LS: Can you say a bit about your contribution and your areas of specialisation?
TW: Well, first of all, we grew up in the bush and we got our water from a well and we walked to school and we limped to school and we limped home and we just lived. Nan used to cook in the ashes, hand cook her damper in the ashes. And we had a tremendous life, but when you look at it, we had a poor life. A few of the people where I grew up passed away through colds, pneumonia and likes. So I used to sit round campfires with the grandfathers, and they were slaves to the people that enabled them to live there, because they worked for them. So I saw slavery and I used to sit and listen to the old people talk. And we come from slavery, it was slavery; if you didn’t work, the kids were taken away and removed. So Aboriginal people were slaves and they worked for the wedjelas as slaves because they had nowhere else to go, and so you had to work, you had to be the slave to the farmers and to the people, because the kids were taken away and, without that, there was nothing.
So I’ve come from that sort of background with the old people, where they were caught, they had a family, they tried to do their best but they were slaves. If we forget that then we’ve acknowledged that the white people, the wedjelas, were right, but if we say, “Well, hang on, we’ve got a culture here, we’ve had a family, we’ve got culture, we’ve got song, we’ve got dance, that wasn’t right. Aboriginal people weren’t to be treated as slaves.” And so the energy I get from those campfires, the karla, gives me the energy to say, “I can do something: I can sing a song, I can tell a story, but I can do something. I might not be good at this side of it, or this side, or dancing, but I can give it a go. I could put my hand up.” Because by you putting your hand up, by you contributing in your way, then you’ve encouraged other people to say, “I can do better than that. I’m going to do better because he’s doing it, but I can do better.” And that’s what it’s about, it’s about you jumping that first hurdle, and you might fall over and someone might actually push you over while you’re jumping it - you know, the tall poppy thing - and so I always look at it positively that I’m going to give something.
Yes, I might stumble over. Yes, I might get kicked while I’m down, but I’ve given the initiative and the motivation for the culture to grow. And that’s what it’s about, it’s about Aboriginal culture, enhancing, bringing it back and, if there is an only-horse race, then it doesn’t happen, but if you create a race then you create the race for the culture. That’s what I like to think that I’m creating, a race for culture. Because what I’ve learnt from my early days is that we were treated very badly, Nyungars, and we were camped at the tips, out of town. In our words there was a thing called kanya - boodjar kanya - shame, because it was instilled in us, even through school, it was instilled in us, about shame, your culture is shame. It’s kanya and kundan I think. So we come from a lot of that negative language, which is very easily shouted out to someone and so they go quiet to protect their…
LC: Self esteem.
TW: Self esteem, they go quiet and they don’t say. But once people are starting to go out there and sing and go on radio and talk, then all of a sudden, I’ve seen a blossom of Aboriginal culture. And I think Len, as you might testify from your life, you might see a blossom of people singing. And I’m thinking, “Wow. I didn’t know that Nyungars spoke the same language from right down Albany and Moora and Kellerberrin” and I’m thinking, “Wow, what were we doing all these years?” because I thought it didn’t exist. I thought we were shamed and kanya. But when I started to become involved in the blossoming of our culture, it astounded me what people were singing, and nieces and nephews didn’t know that their uncles and aunties and grandfathers and grandmothers were singing and had stories.
And so the blossoming started and people were coming up with their language now and singing and dancing. So that’s what motivated me was campfire and getting rid of the negative of our culture. The more I looked into the positive, it was astounding how we were in tune with the world…. I grew up in that family and I lived on the river. And by that I used to go spearing fish.
LC: What with?
TW: We had a long bamboo and we put an iron at the end, and then we’d tie it with copper wire.
LC: And what do you call that, then?
TW: Well, it’s a spear… because when I grew up we didn’t talk our language too much because… it was learn to go to school because that’s where you’re going to survive. So Aboriginal culture wasn’t promoted too well and so we called it a spear when we used a bamboo. And the same principle, you jump in from a branch and you spear the fish and you follow him down and you bring him up. And I did that a lot. I grew up along the Murray River spearing fish, and the old people, Granny Thomas Nannup and that, when I was sitting round the fire, he would say to me, “You’re a Nyungar” and I always remember that when I was a little boy, little fellow, and Granny Thomas Nannup, he would say, “You’re a Nyungar” and he’d look at me, and I was looking at him through the fire. So that was the first time I heard that word “Nyungar” because he was a lawman. And I’m trying to think of the word, he was “mabarn”.
TW: Yes, that’s him. Yes. Again, see these words, we’re using these words now, but when I grew up we didn’t use those words, we used to say “medicine man” because we didn’t know; we wasn’t quite sure of our culture. So I’ve come from an era where we didn’t use our language until we started to embrace it and promote it and say, “There’s nothing wrong with Nyungar culture, be proud of Nyungar culture.” But I grew up where we lived out the back of dumps and reserves, and the atmosphere created shame.
LC: Kundan. Warra wern.
TW: So I grew up along the river. Now, the old people would say to me that the rainbow serpent is in the river and there were certain things you have to do, like you have to put mud on you and under your arm and that and face, and then go in there and he’ll smell you. Because he’ll protect you, because sometimes the little kids would fall in the water and they would be taken back into the shores, and which has happened quite a bit in our family. Because kids are kids and so you needed the rainbow serpent to look after that side.
And so I did sit on the rainbow serpent when I was small because we were jumping over the bridge at Lakes Road and where they were jumping, I was right next to it sitting on the rainbow serpent, sitting on him. So I learnt about the rainbow serpent. We’re not allowed to tease it otherwise it’ll go into a whirly pool in a frenzy and spit on you, and if that spit hits you, you’d have to get the medicine man the boolya [mamarn]…
LC: So Trev, you know when you’re talking about your smoking, what kind of timber do you use or what sort of bushes do you use and where do you get them from?
TW: Well, first of all, I always put my hand up, it’s one of the things I do because if you don’t then it won’t happen. So I don’t always try to be the authority but I always put my hand up because I want the culture to go strong, I want it to survive, I want it to go strong and I want to encourage other people to—
TW: —embrace the culture. So first of all, I always put my hand up because they say, “Well, we can’t find anyone. No one wants to do it. Do you have such a culture?” Bloody oath we do, yes, we have it. And so I put my hand up but first of all I check with the elders, I say, “Well, I’ve got a request to do a smoking ceremony, what do I do?” So first of all I ask around and, “Yeah, do it” they say, “Well, what do you do?” I say, “You get the leaves from the ancestors, you get the blood of the Balga Bush and the—
LC: What is that?
TW: Well, the Balga Bush is Xanthorrhoea preissii, would you believe. So “xantha” is Greek for yellow and “xanthorrhorrhoea” is the yellow flower, the gum. “Preissi” is a German botanist who first described it in the early days. He collected over 250,000 plants, so he was running around collecting plants and the Aboriginal people were going, “Well, what is this man doing?” because he was pressing them. But so the Balga Bush—
LC It’s the blood of the wood.
TW Yes, it’s the—
TW —trunk, and it’s got all the— yes, it’s an unusual plant, isn’t it? It’s a trunk but it’s got the red in it.
LC The gum, the red gum.
TW The red gum. Now, that’s the blood of my ancestors, so the old people said, “That’s the blood of the ancestors, that’s what you’ve got to use.” So once I started saying, “Yes” I started asking questions, because I’m not a boolywar man to do smoking ceremony, but I want to put my hand up. A boolywar man always puts his hand up, so I put my hand up and then I learnt by putting my hand up I learnt to ask questions. So then I said, “Well, how do I do it?” “Well, you get your blood of your ancestors” “Well, what is the blood of the ancestors?” “It’s the resin and the gum from the Balga Bush” so I got that. And I said, “Right, I’ve got the blood of my ancestors” this is quite serious, so when I do it I think of my ancestors. And then they say, “Well, what else do you do?” “Well, you use nice, tender green eucalypt leaves because that puts that aroma through and it permeates you.”
LC So the green fresh leaves are the living plants.
TW Oh, yes. It’s the nice green leaves of the eucalypts, because they’ve got oils in them, so it’s the oils too. So I said, “Well, what else?” “Okay, you use the leaves from the paperbark” because that gives a scent. So I’ve got the blood of the ancestors, I’ve got the oils from the eucalypts and I’ve got the scent of the paperbark, because they’ve got a certain scent. And mix it together and then you have the fire that brings it together, that puts it all together.
LC What do they call the fire?
TW The karla, which again I didn’t know the language, and I’ve got to be corrected, because a lot of people— an artist, he always corrects me all the time, this guy who used to do paintings at Clontarf and he corrects me, from Gnowangerup way, and he’s a famous painter.
LC Toolyungu, Glads.
TW Yes, Glads. He always corrects me because I didn’t grow up with— we lived in the bush, we lived culture, we lived in the bush but we didn’t use our language because it was so powerful. Because we were vulnerable, we were out in the bush and—
LC Uncle Phil would have no doubt given you a couple of…
TW Yes, he was, but he was a very respectable person where he didn’t push himself. If you wanted his assistance you would ask and he would give, but he wasn’t a person who pushed himself around. He knew protocol, he knew culture and he expected the other people to do that. But he was always there.
LC Uncle Phil is my pop, Tom Bennell's brother.
TW Yes, and a very powerful man. How many other people did he save by using his mabarm, how many other people that we haven’t known because they don’t want to talk about it because they shame. And how many people’s children did he save and hasn’t got the acknowledgment, so he should have. By me talking under the tree here maybe we can rectify—
LC The Sheoak.
TW The Sheoak. And maybe we can help rectify that problem.
TW: So with the smoking the karla, the fire would pull it together. And I always let the people throw the leaves in. I let them contribute because without people contributing, it’s a waste of time. So I’m hoping that when I do this, I’ll get a request. I say to the people, “This is you, you make it happen. I can be the facilitator because I’ve already asked the questions, and I can get the fire.” I bring it with the banksia, so I light it with a banksia. I said, “I can get the fire, I can burn it. I’ve got the materials but it’s up to you to embrace it.”
And so people contribute by putting leaves in and I’m saying, “I’m just the vehicle that allowed this to happen” and then other people, they don’t know this, all round Australia, people were using smoking ceremonies because it’s started to blossom now because people were putting their hand up. So you’ll find now that all round Australia people are conducting a smoking ceremony, which we hadn’t done years ago, so it’s just blossomed. So when I do the smoking, I build a little mia-mia, because without—
LC: Which is a what?
TW A little camp, a little home. So without a fire, you need a home. Then I asked some questions about how to put this thing together, so I built a little mia, now you’ll find people with mia-mia. Then I started saying, “Well, I need to have a kangaroo coat, a bwoka, because you’ve sort of got to look the part. So I started asking questions about a bwoka and kwark; apparently the women call them a kwark. This is where I need to find a lot of information, but the women had a kwark and the men had a bwoka made from kangaroo. And a bindi-bindi from the bone of a kangaroo, the yonga. And it kept them warm.
Then I’ve realised that when the people came out they gave us clothes, but what happens in the winter time? It gets dripping wet and you’ve got a Coolgardie safe, where you’ve got a coat or even a rug around you, but if it’s dewy and wet, the wind’s pushing it through and your core temperature drops. So you get pneumonia, die by giving them clothes and rugs, while a kangaroo skin was just a natural heavy raincoat which kept them nice and warm. So when we’re doing the smoking ceremony, just by putting your hand up, you understand this and you understand this and you get that. But I don’t want to be the man who does smoking ceremonies and cleans everything, I like to think that I always put my hand up because I want someone else to look at what I’m doing, “I can do better.”