Children's Place Learning Maps: Thinking through Country

Margaret Somerville

The first stories are almost beyond memory. I grew up knowing the stories so I'm guessing that I was told as a very, very small child. When you first get told about the creation of the Lake it's a very simplistic story, it was just simply that this huge animal kept the kids away from water holes, 'look out, Kurreah'll get you'. It was a story to keep you safe, later on it gets deeper and deeper, the same story gets more detailed. As a tiny, tiny child you probably didn't even understand it was Kurreah that created the Lake with the thrashing of his tail when he was dying. It was more about he swallowed people if you went too close to the water, he might be still there and he'll get you. Later on you get told the creation story then further on than that you get told about how they killed him and how he is now called upon as the spirit to make things grow.

(Immiboagurramilbun in Somerville, 2013a)

My friend, colleague, mentor and co-researcher, Chrissiejoy Marshall, calls herself Immiboagurramilbun when speaking her U'Alayi knowledge. She grew up on the Narran Lake in remote western New South Wales, the daughter of an Aboriginal mother and a white station owner. The story of how she came into the world is a series of colonial brutalities. Her grandmother was brought captive as a young woman from her country of the Erinbinjori peoples in far north Queensland and left for dead in the Noongaburrah country of the Narran Lake in western New South Wales. Chrissiejoy's grandfather rescued her and they married and gave birth to one child, Chrissiejoy's mother. When this child grew up and became pregnant to the white station owner, the grandmother took another long journey, fearing that the baby would be taken away because of its light coloured skin, but the mother died in childbirth.

By the time Chrissiejoy was born, the Narran Lake was landlocked by the fences of white property owners. The small family of her Noongaburrah grandfather, uncles and Erinbinjori grandmother was protected by the white station owner and they rebuilt their lives there by the Narran Lake. When I recorded her story in her home in the western suburbs of Sydney, each time I asked a question there was a long pause as if she travelled through time and space to her life there by the lake.

I don't remember a time without the Lake. There were times when it dried back but they were quite rare. It was always full and in season there'd be thousands and thousands of birds you'd wake up in the morning to birds getting a fright, taking off and making a terrible clatter. Then going to sleep of a night time listening to all the birds that lulled chatter that you hear of an evening.

The Lake had to dry back, we understood it had to dry back to let the land breathe. Millinbu was always the first to come back. Day to day frogs are yuwiya but when you talk about them as our educator, teaching you when the Lake was coming back they were called millinbu. Millinbu would come out of their wet slime, smell the rain when it's coming. They had to be up above the ground before the water started.

As a U'Alyayi child growing up by the Narran Lake, Chrissiejoy learned Country1 from a very young age from the place itself. She learned from the living creatures in their cycles of migration and gestation within the rhythms and seasons of the place. There was no sensory separation for the U'Alayi child between the natural world and the human world. She wakes in the morning to the sounds of the migratory birds taking off, and goes to sleep with their lulled chatter at night. She understands that the lake had to dry back to let the land breathe and learned that the first creature to signal the eagerly awaited return of the waters was Millinbu, the frog. When the lake was dry they collected emu eggs from nests in the twiggy lignum bushes that grew in the lake bed. When the waters returned Chrissiejoy stayed in the camp, unable to get to school through the flooded waterways. They lived their lives by the seasons of the lake and the lake determined the nature of the child's place learning.

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