In 2000, an opportunity of cultural rejuvenation was presented to me: to step out of a fast-paced city life and to return to country. Just on 40 years had lapsed since I’d last walked as a child in country, in the footprints of my grandfather, Lennard George Keen, so I was really looking forward to it. When you live in your own country, there is a quiet serenity and connectedness, a feeling that is sometimes hard to express because it’s so deep. I was eager to experience that again, because, through circumstances beyond my control, I’d been robbed of it.
I am a survivor of the Stolen Generations. When I was younger, I was incarcerated in Sister Kate’s Children’s Home in Perth, along with my six brothers and sisters. After that, I wondered if I would ever go back to my people’s land again. Being put in the Home was very traumatizing, and it left me feeling displaced in the scheme of things, torn away from the spiritual and cultural connections I had known when I had walked in country with my grandfather as a child. But now I was going back once again, and I felt really excited about it.
In my early years I had lived a rich life. We camped out in the bush and listened to stories told by our old people—about the animals, trees, birds, the waterways, the stars, the moon, and the sun and how we are all connected to them. We had journeys out bush to be shown the different types of foods we could eat, like cumuuck, a bush berry, as well as the wild bush potato and carrot. We were shown how to track yonga (kangaroo) in the saltpans, where the gnamma (fresh water) holes were and how they played a major role in connecting the different groups for community law business. Life in my younger years was culturally and spiritually grounded. I remember the sense of freedom and connectedness to the natural world, the different sounds, smells and the landscape. There is nothing better than smelling the earth after a rain, or listening to the wind in the trees, and seeing the first lot of wildflowers bloom. I longed to return to the days of my early childhood and experience all that again. That is what I had lost when I was institutionalized in a place determined to break my cultural bonds, connections, and understanding. And I needed to reclaim it, because it is a part of who I am.
My people are the Minang and Goreng, whose bloodline links to country encompass a large area in the lower part of the Great Southern region of Western Australia. My father was a white man, so my Aboriginality comes from my mother: both her parents were Nyungar, which makes me a Nyungar person. My great-great-grandmother was a traditional Nyungar woman, her name was Tuglaranu. From her, my links to country take in the area where now there are the towns of Katanning, Tambellup, Gnowangerup, Borden, and Albany, as well as the Stirling Ranges. My mother’s father’s mother’s mother—my great-great-grandmother—was also a traditional woman. My links to country through them is land that also borders the same areas of my mother’s people, but extends from Broomehill down through the Stirling Ranges, out to Esperance and Ravensthorpe and over to Thomas River near Eucla.
Nyungar peoples were the first people in Western Australia to be invaded, massacred, and oppressed when Captain James Stirling established the Swan River Colony in 1829. We were disenfranchised from our land and our hunting, and food-gathering rights were denied us. We were forbidden to use language or undertake men and women’s business, which included ways of looking after the environment, like seasonal burn-offs of particular tracts of land, maintaining gnamma holes, ochre deposits, and food resources, such as the fish traps along the Kalgan River near Albany. This dramatic change in our circumstances meant that our people, our country, and all the living things within our countries were decimated. Yet despite this trauma, we Nyungar peoples have survived. As a Nyungar woman, I can honestly say we continue to celebrate our identity as a distinctive people in Western Australia. Collectively, we stand strong in our Nyungar identity and heritage, our cultural and spiritual knowledge, and our connection to country, and all this reinforces our sense of place and self. Nyungar peoples and Nyungar country are one, because since time immemorial we have belonged together. This has been explained to me through my old people, who have told me about koondarm, or Nyungar Dreaming. There is no English word that truly captures this concept: koondarm reflects a Nyungar understanding of creation, time, land, and all human and animal existence. We see it as a continuum of Then, Now, and Tomorrow. Like all Aboriginal people in Australia, who have their own words for it, Nyungars understand that koondarm is never-ending; it is eternal.
In Aboriginal culture there are differences and sameness. Aboriginal people are the first people of country in the many lands that make up Australia, but we have distinct cultural and spiritual autonomy over particular areas of country. Regional diversity between Aboriginal groups is clear to us, though many of our groups share koondarm—Dreaming storylines. These places were and are still linked by the travels of some of the Ancestral beings, like the Waagul, who is the creator rainbow serpent, and the Seven Sisters, to mention a couple; so it was possible for groups along a track of an important Ancestor to share the same spirit story. Spirit journeys embraced large areas of country, and so brought people together in an enduring way. When Nyungar people made their journeys, they maintained their knowledge about water sources and bush foods while at the same time teaching the younger members of family groups about the geography of the land. This is what my grandfather did with me until I went to live in children’s homes in the 1960s. In doing this, he carried on a Nyungar tradition, and his teachings have held me in good stead because they had a deep impact on me, and that eventually played a role in bringing me back to country.
This brings me to a story that spans a decade and a half. It is about returning to a particular area of land in country in the South-West with some of my older family members, who are elders. To put this story in context, I need first to tell the story of an earlier trip I had made with a close Nyungar sister, Alta Winmar, in October of 1992. My aunty, Joan Winch, who founded the Marr Mooditj Aboriginal Health Foundation, sent the two of us on a trip down south to collect bush foods and medicines for the foundation’s display at the Kyana Festival, which was to be staged early the next year. My elders took us to Kepwaamwinberkup (Nightwell), which is a part of Beedalup Creek. These two sites are associated with a waterway that is part of a river system that runs between Borden, a small country town, and Bula Meela—Bluff Knoll, in the Stirling Ranges. Both are significant to Nyungar people in that region. Beedalup Creek is a freshwater source traditionally used as a camping ground; it was close to a waterway that supplied fresh drinking water for Nyungar people traveling around country. Kepwaamwinberkup derives its name from a particular part in the creek where the water runs over granite rock. There is a hole in that rock that was either dug out by the water that has flowed over it for eons, or it was chiseled out by Nyungar people long ago. At night, the water rises up in the hole, but it disappears during the day. There are various gnamma holes throughout Nyungar country, and knowledge of them was imperative to the survival of Nyungar people, so they were respected and maintained over millennia. Kepwaamwinberkup was no different.
When Alta and I were traveling with the elders, who were several aunties and uncles related to me through my mother and grandfather, there was one day when we visited quite a few sites, and the last one was Kepwaamwinberkup (Nightwell). By then it was mid-afternoon and the elders told us we had to get in and out quickly because it was a long drive back to Albany, and the light was fading fast. Also, there seemed to be some anxiety about going through Bula Meela. Bula Meela is a place of many faces and eyes: it sees everything and is important because it is where Nyungar people’s spirits from the Great Southern go after they depart their physical lives. Though it is significant, and held in great respect, it is not a place to be near come nightfall. We had about three hours of daylight left and the elders wanted to get us home without any mishaps, so we had to make our visit to Kepwaamwinberkup a quick one.
Piled in the four-wheel drive heading towards Beedalup Creek, the elders yarned about the traditional history of the land; the many waterways and the animals, birds, and plant life that Nyungar people used to hunt and gather in that area. As we drove along, I noticed the bush was getting thicker and it was an isolated place. Finally, we came upon a river, though the elders saw it as a creek. At its lowest point there was a small bridge so you could drive over to the left bank. We drove over and parked the cars, then walked back across the bridge into the bush, so we were then on the right side of the creek. We walked until we came to a rocky outcrop that the creek ran across, and that is where Kepwaamwinberkup is. It saddened me that though Beedalup Creek is traditionally seen as a fresh waterway, it was a bit murky from the fertilizers farmers use around that area, year in and year out. When it rains, the water drains off from the paddocks into the creek, polluting it. But Kepwaamwinberkup gnamma hole was remembered as fresh and clean.
In this part of Beedalup Creek, water flowed over the rocks and cascaded down into a deeper pool. Uncle turned to us all and said, “Right, we’ve got to wade across now. I know we’ve all got boots on, but they might’nt grip on the rocks and you’ll slip and fall into the creek, so shoes off; it’s bare feet for us all.” None of us younger ones wanted to test out the depth or discover what could be lurking in the creek, so off came our shoes. Everybody waded across in bare feet, all meandering one behind the other, making sure none of us slipped. The men walked in front and the women came up the back. One of my aunts and I took it a bit slower, but we finally reached the other side. By the time we did, no one was there; they’d already moved off into the dense bush, and we could not see them. Aunty went ahead to find the rest of our mob, but I was a bit slower in following.
I was slipping on my shoes and about to head off after her when I was suddenly stopped in my tracks. My senses became magnified to the point that I could hear every sound in the bush as well as the running water in the creek, loudly; then, strangely enough, there was nothing—complete silence. I just stood still, listening and looking around because I instinctively knew I wasn’t alone at that moment. I waited, not really knowing what was in store for me, but knowing well enough that if spirit was around, then anything could be in the cards. Then it unfolded—a little bird flew down to sit on a branch of a jam tree near where I was standing. It looked at me, stayed for a few moments, then flew off. I really didn’t know it then, but that was my sign. I mentally prepared myself for whatever was about to play out, because things didn’t seem right
Though I had my eyes open and saw only bush, in my mind I could see a faint image of a Nyungar man standing in front of me holding a big stick, which he suddenly swung—and I felt it hit my left arm between my shoulder and my elbow. I winced, as the pain was quite intense, but it only lasted for a few moments and then was gone. Then my aunty came back, looking for me. I didn’t tell her what had happened because I thought it might be better to keep it to myself for a while. Eventually, we emerged into a clearing where everyone was waiting for us. It felt strange, because while the rest of the bush was thick and dense, this area was flat and didn’t have much flora at all, apart from a couple of trees and some grass. As I was looking around, taking this in, someone mentioned that Uncle had had an experience with spirit and was still recovering from it. He had been hit in the stomach and it had doubled him up with pain. I decided then to tell everyone what had happened to me. All of the elders, including Uncle, said, “Don’t worry, everything is fine. This place is very significant. This is where Nyungar people used to camp, and the old ones are most probably making their presence felt.” Then the oldest uncle said, “It might seem like it’s a bad way to let us know they are here, but it’s not really, considering what happened to them. We will talk more about this tomorrow, but we have to go along now and make our way home. But before we go, I want to show you girls where Nyungars got their flint stone to make fire.”
This site was not far away, on the bank of the big pool near where we had parked the vehicles. As we were going to the site, we all stopped and stood still because something had caught our eye. None of us spoke; we just looked at each other and looked back at the water. What we saw was a big, single bubble that rose out of the water and into the air. It was beautiful, glistening with the colors of the rainbow. It hovered in front of us for a while, then floated off into the bush. There were no rocks or cascading water in the pool to make any bubbles, and this is why we all thought that what we were seeing was made from something else. Because of our experiences at the campsite, we felt this was special. On the surface of the water we saw ripples slowly dispersing out to the water’s edge, and though this was a strange occurrence, it had a calming effect on us and made us feel that everything was going to be OK.
We reached Albany mid-evening and felt quite relieved to be home as a lot had happened that day and we were tired and just wanted to jump into bed and go to sleep. We were staying with my aunty, the one who had been left behind with me when we crossed the creek. She is a revered elder and the sister of the uncle who had been hit by the Old People, like me. Her house was not a bad house, it was a good one; but still, it had a strange energy about it. It was said that woodachis or little fellas, congregated there, and though we were aware of this and were slightly apprehensive, that is where we were to spend the night. After a barbecue, Alta, her young daughter, Deda, and I settled down on a mattress on the floor. We noticed that a couple of the aunties were putting blankets up at the windows, and when we asked them why they said, “Never mind, it’s OK, we’ll talk in the morning. Now go to bed and have a good sleep, and if you hear any noises in the night, don’t worry, it’s nothing.”
We settled down on the mattress in an alcove in the middle of the house, with rooms running off it. One room belonged to my young cousin, who was known to be visited by little people, and being so close to it worried us a bit. As it turned out, we had a very restless night. We could hear funny noises in various parts of the house. We heard someone or something in the kitchen, and it sounded like they were pulling the knife-and-fork drawer out every so often, rattling the contents, then putting them back again and scampering off. As well, we heard them opening and closing the cupboard doors in the kitchenette, which made a real racket. But it was the scampering sound on the lino [linoleum] that really put the wind up us. Because whatever was running around in the kitchen frightened us, and we were glad they were on the other side of the closed door.
But then the door handle started rattling, and we knew our feeling of security wouldn’t last long. The energy suddenly changed in our room. The end of the mattress was in an open doorway, and in the darkness I could feel something touching my feet. Well! I pulled my legs up quick smart and then lit myself a smoke to calm my nerves. Then I heard Alta’s girl, Deda, whisper to her mother, “Mum, tell Aunty to stop pinching the skin on my back.” This is when Alta turned around and saw me sitting up with my back against the wall, away from them both. I said, “It’s bloody not me. Quick, get up and turn the light on.” But Alta was apprehensive, because Deda and I were the only ones being tormented, and whatever it was would be starting on her next. She said, “No, what if they grab my hand when I turn it on? I don’t want their little hairy hands on me.” This turned into a bit of a stalemate, but Alta did eventually get up and turn the light on because Deda became really scared. And that light ended up staying on all night.
Everyone else must have been so used to the little people being mischievous that they were snoring their heads off. It seemed that whatever was in the house wanted to let us know they were there. Either that or they just wanted to have some fun. Nyungars often say that the little fellas can be real cheeky when they put their mind to it, especially if you are new on the scene. Sometimes they just want to warn you, or tell you something. They are a part of Nyungar culture and live in the bush around the hills and caves.
When I finally dropped off, I fell into a very deep sleep and just before I awoke, I had a vivid dream—so vivid that I can recall the smells, colors, sounds, and emotions even now. I dreamt I was back at that camping ground, not far from Kepwaamwinberkup (Nightwell). I was standing in the bush camp area, it was light and I was alone. I was looking towards the creek when I felt a strong sadness. Then I heard rustling in the thick bush to the left of me and I don’t know why, but I closed my eyes. I heard more movement, louder, with a heavier sound to it. When I opened my eyes and looked down towards the creek, I saw this huge Waagul slipping into it, and it was the most vivid emerald green I had ever seen. The color was brilliant, wet, shiny, and mesmerizing. I felt both shock and excitement because I could not believe what I was seeing. I did not know much about the Waagul then, only that there were males and females, and they lived in and looked after the waterways.
I instinctively felt that this Waagul was female, and knew this waterway very well. As it was sliding down into Beedalup Creek, it turned its head and looked directly into my eyes. I don’t know whether Waaguls can smile, but it had a friendly face, and it gave off a feeling that it cared. It also radiated an energy of security: that I would be all right and everything else would be, too. It was like receiving a message saying something like, “We are still here. Everything will be better soon, don’t worry; just remember, we are still here.” The tone of those few words was assertive, caring, and knowing, with an emphasis on “we are still here.” Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, it was gone. It just slipped into the dark pool, leaving virtually no trace of having ever been there. The ripples it made were few and vanished quite quickly, and the deep pool was restored again to a deathly stillness. Then I woke up.
When I opened my eyes I felt at peace, but within a short time I felt depressed, like I wanted to cry out in pain. It was as though I was experiencing pain that did not belong to me, but to someone else. It consumed me for only a short time then faded, but I still felt very sad. I mentioned this to Alta and she said, “Though it was a wonderful dream, there is something that is not quite right. Why would you want to see this beautiful female Waagul and yet feel pain and want to cry?” It baffled us both. The next day, one of our group’s senior elders was told about the dream and how I was feeling. He put his hands on me in a healing way and said, “You’ll be fine. The Old People came to you in your dream to let you know what had happened to them out there. We’ll talk about it when we get out to Redmond. Things will make sense soon. Don’t worry.”
At Redmond, we made a fire and cooked some mallee hen eggs with some other bush tucker that we had gathered the day before from one of the sites. We were all sitting around the fire and were about to have a bit of a yarn, but more excitement was in store for us: a couple of tiger snakes slithered out from where we were sitting. Out came the .22 rifle and they were shot, because there were kids running around and we were a long way from medical aid if someone had been bitten. Once this was sorted out, the elders went back to their yarning and that’s when we were told the story of Kepwaamwinberkup and what had happened out there. They said I had had the dream, and felt pain, hurt, and sadness because that was exactly how the Old People were still feeling, and the Waagul wanted it to be known that she was there to help heal them and country.
The story went like this. Nyungar people from that part of country had been pushed off their land and incarcerated in the camp area where we visited, because that is where the fresh water was. At that time, as with now, wadjela (white man) had taken ownership of the land, so those Nyungars used that site as their main base because they were not allowed to move around country anymore. But because of spasmodic resistance by those Nyungars, either those wadjela farmers, or people associated with them, took things into their own hands and poisoned the gnamma hole. When the Nyungars went down at night to drink and collect water to take back up to the camp, they started dropping like flies. There were elders, men, and women, young people, youth, and babies. It might not have been a massacre with guns and bullets, like that at Pinjarra, in the south, or at Forrest River in the Kimberleys, but it was a massacre nonetheless. A lot of Nyungars from that region were killed—but a lot more could have also lost their lives if they hadn’t been warned by other Nyungars, who knew about this event and passed the word on. This is why it is now such a sad place, though it is a place of healing, too, because the Waugul showed itself in spirit there, through my dream.
After I got home, these feelings of sadness over what had happened lingered for a while, and I also felt something with me: spiritual presences—three men and one woman, it felt like, who were not at peace. I couldn’t see them, but I felt they were a little hostile and sad. They started causing me problems because I’d wake up at least three or four times a night, restless and agitated. In the end, I had to smoke myself, my house, and also my car, the places where I felt them the strongest. Elders in my family, who live in Perth now but are versed in the old ways, told me what was needed and how I had to do the smoking ceremony. I followed their instructions to the letter. As I was doing the smoking, I spoke to these spirits in a manner that was quite assertive, explaining to them that I did feel their pain, I did acknowledge that they had been wrongly treated and that I appreciated them letting me know that they were there, but they couldn’t stay with me; they had to go back to country, to Bula Meela, where all Nyungar people from the Great Southern go after they depart this world. They needed to go back to the Stirling Ranges. A day or so after I’d done this, I felt free, clear-minded, and focused. I knew then they had gone.
This leads me to the next part of my story, and once again it is associated with this area of country. This time, I was traveling with a good friend and cultural brother Ronnie Gidgup, a Nyungar artist, who was working with me on a project called Ngaluk Ngarnk Nidja Boodja (Our mother: This land). We were working with the same elders and visiting Nyungar sites in the Great Southern for an oral history publication. Since we were going to Kepwaamwinberkup (Nightwell), I thought I should share with Ronnie what had happened to me the last time I was there, so he would be prepared if something unexpected happened again.
This time, we drove over the same little bridge and parked the car in exactly the same spot. It was later in the afternoon, and it was a bit darker, so again we worried about the light fading fast. Ronnie and I were following the elders into the bush. But there came a moment when I stopped, feeling I didn’t want to go back to that place because of what had happened before. The elders were forging ahead and Ronnie wasn’t far behind them, but when he looked back he realized I wasn’t close, and said “Hey, what’s going on, Sis? Come on, we’ve got to go along or we’re going to get left behind and lost.”
“Sorry Ron,” I replied, “I just can’t go in there.”
So we both headed back to the four-wheel drive to wait for the rest of the group. The elders must have realized something was up because they came back not long after. The senior elder, the uncle who had been hit in the guts by the waddie stick on that first trip, came towards us with a sparkle in his eyes. He understood I was feeling apprehensive. He stood with Ronnie and me for a moment, and it seemed time was suspended. It was getting dark by then, and you could hear noises coming from the bush animals starting their night hunting. The frogs were also serenading each other, and the water in the pool was turning a dark color. This is the same pool near which Alta, Uncle, and I had had our spiritual experience on the last trip. I looked towards the pool, recalling that moment from eight years ago, when suddenly I was jolted back to the present: something similar was happening.
“What the hell is that?” I quietly asked Ronnie, pointing to the water.
And he replied, “Buggered if I know, but it’s big, whatever it is.”
There were air bubbles and ripples in the water; it looked like something was swimming or gliding underwater. We watched this thing circle, then it would stop and be still for a moment before taking off again with the same thing happening. The water was dark and the light was fading, so there was no chance of seeing anything more clearly. By this time it was in the middle of the pool. It let out some more air bubbles then disappeared, leaving the pool as dark, still and picture-perfect as it had been earlier. Uncle just smiled at Ronnie and me in a very knowing way; no words needed to be spoken. I understood then that the emerald-green female Waagul I had seen eight years earlier in my dream, and who had given us that rainbow-colored bubble as a gift, was in the water now. She’d come to show us she was still there, and always would be.
In 2006, when I approached several elders to contribute to the book Heartsick for Country, I told one of them what I was planning to write about. He was quiet for a while and then said, “Tjalaminu, are you aware of what you have just shared with me?” I said yes, and then no, because I wasn’t really sure if I had spoken out of turn, or where he was going with his comment. I needn’t have worried, though, because what he then told me was that the experience and dream I had had were good things, not bad. They were to reinforce my connection to my country, my people, and my Nyungar culture.
Then he shared with me a story that had been passed down to him from his elders. I didn’t know it then, but it would bring me full circle and help me appreciate what I had experienced over the past 14 years. This is what he told me.
At the time of Creation—in the koondarm, the Nyungar Dreaming—many things happened, but one major story was about the female Waagul and her travels across all parts of country in Australia. Her journey started out from the waters of the Derbarl Yerrigan, or the Swan River as it is known today, which is sacred to Nyungar people. This took millennia, but nearing her end, she came up around the southern part of our land near Adelaide, went down again, and came up to scope the landscape at Beedalup Creek—Kepwaamwinberkup (Nightwell).
I was lost for words when he told me this. I hadn’t known the full story of the female Waagul, I’d just heard bits and pieces over the years. What this elder relayed to me did, however, affect me in a positive way, because it reinforced my understanding of what my elders had continually explained to me: that Nyungar culture is one of the oldest living cultures in the world. It is ancient, and we have to acknowledge every part of it and respect it.
I would like to end by saying that, on reflection, the years I spent in children’s homes didn’t break my spirit or my connections to country. They are still strong. These years may have numbed me for a while, but I think now nothing can rob me again of my cultural heritage. The spirit of my country and the strength of Nyungar people are in knowing who we are and where our place is in the world. And we are proud of that. Even though I see myself as a young student in the cultural and spiritual scheme of things, I appreciate the knowledge that is now being passed down to me from my Nyungar elders and others, and I embrace it. We all need to recognize the spiritual nature of country and care for it and the environment in an appropriate manner. This is respect that we all need to take on board in our lives, because if country dies, then all of us will meet the same fate. And I really do think that this is what the Waagul was telling to me when I went back to country on those two trips.
Tjalaminu Mia is a Nyungar woman with bloodline links to the Minang and Goreng peoples of the South-West. She works as a research fellow in oral history and the arts in the School of Indigenous Studies at the University of Western Australia. This article is taken from the book Heartsick for Country, published by Freemantle Press (www.fremantlepress.com.au) and available in North America through International Specialized Book Services in Oregon (www.isbs.com).