Aboriginal History, Volume 38, 2014
Dwoort Baal Kaat an old story retold by Kim Scott, Russell Nelly and the Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories Project, with artwork by Helen (Ing) Hall. Inspired by the story Bob Roberts told Gerhardt Laves in 1931 at Albany in Western Australia, 36 pp, UWA Publishing, Crawley, 2013, ISBN 9781742585116 (pbk), $24.99.
Yira Boornak Nyininy an old story retold by Kim Scott, Hazel Brown, Roma Winmar and the Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories Project, with artwork by Anthony (Troy) Roberts. Inspired by the story Bob Roberts told Gerhardt Laves in 1931 at Albany in Western Australia, 36 pp, UWA Publishing, Crawley, 2013, ISBN 9781742585123 (pbk), $24.99.
The two illustrated bilingual booklets, Dwoort Baal Kaat and Yira Boornak Nyininy, are narrated through the Noongar and English languages. They are part of an ongoing series inspired by stories told by Aboriginal men in Albany, south-western Western Australia, to a visiting American linguist, Gerhardt Laves, in the early 1930s. This series is being generated by the Wirlomin Noongar Stories and Language Project, an initiative which grew out of consultations about returning Laves’ 1931 Noongar field notes to the descendents of the original Noongar storytellers (Scott et al 2006). Through the project, Noongar community members, including Kim Scott, the award-winning author and Professor of Writing at Curtin University, contribute to retelling these stories.
The booklets are beautifully produced with striking and stylish white-on-black covers. The artwork accompanying the stories not only looks great but it also illustrates the details of the storylines and enhances their readability for children. But although one readership is certain to be school-aged children, these booklets will be of note to many others, including those with an interest in histories, languages and cultures of and by Aboriginal peoples. Dwoort Baal Kaat and Yira Boornak Nyininy — along with the other booklets in the series — provide a particular example of community participation in reclaiming, reinvigorating and enriching returned historical materials. The story of the Wirlomin Noongar Stories and Language Project which is producing these bilingual booklets is fascinating in itself and deserves to be widely known for the processes and the choices behind the publication of each ‘old story retold’ by the project team.
Dwoort Baal Kaat (glossed as ‘Dog his head’) tells of a Noongar hunter who goes out hunting with a pack of dogs. However, these dogs keep eating all the prey, be it yongka ‘kangaroo’, kwoora ‘wallaby’, wetj ‘emu’ or kwoka ‘quokka’, leaving nothing for the hunter who becomes hungrier and hungrier. He eventually sets a circle of fire around these dogs, but they manage to break through the fire, and leap into the ocean to quench the flames. They swim east along the coast where the hunter’s brother sees that they have become seals, dogs of the ocean.
In Yira Boornak Nyininy (glossed as ‘High tree of sitting’), a woman tricks her husband into climbing up into a tall tree on a makeshift ladder to catch a possum for her. She then tells him she has fallen in love with a younger man and removes the ladder so he is trapped up there for days, until he is rescued by a farmer. Together with the farmer, he tracks the woman down. When they find her he can see that she is happy. He decides to leave her to her new life, while he and the farmer recognise their friendship and call each other brother.
The Noongar narratives are glossed word by word in plain English. The English glosses are accessible to non-specialist readers because unfamiliar grammatical terminology is eschewed, plus there is a useful glossary at the back, along with a brief explanation of the origin of the orthography employed. To assist with pronunciation, a reading of the Noongar narrative is available for download from the website of the Wirlomin Noongar Stories and Language Project. The English ‘through story’ which accompanies the Noongar tale renders the Noongar story with the sparkle of good story telling. An engagingly told tale in English — which follows the original Noongar narrative, but not so slavishly as to be stilted — is an excellent decision, in my opinion, as it showcases the story-telling gifts of present-day Wirlomin Noongar story tellers too.
Introductory notes to each of these texts acknowledge which Noongar narrators were originally involved in telling the story to Gerhardt Laves when he was in Albany: Yira Boornak Nyininy was told by Bob Roberts and Dwoort Baal Kaat by George Nelly and Bob Roberts. These notes also explain how some of the original narrators’ present-day descendants participated in the community workshops run by the Wirlomin Noongar Stories and Language Project that developed these booklets.
Laves, whose transcriptions, translations and notes provide the material for these texts, came to Australia on the recommendation of Edward Sapir, the renowned American linguist, to carry out fieldwork on Aboriginal languages from 1929–31. This fieldwork had been requested by A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, the then Professor of Anthropology at the University of Sydney. Laves who had trained at the University of Chicago under Sapir in modern linguistic analysis and fieldwork methods undertook intensive study of six languages around Australia, from the north coast of New South Wales, the Daly River in the Northern Territory, around Broome in northern Western Australia, as well as the southern coast of Western Australia. The rich documentation carried out by Laves — on which Dwoort Baal Kaat and Yira Boornak Nyininy are based — was returned to Australia when Marc Francillon, an anthropology student from the University of Chicago learnt of Laves’ time in Australia and made contact with him in the early 1980s and arranged to have material copied and deposited at the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) (Nash 1993: 101–102).
At the back of Dwoort Baal Kaat and Yira Boornak Nyininy, there is an essay giving voice to the participants in the Wirlomin Noongar Stories and Language Project who explain how they aim ‘not only to return archival material to its home community but also how, begining with a relatively small group, we progressively share our work by means of ever-widening, concentric circles’ (Yira Boornak Nyininy, p. 33). This essay explains how a group of project participants conducted school visits in a number of south-western towns, discussing the Noongar language, performing songs and stories, and explaining how the project aimed to share stories to their home communities first. A number of the performers are quoted about their on-tour experiences, and their pride and exhilaration is manifest. Sharing the project further afield has had similar effects: ‘It’s quite rare for a group of Noongar people to have that feeling in Noongar country, to feel that pride and power’ (Yira Boornak Nyininy, p. 34). Readers who are interested in in-depth information about the content and processes of project workshops could consult the essays at the back of the texts from earlier in the series, Mamang (Scott, Woods et al 2011: 31–35) and Noongar Mambara Bakitj (Scott, Roberts et al 2011: 35–41).
It is refreshing that these texts do not avoid all mention of the tensions that inevitably and necessarily exist in complex undertakings, such as here: revitalising stories and languages from historical records through processes that develop confidence and expertise amongst modern-day Wirloman Noongar people. There are the relationships between traditional owners, the legal copyright holders of the Laves family, AIATSIS and holders of specialist skills such as linguists. There are the inevitable differences between modern lived culture and reintroduced elements of the past. Most obvious, in terms of the production of these bilingual texts, is the present-day knowledge of Noongar language versus the past uses of this language and its associated varieties. Throughout, the track trodden by the Wirlomin Noongar Stories and Language Project has been one of passionate community ownership and development:
We'd argue that context of our unjust shared history, and a relatively rapid movement from denigration to something more like interest, surely demands that such a heritage is firstly consolidated in, and shared from, a home community descended from its original speakers (Yira Boornak Nyininy, p. 34).
There are multiple purposes for which these bilingual booklets could be useful for Aboriginal language programs in schools. Not only would they be a boon for Noongar language programs, they provide an example for consideration by other groups who are interested in how they might best represent their own stories. The development of the texts through intensive language workshopping is a model for rendering a traditional language story accessible to community members and school students alike. For Aboriginal language programs in revival contexts, there would also be interest in the ways in which (partial) speakers have increased their confidence with their language heritage.
The new national curriculum has included ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures’ as one of its three cross-curriculum priorities, with the stated intention of encouraging a deep understanding of the histories and cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Compared to the silence in Australian schools of last century this has to be seen as a step in the right direction. However, the current Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content of the national curriculum has been critiqued because it is not seen to be cognitively demanding for students, nor does it involve working with complex and contentious social and political issues (Lowe and Yunkaporta 2013: 7–10). In this milieu, these booklets also have a contribution to make. Their value lies in their authenticity. They transparently acknowledge the source of each story’s content — traditional and modern, their production processes and choices, their political aims of community ownership and development. As such they represent rich and multi-layered resources, which offer readers material worthy of consideration on many levels.
Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) [nd], ‘Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures’, http://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/CrossCurriculumPriorities/Aboriginal-and-Torres-Strait-Islander-histories-and-cultures.
Grunseit, P 2011, ‘Stories from the elders’, Inside History, Nov-Dec 2011: 64–66.
Lowe, K and T Yunkaporta 2013, ‘The inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content in the Australian National Curriculum: A cultural, cognitive and socio-political evaluation’, Curriculum Perspectives 33(1): 1–14.
Nash, D 1993, Gerhardt Laves 15/7/1906–14/3/1993 [Obituary]. Australian Aboriginal Studies 1/1993: 101–102.
Scott, K, L Roberts and the Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories Project 2011, Nongar Mambara Bakitj, UWA Publishing, Perth.
Scott, K, D Smith-Ali, H McGlade and J Henderson 2006, ‘A protocol for Laves’ 1931 Noongar Field Notes’, http://www.wirlomin.com.au/pdf/Protocol_for_Laves_1931_Noongar_Field_Notes.pdf.
Scott, K, I Woods and the Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories Project 2011, Mamang, UWA Publishing, Perth.
The Australian National University