Palya is the Pitjantjatjara word for hello, goodbye, good, all right. The Anangu, Indigenous people of the APY Lands in the Australian Western deserts, have allowed ‘palya' to be used on greeting signs in the National Park around Uluru. Even the word Anangu is a choice — this word they use to describe themselves has been encouraged for the use of English speakers. It has, happily, only three syllables and none of the ‘tj’ that English speakers are troubled by. The name of the magnificent red rock itself was a product of Anangu collaboration and sound decision-making. ‘Uluru’ is the family name of some people from there. It has been chosen because it has a good sound, only three syllables and none of those tricky tj’s.
Despite this, many visitors (and even some locals) continue to use the old names for these places — Ayers Rock and The Olgas. It's true that there is a ‘tj’ in the Anangu name for the massive complex of orange conglomerate domes, formerly called The Olgas, an hour’s drive from Uluru. The name Kata Tjuta means ‘Many Heads’. Western desert languages have equal emphasis on each syllable. They’re not hard to pronounce once someone has taught you. The second word in Kata Tjuta is pronounced similarly to ‘tudor’ (at least the way most Australians pronounce that word, with an almost absent ‘r’).
Lack of familiarity with the spoken names and fear of looking foolish stop some people using the proper names of the places, which have been widely used (and have been the official names) for over 30 years now. It is a problem too, that even tour guides and travel agents use the old names. They need education.
And then there are those who use the old names in the pursuit of a misguided principle — that English speakers have a right to hegemony, to be the unquestioned namers of everything on the Australian islands. The names that have no resonance for most of us — Ayer was a south Australian bureaucrat and businessman, Olga was a Wurttemberger queen — resonate for them because of their European structure.
We are in no danger, in the colonised lands, of losing European structure. Aboriginal names, ways of thought and being can be acknowledged and integrated and the trains can still run (almost) on time. It is true, though, that different ways of living in and using the land, different foods and even a different lifestyle more in tune with the human body and the seasons of the earth could eventually arise from becoming educated in Indigenous understanding.
There is a rich heritage of language and culture awaiting discovery and learning here. For those of us raised with the idea of a homogeneous English-speaking country, it is daunting to understand that Australia has hundreds of language groups and cultures in its Indigenous reality. Where to begin to understand and comprehend?
Of course, Australia never was an island of English homogeneity. The Indigenous people were always here. In the last two centuries, the English were never the only immigrants. The Irish, Welsh and Scots who came had their Celtic languages. The people of the Indonesian islands and China visited this island (and traded and intermarried) for hundreds of years before the Europeans came. There was a period in the second half of the nineteenth century when there were more Chinese immigrants in south eastern Australia than there had been British convicts.
Southern Asian traders from present day Afghanistan and Pakistan traversed Central Australia with their camels, introducing desert people to sugar and other delights. And then, following individual travelers and families, there have been successive waves of immigration from the Mediterranean, the Arabic lands, south-east and southern Asia and eventually, in this colonial outpost at the end of the earth, even from Africa. The English were the colonisers, though. It was the English rulers who dispossessed and oppressed with the rifle, the gallows and the whip, including, of course, lording over their own imprisoned people.
England ruled ideologically, too. When I grew up in Australia in the 60's, London was still the place ambitious people had to travel to. Plummy accents still dominated the airwaves. My aunt, the first in the family to attend University, was taught elocution. I followed her example. Dialects of Aboriginal and working class English could exclude a person from social mobility as quickly as the misfortune of having bad teeth.
With my rounded vowels and decent teeth, I visited my parent’s house last week. On the table in the living room I found a folded map, belonging to my father. It shows the Royal National Park, in New South Wales, near where he and my mother live and I grew up. He has written his name on it in his handsome draftsman’s style, in two places — on the front cover and again over a box describing the fish you can catch from the Park’s beaches. He would have been in his twenties when he got the map, having built our house on a a newly-cleared block of land.
The map is a treasure. It shows roads, paths and walk-ways to deeply beautiful, wild places that have nourished my father's spirit all his adult life. My parents made the choice and have had the privilege of staying in one place for over 50 years. They visit the Park regularly. My father helps to maintain it by identifying and destroying invasive weeds on a regular basis (as a member of a local Landcare group). He is a third generation English immigrant, with no attachment at all to what Australians used to call 'the mother country'. Perhaps his shoe-less childhood helped make him thoroughly at home in the country of his birth. He tells of cracking ice on puddles with bare feet on his way to school. Dad had his first pair of shoes aged twelve.
Walking through the grass barefoot in my father’s garden last week was a tonic for me. Coming in, I had a read of the old map. Many of the paths it describes are unchanged. On the reverse there is a fabulous colourful illustration, showing diverse plants, animals and land-forms of the Park. There are boxed texts describing features of the Park, including all the fish Dad planned to catch.
The most prominent text is given to the Aboriginal people who lived in the Park, the D'harawal. The tenderly made illustrations portray black silhouettes making food and fires on the beach and the rocks. Rock engravings and middens testify to the peoples’ long occupation. The text describes how all of the Aboriginal people who lived in the Park died from introduced diseases and also mentions in a half sentence that they were denied access to their land. The only date I can find on the map is 1966 — four years after my birth, probably the year we moved to the area and the year before the Australian referendum granting Aboriginal people civil rights.
Reading the text, I feel the great sadness that has surrounded Australian life. When I grew up we were taught that everybody (of the Aboriginal populations) had died. It was an unbearable thought, hanging as a shadow over much of life. The rocks I clambered over on my way to school could not tell their stories. The magnificent trees could not speak.
Of course, for some people, the idea that all of the Aboriginal people had died set them free. They felt free to exploit the land and the people on it, free to disregard care for the land, free to kill, maim and degrade any Aboriginal survivors they encountered in their path, since being erased from the planet was considered to be their fate anyway.
For most people though, it was a sad thing that happened a long time ago. My grandfather was removed from his land in 1921. By the time I was born, there had been the Great Depression and another World War since then. Ordinary people had almost no means to recognise and begin to heal trauma. And then, youth has its own resilience and adaptability. I named the rocks on my walk to school after the dinosaurs I thought they resembled. Our teacher read us The Magic Faraway Tree and the magnificent white eucalyptus in the playground whispered English children's stories.
The text on my father’s map was progressive for its time. The legal understanding of Australia then was that the island was Terra Nullius when occupied by the British — empty land. That concept was not to be overthrown in law for another thirty years, after the determined work of Torres Strait Islander Eddie Koiko Mabo, standing on the shoulders of the thousands who resisted invasion and asserted Indigenous peoples’ claims before him.
But I have grown up now and I know D'harawal people. I have worked with (and cared for) people of D'harawal descent. There is a book of D'harawal culture and history online and a colourfully illustrated book of the D'harawal seasons on my shelf. They live, they prosper, they remember.
Reading the text about the supposed extinction of the D'harawal also makes me ponder about science, reminding me that any of us who speak from the current scientific perspective will be wrong in 50 years about many major concepts.
When I was in my twenties I searched for speakers of my Aboriginal language, Danghadi (often spelled different ways, including Dunghutti, Thunghutti and Dungadi). I was told that there were only a couple of old people who spoke it still living. Like most Aboriginal languages, it had been consciously destroyed, beaten out of the institutionalised children of the clan. The fortunate few Danghadi children of that generation who avoided institutionalisation, like my mother and her sisters, were forbidden to speak the language, often not even taught it, for fear that they would be taken away from their parents. They were to learn the 'white' ways and the 'white' ways only. This knowledge caused me heartache.
A lot changes in a generation, I am grateful to say.
The Danghadi language has been sustained and revivified by dedicated elders and scholars. The language is now taught at schools and to young adults at a community college.
Accepting the love of our friends and families, in all our differently coloured complexions, people of Aboriginal descent no longer exclude themselves from their cultural inheritance. Moreover, descendants of immigrants from all over the world, like my father — and new migrants, like my wife Claudia — eagerly explore and integrate into their worldview the knowledge of Indigenous people, some of which is as if stored in the very rocks here. The rocks are beginning to speak.
In Central Australia, I have always loved that almost any mark on Uluru has a story that goes with it. In Central Australia, some of the stories of the Rocks are unbroken.
Claudia has a tattoo on her left forearm. It’s a quote from a French artist, a Da Da-ist. Translated, it reads, ‘The head is round so that the thoughts can change direction.’ Beginning to write this, I asked her what she thinks about the people who still call the complex of many heads ‘The Olgas’. ‘No cure for Square Heads,’ she said with a smile.
Thumbnail photo of Kata Tjuta from the air. © Janelle Trees 2017