Aboriginal History, Volume 38, 2014
Our Stories Are Our Survival by Lawrence Bamblett, 206 pp, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 2013, ISBN 9781922059222 (pbk), $34.95.
Lawrence Bamblett was one of ‘the kids’ when I started my fieldwork on Erambie Mission in Cowra. I barely knew him but I knew the people who constituted his world and many of their personal as well as their collective histories. It was a world of stories, and in taking this as his theme, Bamblett has captured what relatedness has meant for the people of Erambie. This is an important book. It should be read by anyone seeking insight into what it has meant to be a Wiradjuri person through the twentieth century and to today.
Bamblett has captured the warmth, laughter and intimacy of his Wiradjuri world. It transports me back into ‘the mission’ and the world that opened up for me but which few non-Wiradjuri residents of Cowra — past or present — could possibly imagine. It is a world informed by a different way of being in relationship, a different way of learning.
Bamblett presents us with a history of Erambie people’s engagement in sport but this book is much more than that. As he crafts a history drawn from Erambie stories as well as local newspapers and other written accounts, he also opens up the dynamics of a racialised world, showing how Aboriginal prowess was explained away, demeaned even as it was recognised. His insights into the workings of racism are well-informed by an equal immersion into the world of which he writes, as well as the critical social science scholarship within which he positions himself. In doing so, he takes his account out of the personal and biographical and jolts his reader into thinking hard about the significance of what he is recounting.
It is also a world that is taking a huge battering, as are Aboriginal communities throughout Australia. But the people of Erambie have a long history of battering: as Bamblett says, ‘our stories are our survival’. These are not fluffy words — this book is able to convey what stories are all about and what survival is about. He is referring to the experience of cultural distinctiveness, the value of one’s own ways of understanding the world, of wanting to compete alongside whitefellas but not become whitefellas: the people Bamblett writes about like being who they were and are. Their experiences of themselves are framed by an oppositional, racialised environment but Bamblett makes very clear that they cannot be reduced to this.
In the 1960s Roland Robinson, in his collections of Aboriginal sacred stories, contrasted clever-fellers (bugeen, doowan, wee-un, etc) with characters he noticed in New South Wales stories, referred to as Buloogan (birrogan, bulagaam; fem. gaungan). These were the old men and women, wise and strong, recognised for their depth of knowledge, people upon whom a whole community could depend. Such Buloogan emerge in Bamblett’s stories: the man he calls The Storyteller, who inspired Bamblett himself and from whom he learnt about the power of stories, and men of earlier generations such as Harry Murray. A generation older than Bamblett, I heard many stories about the men and women one might call the Buloogan and Gaungan of earlier days on Erambie: the people who held the stories, and who lived and taught the values. They were the personification of the cultural strength of the community. They were simply called ‘the old people’. The meaning conveyed was not like the way ‘elder’ is used today for people of senior years. It meant those with wisdom, those who should be listened to, learnt from. A person’s ‘old people’ were almost always kin, so each person’s memories of influential people in the community and in their personal lives differed. In time, I gained my own Gaungan, who shared their stories with me, some of whom are mentioned by Bamblett. The demeaning of the authority of these Buloogan and Gaungan over recent decades, to be replaced by external forms of governance and supposed expertise, is compounding the difficulties of identity and meaning which confront many young people in communities such as Erambie.
Stories are ways of transmitting experience and knowledge that are not always taken seriously enough in a world that values knowledge packaged in different, formal, objectified ways. Yet stories are the lifeblood of personal, social and cultural identities and could — perhaps should — be the lifeblood of historians and anthropologists. In a world in which reported events are focused on trauma or corruption, contrasted with flippancies of social media, stories still retain their power to transcend the present moment, to take our imaginations into worlds of experience we could not otherwise be a part of. Bamblett’s accessible but provocative style means this is a book to be read by academics as well as a general readership. It should be mandatory reading in high school. However you come to it, do not think that Bamblett’s book will let you off lightly.
University of Sydney