Looking for murnong

This drawing by J. H. Wedge (1835) shows women digging roots of the Yam Daisy. Collection: State Library of Victoria

We live in the country of people from the land of the volcano. Jaara Jharr, the country of the Jaara Jaara, Lou Bennett’s people. This land is vibrant, ancient, dynamic and powerful. Our home in Malmsbury sits on ancient volcano plains, where basalt, sandstone, quartz, granite, and tachylyte cushion our every step. Boitchedjina, the soft instep of the foot pressed against Lar, the word for tachylyte, or volcano iron glass or obsidian, important to the Jaara people. Lar is also the root word for home in Dja Dja Wurrung. Ancient volcanoes stand proud, rising from the basalt plains. This country, Jaara Jharr, a country of constant change, movement, and creation, like our languages, never sleeps.

In Western colonial text and mind, this country has been domesticated, is fixed and known. The Western colonial industry has always relied on the exploitation of the storied lands of Indigenous peoples. The rich soil of the basalt plains, perfect for growing crops, orchards, and farming sheep or yeep in the language of the Original peoples. Lar, home, carried in the baskets of Jaara women, fashioned into artefacts such as spear tips or cutting utensils, fired up in ovens to roast the roots of the murnong. The ancient hands of the Jaara have fashioned these necessities with intimacy, love and familiarity. Lar. Home. Familiar. The treeless country, the wide roving plains, pre-date colonialism and invasion. The storied landscapes of Jaara Jharr.

Here on the basalt plains is our best chance for finding murnong, the native yam daisy. Murnong is elegant, her head gently droops when she is in bud, her flowering face a yellow head of florets gently spaced. She reminds us of the dignity and poise of Jaara women, drawn by colonial artists as gathered together, their bodies bowed while harvesting the yam. Introduced species attempt to replace her. Like Jaara people, murnong contests colonial replacement by the European Dandelion. Murnong, as both sound and name, has been coded into the colonial alphabetic writing system, renamed Microseris walteri, an object, commodified. Of coding, Tuck and Yang say: 

“coding is … a glimpse into the systematizing of relationships that form the deep structure for the world that programmer is creating … To codify is to manage, to arrange in an order that is meaningful to the coder. Coding is something we do to objects. Codes stand in for objectified living things. Codes become objects them-selves, to be treated objectively, in the way that the living things would not allow.”[1]

Murnong, our living, breathing Ancestor, once plentiful on the plains and throughout Jaara Jharr, is now found in places like roadsides and rock crevices, and reminds us of Indigenous people’s right to refuse colonialism and its codes. To refuse the colonising code, Tuck and Yang say, “requires deconstructing power,”[2] to emphatically state the importance of Indigenous people’s active refusal:

“Refusals are needed to counter narratives and images arising (becoming-claims) in social science research that diminish personhood or sovereignty, or rehumiliate when circulated.”[3]

Murnong is more than a plant. Murnong is an Ancestor. To speak her name affirms our place and our belonging as Original peoples.

Relationships of sound

Today we travel to Leanganook to find her, murnong, and in doing so we not only refuse colonial toponymy, we also refuse language oppression “as a form of domination that is coherent with other forms of oppression …”[4] More than a word; more than sound; but a vibration that echoes through all existence, weaving past, present and future into this moment, into our bang (body), goorook (blood), djalli (tongue), all the way to our djina (foot).

“The universe is vibration, the voice a medium of creation … We begin to comprehend the use of song in Indigenous cosmology, for the whole of existence is song – the audible and the inaudible …”

Romaine Moreton, The Right to Dream[5]

Our living bodies imbued with the breath of Djuandak Murup (Ancestors) are connected to the eternal, the infinite through the air that we breathe. Our breath. Mang kapung (This now). This being. For Indigenous peoples, we are the embodiment of our languages and have been since the beginning. “Spoken language is a complex, living system” and the “written language is what some linguists call an artifact of culture.”[6] As Indigenous peoples, how we negotiate and navigate the written language relies in part on our right to resist and refuse colonial writing systems governed by written language bias, and the impact of writing on our conceptualisation and speech. Also, our bodies.

We ascend Leanganook, in colonial toponymy named Mount Alexander. Major Thomas Mitchell displaced the original name of Leanganook and renamed it Alexandria to honour Alexander the Great, emperor of ancient Macedonia. Colonial toponym is an example of what Irene Watson refers to as “the covering of Raw Law and the unsettling of our country,”[7] using violence to force our Djuandak Balag (Old People) to stop singing songs and performing ceremonies that expressed their “connections to country and law.”[8] Leanganook is a granite mountain, and the granite sourced here was used for the Burke and Wills Memorial in the Melbourne General Cemetery.[9] Our Djuandak Balag were forced to stop singing songs that kept our law strong, while code colonialism reduced our countries to raw materials and used these materials to establish their economies and to strengthen their own, imposed laws. For this reason, when we journey to places such as Leanganook, we are aware that we are on a quest of rematriation.

Rematriation

Rematriation for us refers to a process of using Indigenous spiritual processes to recover ourselves from the text, the colonial records, the archives, the repositories. Rematriation is an acknowledgement of Indigenous homelands as sacred, where a return to country is a restoration of spiritual life without external interference. Rematriation for us is walking on country to overcome colonial codes, to find and feel places of belonging and to connect spiritually, and to forget the distractions of how our language is spelled in the white man’s writing system, and instead focus on how our languages sound. The sound of our languages are the vibrations that are true to each place and marks them as unique.

Written language bias and linguistic imperialism constantly interrupt our right relationships with our own country by centring and imposing the mechanics of the Western codes and alphabetic writing system that values the rules of linguistics, taxonomy, toponymy, colonial naming policies, and standardisation over our living, breathing landscapes. We can observe the standardisation of the town names, such as Echuca where granite from Leanganook was taken to build Echuca’s railway. Echuca derives from the original word Wolithica and Moama deriving from the original word Molwa. Western standardisation has corrupted the sound of our words, and therefore our unique connection, relevance and origin to country, to fit into Western phonology and the limitations of the Western sound systems.

“Anglo-sizing our words can only distort and weaken our language uniqueness and our oral way of teaching our language. For example, our vowel system has distinct differences to the Australian English vowel system. The town names of Echuca and Moama are evident of this.”[10]

Anglo-sizing is the constant reminder to Indigenous people that our languages have been corrupted and homogenised to accommodate the Western tongue and ear. The limitations of English and Euro-linguistics are evident in the above examples, and in the dropping of the prefix “ng” and replacing with “ny” or “kn” or omitting it altogether in the example of Ulumbara which derives from Ngulumbara. The changing of syllable stress from the first to the second and the broadening of the vowel sounds are further examples and practices centralising whiteness. Identifying these practices have informed our rematriation practices, our resistance and right to refuse.

Language activism

“The vibration of the body and the land was not separate, for through the song, the voice of the singer, and the speaker of language, they became one.”

Romaine Moreton, The Right to Dream[11]

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) Strategy 2016–20 states its “ultimate objective is to have ISO standards used everywhere.”[12] The coding of languages globally is ISO 639. Standardising our languages with codes is the constant barrage of whiteness centralising itself, and when the collectors were collecting, they weren’t benign. They were doing something purposeful. They were codifying our languages to assimilate them into their own language systems. Due to their process and Western ear, the limits of their codification represent the limits of their tongue, their bodies, and their relationships. The colonial collectors have essentially buried our old people and our sounds in their texts, all in the process of replacement and its strong association with the elimination of native peoples.

“The logic of elimination not only refers to the summary liquidation of Indigenous people, though it includes that … it strives for the dissolution of native societies.”[13]

In Jaara country, warfare between the colonists and Jaara raged. Jaara people were rounded up and placed into mission reserves for their own “protection”. How do we as Indigenous researchers, artists, song-women and storytellers insert ourselves into the colonial text for the purpose of recovering our old people, our sense of ourselves? How do we walk lightly amongst written words that act like colonial gravestones and markers? Rematriation is important, and activism is equally important. In activating our ancient places to which we belong, we are actioning for our own people. Our right to refuse Western colonialism and the assumed authority of whiteness over who we are is part of our inheritance as Indigenous peoples.

“The complexity of our density consists of more than the knowledge that has been produced about us. For example, being Indigenous includes the complexity of the life we live in webs of kinship as mothers, daughters, teachers, healers, performers, and professors.”[14]

In this space we converse with and listen to Djuandak Balag, with Waa and Gorek Gorek. Every morning we are woken by a cacophony of birds eagerly waking at sunrise. Each one with their own language, their own song. We listen deeply every day to the country, find and hear the language belonging to this country. We listen to the wind and messages it brings. We converse with each other as women of story and song. Here is where our stories and language reside, and it is here where we practice daily the ongoing lessons of Law from Djuandak Balag.

The raw sounds of our languages emanate from the country and form the very words we are looking for, the very stories we seek to tell and retell. For now, our search for murnong continues. Growing in those spaces where she is safe from hooves, cars, colonialism and whiteness. We choose not to purchase murnong seeds. How can this be a right relationship? We seek her on the basalt plains, wild and free. Like our languages. Like our songs. Like our law. Raw Law.

Leanganook (Mt Alexander). Photo: Romaine Moreton
Leanganook (Mt Alexander). Photo: Romaine Moreton

Footnotes

  1. ^ Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Unbecoming Claims: Pedagogies of Refusal,” Qualitative Research, Qualitative Inquiry, 20(6), June 2014, p. 812.
  2. ^ Ibid. p. 182.
  3. ^ Ibid. p. 811.
  4. ^ Gerald Roche, “Articulating language oppression: colonialism, coloniality and the erasure of Tibet’s minority languages,” Patterns of Prejudice, 53:5, 2019, 487–514.
  5. ^ Romaine Moreton, The Right to Dream, University of Western Sydney, 2006.
  6. ^ “Orthography in Linguistics: Definition & Examples,” Study.com, 20 January 2017.
  7. ^ Irene Watson, Raw Law: Aboriginal Peoples, Colonialism and International Law, Routledge, 2015, p. 20.
  8. ^ Ibid.
  9. ^ The Burke and Wills Research Gateway.
  10. ^ Lou Bennett, Lotjpa Yorta Yorta! Retrieving, Reclaiming and Regenerating Language and Culture through the Arts, unpublished dissertation, 2015, p. 11.
  11. ^ Moreton, op cit, 2006.
  12. ^ Patrick Wolfe, “Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native”, Journal of Genocide Research, 8:4, 2006, pp. 387–409.
  13. ^ Ibid.
  14. ^ Aileen Moreton-Robinson, The White Possessive, University of Minnesota Press, 2015, p. xv. 

Language activist Lou Bennett AM, Yorta Yorta and Dja Dja Wurrung, is an arts practitioner of international acclaim with thirty-years experience, currently a Westpac Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne researching the importance of Indigenous-led language retrieval processes. Her research project, Sovereign Language Rematriation through Song Pedagogy is receiving much attention.

Storytelling activist Romaine Moreton, Goenpul Yuggera Bundjalung, is an extensively published writer of poetry and prose and a filmmaker, who through Binung Boorigan Pty Ltd, addresses the need for Indigenous business models in arts research and production fostering the deployment of decolonising strategies.