Yindyamarra Yambuwan book launch talk by Stephen Kemmis

Guest post from Prof Emeritus Stephen Kemmis from the launch of Yindyamarra Yambuwan at Wagga Wagga City Library.

First, I want to pay my respects to the Wiradjuri Elders here present, and to the Wiradjuri people on whose land we meet today. This may be an important occasion for the Wiradjuri people who are here, but it is an even more important occasion for those of us here who are not Wiradjuri people. This launch opens a door for us, and invites us to enter Wiradjuri knowledge and culture.

Yindyamarra Yambuwan, the film and the book, have already made names for themselves. The film was the winner of the 2016 New South Wales Premier’s Multicultural Media Award. The film and book were made by Bernard Sullivan, in collaboration with Honorary Doctor Uncle Stan Grant, Senior, AM, who, with John Rudder and others, has led the recovery of the Wiradjuri language from the brink of extinction. The film was at the heart of Bernard’s Doctor of Philosophy thesis, completed at Charles Sturt University in 2016.

I want to say a few words about the research process by which the film was made. Central to the process was a long series of interviews in which Bernard listened to and learned from a number of key Wiradjuri Elders (I cannot name them all), over a period of years. He returned repeatedly to the Elders to collect and capture new facets of the concept of Yindyamarra, central to Wiradjuri life, language, law, and land. Essays by Aunty Flo Grant and Uncle Stan Grant, in the book that accompanies the film, give further background to the importance of the concept of Yindyamarra in Wiradjuri life. After long listening and learning, Bernard was able to resolve the concept of Yindyamarra into a long poem, which he could take to the Elders for review, and revise in the light of their comments. Bernard says more about the profound philosophy behind this way of working in his essay in the book. Finally, as the words neared resolution, Bernard was able to marry them to the images that set the words in context, in the living-being of the Wiradjuri world around us. Most of the images are of animals and birds important in Wiradjuri culture, of the river, of huge river red gums and scar trees, mountains, valleys, that beautiful Bogong moth whose wings spread and retract… People feature in the film only in the hands of a weaver and the feet of dancers. This absence of people implies a viewer of this Wiradjuri world: a Wiradjuri person who sees this Wiradjuri world, and who connects with the living beings in that Wiradjuri world with profound respect and deliberation. The film puts us – Wirajuri or non-Wiradjuri – behind the eyes of that Wiradjuri viewer of the world.

In the same way, the poem is spoken in Wiradjuri language, read by Bernard. Although many viewers, like me, do not understand the words, we feel their resonance, their weight, their gravitas. In the film, English subtitles decode the words; in the book, the Wiradjuri words are accompanied both by a word-for-word English translation to help students of the Wiradjuri language, and by a free English translation that gives us an English version of something like – but also different from – what the Wiradjuri words mean. The Wiradjuri narration also underlines the culturally-particular viewpoint of the film – a Wiradjuri viewpoint to which we non-Wiradjuri people, and non-Wiradjuri speakers are welcomed. And perhaps if the eyes that see the Wiradjuri world in the film are Wiradjuri eyes, perhaps the voice that speaks the narration is also a Wiradjuri voice – perhaps our voice, a voice that speaks for all of us who see and hear the film, drawing us gently into that Wiradjuri perspective on the world, that Wiradjuri way of being.

Bernard’s service to these Wiradjuri Elders has been and continues to be extraordinary and remarkable, a labour of love for a culture he has been apprenticed to – the culture of the people of this Wiradjuri land. He has modelled a kind of research guided by an ethic of service. We need much more of that respectful research. Bernard models a way for us non-Indigenous people to be in the presence of Indigenous people, a way for non-Wiradjuri people like me to be in the presence of Wiradjuri people: respectful; attentive; alert; listening; learning; acting with deliberation, in the light of right perception, understanding, and wisdom; and taking responsibility for all the consequences of our actions.

The Elders and this film generously allow us to enter the territory of Wiradjuri knowledge. More than this, though, they also take us into an idea that is at the very heart of Wiradjuri culture, and that, at the same time, embraces the whole web of the most important relationships in that culture, encompassing Wiradjuri people, communities, life, language, law and land. I leave it to the film and the book to show how this is so.

This film captures thirty different aspects of Yindyamarra – it shows us how to relate to Wiradjuri people, in the way that they intend to relate to us. It shows us how to relate to the whole, interconnected, living Wiradjuri world around us – the Wiradjuri world that came into existence in the time of the ancestors; that oriented Wiradjuri people through thousands of years of continuous occupation of this land; that has survived colonisation and dispossession, despite the immense pain, suffering and loss caused by that dispossession. It shows us how to relate to a world that is still alive around us, here and now, and out into Wiradjuri country and into the future.

Yindyamarra Yambuwan provides a very timely lesson for Wiradjuri and non-Wiradjuri people alike, about how to live – a right way to live. It certainly shows us how we should live on Wiradjuri country, if we want to be respected by the people whose country this is. But I think it also shows us how people should live everywhere: we should be full of respect for life, thoughtful about how to act rightly in the world, and taking responsibility for all the consequences of what we do. I think these values of Yindyamarra are desperately needed for the sake of our planet. This ancient and continuing Wiradjuri civilization has held this wisdom for tens of thousands of years, here on Wiradjuri land – long before the monotheistic religions like Judaism that developed in the Middle East in ‘the Axial Age’, around 500 BC, and around the same time that the philosophy of Ancient Greece developed, when Zoroastrianism emerged in Persia, when Buddhism arose in India, and Confucianism and Taoism in China. It seems to me that this ancient Wiradjuri wisdom, coming from long before that time, continues to be needed not just here and now, in Wiradjuri country, but around the whole planet.

I want to conclude by returning once more to the extraordinary generosity of the gift this film and book reveal to us all – a gift from Wiradjuri Elders to all who come to understand Yindyamarra, and a gift from Bernard Sullivan and his collaborators, whose film gives new life to an old idea that may yet save humanity, even from itself. Thank you, Bernard, for your service, and for the knowledge, skills and profound commitment, that brought this film into being. Thank you to the Elders whose profound generosity made this gift possible.

Let this film and book go out into the world and make it a better place by making us better people, who can now strive to relate to each other and the world in the spirit of Yindyamarra.

Stephen Kemmis
Saturday July 1, 2017
Wagga Wagga City Library