Montana State University

Aboriginal writer learns from laughing crows, hockey fights and Indian stories

November 8, 2010 -- By Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service


Aboriginal writer and scholar Blaze Kwaymullina will talk about stories, and tell some too, as he lectures at the annual MSU Phyllis Berger Memorial Lecture at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 10, in the Hager Auditorium at the Museum of the Rockies. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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Blaze Kwaymullina likes to listen to stories, but expect him to tell a few, too, when he lectures about his native Aboriginal people at the annual Montana State University Phyllis Berger Memorial Lecture at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 10, in the Hager Auditorium at the Museum of the Rockies.

His lecture, which is free and open to the public, is sponsored by the MSU Department of Native American Studies.

Kwaymullina is a member of the Palyku and Nyamal peoples of the Pilbara, which is located in the northwest of Western Australia. He will lecture on "Learning to Read the Signs: Australian Aboriginal Ways of Knowing, Being, and Doing."

According to Kwaymullina, telling stories is at the heart of the Aboriginal way.

"All our knowledge is held in stories and songs, and these stories can be manifest in different mediums," said Kwaymullina in an e-mail from Saskatchewan, where he is visiting members of Canadian tribes. "They can be painted, written, danced, sung or spoken. Stories are important because they tell us our place in the world and the role and responsibilities we have in looking after family and the broader environment. I think all human beings navigate the world through stories in one way or another, but indigenous people tend to have a more articulated system about what stories are and how they fit in."

An assistant professor at the School of Indigenous Studies at the University of Western Australia who is earning a Ph.D. in creative writing, Kwaymullina was first introduced to Montana and Montanans by Yvonne Rudman and Norman Peterson from MSU's Office of International Programs.

Rudman and Peterson were interested in connecting the indigenous programs at MSU and Western Australia. They put Kwaymullina in touch with Walter Fleming, chairman of MSU Department of Native American Studies.

"I found (Fleming) to be very warm and welcoming and this made me feel that MSU would be a place where I could develop some good relationships," Kwaymullina said.

Kwyamullina said MSU and Bozeman have been as welcoming as he expected, but there are a few surprises in the land half a world away from his native Western Australia.

"My family has a particular connection to the crow (birds), so there was a little bit of a culture shock hearing the crow speak with such a different voice," he said. "The crow in America sounds like it's laughing at you, in Australia it sounds like an old woman nagging.

"The other unexpected thing I encountered was watching two guys have a fist fight during an ice hockey game, which appears to be a normal part of the sport!"

Yet, there are many commonalities, especially in the indigenous people of Australia and North America.

"The underlying principles that inform our worldviews are similar," he said. "Culturally, there is a lot of cross over in the way we see the world and think about ourselves as human beings. Both cultures also have strong storytelling traditions, and I have enjoyed telling stories from my people and listening to the stories of the Native people here.

"I prefer to learn by listening to people talk rather than reading a book if possible," he said. "I love books, but hearing a person tell you their story, or their families' experiences has a power to it that is hard to replicate in text."

Kwaymullina knows a little about text. He is a member of a family known in Australia for their writings. Kwaymullina has edited or contributed to two children's books and two collections of stories. Yet, he said that at one time he was an unlikely person to have a career in higher education. He was a poor student who hated primary and high school and didn't fit into system.

"But my family pushed me to enter university, and my mum, being the strong woman that she is, convinced me to give it a try," he said. "The first unit I ever took was taught by an Aboriginal academic and it was a history unit about Aboriginal people. I was so inspired that I ended up majoring in history and now I teach history.

"My experiences made me realize that education is a powerful tool that can be used in a positive creative way, but also in a destructive negative way depending on the teacher and the system in which they teach."

Kwaymullina said he believes some of the things he is learning at MSU will improve his teaching in Australia.

"There is much we can learn from each other and many worthwhile partnerships that can be made," he said. "We can inspire each other with our shared humor, with our stories and by forging relationships that help us cope and find allies in dealing with the many issues we have been left with from the colonial era."

The annual Berger Memorial Lecture honors the memory of MSU benefactor Phyllis Berger. Each year MSU offers a lecture by a nationally recognized Native American, Native Alaskan or Native Hawaiian scholar, artist or leader speaking on Native history, cultures or contemporary issues of interest and importance to both Indian and non-Indian people.

For more information, call the Department of Native American Studies at 994-3881.

Walter Fleming (406) 994-3881, wfleming@montana.edu