Some ninety-odd years ago this week was born in the bush in the rugged far north-west of Western Australia a child given the Christian name of David.
In 1938, a year before the popularly-understood date of the outbreak of World War II, in Europe, German anthropologist Andreas Lommel was in the Kimberley as a member of an expedition engineered by the very peculiar character, Leo Frobenius. Of Frobenius there is nothing to say in this particular story. On that expedition, however, Lommel came into contact with the charismatic child, David Mowaljarlai, whom he perceived then to have been aged about ten or twelve years. 1 July appears in what records there are as the birth-date of this Ngarinyin-Wororra child, ‘though this could be a date-of-convenience as one can find in archives and records entire groups and communities whose bush-births are given on the same date, at date of registration.
‘Birthdays’ David Mowaljarlai would explain to excitable whitefellas, ‘Are not Aborigine-culture.’
This NAIDOC-week, the style of Aborigine-culture enacted across the nation is of a very 21st-Century event. It is filmed and recorded in a politicised jambouree of promotion and propaganda. ‘Everything in Australia is politicised,’ said Phil Coorey on Insiders (ABC) today and so it has come to be. NAIDOC showcases Indigenous culture to the nation.
‘That’s alright’ I can hear in my mind’s ear David Mowaljarlai ‘s voice as I write ‘But it’s got nothing to do with we-mob.’
Mowaljarlai died in 1997. For some years before his death he had experienced some symptoms of pre-senile dementia and he was always in a hurry to have recorded as much culture as possible to leave as his legacy, his and that of his peers, the elders, the Law-men and Women of the far North-West. In this mission he was most ably assisted by his collaboratrix and soul-mate Jutta Malnic, immigrant photographer and writer from Sydney, who co-authored their unique cosmology : Yorro Yorro everything standing up alive Spirit of the Kimberley, which was published by Magabala in 1993.
‘I have never had people ask such questions like Jutta,’ Mowaljarlai would say during the preparation of the book, resonating with what his family and tribe would say to me about the Law. ‘You are the first one to ask us these questions.’
He, who made it his life’s work to ‘work’ on stories and paintings (rock art and petroglyphs, faithfully-recorded by Malnic, but, later, also by others) to restore culture, conserve it and transmit – declared his debt to the now-elderly, immigrant Sydneysider whose perennial curiosity, and beside whom he ‘worked’ from about 1980, made a priceless contribution to Australian culture.
‘How can anyone understand the meaning?’ These stories are like sand between stones in a dry river- no water, no flow, no direction. You can’t see that it’s a river.’ A gifted mimic, Mowaljarlai would recount the start of his collaboration with Jutta, and with Elaine Godden and Pamela Lofts. But it was to Malnic that Mowaljarlai appreciated his cross-cultural equivalence.
‘I can see it now,’ he wrote in his Preface: ‘I had never seen it in fullness myself…I can see it clearly now, because we have been working on this (old people’s stories).’
David Mowaljarlai was not the most senior Law Man of his cohort, or generation, but he was the most multi-lingual and – cultural; the most-photographed and-travelled. He was also, I believe, the most-attacked; target for official rivalries of a nervous age.
It is 1 July and there in my little-consulted old Lloyd Rees Birthday Book is the name: Mowaljarlai. I telephone to Jutta Malnic and learn from her of the death 10 days ago of Sergei – her spouse of many years. Is Yorro Yorro still in print? I ask, after appropriate condolences.
Her son, Julian, is just back from a visit to Broome, and has come with a superb copy of a 5th Imprint of the classic. It is a thing of great beauty to Jutta. ‘Make sure you get the 5th Imprint, ‘ she says. After 25 years this work of extraordinary dedication and effort is receiving some of the recognition it has long-deserved. And this is the least it deserves, an achievement of spirit and soul.
Yorro-Yorro means ‘everything standing up alive’ or, as Mowaljarlai used say: ‘everything in Nature is Growing -up – in the proper way.’ It is a paean to the exuberance of Life. It is, also, the soul of generosity, acknowledging ‘help, rescue and support received during the years of work’ even of people who, by the time of publication, were working to oppose and prevent the other ‘work’ David was doing – to assert the legal title of his people to the lands of their ancestors.
‘When I worked with anthropologists,’ wrote Mowaljarlai in his Preface to the book, but observed often in private, ‘We never went back enough to find proper beginnings.’ With Jutta Malnic, he said, he worked , also, with his own ‘spirit guides’ those perceived presences in the land over which he and Malnic walked, in a spirit of receptivity and intuition. Here, he would say, he found ‘understanding of direction and identity.’
On 1 July I remember my friend and former client and his inspirational colleague and co-author, with deep respect. They have given us a book for the ages. Birthdays meant nothing to Mowaljarlai but ‘proper beginnings’ did. Have meaning. And, as his kinswoman the poet Daisy Utemorrah said: ‘Reminding is good.’
Rosemary O’Grady is a lawyer and writer.