Hot, dry air fills my lungs as I drive along a dirt road over a gently rolling landscape of vegetation bleached to muted greens and yellows by a sun that pulls nearly every bit of moisture from the soil. I am on Kangaroo Island off the coast of South Australia, en route to meet Karno Walker, an aboriginal man who has agreed to meet with me to talk about his life, his land and his culture.
I came to Kangaroo Island as a tourist, hoping to see pelicans, kangaroos, penguins and koalas, but a local man learned of my interest in indigenous people and arranged for me to meet Walker. I am eager to learn about the aboriginal way of life, but, as I drive toward Walker’s house, I am filled with apprehension. Will I be welcome? What kind of person will I meet?
The sign posted at the gate for his property reads wulde waiirri. I pull in, get out and shake hands with Walker, a tall black man with a gray-tinged beard, short black hair and strong hairy arms. Although a powerful man physically, he seems shy. He is about 50 and speaks English with an Aussie accent so thick I sometimes struggle to understand him. His T-shirt bears a stylized aboriginal picture in earthy oranges and browns of fishermen in a canoe with a turtle, fish and a snake.
We walk to his bungalow, which is topped by a corrugated iron roof and surrounded by a veranda that provides some much-needed shade, and he tells me he has several guest rooms for the young aboriginal men he often mentors. When we sit down at his dining room table he asks me, with some suspicion, why I wanted to meet him. I explain that I write about Canadian Native peoples and would like to learn about Australian aborigines. He seems to sense that I come as a friend, and brings out a binder bulging with genealogy charts, maps and newspaper articles. He proudly tells me that his lineage goes back to King Con, or Condoy, the first black man seen by white explorers landing at Victor Harbor in South Australia in the early 1800s.
Walker tells me that he is currently fighting a court case to get his tribe, the Ramindjeri, recognized as the original occupants of Kangaroo Island and the adjoining mainland. To support that claim, he shows me a drawing from an old aboriginal art piece that resembles a map of Kangaroo Island and the adjacent coast and shows, he says, that the land was settled by his tribe. He is not after money, he insists, but is seeking recognition and rights to fish and gather food. Dealing with the legal system and the bureaucracy is frustrating. “In the old days the white man committed genocide with a gun, now he is killing us with the pen,” he says bitterly.
He suggests we take a walk, and he leads me out through the dry, pale-green landscape of bushes, lonely eucalyptus trees and bleached sparse grass. Walker carries a tall, carved stick with a feather on top. When we come to an ant mound, he stops. The mound is shaped like an upside-down plate and about 10 feet in diameter; at its edge is the skull of an eagle, the bone white and bleached. Walker tells me that he put the eagle head there a few days before to share with his brothers, the ants. I can see a trail made by the ants that leads through the yellow grass like a tiny highway.
He then spots a feather on the ground, picks it up and performs an elaborate dance as he whirls it about. “The plover duck welcomes you to his land by leaving you a feather,” he says, presenting it to me.
The sun beats down from a cloudless sky and sweat trickles down my back. Perhaps spurred by memories of past walkabouts or perhaps because it’s the way of his people, Walker begins to tell stories, although tell almost seems like an inadequate verb in this case as the stories are soon pouring from him. As we approach a large solitary eucalyptus tree he speaks about a giant kangaroo bigger than this tree—the men want to hunt it but have only one spear, he says. They cooperate and some men herd it toward the spear thrower. Others throw rocks. Their hunt is successful and they cut up the body and share the food with everyone across the land. “The rocks strewn about the landscape represent the pieces of meat,” he says. The men then hunted a giant emu. He points at huge rocks the shape of an emu footprint.
We walk under the shade of another large gum tree whose bark hangs in tatters about its trunk. Walker tells me that 14 different kinds of insects live in the tree, representing the different aboriginal tribes and the relations between them. He sniffs the air and says that he smells death, represented by the ants and blow flies. He explains how an ant once climbed up a tree, climbed into a cocoon and then emerged as a delicate butterfly. Its dust can cause blindness but the beautiful butterfly doesn’t know its power. He also talks about wasps, wallabies and eagles. He sings a song and tells of tribes, the life cycle and the environment. His accent is so thick I can’t follow everything he is saying, but I am spellbound by the themes and the imagery, the sound of his deep voice and his vigorous body movements.
He speaks of a whale that swam around Australia. As it went, it found fewer and fewer fish, and each time the whale surfaced to breathe, it found the air hotter and dustier. “The whale can tell the environment is deteriorating,” he tells me, “but somehow the white man can’t grasp this.”
His tales now turn to the troubles aborigines face in modern society. They have been subjected to endless injustice, cruelty and prejudice, he says, and were hunted and massacred to extinction in Tasmania. In his part of the world, the “lost generation” refers to aboriginal children who were forcibly removed from their families in a program of assimilation that lasted until the 1960s. In 2008, the Australian government issued a formal apology, but that doesn’t erase the scars or the damage.
Aborigines are by far the most disadvantaged people in Australia, and male life expectancy is a full 20 years less than that of white males. For obvious reasons, alcoholism, unemployment and drug addiction run rampant. “Jesus died at the hands of the Roman Empire. My people have died at the hands of the British Empire,” Walker says.
He holds up his left hand, palm forward and fingers spread wide. “When I bring troubled young aboriginal fellers here, I explain that my five fingers show their way of life.” He counts out each digit: “Drugs and addiction, flashy cars, loud music, bright lights and bullshit.” Then he does a broad sweep with his right hand, arm extended, encompassing the trees and landscape around us. “?‘And this is what you’re giving up,’ I tell them. ‘This is what’s really important.’ I tell them, ‘The environment is what’s essential to life, not the dole.’?”
We walk on, and I savor the fresh smell of eucalyptus hanging in the air as Walker says, “Three things are essential in aboriginal life: stories, having an unbroken line of ancestors and the boundary of the land.” He tells me more stories, but then explains that he is only scratching the surface with each of them, that every aboriginal story has many layers. He tells me that stories and dances are enormously important to his people—they belong to individuals and that telling someone else’s story as your own is stealing.
He says he once caught someone telling another person’s story at a tribal meeting. “I challenged him and called him a liar and thief. Later it happened again, and again I confronted the man.” Two years later the man’s sister died. “This is aboriginal law, not the white man’s,” he explains. “If you vocalize an accusation and you are correct, then the spirits take care of it.”
Pointing ahead of us, he says, “Do you see it, the plover duck on the ground?” I strain and can barely make it out in the parched grass. “Yes, I see it,” I say, but when we get closer, I see “it” is only a piece of wood. I laugh at my mistake, but Walker shakes his head gravely. “No, the bird can change. It was real when you saw it, now it is wood.”
Australia’s aborigines can trace their history 50,000 years and over that time have developed an extraordinarily detailed knowledge of the plants, animals and water sources of their harsh desert habitat. An important part of their culture is to go on a walkabout, a journey by foot into the outback often lasting weeks or even longer when they live in the traditional way and trace the paths, or “songlines,” that their ancestors took. I realize now that our little stroll has been a mini walkabout, a small peek into a deep-rooted tradition.
All too soon we were back at Walker’s house, relaxing in the cool shade of the veranda. A short time later, we said our good-byes, and I drove off, a plume of dust trailing behind me as my brain was aswirl with the richness and imagery of Walker’s stories. Indigenous cultures, which are fast disappearing, are like vast treasure boxes, and I realized that I had just been given the great privilege of peeking inside of one.