Learning to speak Desert

This is a small extract of a larger piece I'm working as I start to explore my new home in the Pilbara.

Starting again. Now its dry desert winds, collecting mouthfuls of wind and beating your skin raw. A strong Martu culture, who even until the 1960s, lived a traditional life. There are people here who until forty years ago had no interaction with the colonising force that had populated the rest of this ancient continent. Here in the desert, there were no cattle stations, conveniently relocating the people who had lived on the same land for centuries. These people did not become drovers and cattle managers, collecting rations in lieu of wages. They wandered the desert along ancient song lines tracing the water holes of their ancestors. But even later, when enough people had been drawn to the Jigalong ration station to collect flour, even when the mission came, and children slept in dormitories and learnt to wash clothes on Mondays, even then, over the river, Law was strong. Ceremony happened. Stories were told. Even now, even now, when the children speak, its of places that can’t be visited for the ancestor spirits say no and to break the Jukurrpa would be lethal.

The women here greet me with a strong gaze. It is not unwelcoming, only proud. A gaze that demands respect. I start slowly, sitting down in the dirt, asking gentle questions. Its easier now, after my apprenticeship in the laughing hands of Kimberley women. Now I know how to sit, to be still, to be silent. It helps, that the women who grew to trust me in the Kimberley, have leant me their names. I speak of them, and recognition lights in eyes, family relations are drawn in the sand, and somehow, by some miracle, I have a small place in that sprawling net. Not even a toe hole, just a breath, but there I am, a barely-there print in the sand. There so much I would ask, so much I want to know. Community life is complex, odd historical government polices, laying over cultural concepts still foreign to me, fused and twisted with personalities, agendas, and the ‘occasional’ massive cock-up. I’ve no idea of the forces that trace their way through these desert communities, no idea where the land mines lie. Best to limit my steps until I can be given an education. Which I hope is what these women will give me. And when one extends me an invitation to come around to her home whilst she weaves baskets, I trust a little to hope that a new apprenticeship might begin.


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