The Getting of Banjo's Wisdom
By Neil Murray, The AGE, 25 April 2000.
OF BANJO'S WISDOM Knowledge of life before the whitefellas
is down to just a few....
It was the recent sudden passing of Koori elder Uncle Banjo
Clarke that brought home to me the additional loss of guidance
and teaching that accompanies the death of all wise men and
women. A couple of months earlier I had managed to get George
Rrurrambu (a Gumatj tribal man from Arnhemland and lead singer
of the Warumpi Band) to finally meet Banjo at his home in
Framlingham. George immediately fired up an intense discourse
about his concern for the state of the land we'd been driving
through. Banjo concurred, but when pressed on cultural imperatives
he was swift to instruct George by acknowledging tribal elders
before him: "They took all their secret lore to the grave".
I suspected this was something Banjo had said many times to
cool the ardour of distressed people turning up at his doorstep
desperate for answers. He'd said it to me. Banjo didn't have
to go into details. The silence said enough. It was a result
of war and dispossession. Even so, George reckoned of Banjo
that "he knows". A common enough impression to be
had in the company of wisdom.
There are only two Gallipoli veterans left, Jack Locket (age?)
and Alec Cameron (age?). They are the only men who really
know what it was like. They've been inside the inferno and
Come Anzac Day, again we'll collectively reflect and give
thanks for the sacrifices made by them and their kind in the
1st World War. I don't recall any of the diggers ever speaking
about the experience as either heroic or noble. It was just
what they had to do at the time. They all went to a man, believing
it the right thing. And thousands died for no good cause.
No ground won, no tyrant deposed, no masses of oppressed freed.
Yet we revere them as heroes. As a child, I was told they
died so that we could be free and do all the good things that
go with that - like being able to eat ice-cream on Sundays.
It conjured a sense of cosy paternalism and made us feel grateful.
This sat well with the version of history fed to us at school
where brave pioneers 'tamed' the land and rid it of 'marauding
blacks' for our benefit.
In the end, the myth is more enduring than the reality of
two old blokes bewildered by the invasive need of the media.
Still they've held themselves well for those who've learned
the grim waste of war. And when those two are gone, what then?
Expect a wave of nostalgic longing and declarations that it's
the end of an era and that Australia doesn't breed them like
that anymore. But we do, we've got the lot.
There are other Australians who are taking to the grave experiences
that can never be duplicated: the Aboriginal men and women
who knew life before whitefellas. Every year Tjilpi's (old
men) and Olgawumans (old women) pass on.
I still get calls from Kintore in the Northern Territory whereby
inference. I am informed that another old person has gone.
"Oh sorry", I say, as I recall the one they're talking
about. How he once drew for me lines in the sand to represent
the number of rockholes, soakages and waterholes required
to visit on a walk from Yumari to Hast's Bluff in the western
desert - a distance of over 400 kilometres. Each one of them
had a name and a story. Not many of those soakages are ever
By the end of the decade, we'll be hard pressed to find a
handful of people who will still hold first hand experience
of living in Australia without the influence of western civilisation.
That handful will include the bush people who came into Kiwikurra,
Western Australia in 1984.
At a Warumpi Band gig in Kalgoorlie last year, one of those
bushmen dressed in jeans and flannelette shirt was dancing
down in front of us, his hairwild and bushy held down by a
red headband. I suppose he was getting his fill of rock 'n
Among these disappearing elders is a handful of men and women
who recall one of the last frontier wars - known as the Conniston
massacre. People who can tell you still today, of how as children
they saw bullets rip through their mothers, fathers, aunties,
uncles and grandparents by mounted troopers. Incredible as
it seems, this event happened in the 1930's.
After Jack and Alec had returned to civilian life, Aboriginal
patriots were to be shot in the field of Australia's frontier
war for at least another decade. There are no public monuments
for our Aboriginal men and women who died defending their
land and way of life. No government decreed national day of
mourning. At least it was a war that could be understood if
not accepted. There was clearly an invader and a resistant.
And for a long time neither side understood the other.
As Kev Carmody sings in "Eulogy for a Black Person"......"don't
give me monuments of stone" - some Aboriginal people
do have an aversion to imposed structures on the land. Perhaps
a more fitting memorial tribute to Australia's first patriotic
heroes will come in the form of that difficult "R"
word (reconciliation) becoming a reality.
In the meantime, come Anzac Day, there'll be dawn services
all across Australia. In country towns, the ubiquitous monuments
are usually found in the main street erected on forgotten
I for one, will spare a thought of rememberance and respect
for all Australians who lost their lives in conflict - both
here and abroad.