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Australian Book Review

Ways of knowing

Paddy Roe and the Goolarabooloo

by Philip Morrissey 


May 2021, no. 431

In 1985, following the publication of their collaborative works Gularabulu: Stories from the West Kimberley and Reading the Country: Introduction to nomadology (with artist Krim Benterrak as co-author), Paddy Roe, possibly sensing that the young researcher would be of critical importance to his life’s project, suggested to Stephen Muecke that there needed to be a third book, The Children’s Country, about the rayi – the spirit children – and for human children to come. Muecke writes that he was unable to deliver the book at the time. Roe went on to establish the Lurujarri Heritage Trail following a songline along a ninety-kilometre stretch of coastline from Minyirr (Broome) to Minarriny (Coulomb Point).

When Muecke finally began writing The Children’s Country, Roe’s descendants (now known as the Goolarabooloo) had become the chief opponents of a proposed natural gas plant on their Country and were competing claimants in a native title hearing. By the time of the book’s completion, the Goolarabooloo native title claim had been rejected three times, first by Justice Anthony North and then twice by the Federal Court of Australia. The abandoned James Price Point Gas Hub, driven by a consortium led by Woodside Petroleum and the Kimberley Land Council, was intended to deliver a $1.5 billion package to local Aboriginal communities. While Muecke argues that the environmental harm would have been irreparable, one wonders about the legacy of bitterness caused by its termination. Not surprisingly, Muecke acknowledges in his introduction that The Children’s Country is a partisan text. It may seem presumptuous for an outsider to buy into a dispute between rival Aboriginal groups, but Muecke ventures that he is a longstanding member of the outer circle of the Goolarabooloo, and that his age, knowledge, and experience are accepted by its senior members.

Although Gularabulu and Reading the Country circulated in limited, largely academic circles, their impact exceeds that of more conventional or pointedly political works. Both broke new ground in the ethics of collaboration, research, and authorship. Fortunately, these qualities were safeguarded by the publisher, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, at that time the most innovative small press in Australia. Also noteworthy was the surprising ease with which reviewers such as Chris Wallace-Crabbe (TLS) and Robert Hodges (Westerly) were able to identify the freshness and importance of Gularabulu. My own experience of Gularabulu’s ‘universality’, for want of a better word, came in a course I taught on Aboriginal writing, where it was common for students from the United States and Europe to nominate it as their favourite text.

Mudrooroo once described Roe’s narratives in Reading the Country as ‘barricaded between slabs of standard English’. Muecke’s writing in The Children’s Country is anything but slab-like. Conversational but not casual or unconsidered, he can move easily from reportage to reminiscence to reflection on an idea of Bruno Latour’s. And whether he is addressing the significance of a meeting he attended with Roe and senior Law people back in the 1980s, proposing theses for a new economy, or giving evidence to the native title hearing, he weaves a continuous story. Muecke’s earlier commitment to Cartesian doubt as a methodology is also no longer in evidence; odd moments in the narrative are reminiscent of Carlos Castañeda, and he writes, uncritically, that those who walk the Lurujarri Trail are often transformed by the experience.

Roe’s emphasis on openness and acceptance, an inclusive politics of life enhancement rather than politics per se, may have left the Goolarabooloo vulnerable when a legalistic shift in Aboriginal life occurred with the passing of the Native Title Act 1993. The Lurujarri trek provides the narrative structure of The Children’s Country as Muecke makes the case for the Goolarabooloo over the twelve days required to walk the Trail. As the days unfold, the reader is drawn into the journey, as Muecke presents the Goolarabooloo and their philosophy through themes such as economics, art, politics, history, law, and science. There is also a dawning awareness of the profundity and originality of Roe’s project.

Native title legislation and hearings present limitations for emergent groups like the Goolarabooloo; the complexities of descent and custodianship that they embody are hardly understood within the framework of admissible evidence. How does the fluid, evolving world of the Goolarabooloo compete with a conception of an ideal Aboriginal culture existing unchanged from time immemorial? This is most aptly illustrated in Muecke’s description of Roe:

He, perhaps more than the others [law bosses], realised that times were changing, and that time itself was changing to become more future-oriented. They could no longer rely on past performances, that is a fully intact Bugarrigarra [Dreaming Law] supported by all the necessary actors, with several maja [law bosses] for each important place, law grounds in good shape, plenty of rayi and other spirits.

I am reminded of Frantz Fanon who wrote: ‘The desire to attach oneself to tradition or bring abandoned traditions to life again does not only mean going against the current of history but also opposing one’s own people.’ A fitting conclusion to what I regard as the Goolarabooloo trilogy, The Children’s Country is Stephen Muecke’s profound meditation on Aboriginal ways of knowing and being that are not accounted for in innumerable current Australian discourses, including native title legislation.

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