October 2011

The Nation Reviewed

The legend of Jandamarra

By Gail Jones
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Theatre in the Kimberley

There’s an instinctive civility at remote campsites: kind hailings and ‘hello’s, sometimes a random ‘how’s it going?’ But there’s also space and rectitude, appropriate moments of quiet – a respectful understanding that proximity to others living within the thin fabric of a tent carries its own social delicacy, its own forms of restraint. You hear other people’s conversations – small endearments and banal chatter, ‘night-night’s and bedtime shufflings, then little choruses of snoring when everyone at last settles down.

At dawn, when the light is soft lemon and the air particularly sweet, small Kimberley doves begin the throb of their early morning call. No sound reminds me of my childhood more than this. Ud dood dood is the Indigenous name. (Most bird names in this part of the world are onomatopoeic.) Fires are lit and billies boiled. There is the sweet scent of butter and eggs frying. Close by, a couple of young travellers begin a folk–bluesy song, accompanying themselves with a tinny ukulele. A young man taps time with a spoon against a metal cup. It’s an innocent sound, a small local celebration.

Bunuba country, Windjana Gorge, Kimberley region, 350 kilometres east of Broome, WA. The country is familiar – corrugated pindan roads, tormented-looking boabs, blossoming wattle and occasional glimpses of bright yellow kapok flowers. Brahman cattle wander with vague insouciance along and across the roads, and there are wallabies here and there, fleeing the sound of bush-bashing vehicles. It’s well-watered country, host to freshwater crocodiles and lavish birdlife.

As four-wheel drives pass each other in clouds of red dust, something nostalgic and iconic also billows up; this is the Kimberley of back roads, self-reliance, honest-to-goodness dirt, a Kimberley intensified and made lurid by bouts of involuntary memory. I try to resist romanticism but it’s not really possible. It began before I left Sydney: speaking with girlish excitement about my imminent trip, wondering what purity remained, what new discoveries.

This is a visit with my mother and older brother. It’s a sentimental journey – since we’re all compelled to reminisce – but it’s also a journey to an art event. The staging of Jandamarra, a play honouring the life of the Bunuba lawman and warrior who led a battle of resistance against colonial settlers from 1894 to 1897, is to be performed in situ and in language – Bunuba, of which about 100 speakers remain, and English, Pidgin and Kriol. Written by Steve Hawke, with linguistic collaboration, it is a testament to the persistence and vitality of Indigenous history; Jandamarra’s story still exists in oral form and it is through the generosity of Kimberley people that it is to be shared and reanimated.

Big mobs from Looma, Mowanjum, Halls Creek and Fitzroy Crossing attend a lively welcome to country. There are kids kicking up red dirt, elders with clap sticks; people mill around, relaxing together. It’s genial, easy. Calm and merry. The light of the early morning in this special place takes on a new clarity. Strangers smile at each other. Children and dogs seem particularly happy. The two directors and the writer are grinning ear to ear. Locals laugh at jokes that blow-ins have no hope of understanding.

Jandamarra led guerrilla-style resistance to white pastoral settlement and also achieved status as a Jalgangurru, a man of magic power. Named ‘Pigeon’ by his adversaries, in his own country he was a figure of legendary acts, attributed the power of flight, superhuman strength and invisibility. He survived a shootout at Windjana Gorge but was eventually killed at Baraa (Tunnel Creek), after which his severed head was displayed as a trophy in Derby.

It’s a bleak, rather bloody and complicated tale. There is a wonderful history of his life, Jandamarra and the Bunuba Resistance, by Howard Pedersen and Banjo Woorunmurra – the custodian of the oral tale, who died in 2003. The theatrical production tracks Jandamarra’s return to his people after spending time with pastoralists and white troopers, and endorses his gradual achievement of mythic status. Slides translate the Bunuba language and show the animated flight of a pigeon.

From time to time the backdrop – the rock face of Windjana Gorge – is brilliantly illuminated, stunning its audience with altered scale and otherworldly dimensions. My brother says it makes the hairs on the back of his neck stand up and I understand what he means – the place still holds history somehow, still insists on early meanings. When the actor shouts “Here!” we feel the weird profundity of return, the privilege of seeing a story knitted so utterly to its originating place.

Most moving, perhaps, is the repeated vision of Bunuba people yoked in neck chains. Jandamarra inaugurated his rebellion by freeing 16 of his people from these chains, and the trope returns again and again, the actors plodding up and down the angled stage, looking forlorn and forsaken. We can’t really speak when the production finishes. There is the shyness, the reserve, that true artworks inspire. I link my mother’s arm gently in mine. We head back to the campsite, shivering in the sudden cold.

Chill wind slides in early morning off the sheer cliff face. Windjana Gorge is a rock formation of ancient reef from the Devonian age, over 300 million years old. It’s from the time when Australia was part of the supercontinent known as Gondwana. Ammonites and seashells are visible in the rocks, pale, detailed and impressively complete. My brother takes a fine photograph of a ridged trilobite. This material version of time is somehow reassuring.

As we walk together up the gorge, quiet again overtakes us. We’re dreamy, self-enclosed, both looking up at the fork-tailed kites that circle and circle, floating above in silence, as they have done forever.

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