Last night for NAIDOC Week, we did some fireside yarning with local Noongars, immigrants and settler families, in the park in town. Nearby the bronze of Menang Noongar man Mokare' glowed under the street lights, clad in a wallaby cloak.
One of the Elder's daughters who was helping out peered over to the statue and said, "Have they painted him white again?"
"Nah, it's the sea gulls."
"Someone paints him white, every year." She laughed a bit sadly. "It's so bloody wrong, ey? They think he should be a white man for Aborigines' Week."
The yarning went well, after a chaotic start. The Chinese couple made a connection with a Noongar man. "My Granpa was a Chinaman," he said. "Ah Loo. He lived out Ravensthorpe way." Other connections were made through football teams, migration schemes and refugee scenes.
This afternoon, I walked down the main street and saw a cluster of sad and stirred up and bemused-looking Noongars standing around Mokare'. Someone from the TV was filming the statue.
The young man, who came up to the fire last night after we'd thrown green peppermint and tea tree leaves over it and brushed the smoke all over his body, came over.
"The journo asked me to say what I thought, on camera," he said. "I said, "Nah, mate. No. Then I thought about it and went back and said, 'You know, for change to happen, everybody has to change.'"
"Nothing much has changed," said the Elder's daughter. "Well, it has a bit, but it's so bloody slow. Just look at what they done. I can't believe I said that last night, Sarah."
I picked up a stray emu feather that must have fallen to the ground from a dance or something. I didn't really know what to say.
Another journalist turned up. Two Japanese tourists were taking photos of the whitened Mokare.
"They can't do that!" said Elder's daughter.
I remembered something that her mother said the night before, about how her attitudes towards the Japanese had been shaped by her parent's 'baggage', and wondered what was going on now. "What do you mean?" I asked.
"Well, they'll go back to Japan with those pictures and everyone will think Mokare' was a white man!" She said. "Go and tell them, Jimmy. Go and tell them what happened last night."
So he did and then the young man's little daughter came running up to him, slammed into his legs. "Did you paint that man white?" She asked him, cheeky.
He said, "No way! I'd get a hidin'. See that Old Fella there?" He pointed over to an old man with a walking stick, whose frame and stance still showed his early days as a champion footballer. "That Old Fella, he'd give me a hidin' if I did something like that."
It is so loaded, painting a Blackfella's monument white, that the act doesn't make much more of a point than just unsettling and upsetting everybody. A bit like cutting off Yagan's head for a second time, I guess.
For those who have never heard of him, here's a bit about who Mokare' was and what he means to people here:
(Mokare) is one of the most interesting and complex characters known in some detail from any part of Australia during its first post-European half century. Mokare accommodated himself and his people to the European occupation and made no attempt at active resistance, actually advising and guiding the invaders. Perhaps for this reason Aboriginal activists and revisionist white historians have not elevated him to that heroic pantheon reserved for more violent leaders, such as Yagan and Pemulwoy. Who is to say that he did not achieve more to his generation, however, though not being the stuff of future legends?
The key to Mokare's self confidence and ease when in the settlement lay in the fact that his family owned the land on which the British chose to settle. His sister Mullet actually lived adjacent to the farm ... That he was both intelligent and affable was testified by many witnesses other than Barker. Collet Barker's journal also shows his awareness that the land belonged to the Aborigines.
John Mulvaney & Neville Green, Commandant of Solitude, the Journals of Captain Collet Barker 1828 - 1831, p. 244.