Black History, White Lies: The Day an Aboriginal Man Revealed My Ignorance

The three of us are lying in the back of our rented camper in a carpark by Margaret River in Western Australia. Our noses are buried in books and our legs are twisted around a naked doona we bought from K-mart earlier in the day. We’ve been on the road for about a week now, comfortable with the light layer of red sand sifted through the roots of our hair.

“Hey girls!” we hear, as a man approaches the van. He looks like he’s in his mid-30s and he’s of Aboriginal appearance. He continues talking like he knows us except we’re not listening. We have never seen this man before and the three of us instinctively rise to protect ourselves as women are prone to do when they are approached by a male stranger.

“Oh, sorry girls. I thought youse was German! No bullshit!” he says with a friendly smile. “They was drivin’ around in the same kind of van!”

We started making small talk with the man whose name was Malaak and soon we were bounding through the forest behind him searching for hairy marrons, a species of endangered crayfish (“I can’t believe youse ‘aven’t seen ‘em yet!”) and picking bush foods from the shrubs.

“You girls want a feed? We can catch one right now if you want!” he says enthusiastically, pointing down at the hairy marrons in the murky water below.

We could barely keep up in our bare feet and singlets and we didn’t know whether to be excited or wary. Is he drunk? Is that alcohol in the water bottle he is carrying? Are we safe? Should I put a jumper over my singlet? Do we really want to follow him into the bush? What are his ulterior motives?

The hesitations and questions that arose were directly correlated to the racist messaging that the government has funnelled through media channels since I was a small girl. Ugly stereotypes were swirling about in my subconscious, rising to the surface like a crocodile ready to defend its territory. My territory?

Reminder: his territory.

According to the Reconciliation Barometer’s Key Findings Fact Sheet of 2010, only 9% of Aboriginal Australians believe the media presents a balanced view of them. I will not hesitate when I say that I don’t think those numbers would be very different now, 8 years later.

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After running around the river for a while, we found ourselves squatting on a log jutting out across the river bank. The moon was plump and golden and seemed to cloak Margaret River in a kind of ethereal glow.

“Let me tell youse girls some yarns! Wanna hear some yarns?”

We nod eagerly. We had never heard a yarn from an Australian Aboriginal, not in a way that wasn’t staged or done for the sake of upholding some kind of image. This was a great honour and we were all keen to ask our questions.

As conversation started to breathe a rhythm, I realised how little I knew about the first peoples. Where were these stories in our classrooms? Where were the indigenous voices? Where was the emphasis on the true effects of colonisation?

Did you know, in a matter of 30 years in Tasmania, the indigenous population fell from 5,000-10,000 to 300?

Malaak started calling us sisters and soon, the local Noongar word for woman. By the end he referred to us as spirits because “we’re all one here”.

He told us that the reason women cannot play the didgeridoo is because the Noongar people believe the vibrations will damage a woman’s reproductive organs.

He told us that the white fellas, our ancestors, poisoned their rivers and their creeks, so they had to go to the rivers the white fellas claimed as theirs, where they were greeted with guns and death.

“The white people thought we were dumb because we didn’t know their way of life. But we didn’t need a pen and paper to tell us how to look after our land... we’d been looking after it for a long time without their help. The white fellas were our friends at the start, we taught them everything we knew. Then some of them saw the prosperity of the land and got greedy. If the land could speak, it would say it doesn’t care about your money.

Australia’s prosperity is on our broken backs.”

Their backs are still breaking. The war is not over.

“People look at me walking through the streets like I’m a foreigner, but this is my home… I still walk down the road and feel the compressed weight of the people saying I’m worthless. Even in forms we're a separate nation. "Are you Indigenous or Torres Strait Islander?"”

I’m sorry.

“I wanted to go to the Cronulla riots with my mob with our paint and our didgeridoos and yell “what the fuck are you fighting about? You haven’t made peace with us! The war is still happening here!” That would have really fucked them up, don’t you think? I would have liked to have seen that happen.”

Perspective. 

“Australia Day is like celebrating Hitler if he won the war. Australia Day feels like a celebration of war crimes. There has been no treaty, the war is still happening and the wound is still open.”

Change the date.

“You tell me I’m lazy because I don’t work, but you forget we never needed to work. For tens of thousands of years we survived working with nature, not against her. I would happily live out there with nothing. Sometimes I go out there for 2 weeks with nothing but the clothes on my back.”

How quickly he destroyed everything I thought I knew about the history of the place I call home. How dare I expect Indigenous Australians to work and to embed themselves in their invader’s culture? How had I not understood their resentment and frustration until now?

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The more Malaak shares, the more we want to know. He shifts on the log and let his legs dangle out to the water.

We ask him how he greets the land when he arrives at a new place. He tells us he picks up some earth and throws it towards the wind. Then he listens.

“One click, and you’re safe” he says, and clicks his fingers once.

“Two clicks, and you shouldn’t stay there for the night”.

He clicks his fingers twice and the sound echoes down the river. Beside the log we were perched on something rustles in the bushes, frightening us, and he smiles. Two clicks.

~

Time seems like a strange commodity of a Brave New World when you’re in nature and immersed in story. Nevertheless, time passes and the late evening breeze sweeps through the river and rushes past our tanned bodies. Malaak turns to us and asks one final question:

“Imagine sitting here, on this log hundreds of years ago. What word would you use to describe this?” He turns to the sky of stars with arms outstretched to the river.

There is a pause before I turn to him and whisper, “home”.

He turns to me and nods, "yes, sister, you got it. This is home."

Slowly we scramble off the log and walk back to the van. Somehow our desire to meet cute boys at the local pub seems superficial, there are more important things to think about. 

“You girls want me to tell you some more yarns and show you some good spots tomorrow?” he asks after we hug him goodbye. We arrange to pick him up at 8am the following morning.

~

The following day, Malaak directs us out to the dirt roads that weave through the outskirts of Western Australian towns. We bring him a pie for breakfast from the local bakery. He smiles and thanks us but says “I don’t eat this stuff, but thanks for the thought girls.”

That morning he teaches us how to make bush cordial and catch a goanna and together we make damper over a fire from flour he’s brought in a zip-lock bag.

“Are you sure you don’t have any blackfella in you?” he asks us “’cause this is some of the best damper I ever had!”.

While we’re sitting around the fire, Malaak’s brother calls. We hear muffled sentences from the other end of the line asking him why he’s with white fellas and whether he’s safe. I guess this is what my parents would ask if I told them I was in the bush with 3 older men I had never met.

While the damper cools, he pulls out some paint made from pigments at a sacred indigenous site not far from where we were. Using sticks by the fire he proceeds to paint artworks on our bodies. He paints a kangaroo on my arm, the spirit animal of his grandfather, a dolphin on my friend’s leg and a goanna on the back of the other. What a beautiful thing it is to watch someone deep in thought while painting.

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At the end of the day, after spending eight hours circling through dirt roads, pulling up to river beds and swimming in water holes, I ask him what we can do to make things better. How three white women living comfortable lives in one of the world’s most expensive cities can do anything at all. 

“You’re a writer?” he asks me. “Good. You can tell this story. That’s all I ask. All I want is for people to tell our truth. "

~

I would like to acknowledge and pay my respect to the traditional owners of the Noongar boodja past, present and emerging, on which we met Malaak and had the great honour of sharing his spirit.