Every Hill Got A Story: collected First Nations oral histories are a profound gift to national memory | Paul Daley

Massacres recounted in chilling detail recollections of the first time an Aboriginal person saw a camel or a car, and the double-edged harshness and compassion of missionaries might, for many non-Indigenous Australians, seem like the preserve of an alien and distant world.

But these experiences, bequeathed from memory to memory of central Australian First Nations peoples, are a startling testimony to the recent nature of the cataclysmic upheaval of ancient Indigenous civilization in the continental center.

To mark its 40th anniversary in 2016, the Central Land Council (CLC) published Every Hill Got A Story – an oral history recording these times of meaningful change through the recollections of 127 Aboriginal men and women. It is remarkable as an exercise in linguistics alone (many contributors recounted their memories in the traditional language before translation to English). But it is even more so as a broad sweep of personal history that bequeaths a profound gift to the national memory.

The free secondary and tertiary study guide of Every Hill Got A Story is also an invaluable resource for schoolteachers looking to engage students on how colonialism and its many legacies have affected the traditional people whose country the land council covers.

“We see our oral history collection as an important offering for the wider project of truth-telling. We would love to see Every Hill Got A Story used in all schools and universities, not just in Australia,” says CLC chief executive Lesley Turner.

“It is the first comprehensive history of Central Australia’s Aboriginal people, as told in their own words and their many languages. Many dozens of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people have contributed to this feat of reconciliation that took years to compile. Sadly, about one-third of the storytellers have passed away since we launched the book.”

The recollections of massacres – including that at Coniston in 1928 perpetrated by a policeman and former Anzac George Murray – that have been handed down by direct survivors to descendants are recounted vividly and in chilling detail.

Paul Daley

“My father and mother took me north to Willowra, where white people with camels were shooting our people,” recounted Liddy Walker Napanangka. “Those whitefellas on two camels came sneaking up quietly. My father stood up with his shield and asked them for tobacco. They shot my father, Japangardi, then – before my mother in daylight and me.”

Christobel Swan recounts her family’s experience of a massacre around Twenge.

“The police went there and shot people at Henbury at Twenge. They shot them like dogs. My mum, Joyleen, and told me this story of older adults. They are the people that used to tell us stories about what happened there. They were cruel to our old people,” she says.

Ned Kelly, perhaps the closest living relative to one of those murdered at the Coniston massacre, says, “They [Constable Murray and his men] were heading east, straight to Hanson Creek, where all my mob was there – my grandfather and Johnny Nelson’s father was there too, and they killed my old grandfather, and they killed Jonny Nelson’s father. Johnny Nelson was only a small baby.”

Every Hill Got A Story is replete with early contact stories that occur well into the mid-20th century. Some of the oral histories recall when the white man was traversing the desert in vehicles under the cautious observance of the Aboriginal people unseen to them. Others recount Aboriginal people coming out of the bush, making contact with white men, and leaving – or being removed from – their country.

Alec Peterson Apetyarr talks about watching the white people in “rubbish olden-time” cars from the safety of the scrub.

“We traveled in the hills – not along the road where the cars went—no swag – just nothing. No clothes. If we saw motorcars, if we saw those rubbish olden-time motorcars, going ‘KrrKrrKrrKrrKrr’ – they used to be cranked up, started with a crank handle – we’d run away. And after that motorcar went past, we’d come back again. We were watching out from the scrub in case another car came.”

In 1961 a national mapping survey team established a base camp west of present-day Kiwirrkurra to sink Jupiter Well. The locals, attracted by the surveyors’ caravans, began cautiously coming out of the scrub to investigate.

“We walked over there, and we saw there were caravans everywhere. They came in with their weapons [spears and spear throwers]. And the older men from the water Ngumal came in slowly and looked around, each putting their spears down on the ground one by one. They were nervous; they didn’t know about these people and those things,” Charlie Tjapangati recalled.

The white men gave them food and invited them to drink from the well.

The spiritual and physical complexities – and to outsiders, apparent contradictions – of mission life also play out in Every Hill Got A Story.

Speaking of life at Hermannsburg mission, Warren H Williams recounts, “My grandfather was an evangelist, but he was also a traditional song man, a traditional leader … Lot of the open singing and dancing were taken away when the mission first came, they took it away because it was deemed evil … I would go to sleep listening to them [the old single men] singing. I loved it. They sang traditional songs. Then they would go to church and sing the gospel songs.”

Turner of the CLC says many other remarkable elders with equally unique stories – “some of the last people who grew up on the land before settlement” didn’t make it into the book.

“They are quite elderly now, and we’re in a race against time to document their profound cultural and ecological knowledge for future generations. We would love to include more of them in a follow-up volume, but how we best use our limited resources is a matter. And I’m not just talking money. A project like this takes experienced, talented, and passionate staff who can spend hundreds of hours abroad to record, translate and edit the stories for a wide audience.”

Bella E. McMahon
I am a freelance writer who started blogging in college. I am fascinated by human nature, politics, culture, technology, and pop culture. In addition to my writing, I enjoy exploring new places, trying out new things, and engaging in conversations with new people. Some of my favorite hobbies are reading, playing music, making crafts, writing, traveling, and spending time with my family.