by Anna Wawrzonkowska
As I travelled along the winding roads of coastal Victoria, Australia, I was reading a book by a man called Big Bill Neidjie – as the last speaker of the now-extinct Gaagudju language and the elder of Kakadu in Northern Territory, he is a man of incomparable experience and wisdom regarding the Aboriginal ethos, culture, and history. The book is a small, A5-sized hardback, with a photo of an old man and a child on the first page – a story being told, knowledge freely given. When I picked it up, it felt like just another coffee table book, something sweet and short and easy, perfect to start and finish on the road.
It is short. It is easy to read.
But what I did not know was that the book – ‘Gagudju Man’ by Bill Neidjie, with an informative introduction as well as a biography by Ian Morris and Stephen Davis – is more than just another book – it is a testimony and a confession and a secret, shared by someone who’s all too aware that he might be the last one to tell it. For all that we – outsiders, Europeans, white foreigners – know about Australia, no-one ever tells the stories of the Aborigines, of the genocide and tragedy and the sadness of immense cultural loss passing mostly unspoken. There is vast silence surrounding them, and with every generation more is lost: to the point where Big Bill Neidjie’s secrets were at risk of dying with him.
Aborigines do not record their history. It lives and breathes with the land, each tree a myth, each billabong a reminder. But with the land changing, and the stories surrounding the world of native Australians incessantly depicted on paper and screen, Big Bill Neidjie did what no Aborigine had done before: he recorded the secrets of his tribe on paper, in English.
What Bill Neidjie has done is forbidden: no-one can call out a man’s name after he is gone, for fears of recalling his spirit from the land of the dead. But faced with the choice between provoking the endless restlessness of his spirit, and forgetting the secrets of the land and tribe, Bill Neidjie has chosen the sacrifice: he has given permission to record his name and make it endure along with his writing, so that his words – his story – live on.
In beautifully simple, broken English, in lines that look and sound more like poetry than anything else, he speaks about the land and the law of the land. The law is unchangeable; the people will once return to the land, bones will become soil. The pain you inflict on a tree will come back to you once you’re old and grey. You cannot sell land because it is not yours to have – you belong to the land. No matter your ancestors, all humans are bone and blood, and they all belong to the land. Fire renews; detachment is illusion, and so is death.
And after this dictation of tenets, Bill Neidjie writes something that freezes me to the bone: you know it now, the ways of my people. You know it – and it is your responsibility now.
Up until that point, it was simply a profound read. But when he says that – and you’re aware of why, of what he’s saying – a weight of ten thousand years falls on your shoulders, and stays there. This is a personal sacrifice of an old man who surrendered the peaceful rest of his spirit, given in full, so that the story lives on, and is inherited by a new generation. Not only is it yours now, but it is yours to remember and carry forward; through an act of faith, you, the reader, are now a spiritual heir of Big Bill Neidjie and his people. And the way of life that he has striven to protect and preserve – it is now yours to do so. From the pages of a short, simple book, and from decades and continents and cultures, an old man speaks about the secrets of his people; and because you know now, it is your responsibility to make them live on.
Big Bill Neidjie died in 2002. Every time I type his name on my keyboard, his spirit stirs restlessly, denied its peace. But fear not, spectre; your sacrifice is not forgotten. You, as no Aborigine before you, carried the secrets of your people to all the corners of the earth, including the land of your invaders, and Oxford where they were taught; you have withstood the slaughter of your people, and even though you have lost an unimaginable wealth of tradition and land, your words will still be coursing the world like a Westerner’s remorse, like a reminder, an impulse to help and salvage and preserve, a call to remembrance.
I die and put my bones in cave or earth.
Soon my bones become earth,
all the same.
My spirit has gone back to my country,
you can’t change it,
no matter who you are.
No matter you rich man,
no matter you kind.
You can’t change it.
I feel it with my body,
with my blood.
Feeling all these trees,
all this country.
When this wind blow you can feel it.
Same for country,
You feel it.
You can look.
that make you.
(Bill Neidjie, Gagudju Man, 1986)
Gagudju Man: Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia’ (Bill Neidjie, 1986) can be purchased on Amazon, with prices starting at £11.32. The Bodleian Library also has an electronic version of ‘Old Man’s Story: The Last Thoughts of Kakadu Elder Bill Neidjie’, which everybody should at least skim through.
You can find charities supporting Aboriginal land rights, communities, and culture here.
And a handy list of (Australia-centred) activities that would help the Aboriginal communities can be accessed here.