I’m sitting at a wooden picnic table at the Arts and Cultural Centre at Wangi Falls, Litchfield National Park, Australia. The round-faced, curly-haired, mid-40s woman sitting across from me smiles and says, “A culture revealed. You should join the talk. I give that talk. Let me introduce myself. I am Joan Growden.”
I return her introduction and learn she runs the center. “I am from the Brinkin-speaking tribe,” she says. “We actually own this land.” She drifts off, her eyes staring into the distance.
As we talk, she’ll often pause for a minute or so, seemingly gone to a far-off place. Sometimes her voice is so low it’s as if she’s talking to herself. “Yeah, we own this land,” she whispers. I lean across the table to hear her better. She misunderstands.
“I am sorry for pidgin English,” she says, with a shy, almost noiseless laugh. “My mother, you know, could speak eight different languages.”
At first, I’m surprised to hear that. From what I’ve read about the Aboriginal people, I’ve been led to believe they didn’t have any formal education until quite recently. Her mother would’ve been far too old after WWII to have been enrolled in a public school.
Sensing my confusion, Joan says, “We are 23 clans in the Litchfield area. We may have the same belief system, but we speak different languages. And my mother could speak a few of them.”
Our conversation is interrupted by a visitor who comes rushing over, asking after a ranger. He mistakes Joan’s uniform. “But I am no ranger,” she tells me. “I just run this arts centre. I opened it only two weeks ago. Before that, I had a contract with the park. I would clean the toilets and clear the rubbish.”
The matter-of-fact manner in which she says it unsettles me more than the gravity of her statement. I can’t imagine a government dispossessing me of my land, and then paying me a fee to clean it. I find the very thought absurd.
Throughout our week-long trip around the national parks in the Top End of Australia, we met a lot of rangers. All of them said the park belonged to the local Aboriginal tribe of the area, but we didn’t see any of the so-called “owners.” Most of the tour operators marketed themselves as indigenous-owned-and-run businesses. None of the people who worked there seemed indigenous.
When we brought up our observation, one of the rangers simply said, “We are the caretakers. We take care of business for the tribes. They are not inclined to mix with tourists.” Joan is the first person I’ve come across who seems to want to take care of business by herself — and does.
She started out with the cleaning contracts. When everything came through for her arts centre, she gradually let go of those to focus more on the new project. She made sure the contracts went to people of the Brinkin tribe.
“Long before Litchfield was a national park, it was home to my people. We lived in touch with our elements. In the wet season, we would live in the table tops. When the water receded, we would climb down to the wetlands, hunting kangaroos, fish, and goannas. Then in the dry season, we would head out to the beaches, going back to table tops only once the rains started.
“You see –” she draws an imaginary circle in the air, “we would walkabout, one complete circle. But now who can walkabout? Pastoral companies have put up fences. People do not want us crossing their lands. Their lands! When we have a native claim to them.”
“Where are your people now?” I ask.
“They are all scattered,” she says, then pauses. “You know the war changed everything for us.”
I’ve read about the bombing of Darwin during WWII. Almost all the articles focus on the heavy casualties suffered by the Allied forces. For the first time, I hear a different perspective on the impact of the bombs.
“After the bombs fell, government officials rounded up everybody [Aborigine] and sent us off to the missions. My mother did not come back.”
“But you are back,” I say.
“Yes, but I am only one person. You know why I started an arts centre instead of a tour company?”
I shrug and say, “No.”
“It is because of painting. You see, my people would paint. We painted about everything, and we painted everywhere we went. We would paint about hunting. We would paint about fishing.”
“I saw the paintings in Ubirr,” I say.
“That’s good. That’s good,” Joan nods and says. “We didn’t have schools and teachers. So we would paint everything. That way, the next generation always knew how it was done. You see paintings of fish mataranka? You see in the paintings the fishes are always upside down. That’s to teach us that best time to catch one is when they stick nose in the mud. You just pull it right out!
“Painting connects us to our land and to our people,” she continues. “My people may be scattered about today, but I know they will come back home. We will paint. It is our spiritual affiliation to our land. The government may not recognize us as owners of our own land, but we will paint in our land. I can see all of us sitting around this table, painting and weaving our baskets.”
She drifts into another pause, a long one. She then looks at me and smiles.
“I think I will have to get one more table.”