Why was Raimond Gaita’s Seymour Biography Lecture booked out, but not Kim Scott’s Ray Mathew Lecture*. Both lectures, held at the National Library of Australia, are endowed by generous benefactors and are free. Don’t get me wrong. I love that Gaita was booked out, but so should double Miles-Franklin-winner Noongar-author Kim Scott have been. His novel, That deadman dance (my review), is a pivotal book in terms of our understanding of first contact and therefore important to reconciliation. I had to see him in person.
Scott’s lecture, titled “A paradox of empowerment”, was described on the National Library page as being about “how reclaiming Aboriginal language and story may offer a narrative of shared history and contribute to social transformation.” And this is exactly what he spoke about, based on his Noongar project.
The evening started with a Welcome to Country by local Ngunnawal elder Tyrone Bell, who explained the tradition behind this practice. It led beautifully into Kim Scott’s talk, which he said was fundamentally about reclaiming Aboriginal language and story.
Scott started by explaining the picture on the screen beside him. It’s from a story about a Noongar man entering a whale. He chose it because it represents the idea of seeing things differently. (You could tell he’s a novelist by the way he framed his lecture around imagery to convey his ideas!) For example, is this a porthole? Or are we looking through an eye, or even with the eye, this latter suggesting that the Noongar man has become the whale, has been transformed. This possibility of transformation was the underlying theme of his lecture.
Before he continued though, Scott offered some provisos. He likes, he said, to be particular, to start with the local (which approach also appeals to me). However, he is often criticised, he confided, for being somewhat diffident, hesitant, by which I understood him to mean for not being out there on the political hustings. He’s hesitant, he said for a few reasons:
- the project – a small community-based language revitalisation project – is insecure. Funding and resources are uncertain, people with the needed knowledge are passing away, and the project is not connected to any institutional infrastructure.
- it is a regional, provincial activity that may not be relevant elsewhere, although he suspects it is, because the reality is that some of most substantial renaissance work has originated in regional projects.
- the project produces books – which give status, provide focus, can be used by schools – but books can be accessed widely, which could result in non-Aboriginal people learning the language before its owners do. This would continue the disempowerment the project aims to overturn.
Outside the circle
And here, Scott the novelist turned to again to metaphor. He quoted Governor Phillip who, having been welcomed into Port Jackson by the local people, found their curiosity problematic. He wrote:
‘As their curiosity made them very troublesome when we were preparing our Dinner, I made a circle round us; there was little difficulty in making them understand that they were not to come within it, and they then sat down very quiet.’
Scott used this circle motif as a metaphor for the ongoing exclusion of indigenous people by the settlers. The circle marked a power relationship, an exclusion, that became a defining feature of Aboriginal people’s identity. And yet, he said, researchers like Bill Gammage (The biggest estate on earth) and Tony Swain (A place for strangers) are starting to identify what lay outside this circle – knowledge and skills, an active not passive relationship with the land – that the settlers could have learnt from. This knowledge is still outside the circle, he said.
He provided specific examples – many of which he used, in fact, in That deadman dance – of the Noongar’s documented sophisticated, positive response to the first settlers in Western Australia. But still, they were kept outside the circle. He shared, as an example of the Noongar’s open-minded, lively response, a Noongar story recorded by Daisy Bates, which incorporated the name of the new colony’s town, King George Town, into their language.
Changing this circle is, he said, vital to healing. He believes that through projects like his, together with the research of people like Gammage and Swain, things are beginning to change, that Aboriginal culture is starting to be recognised, appreciated, rather than denigrated.
Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories Project
And so he got to the Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories Project, a local language revitalisation project that is occurring outside the circle. His argument is that over time, since first contact, Governor Phillip’s original circle expanded, and the world outside it became increasingly impoverished. The Wirlomin language project believes that by recovering language, and the stories that go with it, the circle can be changed.
Proven benefits to social and personal wellbeing emanating from strong attachment to Indigenous cultural traditions. (Kral and Falk 2004, Anderson and Kowal 2012, and others).
He described the project – what it uses, what it produces, and how the knowledge is shared. I won’t detail that here, as you can learn much of it at the website. But I will share his teasing out decisions made, and their political implications. For example, when Kayang (Hazel) Brown took people to a special place in country, told its stories, and then re-covered the marks, her aim was not to practise the same attitude of exclusion, but to establish a protocol of respectful, negotiated relationships for sharing knowledge.
Another example concerned an event the group was organising to present books in language that they’d produced. He said that his view, “as the sophisticated man in the group” was to only invite Noongar, but Aunty Hazel (Kayang Brown) said they should invite some of the local non-Aboriginal people. Scott questioned why, given these people had controlled and spoiled their land, but Kayang responded, regarding one particular person, that “we grew up with him”. So he was invited, was given a copy of the stories, and responded positively, and emotionally. Scott learnt, through this experience, the paradox of empowerment through giving, and what can be achieved by moving into the circle.
All these, he concluded, open up possibilities of healing and transformation, with giving and sharing being the major denominations in the currency of identity and belonging.
This was a wonderful lecture, given by a man who emanated dignity, humility and grace. It was deceptively simple, but the thinking behind it was generous and sophisticated. You had to be there!
Ray Mathew Lecture
National Library of Australia
21 September 2017
* The Ray Mathew Lecture was established in 2009, through The Ray Mathew and Eva Kollsman Trust, created by Eva Kollsman to support and promote Australian writing. The lecture is named for the Australian poet and playwright, Ray Mathew (1929–2002), who left Australia in the late 1960s, and never returned. He spent most of the remainder of his life living in the New York apartment of his patrons, Eva and Paul Kollsman.