I posted the previous yarn ‘Understory’ as a prelude to this one. You can find it here.
This year I taught an Indigenous studies unit at the uni. Living in the bush requires residents to be ‘agile’ as the Prime Minister put it recently, defining our need to have at least three jobs in the gig economy to survive in rural areas.
Anyway, I’ve been working for this department in other capacities for quite a few years and when I was given the new unit I noticed that for the field trip, our remote campus was not afforded the same opportunities as those in the city. They were going to Wadjemup or Rottnest Island where hundreds of Aboriginal men were historically incarcerated in a campaign to remove strong, young Aboriginal men from their communities.
I decided that my regional students would go out to the massacre memorial site at Cocanarup for our field trip, and so a few weeks ago we met below the campus building, breathing early morning mist as we piled into a little bus.
We drove east for three hours. It’s often the flatlands out there, farming country punctuated by the skins and skulls of wild pigs hung on fences, roadhouses peopled by indifferent staff and stubble piled against fences after the last blow. It’s soldier settlement country; land given to returned servicemen after the war. A gift. Here is some hard scrabble country for you to eke out a living, said the Gifters.
We went past there to salmon gum country. I took my students to the old cemetery to show them how Noongar people were segregated in those days, buried in unconsecrated, unmarked graves. There are two graveyards; one for Noongar, the other for the whites. A husband and wife are buried in separate graveyards. She was Aboriginal. He was white.
At this point I began to realise I was responsible for mental wellbeing of my students and also for Swan who’d come along in a cultural awareness capacity. I’d given them all the information – the newspaper archives, chapters from books and reports of the massacre – but this was the first time I’d taken them onto this country. The country is really powerful. It’s both grim and, beautiful. Amongst the garden in the centre of the Noongar cemetery lay the skeleton of a boomer kangaroo.
After fuelling up in town and buying some excellent Chico rolls, we drove back out of town and went down to the river. Since the floods last year, the river’s course has changed and everything looks different. The flood was so violent that it carried the bridge a few hundred metres downstream. It’s difficult to orient yourself when a river course has changed, and when we got down to what used to be a rocky fording, the swathe of deep sand and the enormity of that river flood made us park the bus and walk in to John Dunne’s grave.
John Dunne’s behaviour was the reason for his execution and the subsequent retribution. As I walked past his grave to the riverbed, I asked Swan, ‘What do you think?’ I knew that the massacre started around here somewhere. ‘Just leave things where they are,’ Swan said. ‘Don’t pick up anything.’ This reminded me of one of his colleague’s advice years before. ‘Don’t move anything around out there.’
I could see from the smashed trees above the trickle of water that the river in flood must have been three hundred metres wide a year ago. I began to feel anxious because floods like these reveal all kinds of ghosts and bones. What do we do, if we find bones?
‘Just don’t move anything.’
I told my students as they roamed the riverbed, taking photos and picking up stuff. ‘Please don’t take anything away from here.’
The riverbed was covered in every kind of stone imaginable, every colour, every texture, it was all there. It was like beach combing after a storm where the freakiest shit had washed up.
One of the students found a bone then, sticking out of the riverbed. It looked like a femur, or a human hip bone. She said, does this look like a human bone to you? And I agreed that it did.
I had a stinker of an emotional reaction to her bone find. I know the history of the massacre and I’ve spent a fair bit of time in this country. My sister is the children’s librarian in a nearby town where a patriarch had shot dead his whole family only a few days before. She’d recited baby rhyme time to all of those kids. Somehow, I managed to emotionally conflate these two massacres more than 130 years apart. I felt so angry and useless about our ongoing predilection for human violence. Swan headed up the track towards the bus.
‘People!,’ I exploded to the woman who’d found the bone, as we left the river. ‘Fucking people!’ I was close to tears.
We took photos of the bone and I sent them to someone I know at Aboriginal Affairs. I rang him that night to talk about the process from here on in. He thought the bone looked too ‘robust’ to be human. One of his roles is to organise reburials of Aboriginal remains when bones have been disturbed by floodwaters, industrial earthworks or sand dune shift. He sent the photos to the officer in charge at the local police station. This protocol seems to work well: when somebody finds skeletal remains, the police work out whether the bones are human or animal, and then, whether they are part of a recent crime scene or an historic Aboriginal burial. If they are deemed the latter it’s referred back to Aboriginal Affairs.
I spent a week thinking and dreaming about this bone, this person, thinking about the massacre, wondering how, when Dunne gets his gravestone with white pickets all around it, the people’s bodies were piled in a mass grave on the riverbank. How many more miles might this femur have walked? It’s easy to lose sleep over this stuff and yet the dead no longer care (hopefully). That bone.
A week later my contact at the department said that he’d heard back from the police. It was an animal bone.
Oh. Mixed feelings soundtrack. So, if it wasn’t a human bone then my last week of anguish and raging against humanity was entirely misplaced. I didn’t want to feel disappointed that it wasn’t a human bone, but I did feel disappointed and so I felt bad about that. ‘Well, I guess that is a good thing,’ I replied via text to him. This emotional dissonance plagued me until the next day, when he forwarded me an email from the police department’s forensic anthropologist. She wrote that the bone was not human but quite possibly from … wait for it … a PREHISTORIC QUADRUPED.
In other words, a giant freaking wombat. You know, mega fauna. I got the email right before the next class with my students after the field trip. Not many of them knew about the bone find. I’d kept it quiet because I wanted it to go through official channels. But when I told them the story and read out the email you should have seen the bouncing going on in the room. We went down to the river and found MEGAFAUNA!!!
I rang the officer in charge at the local police station. He was so excited. He’d gone to the river and dug up the bone. When he got the report back, he’d taken his kids down to the river to talk to them about dinosaurs and megafauna. ‘I was here during the floods,’ he said. ‘I was the first to lay hands on the man who drowned here. That river. That river changed its course during the flood.’ He went on to say that it was possibly not a hundred-year flood but a thousand-year flood. He wanted Noongar people to come back here.
‘I just want to take out a shovel and dig up more stuff on the river,’ he said. ‘There must be gold there but prehistoric quadrupeds, that’s amazing!’
‘Don’t go rogue on me, mate,’ I said. ‘Let me sniff around the archaeology department and the museum first.’
At this point there was radio silence from the local Noongar who I’d been in contact with. I began to realise that archaeologists converging on this area, digging up bones, was probably not such a great thing.
‘Just don’t move things around out there,’ he’d said to me all those years ago.
Still. I sent the photos of the copper’s dug-up bones to a paleontologist at the museum. He replied two days later, ‘This is a cattle bone. This is not a prehistoric quadruped bone. This is a cattle bone.’ Those were pretty much his exact words, two weeks after I took my students to massacre country at the river. It was quite a downy, uppity, downy kind of fortnight.