Culture is not always conscious. It is not just what is seen or heard. Through thousands of exceptional and unexceptional daily actions, the First Nations of Australia constantly perpetuate — continuing stories that stretch infinitely through time.
James Tylor walks along the banks of Karrawirra Parri, the river that runs through Adelaide’s CBD.
It’s early in the morning, still cold. Without a break in tone, he switches from discussing the weather to recounting an episode in the violent history of the land under his feet. This was one of Australia’s early missions – where Aboriginal people were forced to live under colonisation.
“Particularly in Adelaide, no one knows the history, and it was done in a very calculated way,” says James. “Having Kaurna heritage, I guess — I know that at these places they deliberately stripped it, stripped out the culture.”
Here, in a little quiet slice of the city, hundreds of Aboriginal people were taken from different First Nations, from different families, confined, and forcibly torn apart from the traditions, practices, languages, and stories that helped make them who they were.
James is a Kaurna, Maori, and European man. He’s a visual artist who works mostly in photography, but who also makes objects that become part of his art. Today, he’s walking toward a riverside reed bed from which he has previously gathered material to make a spear, but he pauses to dig a hole and drops in a wodni (quandong) seed.
“I’m planting a lot of these,” he says. “Bringing them back to the places where they belong.”
In James’ action, and in the ordinary, daily activities of thousands of Aboriginal South Australians, there is a quiet rejection of the architects of history who sought to interrupt the story of this land and its peoples.
James and the others know that the story maintains – and not as a footnote to another narrative, not as something that creeps its way out through cracks in the pavement. Instead, it beats heavily in the heart of every person who practices it and learns it and shares it. It emanates forth from them and from the country, and embraces everything it encounters — change, resistance, inhumane histories, the unbearable present — infusing it all with the force of love, holding strong with the solid weight of identity.
“Together we have resilience.” – Simone Ulalka Tur
Few things have felt more quintessentially suburban than the Aldinga Beach backyard of Allan and Amy Sumner on a Saturday morning.
Three generations of the family pass incessantly between the patio, the square of lawn, and the house – most of them in pursuit of Allan’s almost-two-year-old granddaughter Neakah. Every time someone crosses the threshold of the house Amy follows behind and, with a small sigh, closes the sliding door, hoping to keep the flies out.
A BBQ — made from a half 44 gallon drum containing a fire that has almost burned down to coals – smoulders in the corner of the yard.
“Whilst my wife cooks a lot of stuff in the kitchen, I’ve got the fire out the back,” says Allan.
“The roo tails that we’ve got today, they were collected from the Coorong region. So, it’s a nice big Western grey — it was a massive buck, and I tell you — the top end of the tail is like a roast and the bottom end of the tail is just beautiful, pull apart meat.”
The tail will take a little less than an hour to cook over the coals, and in the meantime Allan and his eldest son Isaac — Neakah’s Dad — are pulled out from the gravity of the BBQ and toward the workbenches that sprawl across half the patio.
Here, Isaac has been working alongside Allan in his business Aboriginal Contemporary Arts, carving wood to be installed as cultural artefacts at playgrounds and other public sites.
Wood carving and making objects like murlapaka (a Kaurna shield) is something Allan learned from his Father, but it’s only something Isaac — now 20 — has been interested in recently.
“I didn’t want to push the kids into culture, I think culture is something you have to find for yourself,” Allan says.
“But now Isaac is here all the time — he’s finding wood for us to work with, he’s asking questions. Those little things create some excitement for me.”
The busy backyard is on Kaurna land, and Allan has Kaurna, Ngarrindjeri, and Yankunytjatjara family ties. He and Isaac visit the nearby Aldinga scrub a few times a week — sometimes looking for the right wood for their carving, sometimes looking after the country, and sometimes on tours — sharing bits of culture with non-Aboriginal people.
It’s just a walk in the bush a few hundred metres from the house, but on it the transfer of knowledge crackles between Allan and Isaac.
And, back home, it’s just a Saturday lunch with the family. But as Allan pulls the roo tail out of the fire to share with his wife, his kids, his nieces and nephews, and his granddaughter, he knows that ordinary moments like these are part of a bigger reality he’s worked hard to create.
“We’ll have cook ups, and just enjoy ourselves you know, with music, and do what every other normal family would do,” he says.
“The only thing is that we always talk about culture; talk about who we are as people, and what makes us strong.”
“In our language we talk about our inner spirit, and when we are doing cultural things it makes our spirt strong,” says Allan. “So if we have to go in the backyard to do these sorts of things, then that’s what we’ll do.”
Inawintji Williamson and Tjinkuma Wells don’t go to a backyard – they go to a classroom, or to a living room in the eastern suburbs. And when they get there, they teach.
“We learn together,” says Inawintji.
“Everyone needs their spirit from their culture to keep them strong,” says Tjinkuma.
Tjinkuma Wells and Inawintji Williamson’s home is Ernabella in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands.
It’s about as far from Adelaide as you can get without crossing a border.
Both women moved to the city for their health. Their need for thrice-weekly dialysis can only be satisfied in metropolitan surrounds (an indictment, surely, on the inherent privileging of the health system).
But while Inawintji has been living metro for more than 10 years, and Tjinkuma has been doing the same for seven, the deep connection to their homeland will never fade.
“When we come out from dialysis yesterday, I see the rain coming down that way, and the wind come blow the cloud away, and it made me sad, you know,” says Inawintji.
“I am feeling sad thinking about home today, all our family — we miss them. Ernabella, the beautiful red dirt.”
But there are parts of home that the pair carry with them wherever they go, and chief among them is language.
In the house they share, they speak Pitjantjatjara — “we never stop — we talk all day and night,” laughs Inawintji.
And they teach the language to others — Tjinkuma volunteering with high school kids at Wiltja Secondary College, and Inawintji running weekly classes with non-Aboriginal women in a suburban lounge room.
“It’s important for everyone to learn, to understand, the languages, songs — it’s really important,” says Tjinkuma.
For both women, language is a bridge that brings the world of their home and the place they’ve been forced to adopt closer together — and it runs both ways. As well as teaching, Tjinkuma also translates.
She did extensive work around the possible establishment of a nuclear waste dump in SA — feeding information back into the Pitjantjara community in their own language. Coronial inquests into suicide, court proceedings, and health consultations have also passed through her hands.
And so has the Port Power Club Song, which – despite being Crows supporters — Tjinkuma and Inawintji can sing with ease in their first language. As can a whole bunch of footy supporters, since Tjinkuma translated it in collaboration with Paul Eckert in 2016.
“I translated the song, and now everyone is calling me wanangara — this is lightning,” says Tjinkuma, with a laugh.
There’s many songs Tjinkuma and Inawintji sing together and try to teach to those they’re with as we walk across a hill and watch the sun sinking below the city skyline.
An old Pitjantjatjara song about kinara (the moon) draws a perfect, unrehearsed harmony from the two, and their rendition of the Port Power song brings on a bout of laughter.