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Indigenous stories and storytellers may be lost in the digital age

How do you maintain the storytelling traditions and the spoken literatures of an oral culture in the digital era, asks Daniel Browning, journalist and radio broadcaster who produces and presents Awaye!, the Indigenous art and culture program on ABC Radio National.

Wes Marne, 96, has been telling stories, he says, “since Moses played fullback for Jerusalem”. But this Aboriginal elder, long resident in western Sydney where there is a high concentration of Indigenous people, worries about the future of storytelling.

“You can talk as much as you want,” he says, “but if no one’s going to listen...”
As our networked devices ping with diverse global stories told from multiple perspectives, there is a risk that certain voices might be drowned out or lost completely in the noise.

Uncle Wes, born in 1922 on his Bigambul country in southern Queensland, learnt the art of storytelling around the campfire and in the bush listening to his revered grandfather, who he describes as “a master of the spear and the woomera”.

An initiated man who danced at the last great gathering of the border tribes in the early 20th century, his traditional name was a Bigambul term for “white water man”.

When he was nine, Uncle Wes and his family moved south on to the oddly named Deadbird mission, near Ashford on the NSW northern tablelands.

The former drover, fencer, miner, tannery worker and Korean War veteran came to Sydney in the early 1960s. Uncle Wes remembers when he was first asked to speak in NSW public schools 16 years ago, the invitation came with a warning: no talk of massacres or genocide or stolen children. “Only dreamtime stories”, he says.

Over the past two decades there has been a wave of first-person storytelling in the form of life writing, with small independent publishers such as the Aboriginal owned Magabala Books and the UQP imprint Black Australian Writers fostering a “new’” Indigenous literature.

Follow The Rabbit-Proof Fence by the late Doris Pilkington Garimara bridged the gulf of national forgetfulness and denial in a universal story of homecoming.

Speaking to a Fairfax journalist in 2002, Doris Pilkington concluded that “this forgetting, the absence of memory” was one of the biggest legacies of the stolen generations.

Perhaps the finest but least conventional ripple in that wave of Aboriginal life writing is Tracker by Alexis Wright.

Although published in book form, Tracker could still claim to be a “spoken” literary work. A political history as much as a biography, the “story” of the land rights campaigner and Aboriginal statesman Tracker Tilmouth is told through multiple voices and from multiple angles, forensically transcribed from field recordings by the author herself.

While there is a wealth of Indigenous life writing, what of the spoken word?

The spoken literature of an oral culture – such as dreaming stories, language and oral history – represents a body of cultural knowledge that will disappear. without our intervention.

These stories are the collective memory of hundreds of generations and can unlock what it means to be on this continent, at this moment in time.

Digital technology can empower individuals and communities to tell their story. But Wes Marne fears the stories that his grandfather told him will go with him, because there is no one to pass them on to.

“They don’t want to listen to culture. It’s too busy, there are many other distractions out there.

“Instead of listening to a story, they’ll go down to McDonalds and join the boys and the mob down there. Or walk the streets all night. And there’s no future

Like a finely tuned musical instrument, the human voice is capable of an extraordinary range of emotional tones.

When we listen closely to the voice we can hear subtle variations in tone, a lingering breath, an editorial cough or a sudden inhale. There is an entire vocabulary of non-verbal communication – posture, eye and hand movements
can be as expressive as the spoken word.

But there is something special about being in the presence of a storyteller as they yarn. It is not enough to just simply record the stories and deposit them in a library for future generations – because the telling itself is part of the story.

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