Saturday, January 20, 2007

Gifts from the past

I spent this morning as a guest of a group of Noongar elders at a little ceremony to mark the return of some stories. The stories were returned to the descendants of the story tellers after an absence of 77 years. Its a long time for a story to go wandering.

It's not that these stories had ever been forgotten or not recorded elsewhere but it was how these stories were recorded that made all the difference.

In January 1931 Gerhard Laves, a graduate student from Chicago was half way through a 2 year study of Australian Aboriginal languages when he ended up at the White Star Hotel in Albany on the south cost of Western Australia.

Albany Advertiser 31 Dec 1930

A couple of weeks before Moses Waibong and Yorkshire Bob had organised a traditional corroboree.It was a gesture of solidarity with the town's working poor as the depression had started to bite. They probably had also heard on the Noongar telephone that Gerard was on his way.

In two weeks, Gerhard recorded, in phonetic shorthand, 100 stories from a dozen men and women in his room and in the back bar of the White Star Hotel. He did a similar thing at 5 other places around the Australian coast.

But it was the depression - and he had to give up thoughts of linguistics and his notebooks and cards and boxes of slips of paper, dictionary entries, went to the attic, to gather dust and to survive flooding and forgetfulness.

Until 1983, when another graduate student remembered or discovered these notes and after a slow and gentle journey copies then the originals were returned to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Studies (AIATSIS) in Canberra.

It wasn't until about 1998 that serious efforts began to be made to return the stories collected in Albany. The University of Western Australia became involved 4 years ago and a young post graduate student there completed the arduous task of transcribing and ordering all the material.

The University has worked alongside a committee of descendants of the story tellers who have provided them with a constant source of inspiration and urgency - as the value and importance of this gift from the past has gradually been realized. 2000 slips of papers, a dozen notebooks of heiroglyphic symbols have been ordered into bound volumes for each story teller.

There were tears shed today as something was returned without attachments.

Each family will decide for themselves what will become of the stories. Some will surely be published, others may never see the light of day.

A small but valuable word list has been compiled which will add to the general knowledge of the southern Noongar dialect.

There were no young people there. Our high schools still don't recognize Noongar culture, they seem to prefer gang violence and drugs.

Still, it was one small step today - in the right direction.
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Blogger Dominique said...

Just stepped into this from my google alert on corroboree. What a good blog. Thanks for writing.

7:41 pm  
Blogger butlimous said...

Thanks for the nice post!

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9:25 pm  

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