Many years ago, so goes an Aboriginal tale, an eight-year-old orphan named Kubra was punished by the elders of his community for stealing, and not sharing the pond water. When the boy taunted them from atop a gum tree, up flew sticks that struck him, making his neck disappear, his eyes grow bigger, his shoulders roll over, and shrinking his arms and legs. Kubra became the first koala. And that’s why koalas drink little water because they remember the punishment.
The platypus, goes another tale, was born after a duck woman took a fancy to a handsome water rat. Duck people didn’t like water-rat people. Years later, when the two communities met, they reconciled not to fight, for they were a family now. The children got the water rat’s dark and hairy body, and shy nature, and the mother’s duckbill and webbed feet.
Stories travel. Characters change. A wicked woman may turn into a wicked old man, but stories remain the same, says Uncle Larry Walsh, 66, an Aboriginal Elder from Taungurung tribe of Kulin Nation in Victoria. A diminutive man, with Gandalf-like milky white hair and beard, took the stage on an October evening in Delhi, to tell the story of the koala and the platypus at the 12th Kathakar International Storytellers Festival.
“It is the story behind the story which is important,” he says, between taking puffs at his cigarette and coughing. While the koala story is about drought, the platypus story is about two races (Australians and Aboriginals) and reconciliation. “I tell stories to teach people about the past, what is pre-European,” he says.
The storyteller’s own story is incredible. In 1956, when his mum had gone to pick vegetables, a two-and-a-half-year-old Walsh was swooped away by the government which decided he was “in need of care and protection”. The second-eldest in his community, Walsh is a survivor of the Stolen Generation, children of Aboriginal descent who were forcibly separated from their parents, under law, to “breed out the colour”. Once stamped a “ward of the state”, Walsh was also slammed with an inexplicable criminal conviction. Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd has called it a “blemished chapter” in their national history. Last year, the Victorian government passed an amendment to expunge historical criminal records of such children.
Walsh, who changed many hands, locates his first memory in a children’s home in Geelong, 100 km from Melbourne. At 8, he was fostered by a senior couple. “My foster father fought in World War II, and would drink to forget the war,” he says. “The more he drank, the more violent he became. He taught me self-defence by roughing me up. Children stayed away because I had a bit of a temper.” The police picked up the eight-year-old from the streets, called him a “troublemaker”, and pasted his picture across police station walls. “Whenever a crime or violence happened after that, I was picked up. So I started doing it: robbery, fights.” The 11-year-old got into alcohol, drugs, and remained a loner. “Even now, I get a panic attack in a crowded place,” he says.
It wasn’t until he was 14, after the 1967 referendum, that his people were considered citizens. But they had no rights: to education or the vote, nor to go to discos, motels and restaurants. When Walsh asked to be let off “care”, the authorities handed him a letter that his younger brother had written two years ago. It told them how Walsh had been taken away from home, and how his mother grieved for him. Walsh was reunited with his real family. An encounter with a community “uncle” with a penchant for telling stories set him off on gathering his tribe’s tales, and retelling 60,000-year-old stories of the Kulin Nation through a contemporary lens at age 17.
But getting out of a life of crime involved something more. He began looking in the mirror every morning and saying, “I know I’m not that bad.” It was a trick he passed on to many, when he was eventually hired by the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service. “I noticed that many people who got into trouble came from the same background as me,” he says.
In the late 1970s, he and some others started a movement against “death in custody” after his younger brother, and others, who had been picked up by the police and beaten up, died in prison. He set up a programme to teach inmates painting and carving. One day, in a women’s cell, he narrated a swan story and told the women from Western Australia’s Swan River area, “It’s part of your story too”. They reclaimed it, started looking up their area’s stories to make paintings, and stopped getting into trouble.
“Museums invite me to discuss markings. Twenty of us built a big Aboriginal section in the Museums Victoria called Bunjilaka in Melbourne.” Once some taxidermists asked him to join in stuffing bears, he replied that his people aren’t allowed to spear/skin certain animals while narrating the koala story, which dates back 26,000 years. When skinned — anthropologists discovered — the koala looks like a little boy, he says. There are rules. “I was born in a country where Goanna lives, so we can’t eat lizards. I’m a crow (his tribe’s symbol), so I can’t marry a crow, magpie, black swan, bat or emu, but can marry an eagle,” he says.
He recounts telling Palestinian, African and Polynesian youth in Australia: “Your parents don’t want to tell you about their own country because of the war. So, remember a lullaby your mum and dad once sang. You got to remind them of the good things.” Later, they came together to do a show with various countries’ lullabies. “Everyone’s talking of differences. The more you talk about what’s the same, the less trouble you have,” he says.
About Australia’s reputation as a racist nation, he says, “It seems to be the last white bastion, so they are afraid that Indians, Africans, Polynesians are going to change their lives. Anyone with colour — Aboriginal, Pacific Islander, African, Indian — is a target. Anytime a new number of people arrive, they get scared that they will take something from them — power, money. We still haven’t figured out what we are going to take,” he says, laughing.
The Elder is working with DJs on recordings to draw the youth into his mission of a cultural revival. “Stories give the young a sense of who they are,” he says, “I don’t mind if they use it to create something new.”
Twenty years ago, a story of his was turned into a modern dance. “Songs, dance or painting brings together young Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals. That’s our future. Together.”
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘Lived to Tell the Tale’