Lost Traditions

Australia is gradually losing Aboriginal wisdom
After travelling in Far North Queensland, Rosamund Burton delves deeper into the area's Aboriginal wisdom that is falling silent year by year

It's the end of the day and we need to stop, so we drive off the dirt road and down a rough track. Less than a kilometre later we pull up and roll out our swag.

Paperbark trees and pandanus grow among the bloodwoods and termite mounds protrude out of the red soil.

It's eerily quiet. A black crow sits on a nearby branch and squawks. I cook some sausages, as the first star appears in the sky. Later, lying under the mosquito net, while Stephen sleeps beside me, I gaze at the stars and wonder what small animal is rustling in the dry grass nearby.

We are travelling along the Savannah Way in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Never before have I been in an area as remote as this. In the last 50km we've only passed two other cars.

We wake up the following morning enveloped in a grey mist. The ground is damp, and delicate cup shaped spiders' webs are held in the long grass. I boil the billy and make tea. Back on the Savannah Way, fresh tyre tracks indicate that a vehicle has already been along the road this morning.

The morning mist slowly lifts and when we cross the Wearyan River the sky is blue except for a few thin puffy clouds. As we approach the town of Borroloola, we pass old rusty derelict cars abandoned beside the road.

We pull up at a general store that sells fuel. Then I go in search of the library, which apparently has internet access, while Stephen heads to the hotel opposite to buy some beer. The library is in a council building surrounded by a high fence, but it isn't open. I walk across the road to the hotel, but can't find its entrance, or any sign of Stephen. Then I see him driving down the road. Apparently, the hotel has lost its license and the only place that sells alcohol in town is the general store between 2 and 5pm.

About 1600 people live in Borroloola and 95% of the population is Aboriginal, made up predominantly of the Yanyuwa, Mara and Garrwa tribes. I overhear two women talking about a new doctor at the medical centre and complaining about the turnover of doctors - most of whom don't stay in Borroloola for more than a few weeks or months at the most. But despite the hardships of this remote town the people I encounter here seem incredibly happy.

I'm directed to a place called Red Dirt at the other end of the town that has Internet access. As I sit in this lively place checking my emails, I long to find out more about this town and its people, but it isn't until nearly a year later that I do. It happens when I meet John and Ros Moriarty in Sydney at a fundraising event for The Indigenous Literacy Project.

Now in his early seventies, John was born in Borroloola. His mother belonged to the local Yanyuwa tribe, but because his father was Irish, he was taken away from her at the age of four, and brought up in a number of boys' homes in Sydney and Adelaide. This was under the then Government's policy to stamp out the Aboriginality of children who were not full blooded Aboriginals.

At the age of 15, when he was on a trip to Alice Springs, a slim, dignified woman crossed the street and asked him his name. He told her it was John Moriarty and she replied that she was his mother. This was the start of John's journey home to his family and the place where he belonged.

He embraced the traditions of his family's community life, becoming a full member of the Yanyuwa tribe and belonging ceremonially to the Rainbow Snake and Kangaroo Dreaming. But he also became an elite soccer player until his sporting career was cut short by injury. In 1970, he graduated with an Arts degree and became South Australia's first Aboriginal university graduate. He then worked for Aboriginal Affairs.

In 1983, John and Ros established the Balarinji Design Studio, which celebrates Aboriginal heritage through contemporary Australian design. It received a prestigious profile in the mid 1990s with the design of the Wunula and Nalanji Dreaming Qantas 747 aircraft. In 2000, John Moriarty was awarded the Order of Australia.

Ros and he met when she joined Aboriginal Affairs. They married in the early 1980s and had three children, each of whom they took back as babies to Borroloola for their naming ceremonies. Their eldest Tim was named Baniyan, meaning "cheeky brown snake", their second son Jawarrawarral, which means dugong, and their daughter Marrayalu, the mermaid.

In 1982, when Ros returned with John for Tim's naming ceremony she remembers sitting around a campfire under the dark star filled sky listening to John's uncle, Musso, the ceremonial leader of the Yanyuwa people, telling stories about people leaving their bodies and travelling long distances, and about how birds and animals bring messages to people if they are in danger. She realised then that she had been given access to an extraordinarily powerful culture.

She wrote her book, Listening to Country (published by Allen & Unwin 2010) because, she says:

"I felt there wasn't a window into the sheer beauty of Aboriginal culture in the sense of belonging and the concept of family that I'd been immersed in during those times we'd come back to Borroloola." She realised her experiences over a period of nearly 30 years were something most other Australians had no access to knowing, or even hearing about.

She also wanted to highlight that in poverty stricken Borroloola, with its alcohol and substance abuse and high level of illiteracy, running as a counterpoint is a wonderful culture and warm hearted people, who continue to have a deep happiness about life despite everything crumbling around them.

John Bradley, who is now deputy director of the Centre for Australian Indigenous Studies at Monash University, first came to Borroloola as a primary school teacher in 1980, and has spent 30 years living and working with the Yanyuwa families there. When the older people realised he was interested in saying more than just "hello" and "goodbye", they began to teach him the language. And from this understanding of the Yanyuwa language came the understanding of the Yanyuwa land.

"It's as if the language is just in the land, and somehow it comes up through you, and becomes of you and embodies you," he says.

The old people also taught him the kujika, the songlines which run through the country, the rivers, the sea and onto the islands. For the Yanyuwa people, these songs are the ultimate way to know the land and all that's in it, including their ancestral line. A kukija is "a huge ribbon of meaning that is travelling through country, and is saturated with all sorts of information,' John explains. The kukija gives the relationship of people to their non-human kin, and it's also an amazing source of what actually lives in country.

Singing Saltwater Country (Allen & Unwin 2010), the book John Bradley put together with a number of Yanyuwa families, is about the kukija. It includes the path of the Rainbow Serpent, the Brolga, the Dingo, the Tiger Shark and also the Sea Turtle. Traditionally, it's the men who sing kukija, a tradition seen as important not only for maintaining a connection with the ancestors but also with the land.

Today, there are only nine people alive who can speak fluent Yanyuwa, and even when John Bradley first arrived in Borroloola 30 years ago, the old men and women were worried about their kukija and who would be able to sing them in the future. It was because of this that the elders taught John the kukija, so he could record them in a form that would preserve them for future generations.

"You have this older generation of people who have this understanding of their land, which is phenomenal. They're like walking dictionaries and encyclopaedias. It's all learnt orally, and in incredible detail, and the issue is when these old people die it's like we're losing a whole library," John says.

When Ros asked the older women why the traditional ways had been lost, they said it just happened. When the pastoral industry started to grow in the area, the younger people worked on the stations and the older people could not fend for themselves alone out in the bush. Then rations, such as sugar, tea, flour and tobacco, were introduced as a way of enticing people into town. Slowly, people became reliant on welfare, established permanent homes in town, and were no longer travelling their land as they used to.

Today, the young are being put through a Western education system, and as well as often not being able to sit down with old people to learn, they don't always value their knowledge. There are parallels with indigenous groups the world over, and it's about the world losing indigenous knowledge. Yet the loss is particularly poignant in Australia, because the Aboriginal culture is the world's longest continuing human tradition. When the flag first went up in Sydney Cove, Australia was home to 250 nations, each speaking their own language.

Today, John Bradley is working with animation to convey this Yanyuwa heritage and the cross generational transfer of knowledge. He has also written Yanyuwa dictionaries and is currently rewriting a Yanyuwa encyclopaedic dictionary, which may also help the Yanyuwa people reconnect to their language in the future.

Ros Moriarty's mother-in-law, who died in 1995, was fluent in eight Aboriginal languages and was a senior Law woman. She took with her to the grave secrets that the Law forbade her to pass on to those who had not been ceremonially prepared to receive them. Now there are only a handful of Yanyuwa Law men and women left, and the situation is similar for tribes all across the country.

As Ros ponders, soon "our fragile and beautiful land, Australia, will no longer be sung by its first people, and will no longer remember their nurturing, resilient hands.'