The Getting of Banjo's Wisdom
By Neil Murray, The AGE, 25 April 2000.

THE GETTING OF BANJO'S WISDOM Knowledge of life before the whitefellas is down to just a few....
It was the recent sudden passing of Koori elder Uncle Banjo Clarke that brought home to me the additional loss of guidance and teaching that accompanies the death of all wise men and women. A couple of months earlier I had managed to get George Rrurrambu (a Gumatj tribal man from Arnhemland and lead singer of the Warumpi Band) to finally meet Banjo at his home in Framlingham. George immediately fired up an intense discourse about his concern for the state of the land we'd been driving through. Banjo concurred, but when pressed on cultural imperatives he was swift to instruct George by acknowledging tribal elders before him: "They took all their secret lore to the grave".

I suspected this was something Banjo had said many times to cool the ardour of distressed people turning up at his doorstep desperate for answers. He'd said it to me. Banjo didn't have to go into details. The silence said enough. It was a result of war and dispossession. Even so, George reckoned of Banjo that "he knows". A common enough impression to be had in the company of wisdom.

There are only two Gallipoli veterans left, Jack Locket (age?) and Alec Cameron (age?). They are the only men who really know what it was like. They've been inside the inferno and survived.

Come Anzac Day, again we'll collectively reflect and give thanks for the sacrifices made by them and their kind in the 1st World War. I don't recall any of the diggers ever speaking about the experience as either heroic or noble. It was just what they had to do at the time. They all went to a man, believing it the right thing. And thousands died for no good cause. No ground won, no tyrant deposed, no masses of oppressed freed. Yet we revere them as heroes. As a child, I was told they died so that we could be free and do all the good things that go with that - like being able to eat ice-cream on Sundays. It conjured a sense of cosy paternalism and made us feel grateful. This sat well with the version of history fed to us at school where brave pioneers 'tamed' the land and rid it of 'marauding blacks' for our benefit.

In the end, the myth is more enduring than the reality of two old blokes bewildered by the invasive need of the media. Still they've held themselves well for those who've learned the grim waste of war. And when those two are gone, what then? Expect a wave of nostalgic longing and declarations that it's the end of an era and that Australia doesn't breed them like that anymore. But we do, we've got the lot.

There are other Australians who are taking to the grave experiences that can never be duplicated: the Aboriginal men and women who knew life before whitefellas. Every year Tjilpi's (old men) and Olgawumans (old women) pass on.

I still get calls from Kintore in the Northern Territory whereby inference. I am informed that another old person has gone. "Oh sorry", I say, as I recall the one they're talking about. How he once drew for me lines in the sand to represent the number of rockholes, soakages and waterholes required to visit on a walk from Yumari to Hast's Bluff in the western desert - a distance of over 400 kilometres. Each one of them had a name and a story. Not many of those soakages are ever visited now.

By the end of the decade, we'll be hard pressed to find a handful of people who will still hold first hand experience of living in Australia without the influence of western civilisation. That handful will include the bush people who came into Kiwikurra, Western Australia in 1984.
At a Warumpi Band gig in Kalgoorlie last year, one of those bushmen dressed in jeans and flannelette shirt was dancing down in front of us, his hairwild and bushy held down by a red headband. I suppose he was getting his fill of rock 'n roll.

Among these disappearing elders is a handful of men and women who recall one of the last frontier wars - known as the Conniston massacre. People who can tell you still today, of how as children they saw bullets rip through their mothers, fathers, aunties, uncles and grandparents by mounted troopers. Incredible as it seems, this event happened in the 1930's.

After Jack and Alec had returned to civilian life, Aboriginal patriots were to be shot in the field of Australia's frontier war for at least another decade. There are no public monuments for our Aboriginal men and women who died defending their land and way of life. No government decreed national day of mourning. At least it was a war that could be understood if not accepted. There was clearly an invader and a resistant. And for a long time neither side understood the other.

As Kev Carmody sings in "Eulogy for a Black Person"......"don't give me monuments of stone" - some Aboriginal people do have an aversion to imposed structures on the land. Perhaps a more fitting memorial tribute to Australia's first patriotic heroes will come in the form of that difficult "R" word (reconciliation) becoming a reality.
In the meantime, come Anzac Day, there'll be dawn services all across Australia. In country towns, the ubiquitous monuments are usually found in the main street erected on forgotten tribal land.

I for one, will spare a thought of rememberance and respect for all Australians who lost their lives in conflict - both here and abroad.