Biodiversity publications archive

Country in flames

Proceedings of the 1994 symposium on biodiversity and fire in North Australia - Biodiversity series, Paper no. 3
Deborah Bird Rose (editor)
Biodiversity Unit
Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories and the North Australia Research Unit, The Australian National University, 1995

Welcome address

Wali Fejo
Larrakia spokesman, Nungalinya College

It looks as if everybody's all fired up! I'm just one of the many of our Larrakia speakers and so, this morning, I'm privileged to be here. And thank you for the many who've come from different States. You've come to this place, the Larrakia country setting for this symposium and the weather's just what you want it to be.

My nickname, one of many, that my parents gave to me was 'firebug'. Of course, already you know what it's all about. I just loved playing with matches until I burnt the mosquito net and that stopped it.

For us as Larrakia people, and I think it is true of other Aboriginal people, the fire has great meaning. For us here it meant when we needed to call our people for various ceremonies we'd light a big fire. Today, you pick up a telephone. And telephone cost money. But we were able to just collect wood and make a fire and everybody knew that there was a calling for a special time. And that related to others to get the message across to be able to come and have the ceremony and meetings. With a special place! And it was a controlled place where the fire did not get out of control.

Larrakia land is a very special land. I think as you would want to express it in your own terms of where you come from, your homeland's very special. This country means a lot to us. As we say thank you for you coming and having a time of this 'explosive issue' we're asking that you be cool. We're asking that as you debate, as you talk about it and even have a good hot argument – be cool. Because when it's all said and done and you go home, we Larrakia cop the flak. And we don't want that! We've got too much of that! You take back some of your own flak with you. And if need be, you make your little fire at home.

As given to us as we grew up as children of the Larrakia people, it was around the fires at night that many, many of the things of reality became meaningful. There was dance! There was song! There was story! And one thing that interests me all the time is I like to watch the shadow of the storyteller as the fire flames flicker up, up into the trees at night. It's good. Because there my imagination just runs away from me.Stories, dancing and songs came about because it was life, it was meaningful. There was good laughter. And today you've got to get entertainment just to have a bit of a laugh, hey? You've got to pay for it too! And some comical person will get up because they had some special kind of intrigue that they thought they could relate to others, and doing that they made their dollars.

Round our campfires we enjoyed laughter. Laughter to the extent that you almost cried. Hey, when did you start laughing so that tears ran out of your eyes? Not seldom? Just recently? Last year? Not ever? You're missing out somewhere!

With that part of joy, that laughter, that good feeling, the fire also brought to us the warmth when we slept next to the fire. Just so the cool of the evening didn't dampen too much of the things. That's why many of us have burns. Because of being too close to the fire.

I wanted to go to my uncle on the other side and we had a big fire. The ashes were there but the live coals burning were still there. I was just crawling. And so in my determination I said to myself, 'My uncle's there, and that's the direction I'm headed for.' I went through the fire. I have a big scar on my leg. That's going to last for a lifetime. But it cautions me every time now, tells me a couple a things that's very vital important. Not only don't go and step into fire, but also that you can control it.

And as I look at my left leg and my little stubby toe without a toenail I laugh to myself sometimes. I can see part of the funny side of life because as I grew up I was too ashamed to wear shorts. Not that I got bony legs. I got beautiful legs! Come on! (laughter from audience) It's just that I had a scar there that I just didn't want anybody else to see because having scars you felt, you know you're way out. You're not somebody. A drop out. Those terms you know. You just don't fit in. But I've got long ones on today because it's a bit cool in here. A few time I've come to this place and it's always cold but seeing your issues for this day, you're going to be warmed up.

Fire brought to us the means by which we can bake, cook, bake and eat our food. So, there was firewood to collect. Each one of the families had their designated calling and their work to do. So, they collected the firewood and were able to have, yes, stew and rice, damper, tea. Well, you know, all those things that you have today, but you put it on a stove, don't you? Turn on the electricity or light the gas.

As we look back in relation to the meaning of fire for us, it cautions us that it needs to be in control. It cautions us because out of control it becomes damaging, threatening, destroying and could cause death. But we'd like to harness that natural thing, give it meaning. Keep it right where it is, in control.

Some of the things that have happened in the past to the Larrakia people have been fires out of control. Many of our people in the past died because of the influx of people outside of the country. Devastation, not only because they were poisoned, shot, raped, but also the flames that came our way were destructive. You see, today, we are still building our fires. We are still calling our people to come together. For as you come together, at this time, it's for a great and real purpose. And as you share together and talk together you're going to get to know each other a little bit better. I mean just eardropping this morning I heard a lot.

I'm grateful then for this special kind of coming together that's here in Larrakia country. And as one of its many spokesmen, I welcome you. Usually our way is with dance and song but, you see, some of the fires that were out of control destroyed some of those things that belong to ours. We're starting to build up a new flame. A fire that's controllable. To bring warmth to people of all races, to begin to appreciate that you can control the flames.

I like your theme and the program – country in flames. To me at the back of my mind it tells me a little bit politics but, you know, that's no worry
to you guys.

The flames I feel here need attention because of the diversity of people who come now to have a look at the things that are really destroying not only plant life, animal life, but the environment as well. Keep that fire in control.

May our ancestors' spirits be with you, guiding you, helping you, opening your mind, helping you to speak but also understanding each other in your diversity. May the presence of our Larrakia people who are still alive feel with much depth things that you will be talking about as part of what's happening to them. And our creator God, who gave us all things to enjoy, walk with you today. Thank you very much.