A conversation with Jack Williams and Averil Dean: stories about country

Potted life history: Jack and Averil are brother and sister. Jack was born in Gnowangerup in 1933; Averil in 1939. At about age five or six, while living on the Gnowangerup Mission, Jack ‘had the privilege of seeing the last corroboree ever performed in the Southern Region by Noongar people.’ [6] Jack lived and worked in the Tambellup area for over 40 years and now lives in Albany. Averil also lived on the Gnowangerup Mission before moving to Tambellup. She went to high school in Perth and completed Nursing Aide training, which took her to Broome. Averil lived in Cranbrook for 12 years before moving to Albany over 20 years ago. Their grandfather went through traditional law in the Corackerup Creek area.

Notes: The text is largely drawn from a talk recorded at the SCRIPT Regional Forum at the Stirling Range Retreat, 6/04/04. For further history and stories recorded by Jack Williams and Averil Dean, see Ngulak Ngarnk Nidja Boodja; our mother our land (2000), published by the UWA Centre for Indigenous History and the Arts. Jack’s insights are also available in Changing Channels: Reflections on the Frankland Gordon River (2004), published by the Frankland Gordon Catchment Management Group.

Averil: It is a privilege to talk to you and to let you not only hear just what the land means to us, but to feel it as well. That to me is one of the most important things: if you feel what’s in our hearts, about our love and our heritage and our feeling for country.

Jack: I feel that there is strength and power in the land, especially the Stirlings. Every time I come down here I am feeling sick, you know, after I had that stroke, the moment I land here it is like a new life to me again and it’s the spirits. I couldn’t explain in words just how powerful it is to me, like the Anderson Lake and the ochres and the colours – you’ve got to see it to believe it, it is so beautiful.

Averil: The Aboriginal culture is based on spirituality. We believe very strongly in the spirits and our connection with the spirits. Bluff Knoll to me and to my family is one of the most important sites in the whole of Noongar country. In our culture we were taught to believe that when any of our Noongar people in the whole of Noongar country died, their spirits come back to Bluff Knoll to the master spirit, and from there they pass on to the great beyond. Whenever there’s a heavy cloud sitting on the Bluff, Noongars always said that was when somebody was going to die within the Noongar community and they never used to come near this area – only special people used to come, like the ‘clever people’.

Bluff Knoll’s Noongar name is Bula Meela. Meela is your eye and it means place of many faces and eyes are looking at you, and if you look at the rocks you can sort of work out the facial features of the rocks. Once you know about that and you get there and you look, then you start to not only see, you start to feel. This is the sort of thing that Jack and I try to get people to experience a feeling of because that is what is in our hearts and that is where we come from, that is our life. Our being is feeling the feelings of love for country, and we have a special relationship with the birds. Traditional stories say that it was the birds that made a path through the Stirlings and connected to the Porongurups.

Jack: There is another hill there, Mubarnup. The ‘clever’ Noongars used to go there for their power. The one opposite is Warrenup – that’s no good to go there. That is what they believe.

‘Clever people’: this is the doctor man. He had special stones, little black stones that they rub into their body: give it one rub and it’s gone, give another rub and they will come out. They used to sing for the rain, the ‘clever’ ones, and there wasn’t too many of them around and they are special people.

Averil: Our grandfather was one and he would be sitting on the side of you and you could hear this tick, tick, tick, tick.

Jack: ‘My old grandfather Eddie used to tell us many, many stories when we were young and out hunting with him. At night he would be sitting around a big fire and we would all sit around the fire with him and he would be telling us stories about where we had been and what had happened that day. He would tell the story in song. All the kids would be sitting around in a big circle when it just started to get dark, but the later it got at night, the closer we got around him, because we were frightened of spirits.’[1]

Averil: Nightwell used to be one of those places where the water only came at night.[2]

Jack: At daylight breaking the next day the water would disappear.  My grandfather would tell us there is a spiritual snake, they call it the mardjit. Well, he put a curse on the tribe and people were dying all around and the old bobtail, uren we call him, he went looking for the mardjit and he brought him back to the watering hole and he forced him in there. When he got him in there, he put a rock in behind him to lock him in there and that is why the water only comes at night: when he moved his tail trying to get back, he let the water through.

Averil: We are here to pass on some of those stories to just let you know that this to us is very important. We would like to share it with you to have you help us care for it and to make sure it is kept there for everybody to enjoy.

Nature tells us everything that we want to know about when food is ready to be harvested and when animals are at the prime time to be killed, like when the sheoak tree is in bloom with the brown blossoms, then it is time to go out and hunt the kangaroo because that is the time when they are fat.

Jack: At Christmas time when the Christmas tree blossoms, when it flowers, the tammar and brush wallaby are fat.  According to the animals, the time they get fat, that’s the six seasons I am talking about. ‘Noongars never used to eat anything out of season.’[3] ‘They’d move around in a cycle sort of according to the seasons. They never stayed in one place.’[4]

‘The fish used to get fat when the blossom on the paperbark comes out, then you’d know the mullet fish were fat and ready to catch. The blossom on the paperbark was called yaurll in Noongar language. When the white flower on the paperbark (it is the same colour as the fat on the mullet) blossoms, then it’s time … Fish traps used to be used for the mullet and this was done down on the King and Kalgan Rivers, where those rivers join up together.’[5]

You knew the salmon was running when in March you’d see like a cloudy, smoky sky and that is when the salmon are ready. Aboriginal people used to train the porpoise to bring the salmon into shore. One man, he was a ‘clever man’ and he used to sit out there on the beach and sing, he’d have a fire going, and sing ‘choork, choork’, and you would see the porpoise start to work, he would come around the school of salmon till he beached them and then he would say ‘come along, collect your harvest’ and they used to go and collect so much salmon and let the rest go.

Averil: We never ask for much; we don’t go around destroying anything. We just want to keep alive the ability to pass on our culture and we can only do that through the bush – pass on our culture to our youth and for them to pass that on to theirs.

Acknowledgements: A contribution by Greening Australia (WA) to the SCRIPT South Coast Regional Strategy for NRM and the Gondwana Link project. Editing by Margaret Robertson and Keith Bradby. Special thanks to Jack Williams and Averil Dean for sharing their stories, and to Kelly Flugge for his assistance. Thanks also to Stephen Mattingley for proof-reading, and the Department of Environment and Margi Edwards for preparing the interview transcript.


[1] Leonard (Jack) Williams in Ngulak Ngarnk Nidja Boodja; our mother our land, UWA Centre for Indigenous History and the Arts, Perth, 2000.

[2] Nightwell is north-east of Borden.

[3] See note 1.

[4] Jack Williams in Changing Channels: reflections on the Frankland Gordon River, Frankland Gordon Catchment Management Group, Cranbrook, 2004, p. 7.

[5] See note 1.

[6] See note 1.