How did you come to meet them?
Oh just one day I was going fishing. When I left school I didn’t pass any subjects. And my liaison officer, he asked me what I wanted to do. I said I wanted to be a ranger and I wanted to look after country. He said, “Oh you should go to university and we’ll apply for you to get in through special entry.” So they put me through to university in Canberra. I was 17. And I didn’t last very long ’cause it wasn’t teaching me what I wanted to learn. They were teaching me English and how to use computers and at the time I just thought that was irrelevant for me. So I came home and went bush with some friends to go fishing. That’s where I met the old people. And on that fishing trip, I never did go back home. Ten years later I was still there. Fifteen years later I was still there.
Wow. So that was your university studies?
That was my university, yeah. They’re family, and all their family is my family. And we still have strong connections and always will. We have a workshop heading up there in a couple of weeks to burn out on the country again. So it’s all continuing on. But since then we lost those old people, all the elders. Now it’s just me and the younger ones. But when we first started to do the work, learning all the medicines, all the plants and animals and stories of the landscape, I was looking at the young people around me and they weren’t picking it up. And not just in that little community but all over. A lot of young people weren’t picking that knowledge up and the old people were continuously voicing their frustrations because their main goal was to get the young people involved. So for me coming from a background of culture being taken away from my grandmother’s people, I didn’t want that to happen. I wanted to say, “Well how do we bring back knowledge and how do we make people connect back to country? How do we enrich culture again?” ’Cause there’s so much value in that. And when I was learning all that knowledge I started to see all the problems in the world. All the problems with the environment and how we can fix it from an indigenous knowledge perspective. So I said to the old people, I said, “Look, maybe we should record the knowledge. And that way it won’t get lost. That way we can get it down and show the people of the future, show them you fellas talking and singing your country.” And they were keen on that. And I didn’t know how I was going to do that but one day a video camera just turned up. Just a handicam, you know. Those things with the flip, hold with one hand and there’s no mic jacks or nothing. So I picked that up and started to film. I had a good idea of filming and performance because when I was younger I was really into theatre. I was always in a lot of school plays. Before I went bush my biggest dream was to become an actor.
So then I learned to play the guitar and write stuff and think of story lines. That all fell to the wayside and then I just went bush to learn about Aboriginal knowledge.
Then this camera comes to you and sparks something.
All of a sudden the love for theatre was coming back. I was holding the camera and working with the old people making films. First they weren’t too sure about the camera, you know.
It’s pretty confronting.
But not only that, they didn’t know what it was. Back then there were no mobile phones even. They didn’t know what the camera was going to produce. All they knew was that a camera takes photos. So when I first pointed a camera at the old people they were standing still and quiet like they’re getting their photo taken! [Laughs]. And so I started to show them and play back the video and then it wasn’t long, we had an amazing little team on country recording this knowledge.
And we weren’t doing it for no one else except for ourselves. We had no wages. I was on a Work for the Dole scheme. Old people were just getting their pension.
Did you love it? Were you happy?
They were among the best days of my life so far. Such happy days.
What kind of knowledge were you collecting?
The first thing we started to do was trees, all the foods and the medicines. So we’d stand up and look at the tree and an old fella would start talking about the name and language. And then they’d start talking about the medicine use. Then the craft use, the food use. And then the spiritual uses. And the relationships with that tree, the leaf, the bark, the timber, the roots.