So, I was fourteen years old when I told my grandfather that I didn’t believe I was the boy that I thought I should be, given my circumstances and given who my grandfather was. I didn’t know my language, I didn’t know my law, I never grew up in country and I didn’t hold the same kind of place as a fourteen-year-old boy did back where my family grew up. And for that I felt that I had let my grandfather down.
You need to understand—my grandfather was an incredible man, born somewhere around the 1920s. He grew up in the time of course that had survived the arrival of Others, who then went into Bardi Country and took the things that they wanted to make their empire. He then survived the time that Western Australia determined what its act would be in 1905 and he then survived the time when the Church imposed itself in that place, and robbed the Kimberley people—the West Kimberley people of that Peninsula—the right to connect and be, and live in their law in that place, after the tip of Cape Leveque in Western Australia.
My grandfather was the last of the senior lawmen where I come from, at that time. My grandfather was an incredibly intelligent man. He spoke all of the languages of the Peninsula of the West Kimberley. That’s at least five or six different languages. He then spoke Japanese, Malay, Filipino and English. All of the languages that he needed to do business amongst those who were trading in pearl, shifting beef, trying to exist in and amongst the industry that was coming out of Broome and Derby at that time. And the kind of thing that climbed on—the kind of industry that was tipped onto a pearl lugger and floated down the coast to Perth from the various ports as you would go up and down chasing that luring current—my grandfather survived all of that. And he survived the nature of how it was that the Church started to take children from the places they were, and started to tell the children that language didn’t matter—that the ways they lived in that place, didn’t matter. And he maintained, protected and hid his law and culture.
My grandfather was an incredibly generous man. He shared his business and helped others come to learn why it was that the anchors that existed were the Bardi, Jawi, Nyul Nyul people—and the people of the Peninsula—existed in that place, and in the way that it did. And why it was important that you carried these things around inside you, as you actually created your own little bubble in the world that you came to be in.
My grandfather was never what I would say was a loud or boisterous man. He just occupied space beautifully and quietly. I think the one time that I remember my grandfather actually reacting to something, was the time that I saw his hand move, and grab a boomerang that was by his knee next to his tobacco tin, and reach out and smack! The followers sitting next to him—who actually did something incredibly rude—in the circle of men where they were sitting at the time. As my grandfather reminded that man, that with protocols and particular things, that you had to abide by in the conversation at that time. And that man sat down. So quietly, that man was dealt within an instant, and that circle continued with their business.
He could move incredibly quick at times. He was also a ratbag, and that quickness helped him do things like catch frilled neck lizards so that he could then go up to my grandmother and tap her on the shoulder, so that she could face that frilled neck lizard, scream at him all sorts of obscenities in Bardi, and then tell him off and run away.
My grandfather had an incredible grasp of the nature of people. And why it was that they should live together and during incredibly trying times. My grandfather just occupied space, for myself and for so many others, that it just felt like perhaps, there was just no way that we could ever just be who it was that we thought we should be. And of course that was never my grandfather’s intent. And I’m sitting next to this old man who smells of tobacco, sweat, just the kind of honest things that I expect to smell in a place like One Arm Point—up there in the Peninsula—and I’m looking at this old man with his thick glasses and his white stubble and his hat, and I’m wondering how it is that I could ever come to be someone like that old man.
What I’ve come to learn I guess now, by stint of circumstance and growing older, was that my grandfather had incredible foresight. And on that day, my grandfather reached out and he put his hand on my forearm—one of the softest gestures that I could remember—and he just said:
“My boy, don’t you worry about that business now. Your mum was taken from us, see? The world is changing and the stuff, the things that are important and that we know today and the stuff that marked us yesterday, will change. And it’ll become something else tomorrow. And that will be the world that you live in. And when you grow up, your feet will be in different camps—and they don’t know it yet, but our people will need who you are when you arrive in that time.”
Then he smiled and walked off and went looking for other things. He was of course, right. The world that we know today has changed. The places that we’ve left behind yesterday and the places that we go to tomorrow, they’re different things. The appreciation of who we are as we moved through these spaces and we head towards our tomorrow, is probably all the more important, I guess now when you see things like what’s occurred in Christchurch.
My grandfather was an incredibly compassionate and caring man, and above all things my grandfather demonstrated absolute tolerance in the face of so many things that he was forced to do differently, in order not to be who he was in a time that wouldn’t accept him as a Bardi man, and the peoples that were of and the place that others wanted to make theirs. And a whole institution wrapped itself around our peoples and told them that they couldn’t live the way they lived and the way that which they actually tipped themselves into their beliefs and the practices wasn’t that of good people. And that you should learn these other things that will make you a good person tomorrow.
And our country rolled on.
And here we settle as Australians in this place, and we’re the legacy of that time. We’re this country’s tomorrow. Tolerance, compassion and care above all other things. Because there is no place for the fear of others, that allows it to turn into a hate, that allows it to separate us all, so that there’s a ‘them’ and an ‘us’.
And today of course my grandfather was right. I have a foot in two camps and I get to share stories with people about who I was then, who I am today, and who I hope to be tomorrow. And I carry my voice now to those who are light skinned Bardi boys—fair skinned—and tell them that doesn’t matter. Because who they are and where they go in their life is actually the stuff that sits inside. And that’s who we should be as a people. And that’s what my grandfather valued, of all those who actually visited that Peninsula.
And that’s what my grandfather helped us learn. And perhaps one of the softest ways you could ever actually come to appreciate a lesson like that from a man who probably survived some of the hardest of times. Thank you.