Blak Brow: ‘A Yorta Yorta Fire’ by Karen Jackson

To celebrate the release of Issue 40: Blak Brow, we are sharing some of our favourite pieces from the issue. Today: Karen Jackson on setting up Moondani Balluk.

It was a Wednesday afternoon when the call came. A distraught and grief-stricken message was left, by a mother; her daughter had just passed away. I was struck with shock and disbelief. I had to sit down. I composed myself to return the call, sat on the edge of a small garden bed in the midst of concrete buildings and joined up walkways. I took some deep breaths...I rang... the phone went straight to message bank where I left a quavering message in an attempt to hide my own shock and grief from a mother who has just lost her daughter.

Death — premature death — is not new to Koori community. We often speak of how many funerals we attend on an annual basis and how community is constantly grieving. There never seems to be time and space for community to sit, speak, cry and laugh. But on this Wednesday afternoon, I knew there were certain actions that now had to take place. Did my other staff know? Did the students know? Where was I going to get the wood to light the fire?

Yes — light the fire. I named it; Jaimie’s Fire. It burned all Thursday after that eventful phone message, people came early and stayed all day. It gave us the gathering space to sit, to speak, to cry, and to laugh. It gave us the space to make Kopi1 caps, in remembrance of Jaime. We moulded clay to the shape of our heads and brought pieces of our Aboriginal garden into this clay. It was a heart-warming experience, and then we gave them to Jaimie’s parents. They sat at the base of ‘her tree’ in their front yard and gently melted into the earth with our grief, loss, memories and thoughts.

Jaimie’s fire gave us the space to share food, to gather in remembrance, to collect our thoughts and stories, to begin to plan our next steps and to grieve. Our space also gave solace to non-Indigenous staff and students and for this we were grateful that they felt comfortable enough to join with us, to speak of her and leave with comfort.

The space I refer to was the cultural environment, place and space we have built at the St Albans Campus of Victoria University. It’s the space that all black fellas immediately feel comfortable in, and where some gubbahs2 also feel at home — once they are invited in.

This story reflects on the need to build cultural space and safety and the impact of this on the constituent parts of Moondani Balluk at Victoria University.

But first, how did I get here. I began my ‘working life’ at the University in 1996, just over a year and a half after my son was born. It was another major change in my life.

Image: Karen Jackson

My first view of the ‘space’ was an early evening drive to the perimeter and feeling like I was looking into a prison. Perhaps it was the high wire mesh fence that surrounded the space or the small ground lights that reflected up onto the square modern buildings. My immediate intention was to know how I would get to the place where I would have my job interview, but unconsciously, my intent was to get a feel for a space that was unknown to me, so I might be prepared for whatever lay ahead.

The beginning of this working life was inside a large modern building, inside a group of offices with an open space in the middle of it. It was within the Equity and Social Justice Branch, and all of the staff would gather at the table in the open space for morning tea and lunch. It was not uncommon as to what people imagine an office space to be. The people were friendly and spoke the same words; in this instance about justice and rights. They made me feel welcome. There were a total of nine other people, one of them Aboriginal, and not surprisingly, there were three ‘Indigenous’ jobs...not counting the one I had just been appointed to. But this is a story about the cultural spaces, not who was doing what job. That story is for another time.

The open area of that office was not always a safe or agreed upon space. It definitely had a ‘whiteness’ to it; it quite often cringed when there were too many black fellas in it, making a loud noise and laughing at our own selves and communities in a way unseen in this space. The people loved our colourful posters and Blak artwork but the same verbal noises caused some to slam their office doors loudly. We generally laughed this off and left the building to make more noise down the street and off the campus.

For me, the space of the University is at once normal and yet uninviting, and this was felt and witnessed through that workplace of the Equity Branch. On the one hand it gave me an easy introduction to ‘the University’ but on the other the whiteness always shone through. My memory of the space as prison-like when I had viewed it on that early evening was a gentle reminder that power to make change was not mine.

For me, this space of whiteness and invisibility in the early years was given over to recovery of Aboriginal beliefs through our curriculum project and through other comforting and subversive actions...

I brought in a number of traditional owners, peace keepers and community members; each person carried all of these descriptions and used this strength to work with our non-Indigenous colleague in our space and then with non-Indigenous academic staff to speak of and work together in the collation and sharing of the knowledge of local history, of the traditional owner story, space and place, of local Koori history, protocol and politics.

It was an ambitious project with an aim to make the University curriculum inclusive of Indigenous values, knowledges and practices. It worked in some fields of study for a little while and then failed miserably in others.

But in terms of a cultural space bringing ‘the mob’ in from outside of the University, it enabled us to take over space; though never enough to belong or never enough to move others away. In the end, we always knew we could never ‘control’ the office space. Our project meetings always came to the point where we would time our work to finish at lunch time and then we left the campus to congregate, to talk, to share story, to be truly comfortable. Because no matter how well I moved in the University space, how well I understood the policies, procedures and manners of office life, us as a mob just couldn’t quite fit.

In other actions we renamed ourselves. We discarded the word ‘Koori’ and we used Aboriginal. Then we discarded Aboriginal and used traditional owner language — Moondani Balluk3. In other spaces we renamed a University governance committee to Ngaga Jindi Woraback4, and we giggled when people couldn’t pronounce this language, we felt angered when they didn’t even try! We felt clever that we had put a small roadblock in white people’s paths and we forever waited for these people to really understand the meaning of our language.

Image: Karen Jackson

We shoved at the edges, we unsettled the normality and we brought forth images of past injustices that could not be solved by ‘like-minded’ people.

In terms of me personally, there was a time where I had this insatiable and dogged feeling that I hadn’t achieved anything, that low sad space of being unworthy. And that feeling is a doubled-edged sword, so on the one hand I know I’ve been ‘doing my work’ and then in the same instance I feel like I mustn’t have been doing my work because the University hasn’t changed. I can only laugh out loud at this comment, because hanging my head in shame will only put me in a space and place from which I may not come out of. And in holding that shame my spirit would inevitably be broken. In hindsight, and after many years of traversing the University space, I know that it is not my job to change the University. Thanks Bunjil, I worked this out!

My job is to influence and cajole, to keep putting my hand up, to be the broken record and to not give in on the values of Moondani Balluk and to not give sway on what it means to me and other black fellas working in, learning in and sharing in the concrete jungle of the institution.

The journey of space and place in this institution has seen the loss of some great people. Some of these have been the white managers – and we all know that story of ‘training’ up the boss so ‘they get it’. Then they leave. We have lost strong Aboriginal women from our space over the course of time; their losses have been held deep in my heart and as a group of staff we try to commemorate their presence and strength through lighting the fire and practicing smoking ceremony.

These people we lost not in the same unexpected way that we lost Jaimie, but our strong black women will always be remembered as they lifted up our spirits and our connections and our hope. And when they move on our hope can be shattered, or at times pushed away because we cannot maintain the strength of it.

Of course, those of you who know me, who know us, also know about the many, many funerals we attend each and every year. This grief and loss and mourning is extremely hard to shake off. I can feel us being dragged down by the weight of these losses and again, in not being able to change the quality of life for Aboriginal people. The heaviness of grief always sits within me, close to the surface of my emotions. Most times it’s such a normal part of me that I don’t notice its weight.

But in other moments when my heart and soul are heavy I head to the garden and light the fire. Sometimes when we light my Yorta Yorta fire and we sit and mourn, loss is so palpable that we also create a smoking ceremony for ourselves, our spirits and souls.

Image: Karen Jackson

The creation of our own cultural practices in our own garden has helped us mob to survive in the institution. Our cultural space has let us continue to survive, to grow strength from each other, to continue to hope and to dream.

I have noticed on occasion when I talk of our dreams that some white-faces look at me like I’m delusional, perhaps at times I have been, but in pursuing the dream, the many dreams and hopes and aspirations, we make it happen! Making the dreaming real gives us cultural strength and lessens our cultural load and allows us to do the work that we enjoy, love and cherish – even when it breaks us!

Sometimes when we stay true to our Ancestors, Elders and our cultural practices, a workplace can be great.

This remembering is in honour of the amazingly strong and resilient women of Moondani Balluk Academic Unit who have passed. Their laughter, love and vibrancy — as well as their pain, sorrow and despair — we carry with us on our journey.

1. Kopi caps are a traditional practice of some Aboriginal women who in their time of grief build caps to a size that reflects their grief.

2. Gubbahs — Aboriginal term for ‘white’ people — from ‘gubbament’/‘government'.

3. Moondani Balluk — Woiwurrung language meaning ‘embrace people'.

4. Ngaga Jindi Woraback — Woiwurrung language meaning ‘join and unite'.

This piece was originally published in The Lifted Brow #40, Blak Brow. Get your copy here.

Karen Jackson is a Yorta Yorta woman with a passion for access to education, and for ensuring cultural safety and safe spaces for Blak people to gather, particularly inside mainstream institutions.