In July 2016 the Nyikina community of Derby and Broome Western Australia gave me a Nyikina name during a smoking ceremony.
I met with Jeannie Wabi, Senior Custodian of the Nyikina people of the Kimberley region in Western Australia. Upon meeting Jeannie she smiled and reached out and gave me a deep hug. My partner had spoken with me of Jeannie’s personal life story many times prior to meeting her so for me it was like I had met an enigma, a person imbued with the greatest testimony to trust and hope, of the greatest resilience and forgiveness.
In the days prior I spoke with zestful animation in the company of Dr. Anne Poelina, Nyikinia custodian and OAM Lucy Marshall, Senior Custodian of the Nyikina people of the Kimberley region. The significance of having the three Sisters together had not dawned on me until I found myself sitting in the shade of a boab tree on the outskirts of this community that has three houses, the ruins of another and the bones of many dwellings of decades prior. Tears dripped down my cheeks as I let the immense landscape fold out before me, lament and guilt swamping my mind as the pointlessness of my focus on having things, control, even in that moment, dawned on me.
I recall sitting there terrified of all of it, yet, as I’m told many feel the same things when they find themselves in that same place of reflection, in that place, on booroo, country. Like a novice hermetic priest I sat the for the first few days away from these women busying myself drawing patterns in the pindan (ochre coloured sand), dreaming up ways to help, to be useful, speaking out things clouding my mind. In the evenings my partner patiently walked beside me through the hum of cicadas and crickets, pink sunsets, hot scent filled tracks amongst grasses, trees some thousands of years old.
One hot evening, we all sat around a table together on the verandah of a remote Aboriginal community home at Balkinjirr Community, near the Lower Liviringa reaches of the Fitzroy River, the Mardoowarra as the Nyikina people know this river to be. A small bat flew in from the dark, attracted to a lone light globe burning brightly in the kitchen. The bat, stunned from colliding with furniture lay on the floor. Without any hesitation I went and picked this tiny creature up and took it out to a wood pile near the house.
It lay prone for a short time and then as if by magic disappeared from sight. I returned to the table and oblivious to the significance of this event I sat and listened to the women, laughing, speaking in Creole and Nyikina. In the centre of the table sat a laptop computer. My partner was sharing with Jeannie Warbi a historical video recording of the then Prime Minister of Australia (ref.) as he bellowed a platitude, a benign and condescending rebuke to the Nyikina Community of Nookanbar, Western Australia for refusing to relent to mining companies seeking to drill for minerals on sacred Aboriginal land. I was surprised to hear roars of laughter from Jeannie as she peered at this technology delivering this historical moment captured many decades later.
It occurred to me that the act of watching and listening was not solely about the recording itself, rather an acknowledgment of my partners research and willingness to listen deeply to the personal stories of these three powerful women and to make their story known to the world. The glow of the computer screen, the juxtaposition of this glow with that of the faces of women whose own experience as ancient, as wise as the landscape where we sat. I found myself again deeply distressed at what I knew of the trajectory of such technology, the feeling of dread I felt having travelled a decade to land amongst those whose own connection with country will outlast this generation and the next.
That night I fitfully tossed in thirty five degrees heat in a stifling tent, wracked by anxious dreams, filled with apocalyptic non-human interventions in an already carnage filled landscape. Graziers whose dreams of grandeur echoing as pitifully as the screech of corrugated iron sheet of metal, sunburnt, returned to a landscape as only a ruined homestead can attest. Mining companies drilling hole after hole, puncturing booroo, poisoning vast tracks of aquifer water in a vain and hopeless attempt to profit from exploiting gas that rendered any local life toxic.
As I sat and listened over breakfast to what activity everyone was preparing for the next day I realised that I was amongst that deep listening, not as a physical act of simply talking less and tuning into what was being said, rather, I was a participant, that I had a role in effective listening. (Fiona Hart, 8th May 2017) I realised that my fears of the night before were grounded in an understanding of my research experience as limited as it was, as that of ‘participation versus automation’.
That morning I learned that I was invited to attend smoking ceremony for my stepdaughter at the nearby billabong. Perplexed I questioned the invitation as my limited knowledge only cognisant that this may be ‘women’s business’ The invitation I was informed came from my role as my stepdaughters ybala (father). My partner aware of the significance of this ceremony as ancient as the country on which they care for added with some humorous mirth that this acknowledgment meant her own reference within the community had changed as I was known as her (Nyikina husbands name - ref. Nyikina dictionary) and to those around her within the community, her role and name had also changed.
As I sat tear filled amongst Majala smoke I was encouraged to speak and say anything I felt like saying which in my case was a simple “…I am sorry for what I have done to contribute towards stolen generations in this country’ referring to my own experiences as an Education Officer and Protection Care Worker many years prior. To my absolute astonishment I heard Lucy in her pragmatic voice state “…ok, thats enough, time to let that go and remember you can call me whatever you want but I am your Mother…we (referring to Jeanne, Anne and herself) are you yakoo (mothers)”
I recall standing only long enough to witness all three women in language state that I needed a ‘name’. Uncertain what they meant by that I realised they were in fact choosing a name in the Nyikina language that I would be known by within this Nyikina community and across other communities.
I was named ‘Malkay’ (pronounced Mul-gai) which is Nyikina and from what I understand in a western context has no specific meaning rather it grounds me in booroo, country and has been given to men before me. I witnessed a few days after that this name was also given to a small new born male infant also in a Nyikina family ceremony. I was named after Uncle Malkay (Alex Smith) a Nyikina man from Yurmulun (Pandanus Park) community in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.
I am happy because I've been sent a photo of Alex Smith who I was named after and his family taken at Yurmulun community (Pandanus Park). The photo was sent to me by my Niece, Pat Riley who is the acting CEO out there at Pandanus Park.
Mum Maudie Ningella, Nana Buna (Topsy Lemon), Uncle Mulgai (Alex Smith) and Jabbo Manya Riley
Taken in front of house 39 in Pandanus Park Yurmulun in the 80's