Ngulagambilanha: I want to go home

I travel here to this waterhole. This is part of my country. These stories are my stories.

Art by Ethan Floyd

I can see the footprints of my people everywhere. When I stop looking straight ahead and cease thinking of tomorrow, I can finally see my country. I stand alone outside and feel the soft warm breeze on my skin. I can touch every horizon and know that I am home. I have not stood on my grandfather’s land in more than a decade. But I remember everything.

My mind’s eye rests on details that I am blind to in the city, like the way an old nail protrudes from a wooden plank in my grandfather’s shed. Like the way the corrugated iron roof – rusted and worn – bends at the corners. This is how a place bends over time. Like that spot where the dirt laneway meets the grass and I feel the crunch of gravel under my feet. These things – little things – remind me that we lived here; that we have shaped this place to fit us.

This country has shaped us too. It breathes in and out, folding us into the empty spaces. Each generation becomes part of the land itself. We are buried here. We count the years in life and loss and our attachment grows deeper and stronger. My people have lived here forever.

If I travel just a few hours I will come to a place where we fished, danced, sang, celebrated life and buried our dead with great ceremony. There was once a mighty lake here. Now it is dry with waves of sand frozen in place, and craters like the surface of the moon.

From this spot I can see out across the dry lakebed. To me, this is the Dreamtime.

The sun shines brightest where it peeks through the clouds on a distant canola yellow hill. The rocks are strewn across open fields in odd formations. Some are nature’s doing, the random placement as the earth has stirred. Others, though, have been carefully placed, marking the sites of ceremonies where boys were sung into men.

I want to tell you about blood and bone, and how mine is buried deep in this land. I want to tell you about the road that leads to my grandfather’s house. It was here that my people were murdered. Today it is marked with a sign that reads: Poison Waterholes Creek.

I close my eyes and I am sitting by the waterhole. The air is filled with birdsong. In the stillness I can hear the flapping wings of a duck as it skims the water’s surface. In the distance there is the barking of a dog. I want to take it all in. But I am not really there.

The roots of the trees are deeper – far deeper – than the footprints of the new people who claimed this land two centuries ago. Their branches bend to the banks of the waterhold. The trunks of other trees, now dead, lie submerged in the water. They are stark and lifeless. Their branches are stiff, white and bare, reaching like arms outstretched above the water’s edge.

At this waterhole my people took shelter and drank from the stream. They would return and leave as they had always done. But the waterhole was no longer theirs. British law had stripped them of their rights. To the settlers this land was empty, and it now belonged to them. The local homestead owner wanted the blacks gone, and so he laced this waterhole with poison. Men, women and children died. Their bodies were left strewn along the banks, rotting in the sun, a warning to others. 

Their deaths linger here. I can feel it whenever I am home. It is not hard to picture them: bodies bent and twisted; mouths open; the ait willed with the stench of vomit as they coughed up the poison. Soon the birds will come to peck at the carcasses. There is no one to bury them. They will stay here until they sink into the earth.

The killing didn’t stop at this creek. Other Wiradjuri people fled to an island in the middle of the Murrumbidgee River. They huddled together and took shelter. The settlers and soldiers tracked them from the riverbank. When they came into view they aimed their guns and opened fire. All were killed, except for one boy. My grandmother told me how this boy, with one eye blown out, floated downstream underwater, breathing through a hollow reed. Today this place too has a name: Murdering Island.

Poison Waterholes Creek, Murdering Island: to my people, these signs are literally tombstones. They mark the tragedy here. They remind us that this land was not settled peacefully. Whatever white Australians may have been told, these signs tell them too that we were here. We lived. We had families. This country was not empty.

This has become part of our Dreaming. Once we would have told stories of creation, of the god Baiame who came down from the sky and made the rivers and mountains and forests. He made the first initiation site – the sacred Bora ground where boys became men. Now our stories are of people who came from another land and took what was ours.

I learned these stories at the feet of my parents and my grandparents. They told me other things: how they lived when they were young; what happened to their parents and their grandparents. I learned that we had survived; that we were still here. The spirits of our ancestors were still here.

This is what it means to be an indigenous person. It is what it means to be a Wiradjuri man. We have a place and a sense of place. It is what we ask each other when we meet another indigenous person. We don’t ask, who are you? We ask, where are you from? Where is your country?

This is why I travel – in my mind – here to this waterhole. This is part of my country. These stories are my stories. I want to be able to see the rocks and the hills. I want to feel the soil under my feet. I want to know the answer when one of my people asks, where are you from?

But more than this – than all of this – I want to go home.

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