thomas m wilson

Feeling Nyungar Warmth

September 27th, 2007

Kia kia. That means hallo in the language that used to be spoken around here.

The following photo was taken near Fremantle in 1890. It is of a local Aboriginal woman standing outside her shelter, wearing a ‘buka’, a cloak of kangaroo skin turned inside out and hitched around one shoulder. She’s holding a long digging stick, or ‘wonna’, which was used to dig for root vegetables and small animals. Her hut is made of branches bent over a single frame in a semi-circle, and then covered in leaves.


Yesterday I was shown around Walyunga National Park by some Nyungar people. It was part of a field trip I got myself onto at the end of a conference I didn’t attend on National Parks in Australia. The day was cool and rainy, and having the ever so soft fur of kangaroo skins draped over our shoulders was useful in keeping warm.

The above photo has no colour. What if we add some colour to this way of life?


The fur of the bukka is such a soft feeling on the skin. Why can’t white people use this obvious clothing material somehow? Using place as a blanket, as it were.

Among other things, we were shown how to make knives with small sticks and bits of sharp quartz stuck into melted marri resin on the end of the sticks. I’ve now got a plan to go and collect some quandongs, a slightly sharp tasting but plentiful local fruit that will be available in the next two to three weeks, as well as the fruit of pigface, a coastal succulent flowering around now. This is the time of year when the first people of Perth would come down out of the hills to the coast and start to harvest frogs, turtles, quandongs and plenty of other bush tucker.


The clay and ochre came from the local earth, and was smeared on my skin. It dries quickly and feels like a mask so that moving your skin in a facial expression pulls on the dried earth. Smearing ochre mud on another man’s face gives you a strange feeling, an atavistic and tribal intimacy. God, I’m sounding like a men’s encounter group devotee all of a sudden! Soon I’ll be wearing a tapestry waist coat and warming my legs over an open fire. Don’t worry, that will never happen.

Biological evolution has only had a few million years of trial and error experience to work out which species should be living on these soils. Aboriginal people have only had a few millenia to work out good ways to live off these species. I’m not suggesting that mums and dads from Cottesloe don arm bands of eucalyptus leaves, wear red-tipped black cockatoo feathers in their hair, and learn to throw a gidgee in the river (although I do love that image!). But white fellas around these parts certainly do need to leave the air-conditioned comfort of Coles and go out and wake up to wear they are standing.