Just what I always wanted, what is it?


Illustration by Kate Gillett: https://www.etsy.com/shop/kategillett

We have a long history in Australia of trying to ignore the fact that people who are different from us exist. Over time, we’ve used various words—'Terra Nullius,' 'dying out,' 'breeding out,' 'assimilation.' Even in the past twelve months, I’ve sat in meetings where government advisors define their goals of 'acculturating Aboriginal children into Westernised education,' and 'up-skilling Aboriginal adults in preparation for their inevitable move into cities and towns.'

We still refuse to know or value the sovereign diversity of our First Nations.

One Christmas, a young cousin of mine was given a toy tempo— a miniature of the black motorised three-wheelers that drive around Kathmandu, Nepal. As he peeled back the wrapping-paper his mouth dropped open.
      ‘Just what I always wanted!’ he cried. ‘What is it?’

Imagine if more Australians approached the foreign and unknown with this same anticipation of delight and wonder.

Recently I jostled side-to-side in a Mitsubishi Pajero as some Martu women took me out on country. We stopped on a plain of yellow flowers, a red range rising on the horizon. The women told me it's where lungii live and jumped out to walk fearlessly amongst the spinifix. I didn’t even see them hesitate, while I hopped like an awkward mountain-goat, gingerly trying to pick my way through.

I found myself next to Dale.
      ‘Rock hole there.’ She said in a quiet voice, pointing to the range. ‘We’ll go there. We’ll take you. Snake lives there—we have to sing to him, let him know we’re countrymen. You’ll be right—he’s a blind one. Sometimes a wind will pick up.’ She lifted her hands and wriggled her fingers like the wind. ‘He’ll rise up and look down at us. We gotta watch out.’

In the smoother cadence of her own language she called to her sisters. I have no idea what she said, but her voice rang out confidently over the plain. One of her sisters replied with a nod, another with a curl of her fingers and a flick of her wrist. Later, by the spring, amongst the white trunks of the gum trees, the women’s voices flowed in the same patterns as the cockatoos, puffing through the green canopy, this way and that. 

How long has their language rung out over this country?

Because I don’t speak their language, the women do their best to translate for me into English, their third or sometimes fifth language. It comes out simplified, illogical, at times ridiculous. It’s easy to forget the fluency these women have in their own language. That just because we speak to one another in simple English does not mean that we are simple. Behind this simplified language stand intelligent adults with a full range of complex emotions.

Because of its simple expression, it would be easy for me to dismiss what Dale is saying as childish. There’s no end to the misunderstanding between us. Not only does our shared vocabulary limit us to a handful of words, but our understanding of the world is so utterly different. Even when we use the same word, we often mean different things. In truth, I have no clue what she’s told me and she probably has about the same level of understanding when I've explained to her what an occupational therapist can do for her and her grandchildren.

Unlike professionals going to work in say, Europe or Japan, teachers, health professionals and lawyers working in remote Aboriginal communities are not expected to learn the language of the people they work with. Rarely are they provided with interpreters.

This smacks of a complete lack of interest in what Aboriginal people are saying. We are not really interested in hearing their point of view.

I am no expert on Aboriginal cultures. I am uninitiated and not invited into the inner circle of knowledge. Yet I hold a curiosity. I’m aware that I’m living in a culture different to mine, and things are stirring around me that I don’t understand. It’s there in the way people seem to communicate a great deal with a flick of their fingers or pursing of lips. How people sit so silently together. It’s there in how people can make their way through the desert, through country they’ve never walked in, following the songlines taught to them. It’s there when Martu lose their way, go to sleep, and wake knowing the path because it has come to them in their dream.

These people know a great deal I do not. Knowledge our world could benefit from, if we could hit the pause button for a moment on our agenda of providing our service (our education, our training, our advice) and assume the role of apprentice. If we could assume for a moment that we are the ones who are ignorant and have much to learn.

Perhaps we could stop assuming Aboriginal people are inevitably going to become like us because after two hundred years of concerted effort, here they remain with all their cultural distinctiveness. Instead we could listen to what they share, even when they speak in another language, even when it’s perplexing in its foreignness. Perhaps we could receive this information with wonder and delight, believing in its inherent worth even as we wait for further information to help illuminate its meaning.

Perhaps we could try to believe it is just what we always wanted.

What is it?


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