help you cuttem hair.'

‘I'm too old for that one, Charmia. Anyway, we argue too much.'

‘Might be you can hittem longa crowbar,' Charmia suggests.

The return journey is exhausting, the relentless corrugations taking their toll. When I nearly hit a star picket on the side of the road the women let out shrieks of concern.

‘Lookout Napurrurla, what's wrong. You driving too fast.'

We are towing an elderly trailer Charmia insisted on collecting from Well 51. I have been watching its progressive disintegration in the rear view mirror. I'm registering a curious effect in my mind, the result of five days of speaking and hearing only the mixture of Kriol and language in which we communicate. It's opened another level of awareness, the apparently simple observations of my passengers take on a deeper dimension that incorporates some element of the country itself. It's to do with inflection and pronunciation, as if different language circuits have been wired, allowing me to register subtleties not previously accessible. My whitefella brain is in abeyance while I concentrate on getting us all home intact.

All the participants in the Canning Stock Route project are reconnoitring at Lake Stretch, the last major watering point before Billiluna, for a final painting session. It's a meeting of old friends; Tim, art centre manager in my time at Balgo, his wife Carly, Danny the ex-Balgo men's health nurse, John who I see regularly in Canberra. A number of media people have flown and driven in to record the event. The map is unrolled, and I joke with the women to warn me if anyone who looks like a photographer approaches.

‘They don't like kartiya in the picture.'

‘Look out Napuru,' Charmia says, ‘one kartiya coming with big camera,' and I leap from my position among the painters. We have decided that since this is essentially a painting exercise we will use dotting techniques to indicate country types, and I'm busy mixing and doling out appropriate colours, black and cream for desert oak country, a subtle range of whites, creams and greys for the grasslands, red and black for the recently burnt sand dune country.

It's beginning to shimmer and shift under the play of dots, and the painters are excited at the beautiful thing they are creating, proprietorial about their own sections of ‘country'. They become too engrossed to notice the cameramen, and several times I'm asked peremptorily by a photographer from The Australian to get out of the frame. The women, who are highly attuned to my temper, snicker among themselves.

‘You want us to tellem you little bit half-caste, Napuru?'

On the final morning I pack up our camp to leave. Anna and Wendy complain they feel too weak to help. Fatima accuses me of forgetting to pack her cooking pot. Having just dismantled six tents, loaded mountains of mattresses, blankets, chairs and assorted personal belongings on to the trailer, I say, ‘I didn't forget it, I just happen to be busy.'

The supplies for the trek have been heavily over-estimated, so the surplus is distributed to the artists. The resulting feeding frenzy is like a supply drop to starving refugees, despite the amount of food consumed in the last few days. Anna and Wendy are in the thick of it, making off with cartons of tinned food equal to their body weight and plastic garbage bags stuffed with toilet paper, fruit, vegetables, weetbix and powdered milk. I had told Danny that if there were any anchovies left over I would like a couple of tins. He brings me half a dozen tins, confiscated from Wendy's ten-year-old son.

‘They don't even like anchovies,' he mutters, handing me the box.

Wendy and Anna drag their booty to the trailer for me to load.

‘Too weak to help, hey? Next time you tell me that you know what I'm going to say?'

Anna gives me a grin, a replica of her daughter Rebecca's crocodile smile.

‘You right, Napuru,' she says.

Monica has scored the hindquarter of bullock, which she stashes carefully on the trailer under her mattress.

The map looks magnificent. Fatima has done most of the painting. She's been a trouper. I apologise for swearing at her earlier.

‘I'm sorry, I shouldn't swear at you, but you mob are always saying to me, "You forgot this, you didn't do that, you should do that other thing. You never say, "Hey Napuru, you doing a good job."'

‘You doing a good job, Napuru. I don't care you swear at me. We always laugh when you get angry, we know you not serious.'


MY FRIEND LOCKYER is also back in the community for the winter, to co-ordinate building a community centre with the local men. Lean, wiry and hyperactive, his hair and beard are a little less electrified than last year, but his energy and enthusiasm are undiminished. He is an architect and builder, with a long-term commitment to the community too, although he has a clearer sense of outcomes than I do.

The project has progressed slowly, the workforce a moving target, the difficulties of getting materials to such a remote location an ongoing challenge. But Lockyer is an unsentimental idealist with endless resilience – a ‘die-hard kartiya', in his own words. His perseverance pays off and the community centre now has a games room, what will become a computer room, and a partially enclosed stage at the end of the covered basketball court is underway. The final complex will include a childcare centre and a tourist information/art centre, all built with local labour and Lockyer's extraordinary capacity to raise money and deliver results.

He is philosophical about the destruction of the pool table that occurred during the summer by a rabble of children. The juke box has also been dismantled and most of the CDs gone, but the widescreen TV, beyond reach on its high shelf, has survived.

Kartiya influences, always provisional, fall away during the wet summer months when the white staff are on holidays and school is out. It is traditional law and ceremony time, a different energy inhabits the community. Normally responsible adults are preoccupied with law business, and the uneasy balance between white and Aboriginal priorities is at its most vulnerable. Bored kids, a volatile element even when the community is functioning at peak capacity, take advantage of the lack of surveillance. Last summer Wade and Lockyer's demountables and my annexe were among the buildings broken into and vandalised. Wade returned to discover his house trashed and people wearing his re-distributed clothes. Paint had been poured over my work computer and precious audio and video recordings destroyed.

To work with desert Aboriginal people is the most frustrating and rewarding of experiences. One is always dealing with competing agendas, the constant interventions of daily life sabotaging the best-laid plans. But it is daily life lived to the hilt, packed with family dramas, ancient feuds, jealousy, shifting parameters of survival, and subverting kartiya agendas. The politics of work have their own imperatives, as outlined in a thesis by John Carty from observations at Balgo:

One can only pursue one's own ambition in any socially acceptable way from within a context of group action. Otherwise one is trying to show off, trying to be better than others. I don't know what the Kukatja term for tall poppy syndrome is, but in Balgo there is the equivalent; in a classically Australian fashion, any person sticking their neck out in unsanctioned fashion will be subject to intense public scrutiny and, likely, ridicule.

Lockyer's dream of a community building company for local contracts seems to be happening. His team has won the contract to work on the school. He has arranged for a builder friend to oversee the job when he leaves; without a kartiya overseer it won't get done. Empowering people and getting them to take ownership of their own projects is an ideal long-term aspiration. Maybe one day it will happen, but the working models won't replicate white practices. They will vary from community to community, depending on different circumstances, and kartiya will be in the mix in all of them, because this is a shared story, we are in it for the long haul. It may be that the kartiya are ‘bosses for paper', writing grant submissions, balancing the books, keeping the paper trail accountable. In many instances they will be the co-ordinator, because cultural prohibitions make it too difficult for an Aboriginal individual to ‘boss' his peers.


EVELYN HAS BOOKED me to drive her to collect the right leaves for the smoking ceremony for her newest grandchild. Despite diabetes she is physically strong, and fearless. I have an enduring image of her, tyre lever in hand, holding off a pack of dogs that have attacked her, dropping the leader with a blow that knocks it stone dead.

She is a key member of the clan that has been challenging Bessie's credentials, and reveals what I had already suspected, that the factional name-calling has been travelling both ways.

‘That Bessie mob been tellem ‘bout we not ‘ditional owner,' she says. ‘They reckon we ‘ditional owner for Sturt Creek, not the lake. But they talking wrong way. They not ‘ditional owner for lake, they Wave Hill mob.'


A COMMUNITY MEETING is called to discuss unsupervised kids, who have been causing mayhem with the brumby-trapping project, hanging about the yards throwing rocks at the horses and getting in amongst them.

Alan, the vet in charge of the project, pleads for the kids to be supervised around the horses, for fear a child will be maimed or killed. Wade reiterates this, and Graham, the community CEO, asks parents to take responsibility for their own children. Unfortunately most of the parents in question aren't at the meeting, some of them not even in the community. Lockyer does an impassioned performance about the smashing open of all the new bags of cement that had been delivered by truck at great cost. He ends, ‘I got no one here to look out for me. My family all on the other side of the country, I got no family here.' This provokes great hilarity among the assembled crowd.

‘What you talking about you got no family, Jakamarra? We your family.'

They are getting into the spirit of the thing.

‘What about you, Napururrla? Your turn now.'

‘I got nothing to growl people for. Everybody working with me is doing a good job.'

They seem a little disappointed by my refusal to join in the general telling off. Watching kartiya unload their grievances is high entertainment. The meeting breaks up with the kids being marched off to witness the smashed cement and help clean it up.

For a couple of days things are much quieter, but the birth of a foal in the yards reactivates interest in the horses. Alan's self-appointed twelve-year-old sidekick Wobbly tells him that the kids have been in the yards riding the foal. When Alan investigates he finds the animal too close to death to save, and has to put it down.


THERE'S A PLAN among Kartiya with connections to the lake community to form a support network to assist the traditional owners and ensure the long term environmental protection of the lake country. It has to be based on a clear-eyed appraisal of the issues and the reality of conflicting points of view. Environmental protection, kartiya way, is not the same as ‘looking after country' Aboriginal way. The recent sighting of a family of emus in the floodout country, the first for many years, was cause for great excitement, but within a week they had been killed and eaten. A Darwinian moment perhaps. A more intelligent emu would have raised his family well away from the main access track between two Aboriginal communities.

Because of our relationships within the community Lockyer and I are central to negotiating the proposal with the community members. Before Lockyer leaves to return south we call a meeting to describe the plan and discuss how to set up the network. We don't want white agendas to over-ride the aspirations of the local people, so the initial meeting is to establish what those aspirations are, and how they might be supported.

Three strands are identified: community works, including Lockyer's project and the building company; tourism, which could provide sustainable jobs and income, in which the IPA and my work with the women on cultural material is central; the pastoral company, responsible for the cattle enterprise that has trickled on since the station days.

The last two are at odds with each other, and among the kartiya are those who would like to see the stock eliminated, but from the Aboriginal point of view this is a non-starter. They identify strongly as station people, not to mention the supply of ‘killer' (beef) that provides the staple diet.

We discuss a working model. Regular communication is at its heart. This responsibility is devolved to me. ‘That's your job, Napurrurla. We been show you how to make that story so people can understand it.'

I remember with some irony a diary entry weeks before, in which I resolved to pull back on my involvement in Aboriginal business and put more time and energy into my writing and art.

I raise the problem of how to deal with the jealousies between families and the propensity of people to pull others down when they are seen to be getting above themselves – working, earning money, succeeding in some enterprise or other. This is discussed with equanimity; everyone knows it's the major stumbling block. They resolve not to listen to humbug. I have little confidence in this, but at least we've broached the issue.

The working model of a support group in which kartiya with particular connections and skills assist Aboriginal people to manage the challenges of their immediate and long-term future is a fraught one. To avoid the deeply grooved patterns of the past, paternalism and coercion on the one hand and manipulation and dependence on the other, will require subtlety and straight talking.

A few days before I'm due to leave I fall into conversation with Anna, Bessie, May and Fatima, and ask a question to which I've long wanted to know the answer.

‘Do you mob ever wonder about us kartiya, what makes us tick?'

‘Not really,' May answers. ‘We don't understand kartiya, how they think. But we respect how you want to live, let you get on with your own business as long as you respect us and let us get on with ours. But we know who we trust. We can feel it, here.' She puts her hand on her heart. ‘We know which people really want good things for us. People who don't take anything away from us.'

In the hope it might provide a resolution to the factional undercurrents about traditional ownership, I unearth a roll of official geneaologies made some years earlier for the successful land claim. It takes me a day to find my way through the intricacies of interlocking bloodlines, but finally I'm satisfied that both sides have irreproachable claims to the lake. I show the appropriate charts, which are several metres long, to Bessie and May, explaining how to read the various symbols. May picks it up in minutes, much faster than me, and explains it to Bessie with growing satisfaction.

‘I feel really good now, really happy,' she says.

THE MAPS ARE laid out on the floor of the basketball court, the only venue large enough to arrange them in sequence, to show some visiting anthropologists. Fatima is justifiably proud of the stock route map, which will set the benchmark. The kids cluster and demand to know where's their community, ‘Where's Halls Creek?', ‘Where's Kiji, Kirlwa, Yunpu?', ‘What about cut line, where Kiki been go into the lake?'

Bessie tells me, ‘Gettem those other maps,' meaning the genealogies. I bring the two that relate to the local family lines and unroll them across the canvas maps. Everyone gathers while May points out the bloodlines, the names that appear on both documents, the evidence that goes back four or five generations of their joint legitimacy as traditional owners. This excites and engages people. Family and country. They pore over the circles and triangles, chuckling as they discover somebody who had five wives, four husbands, too many kids.

‘Those old people, must be they was really busy.'

There's a general air of relief and good will.

‘We all one family, all lake people.'

I leave them picking over the details, which will keep them occupied for hours, and go back to my annexe to finish packing. As each section of the country is mapped it has become the practice to exhibit it, along with paintings, photographs and the recorded stories, allowing the various custodians of country to point out their places, retell the stories, and show their children where they come from. We have devised a format that suits the circumstances of a place where the traditional knowledge is still rich, the bloodlines still known several generations back and the dreaming stories intact.

But it occurs to me that it's a model that could be adapted and applied all over the country. I imagine a series of maps shimmering across the roads and suburbs, the parks and farmlands and urban sprawl, recording the traces of Indigenous knowledge, inscribed with fragments of all those lost languages surviving in the names of places, whispering to the country in the language it can understand. I see it as something in which all Australians would participate, a shared enterprise in which each contributes what they do best. Discovering things together makes concrete what otherwise remains uneasy and unresolved.

It's acknowledgement that does the real work of reconciliation.

There are precedents for this. Australian writer and academic Margaret Somerville, in consultation with the local Indigenous people, devised a series of projects in the Armidale region based on local road maps. All over the country there are people working together on projects that involve the incremental development of genuine communication, a communication that recognises there are some things we will never understand about each other, but that commitment, resilience, humour, honesty, mutual liking and respect are the foundations on which a long-term future can be forged. This is my vision, modest, unsentimental, in which we acknowledge the need for each other. It is only together that we can negotiate the byzantine corridors of bureaucracy, only through working together that the richness and contradictions of the Indigenous legacy can be recorded for future generations, the unique heart of our culture held in shared trust.

On the morning of my departure I do the rounds to say my goodbyes, dropping off my leftover food supplies to Bessie and Evelyn. Bessie cries and so do I. Evelyn is still subdued by the death of her new grandson a week earlier. I leave Fatima till last.

‘We did a good work together this time, Napuru. When you coming back?'

‘Same time next year Fatima. And thank you for everything. I couldn't have done the job without you.'

She folds me in an embrace that resembles being engulfed in blancmange. ‘I'll miss you. We working together really good, even we growl each other sometimes.'

‘Yuwayi, I'll miss you too, big mob. I'll be back.'

‘Yuwayi, you'll be back.'

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