Monday musings on Australian literature: Noongar/Nyungar, and the importance of place

Conceptions of home and understanding of place are the central issues in Noongar author Kim Scott‘s Miles Franklin award winning novel, That deadman dance, which I reviewed last year. From the opening pages of the novel Scott explores notions of home, as the white settlers confront the indigenous inhabitants of the land they are trying to colonise.

Here is the main indigenous character, Bobby:

And then Bobby found a sheet of granite, and a small rock hole covered with a thin stone slab and filled with water.  He crouched to it, touched the stone, and sensed home. Something in the wind, in plants and land he’d at least heard of, and increasing signs of home. There were paths, and he knew where there’d be food […] Bobby closed his eyes, felt the wind tugging at his hair and rushing in the whorls of his ears. Breathed this particular air. Ngayn Wabalanginy moort, nitjak ngan kaarlak … Home (pp. 235, 238)

And here is the main would-be pastoralist settler, Chaine:

With no boat Chaine felt his loneliness … It was land he’d hoped for – pastoral country, with good water and close to a sheltered anchorage. But he had tried and been disappointed. It deflated him. (p. 239)

These occur during a long trek which Chaine and Bobby make when Chaine’s boat hits a reef and founders. Chaine thinks Flinders’ journal will provide the guidance he needs while Bobby, in country unfamiliar to him, relies on his understanding of the land’s clues. “This way, we go this way, follow the creek away from this spring and this estuary”, says Bobby, while Chaine insists “they keep to the coast … so he could catch sight of the sea every now and then”.


Courtesy John D Croft, English Wikipedia, using CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

All this is to introduce a fascinating seminar I attended today, at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. It was given by Associate Professor Len Collard, a Nyungar* scholar researching Nyungar place names, using an ARC research grant. The English title of his talk was “I am creating the knowledge of Country place names: from the past to now and into the future”.  His aim is to document Nyungar place names in Western Australia’s southwest on the basis that naming place confirms or establishes “ownership”. The project aims at

  • supporting reconciliation,
  • encouraging environmental understanding,
  • helping tourism ventures, and
  • “closing the gap of Australianness” by creating a common understanding of local indigenous geography.

You’ve probably noticed the alternative spellings I’ve been using to name the people of this area. Alternative spellings are a significant challenge for both indigenous and non-indigenous people studying indigenous culture.  Collard made an interesting point regarding variant spellings. He says that a common reason given is that  the Nyungar (like many indigenous people) encompass several language groups and that the different spellings could therefore have come from different pronunciations, putting, in a sense, the onus of problematic spelling at the feet of the indigenous people. However, he suggests there is another possibility. His project is based on post-colonial historical records produced throughout the 19th and 20th centuries by settlers from a wider variety of countries – England, Ireland, Holland, France, and so on. The different spellings, he suggests, could be due to the way these recorders transcribed, using their own linguistic knowledge, the word/s they heard.

Early in his talk he talked of the “history of constructing the negative” in which indigenous people have been reduced to the role of sidekick in post-colonial Australia. The reason for variant spellings could be read as an example of this. Another is the attitude to indigenous trackers. Their knowledge, Collard said, was critical to the survival of the colony and yet, as Scott shows in his novel, this knowledge was either used ungraciously or, at worst, ignored.

I thoroughly enjoyed the talk, not only for its specific content but also for the way his scholarship intersects with contemporary indigenous literature. Home, land, place … they are important to all of us … recognising and respecting that is a good place to start. I’ll conclude with Bobby near the end of the novel:

On time we share kangaroo wallaby tammar quokka yongar wetj woylie boodi wetj koording kamak kaip … Too many. But now not like that, and sheep and bullock everywhere and too many strangers wanna take things for themselves and leave nothing […] And now we strangers in our special places.

14 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Noongar/Nyungar, and the importance of place

  1. Oh, so *that* was where you were when I called today! Thank you for sharing a little of the seminar. I’m particularly interested in the spelling issue, as it seems to go to both linguistics and the social construction of our world.

    P.S. Have taken note of so many poems of Porter’s so far!

    • Oh, do I? Thanks, Lisa … it must have made some sense then. Most of his talk was detail about places and his place database, but his intro was about why he is doing it and why it’s significant.

  2. What a very interesting sounding seminar. There are lots of variations in spellings for Native American groups too. In Minnesota there are still a good many place names that have remained the same or that have been Americanized from the Native American name. Still, there are many more place names that have been changed than have remained the same. It seems our two countries have many similar issues in this regard and I find that really fascinating.

    • Yes, thanks Stefanie, I was thinking about the Native Americans as I was at the lecture. And I’m currently rereading My Antonia which also reminds me of our similarities … pioneers in such remote, often harsh country.

  3. This sounds like essential reading. I have Carpentaria om my bedside table so I am at least getting closer. Oh the time and energy to read more!

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