The Passing of the Aborigines, by Daisy Bates



I had thought to spend my last days at Ooldea, earning my modest living with my pen, ministering, as ever, to those who might need me, faithful to the end of my life’s loyalties. But at last a day came that brought me hope, hope of reducing all my hoarded manuscripts to some sort of order, and an opportunity, not of renouncing my life’s devotion, but of consummating it.

For the great work to which, in the enthusiasm of early days, I had set my hand-the interpretation of the mind and soul of the Australian aborigine-was as yet untouched.

The ceaseless garnering of thirty-five years of intensive study had been jealously guarded at great personal cost and trouble through all my wanderings. My voluminous notes had been scribbled anyhow and anywhere, on white paper and brown, diaries and notebooks and fragments, illegible and unintelligible to any save me, packed into any receptacle that would hold them in my eight by ten tent, where they became inextricably mixed and were in constant peril of destruction. Now and again I had taken a bulging bundle, trying to reduce it to lucidity, but with the hot winds and sandstorms and the constant demands upon time and my mercies by the pitiable specimens of humanity about me had only made the ethnological confusion worse confounded.

I had passed the allotted span of life by five long years. My step was as light and my heart as gay as they had been in youth, but I could no longer shut my eyes to the fact that if I were to accomplish my work for Australia and its lost people, I must lose no time.

The hope was qualified with regret, for now I must bid farewell to that little tent home patched with a hundred patches, ragged and empty and devoid of comfort, yet so full of loving memories; Kabbarli must take leave of her grandchildren.

The last few days were unforgettable. I had kept my departure a secret, yet in some mysterious way they sensed that something was toward. “Kabbarli!” came the call all day long at the breakwind, to make sure that I was still there, and now when I went up to the station for my mail the children would be all about me, singing the rain-song that I had brought to them from the far North-west:

Ngoona weeli-weeli burniji ngoona

waving their branches to the plaintive little tune, song and tune coming from the far-off Ashburton areas. Time and again I sat with them on the Kooli hill near my tent, the hill where we had so often been together, scanning the horizon for the smoke of the fires at Boonja Water many miles away, waiting for the coming of the new groups from the thousands of miles north and north-west, doubling and re-doubling in their tracks for weeks and months, fighting and killing and eating on the way.

One day came the news that old Gooyama was lying ill at a camp five miles away, wanting to see Kabbarli. With the extraordinary provision of the dying, he had come 100 miles from Fowler’s Bay in a buggy with Yarrijuna and Stuttering Yarri. He was past food, but it was a pleasure to give some to those who were with him, and nearby I found Ardana, frantic in the belief that his old enemy Jinnabullain had sent magic into his liver. This necessitated a second journey for medicine and magic healing-a twenty-mile walk for me all told-and before I left, Ardana was on his way to fight Jinnabullain by magic or spear.

Old Jinnawillie and Nganamana were lying together in another camp. I bandaged Nganamana’s bitten breast, but Jinnawillie, so little and so fierce, was obviously nearing her end. Her hand and tongue were against everyone but her giant son Dhalberdiggin, for whom she would fight, beg, steal and kill, and for whom she starved her tiny body throughout his life. I think that her poor face changed and softened only for her son and me. I told her that my Father would look out for her in the country she was passing to, but, as she had room only for her son in her life, she feared. “Kabbarli mallingga yanning!” (Grandmother will come soon after you) I comforted Jinnawillie. Not very long after I learned that she was dead.

I had managed for sixteen years to secrete from keen native eyes the totem boards of my own initiation and the sacred eenma of the dead groups that I had been entrusted to keep “alive.” I now brought these from their hiding-place to pack them for transport, and called the men to help me. We sat down at each side of the eenma, out of sight and hearing of the women. As I turned one long board face upwards, Yalli-yalla reverently touched it, then placed his hand upon my breast and then on his own. It was the curlew totem of his fathers that he had never seen since his own young manhood. He knew that the spirit of all totems was within my breast.

Thirteen men came to help me with the manuscripts cases and boxes, seven heavy loads for us to carry by means of rope handles to the siding. I had always strictly reserved one 40 gallon tank of rain-water, to be broached only in my own extremity. We anticipated Empire Day and used it up in a farewell feast. I told them that they might make their dampers at my fire, for the first and last time, for I must leave them. The warm tent and the breakwind must be kept sacred to the memory of Kabbarli. Her magic and kindness would dwell there for them always. Jubilee day found us early awake. We cleared the tent of its scanty furnishings, and these, with my beloved set of Dickens, solace of so many lonely hours, I sent to the home of a little white girl at the Siding. My grandsons squatted on the slope above me, and I proceeded to shed my working clothes, pushing the garments piecemeal beneath the closed tent flap for eager black hands to grasp. When I emerged it was to find Yalli-yalla glorious in my white dust-coat and Gindigi resplendent in a mackintosh. Being my oldest grandsons, they had confiscated the most dashing raiment, and proudly they strutted in Kabbarli’s magic garb. The others divided the shirts and skirts to give to their women.

Crooning and crying, they gathered round me on the slope of the sand-hill. A few strangers were among them, new arrivals from the desert, who had come to this Kabbarli of whom they had heard so much to say hail and farewell. We made a queer procession to the Siding, walking slowly and in single file, as we had so often walked to the sacred ceremonies. Yalli-yalla and Gindigi strode close beside me, their bare feet kicking aside the stone and twigs that my shoes should not be cut.

Because I had the sacred totem boards in my possession, the women dared not approach, but stood away on the north side of the line. Farewell to each one of them and then the little white girl approached. With her, as I sat upon my luggage, I recited the old well-known hymn of childhood, “Now the day is over.” In the quiet evenings I have sung it alone to the stars for many a year.

The train came in. My shabby old hold-all that had been my wardrobe since 1909 and still carried my personal possessions for old sake’s sake was hoisted aboard.

The last I saw was the soft strained farewell in my natives’ eyes. I gave them shillings for the first time, calling each by his native name, with a few words of native nonsense to ease my feelings.

It seemed a dream that the old life was over, the old life of eternal wind and sand, the long, long droughts that take ten years to come and go, the so meagre yet so crowded years that I had spent in such strange company.

There was not an hour of my time wasted in all those years. I did what I set out to do-to make their passing easier and to keep the dreaded half-caste menace from our great continent. I know that I hold a place in their hearts, and that my memory and my magic will keep them balya, lest Kabbarli should know, and be koordudu yooril (heart crying).

I have tried to tell of their being and their ending and the cause of their decline. Nothing is ever lost in this world, and if the slightest impression of anything I have said or done, by example or in devotion, remains with them in comfort for the past or hope for the future, I shall be content.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51