I’d never seen quite so many crows as I did last Saturday as I walked up past the rubbish tip to the Noongar Centre, more like a mass murder really. But it was a perfect Mondyeunung day, the start of early summer. The winds were deciding to change direction from the winter westerlies to the summer easterlies and they’ll debate this from now until Christmas on the south coast. Something new in the air – there certainly was up at the Noongar Centre. A buzz was in the air and it wasn’t just about the terribly important persons wandering in the door. They were here incognito (“I’m just a Lockyer boy”, said the Premier). It was what they were here for. It had taken 77 years for these stories to mature.
The day was a pre-publication launch of three stories, the first three to see the light of day from the Laves collection. Stories dictated by today’s elder’s parents and uncles back in 1930 at the White Star Hotel. A young linguist, Gerhard Laves
pursuing his Ph D., equipped with a knowledge of a modern phonetic alphabet, plenty of enthusiasm, and a supply of sixpences, good money in those days. Besides how else was the language and the stories going to be preserved when it was a crime to talk too loud, and could get you kicked out of school for sure. Mind you it was a close run thing, they sat in an attic, while our linguist became a school teacher in depression era America,until Michael Walsh an Australian linguist discovered traces
of his visit in the local literature and decided to track him down. That was in 1975 and as these things go it took another eight years before the material returned to Australia with the old man's blessing and another ten or so years before word of the material seeped through to Albany's Noongar community.So it goes.
It was almost ten years ago when people first started to work on setting up a reference group, getting funding for transcriptions and the long painful process of deciding who was spokesperson for what family and how it was going to function. Mind you, patience is a renowned virtue in Indigenous Australia.
Kim Scott won the Miles Franklin Award for his book Benang
. There’s a second Indigenous winner now from the other end of the country, Alexis Wright
. But these stories, saw him in the role of midwife rather than procreator. So much discussion -about placenames, should they be included; about which words to use, we don’t say it that way today; should we talk this over with the family first – one story was pulled for that reason, the family weren’t ready, the story wasn’t ready; about illustrations – although it’s clear that the artists provided morale boosting moments away from the words.
So today was about giving out 50 copies of the story to the wider family, to the relatives, and yes, one to that boy from Lockyer, that one makin’ all the big promises and one to that old white fella, Bill Hassell whose father’s father had recorded many words and whose grandmother had recorded uniquely women’s stories from Jerramungup – home country for some of today’s family. ‘An unexpected privilege’ he was touched in the heart.
Finally, Iris, Roma and Kim took turns reading one of the stories to us about a boy finding his uncle, fishing for groper and learning about his inheritance.
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