Country Roads Take Me Home


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I have been in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory for many years now and was recently returning home for a break to my hometown in Central New South Wales. As I drove into very familiar territory I started singing the John Denver song ‘Take me home, country roads’. I had an overwhelming feel of joy, exhilaration and another deeper feeling that I couldn’t put into English words. To my, surprise my mind started using words and thoughts from the Yolŋu (Aboriginal) language that I have been learning in Arnhem Land for over 30 years.

I thought it strange that this so-called ‘primitive language’ could give me deeper thought expression than English could. However, this experience is now becoming very common to me in so many areas including health, environmental science, human philosophy, commerce and law. It saddened me to think that most Australians do not know or appreciate the Original Australian Languages and Culture.

The term I started to use was ŋayaŋu djulŋithinyaray.

As I thought about the idea of ŋayaŋu djulŋithinyaray, I struggled with how I could say it in English. The term ŋayaŋu means your soul, your inner being, you/yourself as you know yourself from within. In English we do not seem to have a very clear understanding for the word ‘soul’ and most people could not place where their soul is in their bodies. When you ask Yolŋu where their ŋayaŋu is, they point to a place just below the belly button in the central part of their body, much like where a martial arts practitioner would place the chi, as in the Chinese Ch’i (Qi).

The second word, djulŋithinyaray, means being in a happy or joyous state. So ŋayaŋu djulŋithinyaray translated to English would mean my soul or my being is rejoicing within me. So ‘Country roads, take me home’fitted right in and I sang it over and over.

Then I remembered the first verse:

Almost heaven, West Virginia, Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River.
Life is old there, older than the trees,
Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze.

So the song carried me into my hometown, a place that looks pretty ordinary but which for me invokes all those deep feelings English has trouble expressing.

There are two issues I want to talk about here today. One is this: isn’t it incredible how we can get so attached to a place? This attachment can grow stronger when we have connections that go back many generations. That’s how I see it is with many Aboriginal people, and how it must be for Aboriginal people in Western Australia who are now facing their communities being closed down.

The second issue is this: isn’t it sad that we have lost,and are still losing, so much of the original Australian culture?Today this culture is locked up in what some are calling disaffected remote Aboriginal communities. Apparently they are too costly to maintain.

Some people might say some of these communities are out of control.But is the answer to visit more violence and dislocation on people who have already suffered so much over a number of generations? Closing down these communities will not work,and in fact it will destroy all the people, including the children.

Some suggest these communities are too violent.But it’s important to remember the history of violence that most of these West Australian communities have experienced from what we could call the‘Captain Cook culture’.

Violence was never part of the original Australian (Aboriginal)communities. I lived in a traditional community in central Arnhem Land for 11 years and it was one of the safest communities in Australia– before it was mucked up by misguided and ill-designed government policy and mainstream people who came into communities like this knowing nothing about them.

The violence that some of the WA Aboriginal communities have already experienced includes nuclear weapons testing by the British on their lands in the 1950s and 1960s. Others have experienced massacres and displacement by the pastoral industry in one form or another; and when they fought back,over 3700 Aboriginal men and boys were taken away in chains and imprisoned on Rottnest Island within sight of the beaches of Perth, never to return home. These were young men, middle-aged fathers and clan leaders punished for standing up to defend their homelands and loved ones, or to feed their families by killing sheep and cattle that now grazed on their lands. But now Captains Cook’s people thought these lands were theirs and so the original Australians were treated like devilish criminals. The descendants of these ‘criminals’ are now facing eviction from their homelands again across WA.
Neville Green & Susan Moon, Far From Home: Aboriginal prisoners of Rottnest Island, 1838-1931, University of Western Australia Press, 1997.

far from home

To add to the insult that Aboriginal people have already experienced with the loss of their lands, livelihoods and traditional trades, they are now forced to work with a European culture and language of which they have  little understanding. Yes, there are some mainstream people who will help them; but there are many  bureaucrats and politicians who know nothing of the reality of their life and history.

Even Bess Price, an Aboriginal Country Liberal MLA with the Northern Territory Government, says politicians  need some cultural awareness training.

These Aboriginal Australians might exist in what many would see as ‘remote’ desert country, but to them it is their ‘West Virginia’.Their birthrights and roots there go back many tens of thousands of years. The people have knowledge of this land, original Australian knowledge and culture that is still unknown to the Western world and could fill an encyclopedia.

These homelands and small communities are places where the people have got their lives together more than in any other place. As in Arnhem Land, they are the places where the Original Australian Languages and culture are still practised. Languages that give us thought patterns deeper than English can give.

This is where the real Australian culture still survives by the skin of its teeth, and we should be trying to protect it at all costs, rather than taking action that will make people in the future lament its passing when they reflect on what Australians allowed to happen in 2015.

I believe in an Australia that is bigger than this, an Australia that believes in a deep, strong culture that demonstrates itself in contemporary and traditional art of all forms. As many of these desert Australians do in their art form.

Moving people off their lands is a death sentence
If anybody reads the history of contact between the dominant mainstream Australian culture and Aboriginal people, they will see one thing over and over again: when the people are moved from their lands into so-called more ‘civilised’ communities, they suffer complete social order breakdown.All real life stops for them as they scratch out an existence on the fringes of mainstream communities as refugees. The result is lawlessness, rampant drug abuse, prostitution, hopelessness, self-harm and increased suicide. Family violence becomes an everyday affair. In fact, I will go so far as to say, ‘Moving people off their lands is a death sentence for them and their children.’

How can any Australian government in its right mind, morally or in any other way, move people off their lands? To make it worse, how can they do this while they sell the minerals from those lands, which were the Original People’s lands for 40,000 years, for profit?

It reminds me of a story I was told when I was a child. It was a story about a queen called Jezebel and a king called Ahab. Ahab wanted the poor man’s vineyard next door so he could turn it into a garden. The poor man wanted to keep the vineyard because it had been in his family for many generations. Jezebel had the poor man killed so Ahab could get his garden. Ahab’s descendants were destroyed because the spiritual laws of the universe dictate it’show we treat the powerless in our society that colours our moral fibre and whether we have the right to exist or notin the big picture of things. (1 Kings 20 and 21.)

Both the West Australian and Federal governments have a moral responsibility on behalf of all Australians to keep these small struggling communities alive.Let’s get some efficiencies and good programs happening in these isolated communities so that they too can look forward to a brighter, more exciting future. I would be happy to talk to anybody who wants to know the sort of programs that could make a difference.

Richard Trudgen April 2015

About Richard Trudgen

Born in Orange NSW and trained as a fitter and turner, Richard went to Arnhem Land in 1973 for one year voluntary work. He stayed 37 years, learnt language and trained in community development work. He wrote “Why Warriors Lie Down and Die” in 2000 and established Yolŋu Radio in 2003. He was CEO of Aboriginal Resource and Development Services (ARDS) Inc for 10 years, and during this time developed discovery education methodology. He runs ‘Bridging the Gap’ seminars and training workshops, and speaks at conferences and events. Richard wants to build an e-learning school for Yolŋu people using both their own language and English so Yolŋu children/adults have an easily accessible schooling system that works for them. He is currently writing his next book “When a New World Drops in on You”.