Monday, April 12, 2010

Being Watjala


While I live today as a Gubba, in Koorie land, and my most intense contact with Indigenous Australia has been as a Balanda, up north, I am originally a Watjala, a whitefella from Perth.

As a suburban boy, my contact with the world of Noongahs was largely speculative. In our neighbourhood, the roof of a bottle shop was adorned with a ‘Jackie’ sculpture of bearded aboriginal man with spear resting his foot on his knee. His silhouette defined our eastern sky. But the figure had as much to do with my childhood world as a Masonic Lodge.

But since I’ve been coming back to WA, I’ve gradually become more acquainted with the Noongah world. Through Nalda Searles I was able to meet the spirited women artists down south-west, in Narrogin, who made us Seven Sisters dolls.

Back for another visit last week, I became much more aware of the Noongah presence in the city of Perth. On Friday night, I was walking up Barrack Street behind a lithe young man with a beat box on his shoulder playing disco music. I was really admiring his footwork, a mixture of Travolta and traditional dance. I felt in touch with Perth as a city, with the energy of its different people’s gathered together.

But it was short-lived. Six policemen came out of nowhere and surrounded the young man. Compared to the dancer, these men were ox-like. One of them got out the blue plastic gloves and they started interrogating him.

Dennis at first tried to be cheeky with them. He was a little out of it, but sharp. The moustached officer who was leading the group maintained a completely impassive face. Eventually, Dennis succumbed and took a submissive position, calling him ‘boss’. I heard them talking about something that had been picked up on a city security camera.

Pedestrians walked around the scene with as much impassiveness as the policeman. But I stood still, about five metres from the group, and kept my gaze fixed at the policeman. He turned to me and asked, ‘You got any questions’. I shook my head but stayed. I was curious to see what happened, but also wanted to be some kind of witness, at least to have some acknowledgment of what was happening.

Eventually, Dennis started being cheeky again. I think he was just getting restless. The policeman’s face seemed to soften. He was a long way from smiling, but it seemed a little more relaxed. They eventually let Dennis go.

I walked away with Dennis and told him I liked the way he danced. He laughed at me and asked for $3. We turned the corner and ran into a small group of Noongah men and women staggering around. They were talking about booze and glue. Dennis bumped into a young woman and she asked him if he wanted a ‘push’.

I doubt the police would admit to being racist. But they don’t need to be. There are racists enough in Perth, eager to get the baseball bat out on a drunken Noongah lad. The police are there just to clean up the mess, and make sure the semblance of public order is maintained.

That Dennis could really dance.

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