February 2, 2021


Noongar stories at Perth Festival

By Steve Dow

Ian Wilkes leads a Galup show. Photo © Dan Grant

From a walking performance on country to a Noongar-dubbed Bruce Lee film, Perth Festival points up Aboriginal stories

Every time Aboriginal activist Ted Wilkes drove his family past Perth’s large urban wetland Lake Monger – known as Galup to the Whadjuk Noongar people – he would tell his children about the massacre that occurred there in 1830.

Wilkes, a fighter for land rights and Aboriginal medical services, would point to the riverbank dotted with paperbarks and she-oaks, the latter under which Indigenous women would give birth on a bed of its soft fallen pine needles.

“Something bad happened there, you boys,” he would say. “Always remember that Noongars were killed at that lake when the wadjelas [white people] first came here.”

Ian Wilkes, an actor and dancer, would later apply that oral history from his father to performance in a spirit of reconciliation. Now 31, the youngest son has put together the participatory show Galup around the lake for Perth Festival, in which he teaches audiences Noongar words, dance, lore and spear throwing.

Wilkes says Galup can mean both “place of fire” and “waterhole”. At one point in the show he pulls leaves from the peppermint trees on the riverbank, crushes them in his hands and has people smell their perfume. “It’s a wonderful way to clean your sinuses up,” he says.

Galup is among a wealth of Noongar stories being told at Perth Festival this year under the festival’s associate artist Kylie Bracknell. Wilkes, who starred as Macduff at last year’s festival in Hecate, an all-Noongar adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, always knew he would be a performer.

“My dad and uncles and older brothers taught me Noongar traditional dance,” he says. “That’s a big thing in our family. We make sure all the young fellas get taught Noongar dance at a very young age.

“As soon as we can walk and dance, we are stripped down and painted up. We’re not forced to dance but made aware that is how we dance, this is our family.”

Wilkes grew up in suburban Maddington, 20 kilometres south-east of the city.

“It’s one of those suburbs that has a horrible history of violence and criminal activity, drugs and alcoholism, so I was fortunate enough to be part of a family that had a small amount of culture still left – a little bit of language, a little bit of dance, a little bit of strength, and resistance.”

Galup remained a camping ground for Noongar into the 1950s, despite the bloodshed wrought by colonisation. “An essential part of the show is we do not perceive the area as a bad place just because something bad happened there,” says Wilkes.

“It’s essential to have a discussion at the end of the show to make sure the audience have a deeper understanding and respect for Galup now, and this does not mean avoid it all costs or this [place] is taboo. This means: come back and enjoy the beauty.”

Noongar is not an easy language for the neophyte to learn, however. Its words are formed in the back of the mouth, which is very different to the forward projection of English.

“I’ve been working alongside [Galup co-creator] Poppy van Oorde-Grainger, and she’s still learning some simple words and finding it hard to pronounce them,” says Wilkes. “She finds it hard to pronounce the simplest word, which is ngany, which means me, my or I.”

He laughs. “She’s always beginning the word at the front of the mouth, and I’m like, ‘Stop that!’”

So Wilkes teaches language in Galup through song. “I find singing is the best way to get the language down – sometimes. Because it’s not overthought; you’re just enjoying the sound of it and listening through the song, rather than getting taught language phonetically.”

Elsewhere during the festival, attractions include Witness Stand, a music and spoken-word attraction in Noongar and English along six contested sites of the Derbarl Yerrigan or Swan River.

Witness Stand aims to bring people together at powerful locations, “somewhere that gives us life and energy, and reminds us where our oxygen and fresh water does come from, when we’re conditioned to look at these areas as something pretty, and we tend to forget the substance”, says Kylie Bracknell. “It’s an appropriate reminder of how disconnected we have become.”

Having translated and adapted Macbeth as the Noongar show Hecate last year, Bracknell and her partner Clint Bracknell have now translated and dubbed the Bruce Lee film Fist of Fury from Cantonese into Noongar.

“Noongar people love Bruce Lee: the kung fu genre, his physical ability,” says Bracknell. “The way our [Noongar] community governance in the traditional setting works is, if there’s a qualm or issue, it’s nipped in the bud early, and often that will come down to two people who are at each other’s throats, to fight, and once that’s done, it’s done.

“For me that’s a clear relatability in kung fu films. There’s a stereotype that we’re aggressive, violent people, but it’s not that at all. I’m not male, but I guess I could say it’s that male-dominance thing. The territorial aspect. There were times when people would break the law and not accept the consequence of that, and sometimes it would come down to having a one-on-one fight.

“We chose this film because of the plot, and how grieving the loss of a teacher or really important person in your community is something we can relate to. They’re the rock, with the wisdom, and can help keep a community on track.”

Noongar woman Gina Williams meanwhile will sing about her experience as a member of the Stolen Generations in Koort [Heart].

Williams, who met her birth mother much later in life, is a remarkable mother of three who is respected among Noongar people for her pioneering public profile as a journalist, says Bracknell.

“I sometimes think that the word ‘stolen’ keeps everyone disconnected from what ‘Stolen Generation’ actually means,” she says.

“I remember having conversations with some people through this [COVID-19] pandemic and they’re saying, ‘Wasn’t it awful that that particular family could only touch their children’s hands through glass?’

“My automated response to lots of non-Indigenous people through the pandemic, and hearing about their heartfelt sorrow and empathy for these families that couldn’t touch or see each other, I said to them, ‘I’m grateful for the pandemic because it gives you guys an insight into the separation that the Stolen Generations have had.’

“That family is lucky they can still see each through glass or perspex. There are kids today who are adults who never, ever got to see their families again. The kids were told that their parents were dead.”

Bracknell is pleased that various major city festivals such as Perth now have a strong Indigenous component. “But we need to elevate above and beyond it as a separate focus,” she says. “This is normal. This is embracing collectively who we are here, in this place and space. It’s a part of us, whether you’re Noongar or not.”


Perth Festival is held from February 5 to 28.

Steve Dow

Steve Dow is the 2020 Walkley arts journalism award recipient.


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