Growing up is full of decisions. When you’re young and those decisions are made for you, life is safe enough but, whether you like it or not, as you grow older those decisions eventually have to be made by you. Kia Dowell, 27, explains the decisions that took her from a remote Aboriginal community in the Kimberley to playing basketball in the USA, and home again. Growing up is making choices about who you want to be.
A Fork in the Road by Kia Dowell
I am a proud descendent of the original inhabitants of Australia; the first Australians. Although I was born in Darwin and spent my high school years there, I am and always will be a Gija woman of Warmun Community in the East Kimberley of Western Australia.
My mum was born under a bloodwood tree in Warmun Community and lived in a shelter. Before the age of 10, she was taken away and sent to the Beagle Bay Mission in the West Kimberley, where she used to steal food from the garden to stave off her hunger. She is a quiet leader and has always been adamant about her children having the opportunities that she did not. My father was born and raised in country Victoria, on a farm in Echuca. He is the son of a Scottish migrant and a hard-yakka Aussie man. As a young boy, he walked or rode horses to school, played Aussie Rules, went to tech school and then forged his way up to Darwin in an old ute along the dirt roads that ruled the Northern Territory and Western Australia. He has an easygoing nature and the ability to laugh at himself. Contrary to his ‘hard’ outward appearance, he is a caring and gentle man.
I am not the first of ‘mixed blood’, nor will I be the last. I am educated within the expectations of the gudia (white) way, yet I was raised as an Indigenous woman, who grew up on the Ngarranggarni (Dreamtime) stories of my people.
I was born in Darwin during the wet on the same date as my father. My parents were living a few hours drive south at the time, in a place called Bachelor. It wasn’t long before we moved to Warmun Community so that my parents could start new jobs. I’d heard about Warmun before from my mum and from my family who visited us. Although I’d never been there, I knew I was going home.
While I loved growing up there, I certainly can’t say that everything was perfect. I will explain some of the good, so you can understand some of the bad.
We learnt the local Gija language at school from the old female artist, who was a well respected elder and senior lore (culture and customs) woman. Every morning before school began, all of the schoolchildren would gather at the front of the classroom buildings of Ngalangangpum School (meaning mother and child), right under a painting of Mary and Jesus. As in most Aboriginal communities, Catholicism was an inherent element of life. Our school was run by the Sisters of St Joseph and they were highly respected by the children; we knew that if we messed up, we’d have it in with the principal.
I loved listening to stories and singing and playing games, which taught us more about our culture and language. We used to play games like ‘Simon says’, but instead of English we would play it in Gija. We always got a thrill out of the last move, where the children would stick their butts in the air. My favourite story was about dogs chasing cats. I loved the colourful pictures of the big mean dogs chasing the cheeky cats up the trees. Our sports carnivals were particularly fun. We had running races, apple bobbing contests, three-legged races and sack races. But the school also gave out awards for boomerang contests, as well as for the children who could spear the cardboard kangaroo or emu. At Christmas, we would receive our presents from the wungarrnarl (the crow). Children would run around the school, excited with knowledge that the holidays were upon them.
There weren’t many houses in Warmun, and what were there, were mostly dongas. Nearly everyone in Warmun Community spoke Gija or creole; the old people felt it was important for us to learn Gija so that we could better understand our heritage. Our old people were energetic and knowledgeable and many of the elders were world-renowned artists. They were so much fun and made us laugh by pretending to be birds pecking at us or making faces at us.
We used to go bush with the elders to see sacred sites like Mistake Creek, where many of our ancestors – men, women and children – were gathered up and murdered by pastoralists. I remember the day of the memorial some years later when I was told about my great aunt, who had escaped during one of these round-ups at Mistake Creek. While running into the bush, she was shot in the hip but managed to crawl all the way to our station at Violet Valley, which was 60 kilometres away by road. She crawled through creeks until she reached her family. These places are still important to our people. Some things, like the boab tree marking the massacre site, have been destroyed by fire.
I loved learning about how to live off the land. The old women would take us out the back of Warmun and show us different types of berries we could eat, like minjarra, mubra and darrlu (billy goat plum). They taught us how to find fresh water and how to eat boab saplings. During the transition from the wet to the dry, the old women would make us walk to a seemingly dry creek bed and show us the plants to look for. We would start digging with our bare hands, sometimes metres deep, until water started to well up. The women would tell us that the sand cleaned the water naturally and that we could help filter it by taking handfuls of the unclean water out until it was pure spring water. They also showed us the small bright-green leaves of the boab shoots and explained that these could be eaten until their trunks matured.
CONTINUED ON NEXT PAGE