November 2015


Eddie’s son

By Robyn Davidson
Farewell to a man who tried to connect indigenous and non-indigenous Australia

To respect the protocol surrounding Aboriginal mourning, I will call him “Eddie’s son”.

He died on the morning of 27 August, at a tiny aged-care facility in a tiny settlement in the Western Desert, just over the Northern Territory border. It is a difficult place to reach from Alice Springs, from anywhere – hours of rattling over corrugated roads, swallowing red dirt. His year of birth, registered as 1947, is uncertain. He had suffered a stroke five years ago, which left him paralysed and almost unable to communicate.

Word of his death passed quickly around the Anangu lands of Central Australia. A friend described the reaction at a women’s ceremony held at a remote settlement: “The ladies were in full swing dancing in red ochre and feathers, and singing away […] when the news came through. Instantly everyone fell to the ground wailing. The whole event came to a halt and everyone went back to their camps and cried.”

The last time I saw Eddie’s son was in 2013 during the filming of Tracks. I was on location at Uluru, and took the opportunity to drive west to visit him. His wife, Linda, took me to his room. He had deteriorated, and it was almost unbearable to see him in that condition.

Linda was, and is, a very important woman in the Anangu world. But she had been so tied to Eddie’s son, so busy travelling between his bedside and their home settlement, trying to hold everything and everyone together, that she’d dropped off the radar. Her husband was often depressed and in tears, yet she remained ever cheerful in front of him, making him smile, making sure he was comfortable and looked after properly. I doubt the thought of complaint ever entered her head.

Linda and I sat with Eddie’s son, showed him the photos I’d brought: of his father; all of us standing beside his father’s grave; Linda holding two fat bush turkeys Eddie’s son had shot; he and I planting citrus trees when he was a strong, powerful man.

I slept beside Linda that night, sharing her mattress and blankets on a concrete slab, her dogs hunkered down with us. In the middle of the night I woke. A horse was standing beside me, snorting warm breath onto my face. Above, the stars were thick and heavy, the air scented with acacia and campfires. Everything here was unadorned, fundamental – a kind of antithesis to the values of the place I had come from. It is hard to translate across that chasm in Australian life, yet our human dramas are eternally the same. Old age and illness, love and affection, worry and humour, the need to find meaning and purpose in this strange event of being.

Eddie’s son never stopped trying to make that translation, even when it would have been easier to retreat from the edge, away from the whitefella world and its disappointments. He was a traditionally oriented man, but his curiosity and intelligence propelled him to try to connect across the chasm. Alas, it isn’t imperative for people whose consciousness is formed primarily by the European history of Australia to understand indigenous Australians’ intellectual life, whereas understanding whitefellas is a survival skill for indigenous Australians. Their world is always in jeopardy, about to be smothered by a different way of thinking, just as the desert herbs and grasses are being smothered by invasive buffel grass.

I am sure Eddie’s son felt that anxiety every day of his life, yet he seemed free of rancour. He had a quality of character that transcends all human categories of difference. He was admired, rightly, for his intelligence and skill, but he was loved, by so many of us, for his good heart.

I am not the best person to write about the life of Eddie’s son; I know too little. I do so because I occupy a unique niche in that life, and I would like to pay tribute to that.

It began with a chance encounter in 1977. A Pitjantjatjara elder, for reasons unfathomable, possibly whimsical, decided to accompany me during part of my journey across Australia. We walked west together for a month, through the Blackstone Ranges, along a segment of his Dreaming. His name was Mr Eddie.

I was a product of ’70s urban Australia; Mr Eddie had lived pretty much as his ancestors had done for millennia. Perhaps both of us, firmly planted on opposite sides of the cultural chasm, were oddballs.

We didn’t talk much; it was too exhausting. Mr Eddie had maybe three words of English; my Pitjantjatjara was less than elementary. But I have discovered that one can communicate very well when there are no words to get in the way.

As we walked he would often break into song, singing his country, his Dreaming. It came out so naturally and unselfconsciously; there is no equivalent for it in any other culture I know of. As he sang he followed traces laid down by his ancestors – both in the landscape and in his mind. Song, singer, land, ancestor are all the same thing – an integrity that guides life and gives it meaning. It must be the deepest possible sense of belonging within nature.

We walked 270 kilometres from Wingellina to Warburton. He had lived in Warburton in his youth, working for a missionary family as a woodchopper. Somehow he had acquired two donkeys, and in 1965 had walked on his own from there to Wingellina, coming along the very songs we were now following, but in the reverse direction. Perhaps the journey with me relived those memories. I know that he carried nothing but a woomera and spear at that time, hunting for his tucker all the way. I put that image alongside a memory I have of him: his utter delight with the rifle I gave him, though with failing eyesight he could barely see to aim.

I am still staggered by my good fortune in knowing Mr Eddie, sad that my ignorance limited what I might have understood about his life, and grateful to have experienced what was surely an unprecedented affection – a kind of love affair, really – across the chasm.

When I visited Mr Eddie again, a couple of years later, I learned that he had made me his “wife”. (It was up to him to choose the most appropriate “skin” category, but I was surprised he chose mine.) In being his wife, I inherited his family. Eddie’s son, therefore, was my son, even though he was born before me.

When I was leaving, Mr Eddie informed me that an enemy in Perth was singing illness into him, so if I was going to return, I had better hurry up, otherwise he’d be dead. The community nurse told me he had cancer.

Mr Eddie died 20 years ago, while I was living in India.

Soon after, I visited my “family” to pay my respects at his graveside.

Eddie’s son picked me up in Wingellina and drove me out to his homeland, an area like a thumbprint where the borders of the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia meet. His house, which he built himself, was a simple galvo shed on a cement slab, surrounded by desert scrub to the horizon. He went out to shoot our dinner, returning with two bush turkeys and a wallaby. We (Eddie’s son, Linda, a few close relatives, kids, dogs …) feasted around the fire that night, and struggled to communicate.

I remember we talked about the return of Aboriginal people who had been sent away as children – the Stolen Generations. Eddie’s son mimed something knitting together. Like a wound healing. Princess Di had just died. He said how sorry he was for us whitefellas, losing our princess. I cared not a whit about Princess Di, but knew what he was saying, how he must have seen it, the public grieving.

Eddie’s son had been very involved in the battle for land rights – his Ngururrpila “Three Ways” homeland had been a favourite location for meetings and gatherings in those heady days. But now he talked about the importance of young people finding work. He saw, long before it was popular, that land rights would mean little if there was no work to be had, if people had to rely on welfare.

His initiative and sense of adventure had taken him a long way from home. Although how he had managed this, with little English and no money, I have no idea.

Being an initiated man meant being available for ceremonies, people and country, but besides that kind of “work” Eddie’s son travelled far to earn a living. He and a friend had loaded barges on Melville Island. From there he had visited Darwin. A couple of years later he was picking fruit in the Riverland district of South Australia. In 1965, the year his father came east with his donkeys, he began building the first houses at Amata in the north of the state.

In the 1970s Eddie’s son helped people living at Amata and Ernabella to relocate to their traditional lands out west, thus setting up Puta Puta, Kalka, Pipalyatjara and Wingellina homelands. He constructed the first duck-and-chook house in Wingellina. He worked on the first mudbrick building at Kalka, making the bricks himself. He built the first Pitjantjatjara Homelands Health Service building, which still stands. He taught himself to be a car and bore mechanic, he was a crack shot, good with a spear, and made wooden tools and boomerangs. He was a skilled horse rider and worked as a stockman with the bullocks around Ernabella. He helped ensure mining exploration activities did not damage any sacred sites. He was also a great footballer.

Later, he became a community councillor and chairman at Wingellina, holding leadership positions for years.

In the 1980s Eddie’s son spent a lot of time with senior men surveying a potential new track from Wingellina south through the Spinifex Country. They tracked the country closely, revisiting sacred sites and waterholes, seeking relatives who were still living the traditional way in the Great Victoria Desert. The people they located came into the community around 1986.

On that first visit I made to his homeland, Eddie’s son and I planted lots of citrus trees near his house. (They were later decimated by wild camels.) The following day we drove out to see Mr Eddie’s grave. I buried some mementos there. We took photos: of the gravesite, so beautifully decorated; of each other.

Now Eddie’s son is buried where he and I planted the citrus trees. In an equally beautifully decorated grave.

A friend in Alice Springs wrote: “He was a very highly respected person. Nobody could think of [him] without a big smile on their face. He was funny, vibrant and dynamic. He was quick and talented – very much like old Mr Eddie himself. Please … write something beautiful for him, because he was very loved. He would have been a favourite warrior had times been different.”

Had times been different …

But here we are, trying to make sense of our times, trying to find the best way to bridge the chasm. People like him did so much in this regard. Tirelessly trying to make a future out of the wreckage of the past. That tremendous effort to knit things together. Like a wound healing.

Robyn Davidson
Robyn Davidson is a non-fiction writer. She is the author of the award-winning books Tracks and Desert Places, and the editor of The Best Australian Essays 2009 and The Picador Book of Journeys.

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