A cut-up poem created from an excerpt from the Prime Minister’s press conference, Parliament House, Canberra, on Tuesday, 19 December 1972 in which PM Gough Whitlam spoke about ‘normalising’ relations between Australia and East Germany.
there is a matter which concerns: following recent moves between West and us, for political and commercial reasons, to normalise our relations, facilitating trade in both directions; recognition, agreement... it's time to make people more aware that there is a new government in australia which is not concentrating on our highly important relations with Europe.
Muguma (inside the house)
Nathan mudyi Sentance
“The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was. The world around it will forget even faster.”
—Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
Ngurang (place – Wiradjuri language) informs you. Through all your senses ngurang teaches you. It provides knowledge through experience. Often our collective or individual history is tied to ngurang. Ngurang allows us to transverse time, giving us immediate connection to our ancestors. The giilang-galang (stories) we tell, which I think are one of the most powerful methods to preserve and transfer knowledge, are affected by ngurang as it can change how we yarra (speak) and how we winhangarra (listen). Ngurang creates identity.
This is why colonisers try and change ngurang to change people and change history. Because they know physical changes to ngurung affect us metaphysically. We maintain the knowledge that much of the colonisers’ key institutions were carefully emplaced over our own, in order to rewrite and break in- heritance and memory of ngurang.
For instance, the Sydney Opera House, now considered one of the cultural emblems mediating contemporary Australian identity to the outside world , was built upon land that held one of the largest shell middens in Sydney Harbour (Warrane). Shell middens, which are made up of different food scraps, mostly shells and fish bones, contained so much information and history. By examining the fresh scraps on middens, mob from foreign nations could tell what food was edible in the area. Local mobs also examined the fresh scraps on middens to understand what had just been eaten and by how much so they know not to overcatch those species. This is how they kept their land sustainable for future generations just like their ancestors did for them. The older shells and bones would decay over time and mob would crush them up and mix them with water because the high calcium in the shells and bones would help with osteoporosis. Along with the information shell middens provide, they were also a meeting place where you get together with your mob and eat. They are a cultural emblem.
You could say the Sydney Opera House being built where a shell midden used to be is a continuation of that site or ngurang being a location of cultural activity and a place for people to gather. However, I argue that it is a concerted tactic to erase the history of the ngurang and impose a new culture. Change the ngurang, change the history. People walk around the Opera House and are amazed by it, but have no idea of the history they are walking on top of.
Even calling it the Sydney Opera House insidiously validates the name “Sydney” and this speaks to another method used to erase cultural memory and that is the renaming of ngurang. Our place names have our relationships and connections embedded in them. Additionally, the stories of how places got their names communicates important cultural, social and ecological information. Changing their names detaches us from ngurang and detaches ngurang from its context.
This includes culture derived from ngurang. For example, classifying a yiilaman as a shield imposes a loaded meaning onto the yiilaman, implying it was for defense and fighting. This plays right into the idea of First Nations people being savage and at constant war, when a yiilaman is more than that and was hardly used for fighting, it was about identity, storytelling, connection and ceremony.
Also, naming imposes English onto ngurang which removes it from the First Nations worldviews and philosophies encoded in our languages. For example, I was speaking with Gadigal man Joel Davison and he informed me the local Sydney word for bark was bugi and the local Sydney word for skin was bagi. These words reflects the deep connection our culture draws between the biology of plants and humans; when English is imposed on these beings the connection is lost.
The way First Nations people think about ngurang differs greatly from how colonisers think of ngurang. For instance, if you are going through another mob’s ngurambang (country) and kill an animal or plant that you are not supposed to, that could be punishable by death. This is not because of ownership reasons or even because you have disrupted the balance of their ngurambang, it’s because you have killed a member of their family. In many cases, it could be their Elders you have killed. It’s ngurambang first, mayiny (people) second.
There are two kinds of relationships that are most important, firstly between people and land, and secondly amongst people themselves. The second is contingent upon the first. The land and how we treat it is what determines our humanness.
Now consider the role of public institutions such as libraries, museums, and schools. Not only do their buildings physically attempt to erase the culture of ngurang they sit on, making it harder for people to imagine the fullness of history prior to (and beyond) their existence, they proliferate the colonisers worldview and story of ngurang. They also discuss the language and the cultural objects that are derived for ngurang without their context. Without their relationships, these institutions can only simplify First Nations language and culture. A boomerang in a museum is not a boomerang without its story, without its context.
Historically and even contemporarily, this is intentional. Presenting our history and culture in a certain way has assisted creating a story that weakens our ties and claims to this land. This colonial narrative presented can present changes to ngurang as “progress” by representing First Nations people as regressive. By presenting ngurang as such a passive agent, institutions justify the taking of land and create a power dynamic that sees ngurang as subservient to humans.
Consequently, the mythology attached to and conveyed by these institutions continues and is one that vindicates the lives of colonisers, which helps those who prosper now on the back of their land theft and violence feel less guilty or even proud. The existence of this creation of a colonial nation mythology heavily depends on the avoidance or denial of First Nations history. Particularly when that history intersects with the history of invaders.
Stripping First Nations people from their land to make space for settler architectures like museums, strips us of our data sources and from our family. This has been instrumental in weakening our cultures. However, I don’t believe our ties to ngurang are ever fully lost. As a Wiradjuri man, I have river in my blood, I have wind in my bones, and the sound of birds in my voice.
Come, build your House
come, build your house
from fish bones and shells
and Aunties’ blood. come,
cradle your children in the skeletons of ours.
catch, no release. eat
until your descendants are satisfied.
crush what is left. mix it. lay it
on our peeling flesh—careful
the corners don’t fray.
come, build your house
from fish bones and shells
and let yourself be settled
on black-skinned rugs
Wiray ngurang (no place)
no more fresh fish, wet Warrane dried out
ghostly bone, empty shell, history covered
up, new memories emerging, knowledge
removed from context. you erase us with
architecture, with houses on graves,
no more meeting grounds or ceremony, only
gilded ships, and statues, and false memory.
Raelee Lancaster is a Brisbane-based poet, and a research assistant with Macquarie University. She has performed at literary events and festivals around Australia and her work has featured in Rabbit, Scum Mag, Voiceworks, and other print and online media. In 2018, Raelee’s poetry was awarded first place for the Nakata Brophy Short Fiction and Poetry Prize for Young Indigenous Writers. Raised on Awabakal land, Raelee has connections to the Wiradjuri nation.
Nathan “mudyi” Sentance is a Wiradjuri creative producer who works to ensure that the cultural and historical narratives conveyed by cultural and memory institutions, such galleries, libraries, archives and museums (GLAM) have First Nations perspectives and that First Nations stories being told are being told and controlled by First Nations people. This is to balance the biases and misinterpretations of Aboriginal culture and people that has been previously set by GLAM institutions. Nathan was also a participant in the 2017 Wesfarmers/NGA Indigenous Arts Leadership program and is currently the convener of the Australian Society of Archivists, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Special Interest Group. He produced Ngalu Warrawi Marri (we stand strong), the Invasion Day protest event at Australian Museum, and assisted in curating the upcoming Gadi exhibition at the Australian Museum and is a invited speaker the Museums Galleries Australia Conference for 2018.
Special thanks to Joel Scott for translation assistance.