A conversation with Ruth
When did you last visit Western Australia?
The last time I visited the Murchison (about 450 kms north of Perth) was in1955. As a twenty-four year old Anthropologist, I was doing field research among Aboriginal people who spoke Wajarri but use the term Yamatji, (meaning ‘man’) to refer to themselves.
Many Yamatji now live in towns such as Geraldton, Mullewa, Carnarvon and Meekatharra but in the 50s, only some families lived in towns as most were employed on the sheep stations to the north. Aboriginal men were valued as expert stockmen, excellent horsemen, while women did domestic work in the manager’s house or helped with the mustering and other station work and elderly people were allowed to live with their relatives in the makeshift camps. Fifty years on that way of life has long since vanished.
In 1955 I stayed at the Railway Hotel in Mullewa, daily visiting the camps, then situated across the railway line, well out of sight of the town. There was no water supply or sanitation, ‘native’ people as they were then called, lived in corrugated iron shacks or tents. A few families had houses in town. Gradually I got to know everyone, the regular town dwellers and the station Yamatji who came on short visits. I recorded their traditional songs, using a small Miniphon wire recorder, and played them back through a portable transistor radio. They had never heard Yamatji songs recorded and older people were keen to sing them fearing they would otherwise be lost like so much else of their culture.
As word spread, station people living further north, knowledgeable elders and women wanted their songs recorded. As a Research Fellow with the Psychology Department of the University of Western Australia I was supplied with a Landrover with camping equipment which enabled me to travel around the Murchison with Yamatji ladies, such as Mrs Ulli Dingo and Mrs Fanny Comeagain as my guides. Between 1955 and 1956 we visited stations and towns where I recorded songs and took many photographs.
Where is all of your research data held now?
All this information is now held in the archive collections of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in Canberra.
In 2005 I gave the Institute my last box of colour slides, which had deteriorated over time and their audio/visual department had to spend many months restoring them.
Had you been in contact with members of the community since your field research?
I had begun corresponding with some Yamatji ladies who had recently visited the Institute in Canberra and heard some of the old recordings, recognising some singers as their own close relatives, long since passed away. They hoped I might one day be able to visit and bring them photos from the past.
Have you ever returned to the community?
The opportunity came when the University of Western Australia invited me to “Anthropology in the West: 1956-2006,” in December 2006. After the symposium I flew to Geraldton where the Yamaji Irra Wangga Language Programme had organised a function at which I was to hand over the photos. and a bus load of Yamatji people went over from Geraldton to Mullewa, where they had hired the town hall for the morning.
What was it like going back after so many years?
Gradually the large hall began filling with men, women and young children, everyone sitting and chatting at little tables, and later sharing a meal together. Before the handing over ceremony Yamatji elder Ross Boddington, sang a traditional Yamatji song, I was told he is one of the few men who can still sing them. I presented an album of the photos and was given in return a photo of horses at Murchison Lake Bundiara in flood .
What was the reaction from the community to the photographs being returned?
Everyone was very interested in watching the projection of the photos and then handling the album which got passed around the tables, with people recognising close relatives in the pictures, and happily laughing and reminiscing about them. They had been asked to approve the photo screening well in advance, and no one had objected.
At the beginning of the ceremony one lady had questioned whether familles had given their permission, but everyone there was happy for them to be shown and she stayed on herself to watch the slides. One photo showed some young boys, sitting on a gate watching a football match An elderly man in his sixties introduced himself saying “that’s me, I was thirteen then, and that’s my brother and I know all those other boys’ names”. He presented me with a necklace of coloured seeds his wife had made and I felt very touched. The whole morning was a great success and people were reluctant to leave, they just wanted to look longer at the photos.
I was glad too to have helped to bring back something of their past!