reenact the past through oral histories, drama and music

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains images of deceased persons.

Amy Elwood, a Wangkumara/Adnyamathanha elder and cultural repository of knowledge and grandmother to one of us (Lorina Barker), inspired a series of creative works about her experience of being away from the country.

In 1938, 130 Aborigines, including Amy’s family and other Wangkumara families, were forcibly removed from the country at Tibooburra to Brewarrina Aboriginal Station – the old mission.

The community was transported 500 kilometers east to the Baaka Barwon rivers on the back of three gubbies (government) trucks.

In 2006, Lorina had a conversation with her grandmother about her life experiences and memories. This was turned into a poem called An Ode to My Grandmother, a short film called Tibooburra: My Grandmother’s Country, and a traveling multimedia exhibit called Looking Through Windows.

This thread also inspired an immersive theatrical performance Trucked Off and the song An Ode to My Grandmother.

Read more: Friday Essay: Stories Written in the Country – A Journey Through Adnyamathanha Yarta

Learn from elders

Oral history is the recorded account of memories of a person’s past for historical and research purposes. Indigenous oral history is more than a methodology. It is a living history, practiced for thousands of millennia, intrinsically linked to the way of life and culture of indigenous peoples.

As Indigenous people, we experience it every day: it’s part of who we are, where we come from and who we relate to. It also determines our interconnected relationship and responsibilities to our lands, rivers, seas, skies, and to all living and inanimate things in the natural and spiritual worlds.

In these works, Amy Elwood is able to share her memories and stories and those of her family.

On mission, life was hard and orderly. The Wangkumara were not able to speak their language or practice their culture; The elders worried for the country and many died of broken hearts.

Bell signaling at Old Brewarrina Mission, photo by Julie Collins, Brewarrina, 2018.
Julie Collins

With each development in history, artists and musicians have had to go through a process of decolonization to work within an Indigenous cultural framework. We have been invited by Wangkumara elders Gwen Barker, Rick Elwood, Rebecca McKellar and Louise Elwood to cultural creation spaces online and on Country where knowledge has been transferred in new forms.

With each successive workshop and performance, we learned more from the Elders through thread and storytelling. The creative process, from poem to final performance, developed over many years.

Tell a story

An immersive theatrical work, Trucked Off began with the poem. In immersive theatre, the audience is not a passive spectator, it is part of the story.

In Trucked Off, audiences follow the Tibooburra families, walking in their shoes, reliving Tibooburra’s journey to Brewarrina in the far north west of New South Wales.

Upon arrival at the mission, the old Brewarrina station, mission manager and staff explain to the public how their lives will be governed by the ringing of a bell. The number of rings indicates how they will react: whether they have to congregate to work, get rations, or, for the children, go to school or see the nurse for ‘care’.

Penalties are severe for non-compliance.

A group of 12 people in period costume with a dog posing on a green lawn.
Actors of the Trucked Off performance, photo by David Elkins, Armidale 2018.
David Elkin

The Wangkumara alumni, including Lorina’s mother, Aunt Gwen Barker, participate as actors in Trucked Off, making their story their own and telling their story.

The storyline is dynamic, incorporating themes of grief, loss, and trauma that reverberate through generations, reflecting the ongoing impact of colonization.

It is a theater of ‘telling the truth’, embodied and experiential, increasing people’s understanding and memory of this living history.

The audience is an integral part of the show.
Ray Bud Kelly Junior, Author provided

stories in song

Another work inspired by the poem was an opera song. In the Western tradition, the composer has the final say on the music, but this process required a new way of working involving the community and elders of Wangkumara.

The process ensured that cultural protocols were followed and that permissions were sought to tell the story and find the correct sound. Wangkumara elders were able to give us a detailed insight into the story and emotion behind the poem.

The musical sections were plotted and the Elders wanted the song to have an uplifting ending. It demonstrated the courage and resilience of the people, their connection to the country and the tracks of Mura (Songlines), even after their abduction. The song ends with a triumphant fanfare and the lyrics “Country knows you”.

While the poem is in English, the Elders added Wangkumara words into the song, including the word Ngamadja, which means “mother”. Wiradjuri soprano Georgina Hall discussed with the elders the many meanings of the words and the exact way to pronounce them when recording the song.

The language and story of the abduction finds a new home in classical music and song.

The use of oral histories and archival documents in these creative works allows family, community, artists and musicians as well as the public to walk in the footsteps of our elders.

We speak their words and experience for a moment what it was like to be pulled out of the country, transported, locked up and locked up on a mission. The original poem, production, and accompanying music also help debunk the takedown, and not only build audience empathy and understanding, but also serve as a call to action.

Read more: Friday Essay: ‘I can’t wait to have my kids home’: Collecting love letters written for the children of Noongar

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