I am in the throes of a prolonged episode of writer’s block right now. Sorry Mum!
Today I spent time with a patient from a remote Central Australian community about 300km out of Alice Springs. I have spent a few months of my life in this community so we had a common interest. In a past life he worked as a translator. I asked how many languages he speaks? “Alyawarre, Warlpiri, Kaydetye, Western Arrernte and a little bit Luritja”. As he listed them, I pointed to a finger for each language. When he stopped, I gave him a moment. He had obviously finished so I pointed to a sixth finger, adding “English”. He nodded gently. English is such an absorbed aspect of life that whenever I ask this question, people almost inevitably forget to include it in their catalogue of skills. Central Australian indigenous people are perhaps some of the world’s most genius linguists.
Some years ago I worked with a research institute on a study relating to risk factors of heart disease in remote and urban indigenous communities. We traveled as a team of doctors, nurses and health workers, to this man’s home community for a week at a time over a number of months. It was hard, hot, dusty work in a very remote location. Each Sunday we packed the Troupee with our supplies and headed “bush”. Each Friday we packed our blood samples, paperwork and test results and drove the dusty red tracks back to town. As well as a complex array of medical tests, part of the study involved a series of questionnaires related to social, psychological and lifestyle factors of each participant.
One afternoon, sitting in the doorway of a demountable building adapted into our makeshift clinic, I interviewed an elderly man with broken English. Red dust and low lying silver scrub stretched toward a distant blue horizon. When I asked him to describe his daily diet, he swept his arms out as if to encircle the landscape before us and replied “there’s lotta food out there!”. I looked out at the barren, infinite terrain, envisioning myself dying of dehydration / starvation, amidst a massive platter of unrecognisable bush tucker.
Today’s patient asked me to help him arrange an optometry appointment “because I can’t see now, everything is blurry. When I go ‘unting, I might walk right past that goanna or I might step on snake!”.
What an amazing knowledge Australian indigenous people have. How undervalued and wasted their expertise. Mainstream Australia could learn a lot.
In keeping with this theme, there was a great Facebook post by IDIDJ Australia today, about Central Australia’s most famous indigenous artist, which is worth sharing here.
Pictured here is Namatjirritja Snr – initiated in the 1890s in the Central Desert region of Australia, major informant to anthropologists and linguists in the early 20th century, and father of Albert Namatjira who was said to be the most famous Indigenous Australian of his generation.
In the Arrernte language Namatjirritja means flying ant but it got corrupted by missionaries to Namatjira and it has stuck ever since.
Namatjirritja’s son Albert (Aboriginal name Elea meaning carpet snake, in reference to the carpet snake Dreaming conception site near Albert’s birthplace) was the first Aboriginal person in Australia to be given Australian citizenship.
Albert’s portrait was the first of an Aboriginal person to win the Archibald Prize, Australia’s most important art prize for portraiture.
In 1953 Namatjirritja Jnr was awarded the Queen’s Coronation Medal.
His legacy is powerful, rich and one that reaches deeply into and resonates widely with many aspects of modern Australian society from the arts to Aboriginal land rights… but it was also a legacy tinged with trauma and sadness.
To father and son, we remember you and we love you, flying ant and carpet snake, may you Rest in Peace.