The Narrandera Koori Community Gathering

This document records some of the stories that were told and songs that were written and sung during the a community gathering that took place in Narrandera from Monday 15th April – Friday 19th April 2002. This document was created to act as a memory of the event. We also hope that this will be a way of letting some of the other members of the Koori community who couldn’t make it to the gathering know what happened.

Recently, the Koori community of Narrandera decided that they would like this document to be included on this web page so that people from many different places can read some of their stories and listen to their songs.

Contents:

About the gathering
The role of the listening team
Day One
Day Two
Day Three
Recording the songs
Acknowledgements
Follow-up report

About the gathering

During the six months before the gathering, a number of talks took place with the Aboriginal people of Narrandera. These talks were about:

  1. Some of the problems and worries facing the community,
  2. Other important issues,
  3. The strengths and resources in the community,
  4. The problem-solving skills of people in the community, and
  5. The special knowledges about life that people in the community have.

These problem-solving skills and special knowledges come from people’s families and from the history of the community. Some of these come from the special traditions and the spirituality of the Wiradjuri people.

From these talks it became clearer that the people of the community already knew a lot more than they sometimes realised. There are strengths, resources, problem-solving skills, and special knowledges about life that exist within the community. The gathering was planned to help community members to see these more clearly.

The gathering was designed as an opportunity for people to tell stories and to talk about some of the important knowledges and skills which can help with the problems and worries of the community. Each morning and each afternoon we planned to have a good yarn about a particular theme. These themes came from the talks that were held in the six months leading up to the gathering.

Here are some of the examples of these themes:

Our culture and history

Looking around, there is a lot of sadness in our community about losing our history and our culture. We are losing many of the signs of our history. For example, lots of the houses that were hand built by our forefathers have been pulled down. And as the older people of our community die there is a worry that our culture might go with them.

And yet, there are people around who know a lot about our history and know a lot about our culture. There are many of us who were born on the hill or who were the first generation off the hill. We are fortunate because many of the stories about our history and about our knowledges were passed on to us. These stories and knowledges are precious to us. As long as we have these stories we will know who we are in the Koori community.

We need to pass this knowledge on to others so that we can keep alive a sense of pride in our identity, and our way of life. We need to pass on the stories about our history and our culture to provide a guide to future generations of young people.

  • Which stories about our culture are important for us to hold onto and pass on to our children?
  • Which stories about our history should be known by all our people?
  • What are the knowledges of the Koori community of Narrandera that have survived?
  • What part could everyone play in telling and listening to the stories of our culture and our history?

Mutual respect

In our community there have been many disagreements and arguments. There has been a breakdown in mutual respect and much of the togetherness of our community has been lost.

We need to get this togetherness back again. Togetherness gives us solid ground to stand on. With togetherness we have a chance of being heard by the wider Narrandera community. It is through togetherness that we can stop our heritage being destroyed. And when we are united we are free to go to each other when times are tough, instead of being stuck with shouldering our burdens alone.

We need to reclaim mutual respect and togetherness. There are some signs that this is already beginning to happen. For example, there is now less trouble between our people in public places, and this is a sign that we are taking some steps to build mutual respect. And just the other day there was a meeting of the Wiradjuri Elders Group in which everyone pulled together, and made a decision to forget their differences and to look to the future.

At this meeting seven office bearers were nominated, and a decision was made not to vote on these nominations because this often brings out divisions, not togetherness. Instead of reaching a decision through voting, the people nominated as office bearers were left to work out their responsibilities with each other. This was great. This achievement happened after the death of some of our elders, including Neville (Manny) Lyons, and was in honour of their lives.

We have the ability in our community to have many more breakthroughs like this. We have the ability to reclaim mutual respect and togetherness.

  • What other signs have you noticed that show that mutual respect and togetherness are beginning to be reclaimed?
  • Are there other ways that we can honour some of the elders by rebuilding mutual respect?
  • What are some of the small steps that young people in the community could take to show respect to our older people?
  • What are some of the small steps that older people in the community could take to show respect to our younger people?

Bridging the gap

Sometimes it is hard for the older people in the community to understand the younger generation. And sometimes the children and young people find it hard to understand what the elders are trying to say. So much has changed and it is hard sometimes for people of different ages to come together. There can be a gap between the older people and the younger people.

The young adults of the community have been talking about how they might have a special part to play in all of this. This is what they have been saying:

Those of us who were the first generation off the hill have an understanding of the elders and the ways things used to be. We know lots of the stories and can understand what the older people are talking about. We can also understand the young people and what life is like for them in the community now. We can put these understandings to work in helping the elders and the young people come together. We have the ability to provide a bridge across the generations.

  • How can the young adults of the community come together to play a part in bridging this gap?
  • In what way could the young adults help the older people understand what it’s like to be a young person these days?
  • In what way could the young adults help the young people and children understand what life has been like for the older people in the community?
  • What difference will it make if the young adults of the community are successful in building a bridge across the generations?

Taking our health into our own hands

The health of the people of our Koori community is a concern. Many of our people are dying young. Cancer, heart disease, and alcohol-related deaths are taking our younger people, many of them only in their thirties. This is very painful to us. When our old people die this is hard, but we can see it coming and it is something that we expect. It is different when our younger people die. We can’t prepare for these deaths.

There are many reasons for these deaths. One reason is because we often ignore signs of illness. We might be suffering terribly, but we say there is nothing wrong with us. Sometimes we don’t see a doctor until it is too late. Most of our people don’t ever have check ups. When we do have contact with the health services, very often these services don’t take our health seriously either. There are long waits to get an appointment, then long waits at the clinic, and very short meetings with doctors in which we don’t feel heard. The atmosphere at the medical centre and the hospital often puts our people off and makes us feel put down.

Many of our people have had enough of this situation and believe that things have to change. It is time that we got organised and took measures into our own hands to sort out these problems. Our health is very important. There are lots of possibilities that could be explored.

  • What steps can we take within our community to encourage people to take better care of their health?
  • How can we educate the medical services about what would make them more supportive and friendly to the Koori community?
  • Trust is important when talking about our health. What would help to build trust between the Koori community and the medical services?
  • What else can we do to take our health into our own hands?

Getting together

There was a time when social get-togethers were a big part of community life. We all came together at these events and shared stories and songs and danced together. These events joined us together in a way that we knew we would never be alone, no matter where we were.

Now we don’t have the same opportunities for get-togethers. There are lots of reasons for this, including the fact that many of the public places for such get-togethers are no longer available to us. For example, our community no longer has regular dances, the picture theatre is closed, and there are few channels for us to get together in song. These days people stay at home in their lounges enjoying their stereos, televisions, video recorders, and video games, and don’t mix so much with others.

Even though we haven’t had many opportunities for community-wide get-togethers in recent times, we are still the same people that we always were. We are still all related to each other in one way or another. We still share the same longings and dreams; the same visions and hopes. Times have changed, and we cannot re-live the past, but we can explore new ways of getting together.

  • What is it that people remember about the get-togethers that was special?
  • What ideas do people have about how this specialness could be created again?
  • Who are the people in the Koori community who have special skills in getting people together? What are some of the things that these people do?
  • This gathering is a special sort of get-together. What other events could be organised that would help us to get together again?

Reclaiming parenting skills

Many of our people have had their parenting skills taken from them.

Some of our people were in the stolen generation and when they were taken from their families, they lost touch with the special mothering and fathering skills of their ancestors. They were left only with mission ways.

The parenting skills of other people in our community were closely watched by the welfare. This brought fear and worry. It also undermined the authority of parents, and took away their confidence.

We are now taking steps to reclaim the parenting skills that were taken from us. We are looking for ways that work to give our young people a sense of pride and responsibility. Despite the injustices of the past and all that has happened to separate us from our children, we are now taking a stand to turn things around so that the future is better for our grandchildren and great grandchildren.

  • What steps can we take to help some the people of our community reclaim the mothering and fathering skills that were stolen from them?
  • What can we do to help the parents of our community get back the confidence that was undermined?
  • How did we manage to keep in touch with these parenting skills despite everything that was done to us?
  • What are some of the ways in which we are re-learning these skills?

Sharing news

Koori people have always had their own ways of getting news out to people. In the old days it was like they had their own special telegraph system, one that didn’t need wires and poles. News seemed to travel almost as fast as light on this telegraph system. This telegraph system without wires played a very important part in giving Koori people a sense of connectedness, in keeping them in touch with important information, and in keeping communities strong.

As Koori people moved out of communities and spread around the district, it became important to find other ways of staying connected. In Narrandera, Regi Greedy ran a newsletter that gave news to our community about current events, about births, about birthdays, about weddings and other celebrations, and about important community information. Regi would bring this news alive by visiting families and getting photographs of the people who were in his news items. He also included amusing pieces that reflected our special Koori sense of humour. This Koori humour, and our gift of laughter, is part of our ability to survive. It has seen us through hard times, and has been important to our healing from loss. Regi’s newsletter helped keep us in touch with this humour and with this gift of laughter.

Unfortunately Regi Greedy’s newsletter no longer exists, and because of this lots of our people miss out on important information. It is time for us to take steps to fix this serious breakdown of communication in our community. Regi Greedy showed us one way that we might do this. It is important that we now get our heads together about other ways that this might be done.

  • If Regi was here now, what sort of ideas might he come up with to share the news of the community?
  • What other ideas for sharing news could be tried?
  • What are some of the ways that Koori humour and the gift of laughter are still strong in Narrandera?
  • How could this Koori humour and gift of laughter be shared more widely in the community?
  • What news about this community gathering would be good to share with the wider Koori community?
  • How could this be done?

The role of the listening team

A listening team was present at the gathering. It was the job of this listening team to carefully note the important knowledges and skills spoken about by the people at the gathering.

The discussions were arranged in the following way:

Stages:

  1. The people of the community will meet in a large group. Representatives of the community will introduce the theme for the morning or afternoon, and share some stories that fit with the theme that has been chosen.
  2. People will then go into smaller groups and talk about some of their own stories that fit with the theme. A person from the listening team will be at each of these smaller meetings.
  3. People will then meet again in the large group, and the listening team will retell some of the stories that they heard in the smaller groups. The listening team will focus on the special knowledges and problem-solving skills that were heard in these stories.
  4. In the large group, people will then talk about what they heard from the listening team that got their attention.

While it sounds simple, this telling and retelling of stories is a very powerful thing to do. People begin to develop a much stronger and much richer understanding of what they already knew. As well as this, people usually get lots of ideas about how this knowledge can be put to work on the problems and worries of the community.

Day One

The day began with a fantastic dance by Bianca, Taminya, Siobahn and Narikah, and then Taminya sang the song, ‘My Island Home’. The audience responded with lots of clapping and applause.

Jennifer and Bevan then went out the front and sang a song which is very important to the community. This beautiful song is called ‘The Hill’. It is about the Sandhills and was written by Uncle Cecil. All the young people gathered around to hear this song. It was a moving event.

To listen to this song, click here.

The Hill
by Cecil Lyons

There’s a place in this world we know as the hill
To see it now you wouldn’t know it at all
It’s a place where we were born and bred
A place in this world, and we love it still

It’s only a place of sand and grass
Where we sang and danced, in the past
Where we drank and ate, and had our fill
A place us Koori’s know as the hill

We’d run around naked in the dust and the sand
All played together, and then made plans
That was our life back then in our younger days
Didn’t know much about the white man’s ways

It’s only a place of sand and grass
Where we sang and danced, in the past
Where we drank and ate, and had our fill
A place us Koori’s know as the hill

But now we’ve all grown up and moved into town
And maybe a certain happening, makes us feel down
But we love the place, and that’s why we go back
Just off that old Leeton road, and up that old dirt track

Yes it’s only a place of sand and grass
Where we sang and danced, in the past
Where we drank and ate, and had our fill
Yes a place us Koori’s know as the hill

The last song in the opening was called ‘Going back home’. This song was written this week from the words of thecommunity. Everyone was given a copy of the lines of this song and we all joined together to sing it.

To listen to this song, click here

Going home
by the Narrandera Koori Community
(facilitated by David Denborough)

Well our grief has always been with us
But so have our healing ways
We may no longer be living on the hill
But we’re going home today

To tell stories of history and culture
Of struggle, strife and strength
To reclaim what is precious to us
In our own way

Well our grief has always been with us
But so have our healing ways
We may no longer be living on the hill
But we’re going home today

There’s room here for all of us
Like in the old ways
There are stories to be told
Songs to be sung
Like in the olden days

Well our grief has always been with us
But so have our healing ways
We may no longer be living on the hill
But we’re going home today
Well, we’re coming home today
Yes we’re coming home today

After the songs, the following theme was read out by Taminya:

Listening to our young people and children:

Our young people and children have a good understanding of what needs to be done for them in the Narrandera community. They know what their lives are like and they know what their friends are going through. They have lots of ideas about what can be done about young people’s problems. Sometimes they come up with good ideas that can help older people too.

But often young people have trouble finding people who will listen to them. Our young people and children don’t get asked very much about their ideas. Instead, they are expected to hear out what parents, grand parents, and community elders think about these things. Because of this, young people don’t get much of a chance to share their ideas and feelings.

It seems it is now time for this to change. Lots of people in our community, both older and younger people, are saying that it’s time to find ways of listening to the young people so that their ideas can be heard.

Then Taminya asked the other young people the following questions:

  • How can we listen more to young people?
  • What could be done to invite and support young people to share their understandings and feelings with the adults and the more senior people in our community?
  • What would this mean for the young people of our community?
  • What would this mean for the older people in our community?

The young people then spoke about a whole range of ideas in relation to these questions. They said things like:

  • One way of listening to young people is to ask for their advice
  • Another way is to have a sharing of ideas
  • Some young people spoke about how they would love if it there were more things to do to keep them off the streets
  • And if there were more trips to other places
  • We could have more get-togethers like this
  • Some of the young people spoke about how they had put a lot of effort into developing their dances and how much it would mean if they could be taken places to perform these
  • One young person then said how they would like to learn traditional Wiradjuri dances
  • The young people said that if some of these things happened then the older people would not need to worry about them so much, and they would not need to growl at them.

After the young people had finished speaking, the listening team went out the front and made some reflections about what they had heard.

Here are some of the thoughts of the reflecting team:

  • What a delight it was to hear the lively, strong, and thoughtful contribution made in this meeting by the young people. So many clear and practical ideas were shared. It also seemed like the young people really knew where they wanted to go in life. They really had some clear sense of direction and purpose to their lives. I wonder what they would say about this? How would they describe where they are wanting to go with their lives?
  • I know in my life I don’t very often ask the young people how they may want to contribute to something for everyone. Hearing what the young people said today makes me want to ask more in the future. It was a real eye-opener to me to see how much the young people had to offer in terms of ideas and advice.
  • The young people also had particular skills that they showed in the meeting. They listened really carefully, were able to speak up, and had lots of different ideas. The young people had very strong and clear voices. I wonder how the young people have been able to develop these skills. Have they been around people in the community who have helped them to develop these skills? How have the young people developed all the different skills that they showed today? How have they come to have such strong and clear voices? I’d like to talk with the young people more about how this has come about.
  • It was really clear that the young people here have a whole lot of ideas and that us older people don’t have to be alone in trying to figure out everything. As an older person, that sounds like a bit of a relief!
  • I appreciated the ways the younger people were willing to go through this process. Some might have thought they’d prefer to be outside or elsewhere, but they went through this process, they were a part of the talking. This seemed important to me. I’m not sure what it meant. Does it mean that they have a good sense of responsibility?
  • It seemed as if the younger people were including us older people in their thinking and their conversations.

The conversation was then opened up to all the elders in the room and Uncle Michael Lyons responded to the young women saying that they wanted to learn some of the traditional dances. He told the following story:

The story of the kangaroo dance …

A long time ago, the Wiradjuri people couldn’t catch kangaroo. Every time someone would try to hunt a kangaroo, they’d get close but then the kangaroo would see them and jump away. Kangaroos are pretty smart animals.

During this time most kids would spend their days down by the river or playing with boomerangs, but one little kid was different. This kid was a little weird. He was different from all the other young people. Whenever he went up and tried to play with other kids they would tease him and make fun of him. This would make him really sad and lonely.

One day, when he was crying, a koala saw him and spoke to him. The koala said, ‘What’s wrong?’ And the young person said, ‘No one will play with me because they think I am strange’. The koala said him, ‘Do you know the reason why no one in your tribe can catch kangaroo?’ The little boy did not know, but he was very pleased to talk with the koala so he just listened as the koala explained.

The koala told the young boy that it was because the people did not know how to move like the kangaroo. They didn’t have a kangaroo dance. The koala said that until they had a kangaroo dance they would never be able to catch them.

The koala then took some time to teach the young boy how to do the kangaroo dance. After he had learnt he taught others and the people were no longer hungry. They learnt how to move like the kangaroo. So, the little boy who everyone used to tease … he was really smarter than all the others.

That’s the story of the kangaroo dance.

As Uncle Michael told this story he started to share with the young people how to start to learn the kangaroo dance.

There was a lot of laughter as various young people started to move like kangaroos, scratching themselves, jumping around, and finally being carried back to the campfire to be eaten!

After this other older people spoke about how they had heard the young people say how important it is for older people to listen. They also spoke about what a lot of potential these young people have. How they are really good kids.

The young people then spoke again. Here are some of the things they said:

  • Listening to the older people speak made me feel like they were really going to do it.
  • It was good to hear that the older people realised what we are saying.
  • It was really good to have people listen.

We finished off the day with a new song that had just been written. It is about all the conversations that had taken place over the day

To listen to this song, click here.

The dancing will continue

First there were the dancers
Then a song about an island home
Then the elders’ sang Cecil’s song
About the hill of our own

Then we sang together
About going home in our own ways
How our grief has always been with us
But so have our healing ways

And then young people spoke
Their voices loud and clear
Their ideas were almost dancing
In this tent, in this air

And then the kangaroos joined us
As they did long ago
And the dancing will continue
That’s one thing we surely know

As this song was being played, one of the elders danced with one of the young people at the front of the tent. It was beautiful to see.

This was the end of day one! After Taminya was thanked for the role that she had played, everyone went outside, as it had stopped raining.

Other conversations on day one

Throughout the day, other conversations also took place over cups of tea or cigarettes. Some of the things that were talked about included:

Coming to the sandhills

Some of the young women spoke about how they didn’t often come to the Sandhills but when they do they really like it … ‘It’s a special place’, they said. ‘Some of this is because Aunty Lucy is there. Some of it is because of all the things that happened here in the past.’

Songs in the community

People talked about writing songs and singing songs – in particular how songs have been written at important times, like when someone has died. The songs and singing seem an important reminder of people who are no longer with us – but whose songs remain.

Passing on our history

A number of things happened today that were about passing on our history. Uncle Mick brought out the picture book which is about the story his father used to tell about the Bunyip. This book is a way of passing on the teachings and stories of the past. It connects us to the old ways. We are now finding new ways to pass the old ways on – like books, and songs, and even looking at Regi’s old newsletters and the old photos. These are new ways of passing our history on to the young ones.

Coming to the river

Many people spoke about going down to the river and the meaning of this:

‘When we were young we always went down as a big mob to the river and everyone was safe. Kids knew the stories and ways of being safe near water.’

Several of the men talked about going to the river after work, especially during summer and finding the river a beautiful place to be. Often they catch cod which should be 40-60 pounds to make a good catch. They use worms and winged grubs for bait. Some of the sons and grandsons go with the older men to fish. This is a tradition that has occurred here for many years, and it still continues.

Day Two

After playing again some of the songs from the first day, we began with Aunty Jennifer reading out the theme, ‘Our Healing Ways’:

Our healing ways

Grief is a big problem in our community. Recently we have had many deaths and these have been very difficult for us to cope with. This is because many of these people played a big part in keeping the Narrandera Koori community together.

Although grief has always been with us, we used to have lots of very good ways of dealing with it as a community. When we were all living on the hill, people got a lot of emotional and practical support in times of grief. There was always someone to have a yarn with, and the talking was healing. As well as this, a lot of respect was shown to families through these times, and even our young children knew how to play a part in this. This was not a time for hurrying through things. Everybody knew that helping people to get though their grief was the responsibility of the community, and they gave whatever time was needed.

These ways of dealing with grief were healing of our people. But when we moved away from the hill and the community was split up, we lost touch with many of these ways of dealing with grief. Now, because people are not getting enough emotional support in times of grief, the grief stays with them. It sits on their shoulders everywhere they go. This leads to a lot of disagreements between our people, and brings lots of stress and anger to our community. Also, because the emotional support just isn’t there, many of our people look for other forms of support (for example, alcohol), and this can cause heaps of trouble.

Lots of people can still remember the healing ways that worked very well before we left the hill, and it is now time to get these back and get them working to heal our people. Recovering these healing ways is not about turning back the clock, but its about refusing to let go of what is precious. In recovering and honouring these healing ways we are not only doing something about the survival of our community and about the emotional wellbeing of our people, but we are also passing on a special gift to our future generations.

  • What are some of the ways of healing that we remember and treasure?
  • Which stories about these special healing ways would we like our children to know?
  • Who were the people who were known to be good healers, good listeners? What were the things that they used to do?
  • What extra steps could we take to care for the children of the community in times of grief? How could we make sure that they are helped in mourning those they have lost?

In response to these questions, the group shared a whole range of stories and ideas about loss and healing.

  • People spoke of a range of special mourning ways and grieving ways that used to occur when everyone lived on the hill:

“When someone was grieving, they would walk out onto the hill and unashamedly cry. Everyone would understand and appreciate what the crying was about. It wasn’t about trying to make these tears going away. It was accepted that people would feel great sadness when someone they loved had died.”

“Some of our people used to wear black for a year.”

“There was a custom not to say the name of the person who has died for a certain time.”

“Whenever someone died we would all come together as a community.”

 “There was follow up and caring for grieving families.”

 “Children were included in the whole process.”

  • Various people also spoke of what used to happen after funerals:

“Everyone would gather at the house of the person who had died. The men, women, and children of the community would all be there. The men would often be outside under a tree while the women would be inside. There was a lot of connectedness. We had our ways of doing things and the children could see this. They were a part of it too.”

  • People spoke about some of the regrets and sadness they have about the current situation. They spoke of how people are not as connected now and that alcohol and arguments now sometimes accompany grief and loss. There was also regret about how kids are no longer as included in the grieving process as they once were.
  • At the same time, people also spoke about some of the ways in which people still take steps to honour those who have died and those who are dying:

“I’ve noticed that no-one drinks before a funeral. There is a still a real respect for funerals in this way.”

  • People also told stories about how Koori families often go and stay in the hospital when their loved-one is dying:

“Many people stay at the hospital 24 hours a day to be with their loved-ones. While this is clearly difficult for the hospital staff to cope with, it is very important for us.”

  • People also spoke about the different attitudes to death and dying shared by the Koori community. Some of these included:

“While some people believe that dying people need to be kept quiet and have rest, we believe it is important to talk about all the good things they have done in their lives. Sometimes this is a loud process with a lot of laughter!”

  • People spoke in some detail about the differences between Koori understandings of death and dying and the understandings of the workers in the hospital. The hospital staff believe that the hospital should be a quiet place, and because the hospital is not set up for large family groups to be staying there for any length of time, the staff can get upset with the Koori families who are there to spend time with their loved ones. This can have real effects on grieving Koori families.If the families feel unwelcome in the hospital this can contribute to arguments and difficulties in relationships for Koori people. It also makes the dying and grief process much more difficult than it needs to be. A number of great ideas were discussed about how this could change including the hospital setting up a special place where Koori families could spend time with their loved-ones where they don’t need to worry about being quiet. It was thought that this would be good for both the Koori people and the hospital staff.
  • Aunty Lucy commented that these differences in understanding between the hospital and Koori people probably also explain why Koori people in the past did not go to the hospital.
  • A lot of beautiful things were said about what Koori people believe is important around the time of death:

“When you die, you want to be with your own.”

“When someone you love is dying, you want to talk about the good job they have done. You want to talk about all the good things your elders have done.”

“We talk about the funny things too – that’s often what we remember about people. It’s important.”

“We don’t believe that people when they are dying need rest. We’re expecting them to go any minute, so instead we talk and joke with them. This is an act of honouring their life.”

  • A suggestion was made about asking the kids for their ideas about grieving. Everyone thought that the young people would have some good ideas as to what helps them cope with losses in their lives.
  • Some ideas were shared about how other Aboriginal communities are finding ways of dealing with grief. Some communities have created their own ways of doing funerals and burial rituals. These are ways of making it possible to honour the ongoing relationships that people have with loved-ones who have died.Some people mentioned that some of this happens in Narrandera too – especially in relation to Uncle Reg. Lots of stories have been told over the first two days and nights (especially around the campfire) about some of the precious people who have passed on. There are lots of ways in which people are remembered and treasured after they have died.
  • People also spoke in detail about what the loss and sadness feels like:

“The sense of loss is something I live with every day”.

“It’s like it’s a part of my spirit, or even within my body”.

“Although I’ll never get used to it I have learned to live with this sense of loss and sadness”.

“When I think about what grief means, I think it means honour, integrity, a place to fall over and sit down”.

  • Some people said that what was most important for them was telling stories about those who have been lost – especially the funny moments and the times of joy.
    • At this point the group shared a range of very funny stories about people who have passed away and also about funerals! We were all laughing loudly.
    • Uncle Mick talked about one funeral where the service was going on and on forever, and his mate said to him … “must be talking about his work history.” This was very funny because ever since Uncle Mick was small he had heard about how this guy had never had a job!
    • Uncle Mick also told a story about the funeral he went to at a Catholic Church. Most of the churches in town are Church of England, so to go to the Catholic Church was pretty unusual. During the service, there was a huge thunder and lightning storm. Every time the priest said something about the woman who had died, a huge clap of thunder would shake the building and Uncle Mick would think – whatever he just said about her couldn’t have been true!This kept happening every time the priest said something about the woman who had died. Even when she was placed into the grave the same thing happened – huge thunder and lightning. But as soon as the earth was put over her, the storm finished, the sky cleared up, and the sun came out. Uncle Michael remembered thinking at the time that when he died he’d like to have his funeral at the Catholic Church because they put on a very impressive show there!
  • There were also some lovely rememberings of Regi, Des, and Tabby and all the Park Rangers.

When the group had finished talking, the listening team came together and offered a re-telling of what they had heard. Here are some of the things that they said:

“I really noticed how many different skills and ideas people had about grieving and dying. I was especially moved by the conversations about the hospital and about how whole families are determined to stay with their loved ones when they are dying even though the hospital is not set up for this.”

“I was moved by the many stories that people were telling about those who have passed away. These people were obviously very dear to these here and they are clearly still so cherished. The presence of these people has seemed very honoured all day.”

“Throughout the conversation it seemed to me like there was a combination of grief, pain and humour. This combination seemed precious. I was wondering what is the way of seeing the world that makes this humour possible? Aboriginal humour across this country remains so strong. It seems that this humour enables people to stand in a different place in relation to grief. It seems very powerful to me. Aboriginal humour has also influenced all Australians lives. I reckon white Australians have a lot to learn from Aboriginal people about how to use humour to deal with grief. I’m going to think a lot more about this in my own life.

“Koori humour is pretty similar to our Nunga humour and I loved the laughter that was a part of this conversation. I also appreciated the stories people told about how things are now compared to how things used to be. Out of all the things I heard, I think honour, respect and humour were the words that shone through for me.”

“I appreciated the really practical ideas that some people had about what could make a difference in the hospital, They spoke about what it would be like to have a place where Koori families could stay at the hospital, where they could be as loud as they like and spend time with their loved one. They spoke about how this would make such a difference to grieving and healing.”

“I was very touched with people’s expressions of loss. This sense of loss seemed to relate to how treasured these people who have passed away were to the community. These loved lost-ones must have been very dear, very precious. The pain that people spoke of also seemed to show an ability to stay in connection with those people. The people here are not turning away from those who have died. Instead, they are continuing to honour them and how much they mean to them. In the culture I come from, people so often talk about moving on, or letting go of lost loved ones, and this can seem so dishonouring. The ways people were talking today were different from this and I found this very moving. Even when people were talking about loss and pain, I found this moving because it showed how much they cared about the people who have passed on.”

“I was also moved by the fact that people here still acknowledge the contributions of those who have died. People still talk about Reg’s newsletters, Cecil’s songs, and all sorts of other ways that people in the past contributed to the life of the community. The legacies of these people are clearly still well and truly alive.”

“I wonder what those lost loved-ones would be saying if they could hear this conversation …”

The group then made some reflections about what it was like to hear from the listening team:

  •  Some people reflected very humorously about what their loved-ones might say if they had been there!
  • A number of people said that it was really good to hear about other people’s grief, because “it makes me realise that I’m not the only one feeling this way. We all have our grief and talking together about this is helping.”
  • People began to share some particular experiences of grief. One group member shared the story of his coming to terms with his partner’s death. It has been a long journey but one that he has honoured and taken a lot of care with. Someone else told a story of one woman who after a death cried for four whole weeks and then decided that for her this was enough. There was a sense that people have their different ways of dealing with loss, although we are all human so that there are some things we have in common.
  • There was some discussion about the differences between the experiences of women and men. And one of the men present said, ‘I’ve been to so many funerals that I’ve just blocked it out. I’m numb’.
  • The group also began to share more fond memories of some of the people of the community who died quite recently. These were humourous stories told with great love. It was as if these people were with us in the tent and that they were once again bringing laughter to the Hill.

During this time, a song had been written out of the words that people were saying. This was then sung to the group.

To listen to this song, click here.

We remember those who’ve left us

No one drinks before a funeral
As death comes near
We still gather around
The staff may complain
But we’re here to stay
We won’t let our loved ones down
Do they need to rest?
Well we don’t think so
We need to talk
About the good they’ve done
We’ll make noise
Raise the roof with laughter
The walls of the hospital
Might just fall down

What is grief about?
Honour, integrity
A place to fall over and sit down

We remember those who’ve left us
Left us with their memories
Left us with their songs and stories

Other stories from Day Two:

Let’s go exploring – what the younger children said

Some of the older kids, Nathan, Brooke, Aloma, and Latika led the way down the dirt track towards the river. ‘Can we go up to the old house?’, they yelled and so we headed of to the old house to explore. Dylan, Jamarl, Tegan, Josh, Darcylee, and Keden followed and played along the way.

The old house, Brooke told us, was built by ‘Popsy Billy’. ‘He built it himself and he and Nanny Lilly lived there.’ They had 12 kids and Brooke and Aloma knew all of their names. Brooke said her Dad, Owen, was the second youngest and we heard that Uncle Michael (Mick) was fourth. We also heard that Poopy Billy died after being the army.

Many of the kids had not been to the house for a while and were surprised to find part of the house knocked down. They were keen to explore and they told many stories as they did. This house, they said, ‘Wasn’t much to look at on the outside, but was really, really good inside.’ They remembered getting together and drinking hot chocolate around the big fire. They knew that all the boys slept in one room and all the girls slept in another room.

Then they found a book about silk working and remembered how Nanny Lilly was really good at making silk. Aloma wanted to have this book and she took it home. They found some other treasures too – an old hat, a key and some kitchen jars which were collected taken back. These memories all seemed to mean so much to the children who remembered this house where Bill and Lill’s signature remains on one of the walls.

Old ways of living

A number of people spoke about the hunting that used to take place and the ways in which people lived off the land. Often the local Koori people did not have the money to shop and so living off the land was the only alternative. There was talk of the wild mushrooms, fish, lobsters, swan eggs, yabbies, and even turtle soup and possum meat. Some people also mentioned Old Man Weed which is now being used in research about skin cancer. The healers used to mix this weed up with gum leaves and apply it to any cuts or scratches. This meant that there were no scars on any of the children because it worked so well. Every house also had a fig tree or an apple tree – ‘You used to be able to plan your trips around eating at all the different fruit trees’.

‘Jewel lizard’

We heard how Narrandera in Wiradjuri language means ‘Jewel Lizard’. This was a special animal to the Nurrungjhar people. Owen and Uncle Mick carve lizards, goannas, pythons, and other animals into the beautiful didgeridoos and boomerangs that they make. These didgeridoos and boomerangs are sold all over Australia and people all over the world treasure them because of their beauty. We sat and thought about this for a while. People from all over the world play didgeridoos made on the Hill in Narrandera. That seems pretty special.

Around the campfire

In the evening, we sat around the campfire and heard more stories about what life used to be like on the Hill. We heard about the houses, the church, family life, musicians, and also some hilarious stories about some of the well-loved characters of the Narrandera Koori community. We are still smiling about the stories that were told.

January Christmas

We also heard about January Christmas which is, we hope, going to be the title of a book that Aunty Lucy will write one day. Back many years ago, the young Koori people of Narrandera didn’t know much about Christmas and Christmas trees. But every year, after December 25th, the Koori kids would find in the tip a whole lot of trees that were decorated with tinsel and streamers and beautiful colours. The young Kooris thought these trees were beautiful and would collect them and bring them up to the Hill to care for them. They’d even add more decorations made out of tins. These Christmas trees would be up on the hill throughout January, and that’s why Aunty Lucy’s book is going to be called January Christmas.

A reflection

This story and some others that were shared reminded Aunty Barb (a member of the listening team) of some of the stories she has heard from her mother: ‘My mother always used to tell me that going to the tip was like going to Woolworths! There was so much to discover and find there. People are so wasteful. There are many treasures that can be found in what others have thrown away.’

Day Three

This day began with visits to a range of places around town to catch people up on what had happened over the week and to arrange a meeting to take place on the Hill at 2 pm.

A wide range of people turned up for this afternoon meeting which was a wonderful occasion of catching up and sharing aspects of the local history.

People said many beautiful things about Koori culture and families:

  • ‘Our culture is never far from our heart wherever we may be’
  • ‘If our people are in trouble in distance places, we always find ways to get them home. No matter where you are, if you want to come home, someone will always find the money for you. It will be there the next day. People pool together. There is always a way to come home.’
  • ‘And if children are abandoned, there is always someone who will take them in. There’s always someone who will take other people’s kids in when they can’t live with their parents. No matter what they’ve done they are still our kids. In this way we have a beautiful culture to live in.’
  • ‘Our extended families are special. If it gets too hard with your parents you can always go and stay with your aunty of uncle. They will give you a feed and say – we have a bed for you. Koori people look after their own.’

People then went on to share stories from when they were young. Various people spoke about how other families had taken them in, offered them food and a bed to sleep in when they were small. There was a lot of discussion about this as people remembered the ways in which the community cared for each others’ children.
One final song was written from these conversations. It was called ‘Bring us home’.

To listen to this song, click here.

Here are the lyrics.

Bring us home

Wherever we may be
Our culture travels with us
Wherever we may be
When we want to come home
Someone will help
They’ll bring us home

When we were young
We’d move between the houses
Aunties and uncles
Would give us tucker and a bed

Now we’re talking in circles
Just like our grandparents did
Treasuring history
For it is our legacy

After a barbeque dinner we all sat around the campfire. Here’s a reflection from one of those who was there:

‘It’s like a foundation has been built this week – it’s like the hub of a wheel and now there’s the chance to build all the spokes. Everyone’s got something different to contribute to the spokes.’

There was smoke in our eyes and laughter all around as we listened by the fire. Our bellies were full after a big feed as we heard yarns of days gone by – about who lived where, and who left when, and how things were better because everyone was together.

Yarns kept tumbling out one after the other and there we were together.
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Recording the songs

During the afternoon, time was taken to record all the songs that had been sung during the gathering. We came together in the big shed, practiced our singing, guitar playing, rhythm sticks, and didgerido and then made the recordings! At one stage, there were four generations of Wiradjuri people all contributing to the recordings. It was as scene that will be remembered by all those that saw it. By the end, we had recorded five songs:

1. Going home
2. The dancing will continue
3. We remember those who’ve left us
4. The Hill, by Cecil Lyons
5. Bring us home

These songs were then copied onto cds and tapes so that each Koori family in Narrandera will be able to listen to these songs. It is hoped that these songs might act as a permanent memory of the gathering and of the spirit of the community.

Acknowledgements

This write up

With the permission of the community, many of the stories and knowledges were collected and have been written up by David Denborough into this report. The community owns this report, and it is now available as a permanent record of the gathering and of the knowledges and skills of the community.

The following people took part in the gathering:

We have tried to include here a list of people who were at the gathering. We made this list up late one night around the campfire and it is very likely that some people’s names have been left out. We have left space at the end of the list so if there are any names that were left out please write them down here. Thanks!

Adults:

Hank Lyons, Elizabeth Lyons, Deli Bright, Jennifer Johnson (Snr), Ossie Ingram (Snr), Ossie Ingram (Jnr), Jennifer Johnson (Jnr), Bevan Bright, Michael Lyons (Snr), Michael Lyons (Jnr), Margaret Prior, Roger McKay, Lucy Lyons, Marion Lyons, Kathleen Harrison, Laura Lyons, Lauren Barlow, Donna Charles, Roger Greedy, Owen Lyons, Mark Higgins, Michelle Harrison, Rosemary Hollis, Shawn Lyons, Nicole Simpson, Donald Prior, Scott Lyons, Cecily Lyons, Troy Prior, Warwick Williams, Sue Lyons, Lorraine Longford, Bessie Briggs, Cedric Briggs, Shane Millard, Don Prior, Diane O’Neil, Maria Johnson, Terese Johnson, Bernice Harrison, Bronwyn Lyons.

Kids:

Narikah Johnson, Taminya Johnson, Joshua Charles, Brent Lyons, Blair Charles, Siobahn Johnson, Latoya May, Steven Mathews, Gregory Mathews, Ashley Reddell, Nathan Smith, Latika Charles, Aloma Lyons, Amanda Lyons, Jamie Simpson, Yasmin Johnson, Jamara Johnson, Tara Lyons, Bianca Barlow, Amanda Barlow, Tara Barlow, Brooke Lyons, Darcylee, Dylan, Tegan & Keden, were also at the gathering.

The listening team were: Barbara Wingard, Maggie Carey, David Denborough, Shona Russell, and Michael White.

Thanks to: Bronwyn Lyons and Tim Agius for their work behind the scenes, to Uncle Mick Lyons and Aunty Lucy Lyons for their hospitality, to the Riverina Aboriginal Medical & Dental Service and the Aboriginal Division of the NSW Health Department.

Add your stories

After reading this document, there might be stories and reflections that you would like to record. Not everyone from the Narrandera Koori Community was able to come to the gathering, but everyone has stories that are important to share and to remember. Please send your stories to us and we will then include them up here on this web page! You can either email them to us or post them to us at Hutt St PO Box 7192 Adelaide, South Australia 5000.

Follow-up report

This is a brief report on the follow up to the Narrandera Koori Narrative Gathering of April 2002. This follow-up was undertaken on November 6th, 7th, and 8th 2002. The feedback received from community members touched on all of the themes that were featured in the program for the gathering. These notes provide some account of this feedback.

This feedback was gained chiefly, but not only, in consultations with:

Jennifer Johnson, Bevan Bright, Dell Johnson, Lucy Lyons, Mick Lyons, Bessie Briggs, Cedric Briggs, Roger McKay, Laura Lyons, Taminya Fisher.

The meeting

Everyone commented on the quality of the conversations that were had during the gathering. They said that it was good to sit around talking about the themes, and that people could just relax in these conversations, knowing that they were achieving something without being weighed down by heavy thoughts. It wasn’t that people couldn’t talk about what was sad. It was more that people could talk about their sorrow in ways that provided them with a sense of relief, and with a sense of healing being done. This sort of talking extended into the campfire discussions in the evenings, and prompted the recollection of many stories and songs that were of the history of the community. Everyone had the sense that they were witnessing many powerful healing moments.

‘It was great that people could just relax in this talking, and not have to worry about being weighed down. People could just be themselves. They didn’t have to put on an act. In town they are required to be like white people, but up on the hill at this gathering they could just be themselves. It was great.’

‘It made us realize that we are still very strong culturally and spiritually. We still have a very strong connection with our culture. Sometimes we don’t realize what we know, but it is all still with us. We now feel more sure of this.’

Bridging the generations

The generation gap between people in the Narrandera Koori community had been of particular concern. This was a concern that many people had voiced in the consultations leading up to the gathering, and during the gathering itself. As this generation gap was contributing to lots of misunderstanding, stress, and conflict, it was considered of vital importance to address this. In the follow up consultations, virtually everybody talked about the part that the gathering had played in closing this gap, and in providing a foundation for new understandings.

“For young and old to come together in grieving and healing doesn’t happen very often. During this gathering the older generation realized that the younger generation also had their own grief to get through as well. When I was a child I wasn’t allowed to grieve at all, but I hadn’t realized that I wasn’t properly recognizing the fact that the grief of the younger generation of today still wasn’t being understood. This meeting opened my own eyes to this.”

“The young and the old don’t do much together anymore, at least not over an extended time, like over days. So, in many ways, at least in my lifetime, this meeting was a first. The young and old were together over days, and they learned from each other, and found ways to tolerate each other, and found ways to respect their differences.”

“It just doesn’t happen for young and old to get together in this way. It was really important for us elders to pick up on the awareness of our young people. They can really see things as they are, and have strong voices on what is unjust and unfair. Times have changed so much, and it was wonderful to see so much leadership material in our young people.”

“This meeting really made us stop and realize that we have to listen to the younger ones. They know so much more than we usually give them credit for.”

“The young people’s contribution was really fantastic. It took my breath away. I would love to see more of this. It could make such a difference to all of us Kooris.”

“It is all of us together. I don’t think of it as just one. It’s all of us. We all did heaps. ‘Cause, without us it wouldn’t have been the meeting that it was. In a way we made it work. How we communicated with everybody, we made it real. Just us being there. When you look at elders having a meeting you just see a meeting, it’s normal. But when there are kids there doing their own thing, and also getting involved, it is something different. Something real. That’s probably what makes it real, us being there and talking with everybody, making it different. Making something different that’s not usually made different, ’cause things stay the same. But it changed, and it was really good.”

Stories and songs

Many of the stories told during the gathering were put together in a report. This report drew out the major themes and provided a sense of direction for many of the people who participated in the gathering. As well as this, many of the beautiful and touching words and phrases expressed by the people of the gathering were collected and taken in to verse and song. CDs and audiotapes of these songs were distributed around the Narrandera Koori community on Friday evening at the end of the gathering. The record of these stories and songs has been especially important to the people of the community.

‘I am always playing the CD of the songs of the gathering. I play them to everybody. It really is something special to hear these songs. They are about our community, about what we know, about our spirituality. Listening to these songs always gives me a boost.”

“The report has been very important to me and to our community. I share copies of these reports to visitors. The stories of this report provide people with a great introduction to our community. They provide people with a great introduction to what we are aiming for here. Sharing these stories and aims by showing people copies of this report always feeds my hope.”

“These stories and songs will play a part in laying down a foundation for the next generations. A foundation for them to talk about their history and culture with pride. A foundation that will help them deal with stress. A foundation for the sort of talk that will provide them with opportunities to relax with each other.”

Next step

Many people considered this gathering to be a beginning of a process of healing and rejuvenation for the Narrandera Koori community. All of those consulted in the follow up meetings were unanimous about this sentiment. Those who attended the gathering reported that they consistently hear expressions of regret from those of the community who didn’t attend. During the follow up consultations, there were lots of thoughts about how this regret could be avoided on future occasions; thoughts about how the community as a whole could be more completely informed about any future event like this that might be planned, and thoughts about how to engage people from all sectors of the community.

‘To me, this was a beginning, and a really important one at that. I can’t state strongly enough what an important achievement this was. Something like this is really big. It was really significant that we could come together in this way and achieve what we did. I would really like to see a follow up to this gathering. I know our community is ready for this now.’

‘This was the first event like this in our community. All of those people who didn’t come to the gathering regret not coming. When I share the songs with others, they say: “I could sing these songs!” When I share the stories with others, they say: “These are our stories. I could contribute to these!” When I ask why they didn’t come, they say: “Why didn’t you invite me!”‘

“I know that the people in this Koori community want to see another event like this one. I know that they would all come. I think it is the Koori way – Kooris need time to suss things out before making a decision to step into things. When they do make a decision to get with something they really get with it in a big way.”

“When people realized that this meeting wasn’t about talking about death and loss in a heavy way, but in a way that would give them a lot of relief, they all said that they should have come too. When the people who didn’t come to the meeting realized that this meeting was about their own stories and about our own special Koori ways, they felt that they had really missed out on something important.”

Reflections from others

During the follow up, a videotape of reflections on the gathering was presented to members of the Narrandera Koori community. These were recorded reflections from specific people from the wider community, and which were principally responses to the stories and the songs of the gathering. The people participating in these reflections spoke of how these stories and songs had touched their own lives, and about what this had meant to them. They also spoke of how the ripples of these stories and songs were awakening of their own stories and songs about life. Members of the Narrandera Koori community found this videotape to be powerfully acknowledging of their stories and songs. It also contributed to a strong sense of solidarity with other peoples of the world.

‘It was good to see other people realize that we still have our stories and songs with us, and that no one can take these away from us. It was good to experience this sharing with these other people. We all have our hills to climb, and it is a good feeling to have the company of others in this, especially when these people are from so far away.’

“There was something about watching this tape that brought back yet more memories. These were memories of those gone, so they were sad. But they were also happy memories at the same time. As I watched the tape I could see, really see, Cec strumming his guitar. I could see Neville getting around with just one shoe on. That was very funny.”

‘This videotape made you feel good in yourself. What the African American woman had to say was particularly important to me.’

“Our stories and songs must have been pretty powerful to get the point across in this way – all the way across the state to Adelaide, and all the way across the ocean to North America. To hear Major Sumner speak about what touched him, and to hear the people in North America speak about what touched them, made me realize what an affinity and a shared spirituality that we all have with each other.”

Summary

To summarize, community members said that they were glad that the gathering had taken place. It had contributed to important realizations not only about their own lives and the lives of their kin, but also to important realizations about the life of the community.

There had been some concern ahead of the event that a gathering with some focus on grief and healing from the many losses experienced by the families of the community might be quite a heavy experience for community members. This caused many people to hesitate over their decisions about whether or not to participate. This was a concern that was rapidly dissolved within the context of the event itself.

Others had been concerned about whether their voices would be heard in such a meeting. This was particularly true for the young people. This concern was also rapidly dissolved. They found that in this forum they could talk openly with the older people about their experiences and their concerns, and about what they thought should happen to fix some of the problems facing young people the in the community. In doing this, they felt heard and acknowledged by the older people, and expressed the wish for this to happen more often.

In the context of the meeting, community members became more aware of the strong cultural and spiritual connections that they have with each other, and with the land, and particularly with the ‘hill’. For those who were born on the ‘hill’ this had the effect of linking people to many of the happy and fulfilling memories of their childhood. For those who were not born on the ‘hill’, this had the effect of linking their lives to the rich stories of their history. Community members were unanimous in their wish for further gatherings to assist them to continue with their healing.