The Legend of Wunda Woman

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It isn't necessary to fund chaplains in schools, says Graham Jackson; that money would be better spent teaching our children the Myth and Legends of the First Australians.

I WAS 16 when I left Albury to do an Arts degree in Canberra.

The following year, I studied Australian History, one of 10 subjects I’d have to pass to get the BA. Ultimately I never made the grade, but I did pass Australian History in its era of the Great Silence, despite the indignity of getting kicked out of a lecture by Professor Manning Clark because I was chattering about football in the back row while he was chattering about pastoralists.

Certainly, no one was chattering about first Australians. With the ANU history department convulsed with culture wars about the Richmond and Carlton football clubs (my family roots were in Collingwood), there was no time for anything else. Even football talk was largely silent about Aboriginal players, with the possible exception of Graham ‘Polly’ Farmer – but he played for Geelong. Another Indigenous footballer, Syd Jackson, went to Carlton later in the 60s. There, coincidentally, he was a team mate of Ted Hopkins, who published my first novel in 1977.

Back in 1965, Australian History comprised a long essay on why the British had bothered to come to Australia. Now in my first year at uni I’d scraped through British History, so I knew a bit about overcrowded prison hulks, about the pestiferous Americans, about mad royals and so on, and I could cobble together an answer as to why the British had come. It got a bit tougher with Bigge’s Reports about whether convict transportation was a good or bad thing. I studied these massive original documents in a Nissen hut on the banks of Lake Burley Griffin, which had just filled with water. When I’d arrived in Canberra the year before, it was still a sea of grass, like a football field. But I got a pass on Bigge and moved on to the Squatters with some relief, although I was uncomfortable with their connections – remembering my own Collingwood ancestors – and I was more at home towards the end of the year studying labour history and William Guthrie Spence. Still no first Australians.

They emerged from the mist in the 70s, mainly through fiction, like Thomas Keneally’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1972). That year, Syd Jackson kicked a couple of goals in Carlton’s victory over Richmond for the VFL flag. At this time, the first Australians also started to resettle in Albury, courtesy of government policy, and I began my own research into local history. Basically, I read all there was in nineteenth century newspaper accounts, plus the odd republished volume like Edward Curr’s Recollections of Squatting in Victoria. These gave me the subject matter for a book that never materialised, although most of the component parts were later published in journals, magazines and newspapers in the early 1980s.

‘The Legend of Wunda Woman’ was one of them:

A long time ago the Bungambrawatha clan lived on the banks of their creek.

            The white creatures arrived in summer, when the creek was dry. The Bungambrawatha thought they were wunda – the ghosts of dead people with nowhere to settle.

            The ghosts settled by the creek and tied to make contact, without much success.  The Bungambrawatha had established ways of dealing with spirits, but not with ghosts they could see and touch, who ate and drank like real people. The amount the ghosts drank was alarming.

            After the autumn rains, the ghosts wanted so much water they dammed up the creek and fenced it off. When the Bungambrawatha tried to go down they were driven away. It was a strange way for ghosts to behave.

            The question arose whether the wunda were ghosts at all. Perhaps they were a kind of devil. Or perhaps they were real people who through misfortune had been inflicted with a deathly skin.

            The Bungambrawatha watched the wunda more closely, to establish what kind of creature they were, but were frustrated by the wunda custom of wrapping themselves up, even in the heat of the sun. And at night, what was the purpose of fire if not to wrap round with warmth and protection?

            Then the wunda spent a day screening off a section of their dam with branches and early the following morning one came down to bathe. When the creature removed its wrappings the Bungambrawatha could see it was not only white all over, but female. There could be no doubting the ghostliness now: all her parts were the colour of death. The creature was perfect, white like the witchetty – a wunda woman indeed.

            Silently the Bungambrawatha brought all their people together in the scrub by the water, so all might see and know. A thin lament for the dead arose from the women, in their cry an echo of fearful respect for the wunda woman – so seemingly alive, so dead.

            Startled by the noise the creature turned and saw them, cried out, and brought the rest of its kind running down to the dam. Across the narrow water the two groups faced each other, waving their arms and their weapons, but the guns of the ghosts were superior and by the end of the day the Bungambrawatha lay dead on banks of the creek.

            This is the legend of wunda woman, the ghost whose single cry brought about the death of a clan.

Reading this again now, after a couple of decades of culture wars, it’s clear it falls into the black armband camp. At the time I wrote it. I was restudying Australian History, this time by correspondence with the South Australian College of Advanced Education. It was first Australian history, anthropological, part of a course designed to educate social workers. But even as I studied, I felt I had to move on. By then, the first Australians were increasingly publishing their own version of events, which was the way it had to be.

So, before the culture wars began, I found I’d moved out of the Great Silence, taken off the white blindfold, strapped on the black armband, thrown that away and by the mid 1980s was writing some pretty peculiar stuff.

One short piece was called ‘The Resurrection Cove: A Corroboree’, which is reproduced here because it uses the wunda idea again:
In nineteenth century convict slang, the resurrection cove was a grave-robber. Here he is a ghost brought to life through the ritual of the corroboree.

1. (Dance) The whitefella is an Aboriginal ghost.

2. (Dance) The blackfella laments his departed brother each morning in a cry for the dead:

Imagine it, falling on the stillness of the night! It comes with the dawn and the first call of the birds; as the Australian bush awakens and stirs…

3. (Dance) The blackfella attempts the physical resurrection of the ghost.

4. (Dance) The ghost is represented by a man lying face downward, body rigid, arms locked about himself, hands tightly clenched.

5. (Dance) He is brought to life by disentangling the stiff body, turning it face up, unclenching the hands, vigorously rubbing the limbs and roughly pulling the ears:

Slowly the dead man comes to life! His body and limbs lose their rigidity, his hands relax, his eyes open, until eventually he sits up. So he who was ‘dead fella’ becomes ‘plenty fella alive too much’!

6. (Dance) The resurrection cove is now a viable man with full human capability, who can eat, sleep, drink, walk, talk, say please, thank you and sorry.
Perhaps not surprisingly, this brought the first phase of my writing career to an abrupt halt, and it would be a long time before the second phase began. By then, I’d be ready to examine, amongst other things, my own family history and to explore the intriguing possibility that the grouchy old woman I knew in childhood, my Nana, had been to Collingwood’s first game in 1892. She was 12 years old at the time and had been born a few blocks away from Victoria Park, Collingwood’s ground. Alas, the historical record was silent on this subject too.

On the other hand, I’ve since arrived at a more definite, if no less whimsical, conclusion about culture wars; about how Australian History should be taught, and about whether it’s a good or bad thing for the Federal Government to fund chaplains in schools. And so, no, I don’t believe it’s necessary to fund chaplains in schools, that the money would be better spent teaching Aboriginal Myth and Legend in schools. For tens of thousands of years, the first Australians named and created stories about every watercourse, every rise in the ground, every indent in the coast, every physical feature of the continent. So what better way to bind all our immigrant waves together than for us to share and enjoy these stories and, whenever we take a trip away from home, to recognise geographical landmarks as the first Australians saw them, and still do.

It’s almost half a century now since my parents drove me up to Canberra. I was an apprehensive teenager, worried about whether I’d get into the uni football team (I made the second eighteen), if Introduction to Philosophy and Logic would be too hard, and what the all-male ‘college’ Lennox House would be like. It turned out OK, although the first glimpse of the rows of old workmen’s huts on the bank of a waterless lake was pretty grim. Rising behind the ANU, Black Mountain also looked a bit gloomy.

Had I known then what I know now, that the local first people had seen in Black Mountain one of two breasts – the other was Mount Ainslie – and that when I put my head on a pillow that first night there was a strong possibility I was resting in nganbra, ‘the hollow between a woman’s breasts’, what dreams I would have dreamed! As it was, I had to settle for the nightmares of Logic and philosophical impasse and was obliged to wait a while longer before ngambra became part of my personal history.

There is always one final irony in history, and I have one to record here. My Canberra luggage included a pitifully small collection of books, notably my Great Aunt Nell’s copy of Tennyson’s poems, since I was going to be studying English Literature as well as history, philosophy and logic. Another of Nell’s books – she lived next to us in Albury – had belonged to her father (my great grandfather). He was the Presbyterian evangelist I mentioned in a previous article, ‘Boat People Dreaming’, who worked in Queensland between the early 1880s and the turn of the century. Nell herself had been born in Gladstone in 1894. The book she gave me was ‘Tom Petrie’s Reminiscences of Early Queensland’, published in 1904. The copy I took with me to the Great Silence at the ANU was sent to my great grandfather in 1908 by Tom Petrie’s daughter Constance, who compiled the book, hoping
“…he will like it, and that it will prevent you forgetting ‘Sunny Queensland’ – the best country in the world!”

I don’t remember ever opening it – not then – although I’ve read it a number of times since. In fact the quotations in ‘The Resurrection Cove’ above are taken from it. But there it was in 1964, in the Great Silence of Canberra, and again the following year as I launched into Australian History — a detailed reminiscence of Aboriginal life in nineteenth century Queensland by a man who lived with them, spoke at least one of their languages, and recorded their humour and generosity, as well as the murder and mayhem of their contact with those less well disposed towards them.

The book has been republished a number of times since (first in 1975), no doubt originally because it was seen to have ethnographic value. Not being an expert, I can make no comment on this, other than to say that the book is infused with the human spirit. I suspect this has a lot to do with the character of Constance Petrie, who produced the book at a time when the first Australians were still being ‘protected’, because it was still widely believed they were a dying race. Yet the book is largely free of sentimentality, and of most (but certainly not all) of the prejudices of the period. When Constance cries in chapter 8, “Woman – poor woman – is there no justice for you anywhere?” you know she genuinely identifies with her Aboriginal sisters.

True, the end of the same chapter does lay on the ‘noble savage’ rather thick and, in fact, quotes from the same Tennyson volume Great Aunt Nell insisted I take with me to Canberra. But you’d have to be completely cynical not accept that Constance really did believe that “the country we have stolen from them” was just that, a stolen land, and that “brother-white” had done the same kind of unbrotherly thing Cain did to Abel, when agriculture made its first infamous attempt to kill off the hunter-gatherer.

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