“A lot of the men’s stories had already been recorded, but these ladies had said to me, ‘We’re bosses ourselves and we’ve got stories to tell, you should come up some time’.”
Borroloola has a long and sometimes brutal history. It was a far cry from Professor Kearney’s youth, in “a very run-of-the-mill, single parent Gold Coast family.”
It was established in 1901 as a colonial welfare outpost, and drew people in until the 1950s. Many were fleeing the frontier violence that still raged against Aboriginal people, but once in the town, they became increasingly dependent on welfare.
The town also became home to four different language groups living in different family camps: the Yanyuwa, the Garawa, the Gudanji and the Marra.
Professor Kearney studied the work of Yale sociologist Jeffrey Alexander and had even met him. One of the world’s leading social theorists, his work looked at how cultural groups come through horrific episodes.
But she found the language of ‘cultural trauma’ he used, and the implicated state of post trauma, stifling. What was worse, when applied to the Australian context it fed into the narrative that, for the most part, cast Aboriginal peoples in terms of dysfunction.
“The language had come out of the holocaust and particularly violent and horrific histories and I found it at odds with what I was seeing in the community where, on a day-to-day basis, people have an incredible capacity to just get on with things.”
These were people who would tell Professor Kearney about past massacres, the current hardship of their lives, the terrible housing, and their heartbreak at their language vanishing before their eyes, but they had never lost the sense of esteem and worth around being a Yanyuwa person.
“So I was searching for another language better to represent what I saw in day-to-day life where people were trying to thrive again on cultural terms that were their own,” she says.