This unit covers the key concepts of Country, Culture and People.
The development of our knowledge about Indigenous peoples’ law, languages, dialects and literacies is approached through the exploration of cultures. The relationships between country, cultures and peoples are linked to the deep knowledge, traditions and holistic world views of Indigenous communities. Students will understand that identities and cultures have been, and are, a source of strength and resilience for First Nations’ peoples against the historic and contemporary impacts of colonisation.
Prior to any mention of the text to be studied:
- Create a brainstorm race. The teacher writes on the board: Topic: Central Australia. Under that write a short list of topics such as: Alice Springs, desert, cattle stations, stockmen, desert communities, First Australians, Creation Stories, Dreaming, Indigenous peoples, colonisation – and any other terms or words that come to mind about the Australian Outback. Students are to work in groups of three or four and in as short a time as possible, every student must write down everything they know about each topic. They may not talk during this time. At the end of the time period – say 10 minutes – share and compare each group’s existing knowledge. (Teacher could provide a prize for the winners.)
- If students have access to computers in class, ask them to refer to a Language Map of Australia. Locate the language of the area they are currently living in, then find:
- Arrente and
- They might also like to note the following places: Simpson Desert, Alice Springs, Adelaide, Darwin, Brisbane, Perth, Sydney and Melbourne. If there is no computer access, the teacher could print out a copy of the map and hang it in a prominent place.
- If it is possible in the particular school, invite an Indigenous guest speaker in to talk to the class about the language area where they come from, and some of their own history and customs.
- Introduce the book and before opening it, ask students about their impressions just from looking at the book. What sort of book do they expect it to be?
- Title? What will it be about?
- From looking at the title, can students predict whether the narrator will be first or third person? What is the clue?
- Symbolism of the bird flying?
- Research: the authors David Spillman and Lisa Wilyuka, the publishing house Magabala Books, and Wedge-tailed eagles. This could be set as homework and the results shared. (Please see the list of additional resources provided with this unit for appropriate links.)
- Read the blurb together in class.
- Note the initial date of publication and read the acknowledgements page.
- Look together at the language words page.
- Read the introduction together. Discuss the term, ‘Historical Fiction’.
Personal response on reading the text
As a class, read the section between the first two eagle depictions, (pp. 1–2).
- Ask students to make a list of all the characters introduced. (Boney Bob, Uncle Archie, Aunty Alice, Buster)
- Who is the narrator?
- Sensory writing. How are the following senses used in this extended passage – sound, sight, touch, smell? Ask students to identify an example of each in a sentence from this reading, and ask what effect the uses of these senses have on the writing. Perhaps they could practise some sensory writing to describe where they are right now?
As students read the book in class and for homework, ask them to keep a journal (either a paper one or as a running document – e.g. Word or One Note record) and in it to record:
- Themes – as they arise, with a short explanation of each. Make sure that each student has a good understanding of this term prior. Perhaps list a few on the board (see Section 1) to get them started.
- Characters – with a short sketch of each.
- Any vocabulary not understood (apart from the obvious Luritja language).
This novel is largely about place. After students have finished reading and writing their journals, ask them to creatively depict their favourite place in the novel. They could do this by sketching, painting, computer art or graphics, a collage or a poem.
Finally, ask students to finish off their journals by writing a short reflective paragraph on what a sense of place means to them. Ask the students to reflect on their own favourite place, and to try to explain why this place is special to them.
- Suggestions: home space, their own garden, their bedroom, the place/country they originally come from, the bush, a park, a place where they take family holidays, a city, or their happy place. (Note: This could be a focused learning episode where perfect paragraph writing is re-visited/revised: topic sentence, three or four related sentences, summing up sentence, connector/conjunction practice.)
Once students have completed their journal tasks, share in groups the themes they discovered during their reading, and their creative depictions of sense of place. Scribes could be appointed from each group and the themes collected, listed and discussed commonly. Pictures and poems could be displayed around the classroom. All unknown vocabulary is to be addressed.
- Comprehension questions (PDF, 407KB) for ongoing homework, according to the discretion of the teacher. (Note: these questions, taken from Magabala Books: Teacher notes, are very comprehensive – and cover the whole novel, so teachers may choose to be selective in their use.)
Outline of key elements of the text
The plot line of Us Mob Walawurru is straightforward and linear.
Part One: covers Ruby and her mob’s trip to Tulu for the sporting carnival. However, it is interspersed with many reflections and observations about life on the Mogren family cattle station, (Dry River), life in the Silver Bullet School with Mr Duncan, and life in general as it is lived by the Luritja people in the 1960s. Ruby is increasingly perplexed by the obvious cultural differences between her people’s ways and ‘Whitefella’ ways.
Part Two: charts Ruby’s ‘coming of age’ as she and Aunty Alice and Uncle Archie are forced to leave Dry River Station for Big Sky Station. Here Ruby’s sense of place in the land is even more magnified, and she eventually learns why. And here, as her family live under the protection of the non-Indigenous Cantwell brothers, she meets Tyson and Neena, grows into a woman, marries, has children, comes to various realisations and makes definite choices.
In their journals, students should make and keep a record of all the characters encountered, including short character sketches about each one.
Ask them to create two columns and put the names of all the Indigenous characters on one side, and the non-Indigenous on the other. (The attached table (PDF, 135KB) listing Indigenous characters and non-Indigenous characters could be a useful starting point.)
Once students have made their own table, ask them to number each character in terms of importance to the novel. Compare their lists in pairs and justify choices.
Identify and talk through with students the novel’s themes as they arise in both reading and discussion:
- cultural differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians
- intercultural exploration
- social life and customs of the Luritja people of Central Australia
- histories and culture of the Luritja people of Central Australia
- the untold history of first contact
- belief systems and Creation stories
- responsibilities and obligations
- love of country/conservation
- family relationships
- self respect and respect for others
- Land Rights.
Plus any themes that students introduced during the course of their own reading.
Spoken task: Conversations about the Past
The historical novel, Us Mob Walawurru, looks at non-Indigenous culture from the point of view of another worldview.
It is difficult for any group of people to get outside their own cultural norms and practices. Thus there is tension (within this novel) between ideas of the individual versus the concept of the collective, and between ideas of land ownership and the sharing of land resources. Several of the major characters provide bridges across the cultural divide. Amongst these are Ruby, Uncle Archie and Aunty Alice (Mrs Boko). Mr Duncan and the Cantwell family also assist in drawing the cultural groups together – in their own ways.
Choose one of these bridging characters and set up an interview/conversation situation – where one student is the interviewer, and the character from the novel is the interviewee (another student in this situation). This interview is taking place after the events of the novel, so the interviewee is looking back on a stage in their lives when they tried to help with relations between conflicting cultures.
Write out between six and ten questions that you would like to ask this person about life in the 1960s in Central Australia. Topics could include: family, different ethnic groups, customs, language, work, work roles, school, education, conservation, ways of seeing the country, religious beliefs, land rights, politics and any other topics, agreed on in collaboration with each other and the teacher. Work with a partner and create the interview, basing answers to the questions on the text. This interview should last 10–15 minutes and should be recorded.
Students could listen to the ABC’s RN Richard Fidler Conversations to get an idea of a format that works, however this has a very chatty tone and requires the interviewee to give a lot of detail and the interviewer to draw them out with leading and pre-researched questions.
As a contrast to this interview style, students should listen to Daniel Browning’s AWAYE program also on ABC RN, to get an idea as to how an Indigenous interviewer, talking with Indigenous interview subjects, asks questions, paces the exchanges, etc. It provides a nice contrast to the earlier style.
The writer’s craft
As a way in to a close study of the novel, Literature circles (PDF, 151KB) could be set up for a few lessons prior to in-depth analysis. These will be enacted on the understanding that every student is now familiar with the text. Homework before the Literature circles would be for every student to read their group’s assigned section. This is very much student directed work with no outcome other than a much more in-depth knowledge of some key issues, although students could write a reflection on how the activity worked – on completion of the circles.
Ways to divide up the book:
- Pages 1–28: finally leaving for Tulu
- Pages 29–57: Wild Dog episode
- Pages 58–89: Alice Springs and Tulu
- Pages 90–120: break between two stations, two lifestyles
- Pages 121–150: Neena’s story and Ruby’s story
- Page 150–end: politics and Land Rights
This division would cater for 24 students each doing a close reading of a section of the text, with all sections being roughly the same length except the last one. But of course, the teacher could pick out key sections and also make the readings much shorter, or divide them up thematically. For example, the episodes of the violence of first contact could be covered in Neena’s and Ruby’s stories. If the readings were shorter and the aim to highlight themes, groups could share their findings with the whole class on completion.
There are no chapters in the novel – just Part One and Part Two – both of which are more or less equal in length, and dealt with in the previous section. However, there are constant breaks in the book: segments separated by the Wedge-tailed eagle sketch. Some of these segments go on for several pages, and some are a mere half a page e.g. page 131.
- Ask the students what these eagle breaks indicate? Are they helpful or a distraction? If they wrote an extended piece needing breaks, what symbol would they choose to indicate breaks in the narrative, and why?
In Part Two there are several sections that are in italics: two outlining Neena’s story, and one for Ruby’s story. These are like small interludes of history and they make harrowing reading.
- Why are these ‘stories’ necessary to the overall story?
- What do they contribute to your understanding of the era? Of our common history? Of Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations now?
- Denouement: Students look up the word and write out the meaning. Students read from page 163 to the end. Ask students to explain how this works as a denouement. Is it a satisfying/happy end? Why and how?
Approach to characterisation
(Note: Notice that David Spillman dedicates this book to Gretta, Ruby, Archie and Basil – on the opening page. Us Mob Walawurru is described as historical fiction but, obviously, much is fact, even if unverifiable.)
The child, and then the woman character of Ruby, is the chief protagonist and first-person narrator of this novel, apart from the two short interludes where Neena and then Aunty Alice relate their own recounts.
The characters have already been identified in the preceding section, so students should have a comprehensive list of all the main ones.
The term ‘family’ encompasses many different ways of living. The concept of what makes up a family varies according to geography, religious beliefs, socio-economic pressures, traditions and culturally accepted norms.
- Ask the students to create a web connecting all the members of Ruby’s family together, including sisters, aunts, uncles, children, husband, parents, grandparents. Working in groups to do this will be helpful as different students will recall different connections.
Ruby’s job is to narrate the events of the story, which she does initially through a child’s perspective. She is seen by her elders as a strong-minded, intelligent and curious child. Yet in Part Two, the reader gets a more definite sense of who Ruby actually is, or has become. She has grown up, reflected on life and made some definite choices.
Read pages 115–118 and also page 123.
‘From that day I walked down to my desert oak every morning and reconnected with our country and ancestors…’
Neena says to her, ‘You must keep your language and culture strong, no matter what happens. You must fight for it Ruby.’ (p. 123). From that moment on, Ruby sets about ‘fighting’ to keep her language and culture strong.
- Who is Ruby going to have to fight, and why?
- Students read pp. 123–129, and answer the following questions, individually or sharing in pairs. Share these responses with the whole class.
- What did Ruby draw and write about in her notebook – and why?
- Explain in your own words the incident where Ruby and Neena compare Wiltjas and cubby houses (pp. 125–126). What was the point of this particular lesson?
- Why did Neena encourage Ruby to write in both English and Luritja?
- Why does Neena advise Ruby to ‘Always take the harder path’? Do you agree with this advice? Give some examples of where taking the harder path has paid off for you.
- What is Neena preparing Ruby for, ultimately?
Ruby is a powerful go-between, familiar in both worlds for she knows about ‘whitefella’ ways and about her own customs, beliefs and rituals, and importantly, she questions both. (p. 57. ‘Do our ancestors always succeed in teaching us lessons about our law?‘)
Class discussion, individual work or paired work for the following questions:
- Who are Ruby’s main teachers from when we first meet her until she is a woman with children of her own?
- Singling out three of these, what were the most important lessons taught to Ruby by Mr Duncan, Tjilpi and Neena? How did each of these three teachers contribute to Ruby’s overall development?
- Sometimes being at home in both worlds made Ruby feel uncomfortable. In your own words, describe the cause of Ruby’s emotions and state of mind on page 65. ‘As we went to cross the road my heart began to pound and my belly squeezed tight again, not because of the motorcars but because of the fight about to erupt. We got closer. I couldn’t look up at Mr Duncan or our mob. I felt shamed and Aunty knew it.’
Aunty Alice/Mrs Boko is another central character in this novel – and another one who moves effortlessly between two worlds.
The book opens with her dialogue: ‘C’mon you mob. That bus’ll be leavin’ soon. If we gotta walk I’ll be lookin’ like Boney Bob. Uncle Archie won’t be wantin’ me then.’ (p. 1).
Compare her style of language when talking to her own family to the way she speaks to Mr Duncan on page 36.
‘This is the country of our ancestors, Mr Duncan…Whenever that child walks that way again the country makes him remember the way and how to find food and water.’
What are the main differences between these two ways of speaking?
- We all speak differently in different situations (text in context). Ask the students to reflect on the distinctions in vocabulary, tone and delivery between their speaking to each other in the playground, compared to the way they might speak when summonsed to the Principal’s office.
Uncle Archie is another character who bridges the culture gap. He describes the ‘owner’ of Dry River Station, Joe Mogren, as his brother (p. 15), and later in the book, he becomes friends with Hughie and Jack Cantwell, and he assists Snoke Sneider, the anthropologist, in his quest to find proof of ownership for the Luritja Land Rights Claim.
However, there is one incident in the novel where Uncle Archie chooses to adhere to his own way of doing things, and this causes difficulties for himself and his family.
- Students to summarise the section where Uncle Archie ‘lends’ out Joe Mogren’s Landrover, and answer the following questions: (pp. 89–96).
- Why did he do it?
- What were the ramifications for him?
- What was Lex’s reaction to the story?
Mr Duncan and Tjilpi
Students complete the Compare/contrast table (PDF, 128KB) identifying the main differences between these two important and central characters.
- Mr Duncan has a saying that makes a lasting impact on Ruby and influences her for the rest of her life. It also provides us with a way into one of the main themes of the novel.
- What is this saying? (Answer: ‘Guardians of the familiar’, p. 3)
- Why does Mr Duncan say this?
- What did Mr Duncan mean by this?
- How did Ruby adapt the saying and use it for her own life?
(Note: There is probably an excess of possibilities and options set out under this heading. Teachers will need to ‘cherry pick’ the most suitable for their class, its context and the time available.)
In Us Mob Walawurru the writing about setting is the most lyrical and evocative writing in the entire book.
As a class read the following segments together:
- From ‘The walk to the station…’ to ‘The white shimmering claypan in between was sort of the changeover place.’ (pp. 8–9)
- ‘All I could remember was a sense of being the same as the earth, tree, birds, rocks. It was almost like flying through the country, being the country.’ (pp. 116–117)
- ‘The sky. It was huge, hanging low…I felt I was returning to a place I had already been.’ (p. 103)
- ‘Out to the south there was a long purple mountain range…A shiver passed down my spine making the hair on the back of my arms stand up.’ (pp. 107–108)
There is so much love, belonging, pride and identity all tied up in country. In this novel, people are almost secondary to place.
Dry River Station and Big Sky Station are the two main settings in the text, with short descriptions of Alice Springs (pp. 60–61) and Tulu as well. The two stations, Dry River (Part One) and Big Sky (Part Two) – are very different to Ruby’s discerning eye.
- What are the main differences in the landscape?
- Which place did Ruby feel more drawn to and why?
But the settings aren’t only the grand country. There are small, domestic settings as well.
- the homestead at Dry River Station (pp. 10, 11)
- the homestead at Big Sky Station (pp. 102, 105, 111)
- Silver Bullet School Room (pp. 2,11)
- Ruby’s home at Dry River Station (p. 1)
- Ruby’s home at Big Sky Station (p. 109)
- the inside of the bus taking the students and elders to Tulu.
Choose either one of the station homesteads, Ruby’s own family homes or the Silver Bullet School and write a short compare/contrast paragraph where you compare and contrast your own home or school to Ruby’s home or school. Compare/contrast connectors need to be employed such as: on the other hand, whereas, similarly, but, however, etc.
Extension tasks and activities (Setting)
1. Love of country: sense of place
Many people feel the binding ties of country that Australian Aboriginal people express, perhaps to a lesser extent – but nonetheless, a sense of place creates a very real emotional pull. One commonly hears the word ‘exile’, which means the state of being barred from one’s country. In modern times there are huge numbers of exiles, in this country and elsewhere, as political unrest, war and famine take their toll. Climate change is almost certainly going to create many more displaced people around the globe.
- Ask students to look up the words:
- asylum seeker
What are the key differences between them? Discuss as a class noting that these categories are subtlety different, but that all of the above may well feel the loss of their ‘home country’, their own sense of place.
- Students to read the following poems/song lyrics:
- ‘I Still Call Australia Home’ by Peter Allen, a non-Indigenous Australian
- ‘This royal throne of kings’ by the English playwright and poet, William Shakespeare (first eleven lines)
- ‘Where Are We Going’ by Oodgeroo Noonuccal, an Indigenous activist and writer from the Noonuccal people of Minjerribah (also known as North Stradbroke Island)
- What do all these poems have in common?
- List three words or phrases from each poem that indicates longing for and/or belonging to ‘country’.
Ask students to look up the words, patriotism and nationalism and then to write a paragraph explaining the link(s) between love of country, identity, patriotism and nationalism. At least three of these words must be used somewhere in the paragraph.
A country’s national flag is its most powerful symbol of this relationship.
- What graphics are depicted on the Australian national flag and what do they symbolise?
- First Nations Peoples and Torres Strait Islanders have their own flags. Look up both of these if not familiar with them. What do their graphics and colours represent?
- Homework, in pairs or as a group work task: design an inclusive flag, one that embraces both Indigenous people and those who came later. Be prepared to explain your choice (or your group’s choice) of pictures and symbols.
2. A special place
Show students the short YouTube Clip, ‘Desert Landscapes, Northern Territory, Australia’.
The task is to create a short YouTube clip (like the one viewed) of their own special place – just several scenes juxtaposed, with or without music. (Note: This could also be undertaken as a PowerPoint presentation or as a poster).
Use of parallels and contrasts
There are many parallels and contrasts in this text. Principally they involve the contrasting customs, belief systems and values between the colonial settlers and the Indigenous peoples inhabiting the land. These will be dealt with under the section, ‘Exploration of themes and ideas’ below.
Point of view
Because a first person narrator is used in the text, the reader understands whatever happens in the novel from this narrator’s own particular and subjective point of view. In this case, we see and understand important historical events, customs, belief systems, values and the beginning of the ground-breaking Land Rights movement through the eyes of initially a child, and then a young Indigenous woman, Ruby.
There are many instances in this story where there is obviously misunderstanding and frustration between the ways in which Indigenous peoples and language groups see the world and the ways in which non-Indigenous, settler cultures see the world. Because of the first person narration, we get the account of all these incidents via Ruby, who does increasingly see both points of view, and as a result, is conflicted.
Ask the students to pick out one occasion where there is friction between Mr Duncan and the school children, Mrs Boko or the ‘mob’. They are then to re-write this particular scene from the point of view of Mr Duncan, in other words, using a middle-aged white person’s point of view.
- Classroom scene (pp. 19–23)
- Maps and direction scene (pp. 29–36)
- Bus hire and punctuality scene (pp. 25–27)
Voice and tone
Voice is a difficult concept to define. It can best be described as the individual writing style of the author, or the way a story is told. It consists of many factors such as sentence style, punctuation, use of vocabulary, descriptive words, ways of creating dialogue, what the author concentrates on and highlights and what they tend to leave out, etc. Some authors have a warm and enthusiastic way of telling a story. They may use lots of adjectives and endearments in their dialogues. Others may write in a more factual and terse way. Similarly, the way a person speaks indicates much about that person and sets the tone of the language used.
Ask the students to use just one descriptive word (from the following list) to describe the overall ‘Voice’ or ‘Tone’ of this text, and then to try and justify why they chose that word.
Language and style
Lisa Wilyuka and David Spillman use many literary devices to make their story engaging and bringing it to life for its readers.
- Use of similes (students to look up meaning if unsure), for example:
- ‘Mr Duncan was a bit like a tyre himself with his belly curves and bald shiny skin.’ (p. 25)
- ‘The young fellas stood there like lonely weeping desert oaks, heads hanging low.’ (p. 55)
- Use of metaphor. Ask students to explain how the following metaphors work:
- The Silver Bullet
- Desert Pea – Uncle Archie’s term of endearment for his niece, Ruby.
- Use of personification (the attribution of a human characteristic to something non-human):
- ‘These red sandhills, them’s hungry ones, come back to eat up everything.’ (p. 10)
- Use of symbolism (in literature, a symbol is a figure of speech where an object, person or situation takes on a meaning other than its literal one). Ask students to explain the symbolism of the following:
- Wild Dog
- Guardians of the familiar
- The brotherhood and respect between the white and black men: Uncle Archie and Joe Mogren. (This concept is a bit abstract – but the attachment between them could be seen as symbolic of the beginning of a greater understanding between the ethnic groups, leading to the 1967 Referendum and the Land Rights Movement, which both came shortly after the events of this novel.)
Working in pairs, or perhaps as a homework exercise, ask the students to complete about a page of creative and descriptive writing in which they bring in as many different literary devices as they can, from the list above. They could also re-use and adapt the sensory writing they practised in the Introductory Section or their description of a special place. Encourage them to use original similes and metaphors – and to underline all the devices they have used – to be shared with the class.
(ACELA1542) (ACELT1632) (ACELY1810)
Identifying and justifying language/stylistic techniques for specific narrative or dramatic purposes
There are some unique stylistic and language features in this text that enhance both the specific narrative and provide dramatic input. Chief amongst them are:
- Changes in vocabulary and register give this novel authenticity. The comparison between the language of Ruby and her family when speaking in their own company can be strongly contrasted with the vocabulary and register choice of the local teacher, Mr Duncan.
- ‘C’mon, you mob. That bus’ll be leavin’ soon.’ vs ‘Those wretched dogs, those guardians of the familiar woke me about midnight. I was totally unable to get back to sleep.’ Later Ruby translates this as ‘Guarb-yins of the family…’ (pp. 1–3). What has to be remembered throughout is that for Ruby and her mob, English is a second or third language. Mr Duncan does not understand or speak Luritja. So linguistically – who is the superior?
- The use of the Dreaming symbol throughout, with the narrative breaks indicated by a flying eagle – walawurru – signifies Ruby’s emotional involvement and one-ness with her country. ‘All I could remember was a sense of being the same as the earth, trees, birds, rocks. It was almost like flying through the country, being the country.’ (p. 117)
- Lyrical writing for describing the environment, ‘Enveloped in the sacred dust of mother earth, our spirits flew free. Once again our country was energised with life and activity.’ (p. 7)
Text and meaning
Exploration of themes and ideas
There is a range of functions that Ruby, as the innocent, child narrator, fulfils admirably in the novel, Us Mob Walawurru. Chief amongst these are her bewilderment over cultural differences between non-Indigenous ways and her ways, and her attempts to understand the former.
- Students to complete the Comparison chart (PDF, 147KB): Indigenous vs non-Indigenous ways of seeing the world.
- Students share and discuss their notes in each column after they have completed the task.
- Once they have talked things through, ask them to reflect on the following questions:
- Why do we never question our own ways of seeing the world?
- What would make us, as a society, question the ways in which we see the world?
- Is the Western way the best way to live? Justify your answer with reference to the text and the completed chart.
Sense of place/love of country
This theme has already been studied under the heading ‘Setting’.
Much has been said and written over recent years about reconciliation between First Australians and the colonisers. In fact, even the term ‘Reconciliation’ is a misnomer. Has there ever been conciliation?
- Ask the students to consider the following factors and discuss how they assist in this theme of reconciliation:
- Respect and brotherhood between Joe Mogren and Archie
- Hughie Cantwell’s explanation of his belief in ‘God’ (pp. 106 and 107). This might be a good time for students to look up and learn something about ‘pantheism’ as well.
- The use of the Blitzen to transport people to Tulu
- Mr Duncan
- Snoke Sneider
- The Land Rights (Central Land Council)
- Singing at Tulu (the compromise worked out between Aunty Alice and Mr Duncan)
- Wages paid (p. 113)
- The Cantwell family.
Why does Neena get ‘wild’ when she reads the Adelaide Advertiser‘s account; ‘Nine out of Ten Australians Vote ‘Yes’. Aborigines – Australian Citizens’ (p. 137)? What was so silly about it?
The untold history of Australia
The battles over possession of the land, (named Australia – why and by whom?) between the people who lived here already, and the invaders who began arriving in 1788, has not been well documented in mainstream Australian history. In fact, Australia’s occupation was justified by a lie.
- What was that lie that has now been discounted? (Terra Nullius)
- Re-read with students some accounts of what happened at first contact:
- Tjilpi’s family’s first encounters with non-Indigenous people (pp. 41–44)
- Neena’s story (pp. 119–123)
- Ruby’s story (pp. 145–148).
These are recent (within living memory) accounts of massacres and horror.
Note: The teacher’s discretion and age/composition of the class should be taken into account regarding the following activities.
- Map of Massacres: Students are to view the map and read the accompanying articles. Class discussion may be the best way of dealing with this – if appropriate.
- Ask the students if they have any ideas as to why historical accounts of these massacres have been so muffled: in school History books, in the Canberra War Museum, on Australia Day?
- As a class read together the article from The New Daily, May 15, 2018: Two Queensland mountains to be renamed to rid them of racist connotations. Interestingly this article contains reference to a Mr Wheeler, who is also mentioned in Us Mob Walawurru (pp. 121 and 145).
- Aunty Vea and another elder, Aunty Nickki Hatfield, were concerned the mountains’ names had possible links to the Jim Crow racial segregation laws in the US and a police officer named Frederick Wheeler, who was involved in Aboriginal massacres in the 1860s and 1870s.
Ask students if it is important to change place names in Australia. Why/why not?
Ruby’s motto is to get beyond ‘Guardians of the Familiar’ – and she does. ‘I remembered the “guardians of the familiar”, and I told myself again that it was good to be brave with new things.’ (p. 18)
- As a class discussion or in pairs or small groups:
- Would this be a good motto to use for going through life?
- Ask students to brainstorm some other little saying that can help when life gets tough.
- However, Ruby is not the only one who shows courage. Almost all the central characters demonstrate courage – that is partly what makes this book so optimistic and positive.
Ask the students to pick one character and describe – in just a short paragraph – how this person demonstrates courage, referring of course to the text.
This has been discussed in an earlier section
Belief systems and Dreaming
There are many strands of the Dreaming woven through every part of the book.
By reading pages 6, 7 and 8 again, the reader can pick up many of the most important beliefs of the Luritja people.
- Sacred dust of mother earth
- Spirits flying free
- Singing-up/naming the country
- Walawurru Dreaming
- Initiation ceremonies
- Women’s secret business
- Men’s secret business
- Sorry business
It would take weeks to adequately research all the above beliefs and customs. There is an abundance of original material on almost all the above, from simple outlines in history books, to children’s story books to academic writing. It is vital to our country that ALL Australians are made aware of as much authentic cultural knowledge as possible from and about First Nations peoples.
However, on a note of caution, some of these songlines and stories have been passed down and told and retold for upwards of 20,000 years. Some knowledge is restricted, considered secret and/or sacred, with strict rules about who can access the information. It is also important to note the source or origin of much of this information and knowledge that is publicly available, as often it has been appropriated by others and is not culturally authentic.
One interesting custom to investigate would be the right of passage commonly known as ‘initiation’. ‘Archie had been initiated by then and gone through Law, not a child anymore.’ (p. 16). What actually happened in this initiation is never fully explained. But what would be interesting to explore is whether non-Indigenous culture has any similar rights of passage to differentiate between childhood and adulthood – to confer adult responsibilities upon a young person.
If the class has time perhaps one or two other customs could be looked into in depth – or else perhaps a different topic could be allocated to each student as a homework task – to be shared the following day or week.
Choose one of the following
1. Project work (see list below for project focus)
Working in pairs or small groups – students choose one (or maybe two – associated) of the themes from the above list and prepare a class presentation in whatever form suits the group. However, there should be compulsory components:
- Evidence of research on the topic by the inclusion of at least one page of obvious note-taking from appropriate sites – in other words, not reproductions of the sourced material.
- A visual component.
- Evidence of input from both/all students.
- Each student must take part in the final presentation.
- Rough planning material to be made available.
Note: Teachers need to use their own discretion and time constraints to limit/constrain this task to manageable proportions. It could be a first/second draft presentation rather than the glossy finished product of a real life brochure/chapter or story book.
Some ideas (certainly not exhaustive):
- photographs and information for the Canberra War Memorial
- photographs and material for an Australian History Museum
- a chapter for a school History text book
- a presentation for a School Open Day
- a poster advertising an historical outback tour
- the script and illustrations outline for a children’s story book on some aspect of Aboriginal life, customs, values and beliefs. (Students could bring in some aspects of language style in the form of similes, metaphors and personification. They will also have to choose a narrator, an appropriate narrative voice and a target audience/readership.)
2. Hard Quiz
Students need to watch several versions of the ABC series, ‘Hard Quiz’ to get an idea of the format. (Note: it is only the format that needs to be understood. Tom Gleeson’s manner can be fairly abrasive and adversarial.) Basically the quiz involves four contestants and a host, who sets questions on a topic of the contestant’s choice.
Topics could include any theme or issue from the novel:
- Aboriginal Creation stories
- Indigenous customs and beliefs
- The Stolen Generation
- Land rights
- Citizenship referendum
- Cattle stations in the 1960s
- Australian history.
Obviously, research and planning would have to go into this, both on the part of the interviewer and the three or four interviewees. Students would need class time to prepare in groups. The final Hard Quiz could be filmed to give added authenticity to the task.
(ACELY1730) (ACELY1808) (ACELY1731)
Ways of reading the text
Different perspectives/theoretical approaches
Read a definition of postcolonial literature/theory.
What is particularly interesting about Us Mob Walawurru is that it is written by a Luritja woman and a non-Indigenous man, thereby skipping both race and gender constraints. It is a novel about bridging the divide of ‘otherness’ written in such a way as to ensure that it does.
In her innocent and charmingly child-like way, Ruby bears witness to many of the horrors of colonisation from her own era – the 1960s and 1970s, and through others’ stories – to the very beginning of first contact.
Included in her narrative are issues such as:
- the indignity of being forced to live according to the dictates of the colonisers (as evidenced by Ruby’s family working for the Mogrens without wages)
- the theft of her people’s traditional lands
- the grief of having one’s children ‘stolen’
- several histories of early massacres
- the Citizenship Referendum of 1967
- the beginning of the Land Rights movement and the absurdities of First Australians having to prove to colonial powers that they were in fact owners of the land – when they had not previously recognised the concept of ownership.
As a class, re-read pages 63–65. Ask students to look up the word ‘Apartheid’ and ensure they understand the context of this term as it was applied to South African society up until the 1990s.
Apartheid, as a way of organising society, if not as government policy, also existed in Australia.
Class discussion would be useful here to understand how Australia and South Africa had very similar systems in place.
A gendered reading considers the way in which characters conform to or undermine traditional gender stereotypes of the society depicted in a text.
Us Mob Walawurru is an interesting text to examine with this reading in mind because it is depicting a group of characters outside the norms of non-Indigenous Australia of the 1960s and 1970s. It is valid to ask whether strong female characters such as Aunty Alice, Neena and Ruby subvert their own traditional gender stereotypes (of Indigenous culture in the 1960s and 1970s), or whether such strong female role models were commonplace in Aboriginal society then.
Direct students to this site: ’20 Inspiring Black Women who have changed Australia’ (NITV and SBS)
- Which of these women would have been active in the time that Ruby was a child and then a young woman in Central Australia?
- Why has this website singled out First Nations’ women who have changed Australia?
- Through discussion and research, can you suggest any other Indigenous women who could be included in this list. Why?
Make a list of at least five First Nations’ men who have changed Australia and be prepared to share your reasons for selecting this list.
In 1974, Archie received a letter from Mr Martin Jampijinpa of the Aboriginal Land Fund Commission (p. 150). Neena, Aunty Alice and Ruby were all well educated, strong Indigenous women, so why was the letter sent to Archie?
On the last page of Us Mob Walawurru, (About the authors), David Spillman states that he is ‘excited by the contribution of Indigenous perspectives in resolving some of the challenges we face in the world today’.
As mentioned several times in this unit, this is a text primarily about land and country. As such the entire novel lends itself to an Eco-critical reading.
‘Eco-criticism nurtures a language and symbolism that enables thinking about the impact that humans have had on the environment and our complex relationship with material conditions of the earth.’ ‘Eco-criticism: environment, emotions and education’ from The Conversation. (Note: This is a dense but informative article; for use as a teacher resource only.)
Students should consider the following extracts:
- ‘Enveloped in the sacred dust of mother earth… (p. 6)
- ‘Our families felt much happier when they saw that the school was outside the silver bullet, with our feet in our own country.’ (p. 11)
- ‘Before that whitefella starts it up, you cover it with our country.’ (p. 17)
- ‘Our strength is our family and our country…’ (p. 74)
- ‘I never felt alone in our country and I wasn’t. Our ancestors were all around, makin’ me feel strong and proud.’ (p. 89)
- ‘We don’t understand this country like you do.’ (p. 107)
- ‘All I could remember was a sense of being the same as the earth, trees, birds, rocks. It was almost like flying through the country, being the country.‘ (p. 116–17)
- ‘If anything you could say that the land owns you. You serve the land…We looked after each other.’ (p. 152)
There are many more examples of things that Ruby says about her love for and reverence for her country.
Non-Indigenous people have been in Australia for just over two hundred years. Australian Aboriginal people have been in this country for approximately 60,000 years.
In the hands of ‘whitefellas’, the land has suffered:
- ‘big holes’ in the land – for mining
- erosion of land by cattle and sheep
- excessive and damaging land clearing
- Murray Darling debacle
- extinction of animals at one of the highest rates in the world
- destruction of the Great Barrier Reef
- nuclear weapon testing (Maralinga)
- river, ocean and land pollution.
It seems quite clear that non-Indigenous people are not good custodians of the land. By way of contrast, students should be referred to Bruce Pascoe’s, Dark Emu, that outlines the very sophisticated ways in which Aboriginal people used, preserved and conserved the land from which they drew their existence.
It is widely accepted that human-caused (anthropogenic) climate change is the greatest threat facing humankind today. (Union of Concerned Scientists)
This might be a good time for a class discussion about climate change and the role of emissions and the need for action, especially in the light of world wide activism by students, and Australia’s recent unprecedented fires.
As another activity, in pairs, small groups or as a homework activity, ask students to jot down some of the reasons for the above listed environmental degradation. Compare this situation with some of the land use practices outlined in Dark Emu.
Ask students to imagine that they have been elected to head up a new government department: The Department for the Protection of the Environment. This could be at federal or state level. It could also be at local government level, in which case, they would take on the role of a mayor or a councillor.
As the leader of this new enterprise, they need to create a one- or two-sentence ‘Mission Statement’, using some of the vocabulary and concepts from the above list of quotes, and from the novel in general. It would be a good idea to research Environmental Mission Statements prior to get ideas. One good site is DEQ Sample Environmental Quality.
(ACELA1547) (ACELT1807) (ACELY1810)
Walawurru, the Wedge-tailed Eagle, is the ‘Dreaming’ for the Luritja people. The Wild Dog is the ‘Dreaming’ of the Aranda people.
Ask students to reflect on what is the most important symbol/thing in their life: the thing that gives their life meaning. A useful question might be, ‘If you returned to the earth after your death, what form of life would you like to take?’
Comparison with other texts
Versions of the text in other modes, media and contexts
1. The Sapphires: An account of strong, young Indigenous women in the 1960s.
2. Beneath Clouds: Two young people on the run in NSW; a depiction of what life is like for young Indigenous Australians. Available from SBS Live Streaming, or you might be able to get it at a library near you. Note: This film is not rated. It would be wise to preview it before showing it to the class.
3. Samson and Delilah: (Note – rating is MA 15+) This may not be suitable for school viewing, however, it provides a powerful indictment of institutionalised racism and what it does to young lives. It would be relevant as it is set in Central Australia and involves fourteen-year-old protagonists. Note – only the trailer is available on YouTube.
4. Gurrumul: In this documentary, released in 2018, there is much coverage of topics such as Songlines, Dreaming, Creation Stories, the role of ancestors and kinship with ‘country’.
- A Love Like Dorothea’s by Alison Whittaker
- Municipal Gum by Oodgeroo Noonuccal
- Racism by Oodgeroo Noonuccal
There are many, many more poems available – just by searching under titles such as poems/Australia/racism, or poems/Australia/country
Aspects of genre
- Historical fiction is how Us Mob Walawurru is described in the Introduction. Some historical events are included.
- Biographical fiction is also a characteristic of this work, because as Lisa Wilyuka states, ‘Some of the events are based on stories told to us by Luritja people of Titjikaka in Central Australia.’ Stories told are likely to be true stories, passed down in the time-honoured way of oral traditions.
- Young Adult fiction is also an appropriate category because it is fiction with a target audience of young adults and concerns itself with a protagonist who grows from childhood through to young adulthood.
As with most writing, there is slippage. It is difficult to nail down a book to one particular genre.
Other texts using similar approaches or dealing with similar ideas
- Becoming Kirrali Lewis by Jane Harrison is another Young Adult fiction novel, written by an Indigenous woman, which charts similar concerns: those of discovering one’s identity as one grows into adulthood. This novel though, has an urban setting.
- My Place by Sally Morgan.
- Black Cockatoo by Carl Merrison and Hakea Hustler
- Tjarany Roughtail Gracie Greene, Lucy Gill and Joe Tramacchi
- My Australian Story: Our Race for Recognition by Anita Heiss
- Tiddalick the Frog by Robert Roennfeldt
- The Rainbow Serpent by Dick Roughsey
- Stolen Girl by Trina Saffioti and Norma McDonald
- Scaly-Tail Possum and Echidna by Katrina Goonack
- Cunning Crow by Gregg Dreise
The following list is adult-targeted, but would provide excellent resource texts for this unit:
- Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe is a non-fiction book that puts forward an argument for a reconsideration of the hunter-gatherer tag for pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians. (Note: Young Dark Emu is suitable for upper primary through to Year 8.)
- Two Sisters by Jukina, Ngarta, Lowe and Richards tells the true story of two young Walmajarri women who walked out of the desert in the early 1960s. It puts colonisation into a much more recent context.
- Girl from the Great Sandy Desert by Jukuna Mona Chuguna, describes Jukuna’s childhood.
- Taboo by Kim Scott. Although this novel is probably not suitable for a teenage audience, it would be a good teacher resource, even if one only reads the synopsis and reviews, as it relates very closely to the themes and issues raised in US Mob Walawurru, including early massacres and the bitter legacy of colonialism.
- Tracker by Alexis Wright was the winner of the 2018 Stella Prize. This book tells the story of the Aboriginal leader, Tracker Tilmouth who died in 2015. During his life he worked tirelessly for Aboriginal self determination and he was for a long time, the Director of the Central Land Council in the Northern Territory.
- Deep Time Dreaming by Billy Griffiths. Review by Robyn Davidson in The Monthly, May 2018.
Evaluation of the text as
Representative of Australian culture
Us Mob Walawurru is representative of Australian culture in important ways, and in ways that are growing steadily more relevant as the issue of real reconciliation looms ever larger. These include:
- coming to terms with our past history – at a national and public level
- the possibility (or not) of a treaty
- Aboriginal recognition in the Australian Constitution
- ongoing issues of racism in this country
- the Australia Day date debate.
Significance to literature and the world of texts
‘Improving relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians can only be achieved through reconciliation via education and exposure to each other’s perspectives.’ (Cara Shipp)
Increasingly in the world of literature, strong voices are needed to educate, not about Aboriginal culture but through using Aboriginal voices to tell their own stories and articulate their own culture.
Rich assessment tasks
A choice of tasks has been provided, but these could easily be expanded to suit the class and its context.
Task 1: Imaginative and creative
Expository writing with visual component
Your task is to create a brochure for the Department of Home Affairs (formally known as the Department for Immigration). This brochure is to be designed as if white invasion and colonisation had not occurred just over 200 years ago. So the country of ‘Australia’ will be showcased to the world as it was before 1788. It needs to be presented as a country that would be attractive to would-be migrants for a variety of reasons, which you are going to highlight. These could include: living arrangements, family structures, work and work opportunities, religious beliefs, customs and land distribution, recreational activities, justice systems – and anything more that occurs to you after the reading of your novel.
Task 2: Analytical
Scenario: You are the head judge of a newly introduced National Literature Award, called Cross Cultural Literature, or The Literature of Reconciliation.
As the senior judge, you wish to award first prize to the novel, Us Mob Walawurru, written by Lisa Wilyuka and David Spillman; however, your choice has been criticised by other literature experts on the panel, who claim that this novel is too ‘lightweight’ to win such a prestigious award.
Your task is to write a defence of the novel, stating in it all the reasons why Us Mob Walawurru should win the inaugural award.
This needs to be set out as a persuasive essay with an introduction stating the thesis and issues under consideration, a set of paragraphs stating and enlarging on the main points, a rebuttal of any previous criticisms and a conclusion.
(ACELA1543) (ACELA1547) (ACELA1766) (ACELT1626) (ACELT1806) (ACELT1627) (ACELT1628) (ACELT1807) (ACELY1732) (ACELY1736) (ACELY1810)
Task 3: Imaginative and creative
Children’s story and picture book
Students could develop the outline for a children’s story/picture book that they have already drafted in the Close reading section of this teaching resource, or they could do something completely new and different.
The intention is to create an authentic picture story/picture book on some aspect of Aboriginal life, customs, values and beliefs. Students will need to:
- do sufficient research to have enough knowledge to distill and simplify for an early childhood readership
- decide on a medium for the illustrations
- work out the story book format with written text next to the pictures (This is the usual layout, although it can vary.)
- choose an age group target audience and use the appropriate register for that audience.
Students should first ‘test run’ their stories for authenticity, preferably with the Indigenous community or an Indigenous Elder, and having made appropriate editorial changes, could go on to read their finished books to students in early primary school, or a nearby kindergarten/day care facility.
(ACELA1541) (ACELA1548) (ACELA1547) (ACELT1806) (ACELT1628) (ACELT1630) (ACELT1768) (ACELY1736)
Task 4: Analytical/spoken
Whilst mock trials are regularly run as inter-school competitions (much like debating) for students in their senior years, the format can be adapted for Years 8 or 9 students.
There is a wealth of information on to how to set this up. See the Mock Trial Manual 2018, and look for the pages with information on the roles of the Mock Trial Participants, including Solicitor, Role of witness, Magistrate’s clerk, Barrister, and Court Officer.
A complete Mock Trial would involve about ten to twelve students, depending on the number of witnesses. So perhaps two trials could be conducted.
- Uncle Archie’s ‘borrowing/stealing’ of Joe Mogrun’s Landrover
- The ‘murderous Mr Wheeler mob’ who drove Ruby’s grandmother and her mob over the cliffs and to their deaths (pp. 145–147)
- Joe Mogren – for not paying wages to his stockmen and domestic staff.
Task 5: Spoken
Hypothetical. It is NAIDOC (National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee) Week.
You have been elected by your school community to prepare and deliver a ten-minute speech on an aspect of Indigenous life that needs to be talked about or exposed to the Australian community at large. Topics could be drawn from your reading of the class text, Us Mob Walawurru, or from the research you did while completing this unit, or from current affairs at present as they apply to Indigenous issues. Topics could include amongst many others:
- Land Rights
- Reform of the Australian Constitution
- Early contact
- Untold history
- Australia Day
Students will need to be guided through the construction and writing of this speech, paying appropriate attention not only to content but also to delivery and style. If time is a problem, students could record their speeches in the style of TED talks and can be viewed by a range of audiences.
(ACELA1543) (ACELA1547) (ACELT1626) (ACELT1806) (ACELT1628) (ACELT1807) (ACELY1730) (ACELY1808) (ACELY1731) (ACELY1736) (ACELY1810)