Sally Gabori and her Kaiadilt People

Sally Gabori was of the Kaiadilt people who came from Bentinck and Sweers Islands in the South Wellesley Islands, in the southern Gulf of Carpentaria. They were the last group of coastal Aboriginal people in Australia to cease their autonomous hunter/gatherer/fisher lifestyle in 1947–48 when they were transported by missionaries to the Presbyterian Mission on Mornington Island. At the time the Kaiadilt had sustained themselves as a small isolated society of only several hundred people for an indefinite period of time (some thousands of years), continuing even when the colonial period swept past them for over a hundred years.

Warning to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers; this essay contains photographs of people who are deceased.

I first arrived at Mornington Mission in 1973, some twenty-five years after their move to the mission, to start my PhD research with the North Wellesley Islanders, the Lardil people, who had been missionised earlier, starting in 1914. Lardil Elder Lindsay Roughsey adopted me as a son and I established my first tent camp at the end of the Lardil Mission village which happened to overlook the Kaiadilt enclave – also on the fringe of the main village.

The Kaiadilt had still not assimilated into the more westernised and dominant Lardil society, but remained separate and socially isolated. Few spoke much English and they occupied several rows of tin sheds and self-built huts. I was equipped with several papers on the Kaiadilt written by an earlier anthropologist, Norman Tindale, the first proponent of theories on their isolation and unique cultural evolution.

My first Kaiadilt contact was with Darwin Moodoonuthi, their leader and spokesperson who spoke broken English. I had been bestowed some personal Dreaming connections by those Lardil families who adopted me; one was Bluefish Dreaming. Darwin was of the corresponding Kaiadilt Bluefish Dreaming so we later called ourselves Bluefish brothers.

He introduced me to a number of Kaiadilt Elders with whom I could only communicate using gestures and smiles. I met his wife May Moodoonuthi who was to later become one of Sally Gabori’s painting companions. In twenty-five years most of the older people had not learnt English such was their social separation.

One stately Elder was a very tall man with dreadlocks who seldom spoke, Percy Loogatha, and there were two ancient-looking women who chattered to me in language, Roonga and Venus. According to Tindale, they were Sally Gabori’s elder brother and two elder sisters (although the two women were later reclassified as her aunties). Sally herself was too young and shy to be socially forthcoming to a young white male.

The missionaries had given all the Kaiadilt English names but none had yet left the mission to go to the mainland, and none had any idea what a university researcher was. So my presence was not readily understood. Every day the Kaiadilt women single-filed past my camp to go food collecting, still maintaining customary hunting practice with permissions from the Lardil traditional owners. They single-filed back in the evening with billies and bags of bush tucker and tied-up bundles of firewood balanced on their heads. Sally was always with them but still shy. Right from the outset Darwin made it clear to me that that the Kaiadilt people wanted to return to their homeland. The only return trips had been in 1960 and 1962 with Tindale and his expedition but these were limited to a handful of older men. When I questioned him about Tindale’s explanation of their departure – about being under severe population stress due to drought, scarcity of water and internal fighting over women and on the verge of population collapse – Darwin was in denial and of the view that it was mission coercion.

In their Mornington Mission village, the Kaiadilt were still making and using some customary hunting weapons and tools. A number of the women including Sally walked past my tent on some days to work on their close-by rock wall fish trap. In an effort to earn trust I carried rocks to build up some segments of the walls. This didn’t go unnoticed and was appreciated. Although these fish traps were used throughout the Wellesley Islands and adjacent mainland coast, the largest concentration are at Bentinck Island. Early mariners described them as paddocks for farming fish. The fish swam over the tops of the walls at high tide; then on ebb tide, fish were caught inside and speared once the water dropped below the trap top. My maintenance efforts resulted in regular waves and smiles from the Kaiadilt. Fish traps were later to become a topic of some of Sally’s paintings.

A most memorable experience in 1975 was catalysing a dance event in the Kaiadilt village. One of my research topics was Lardil dance and at this time Lardil dance performances were ascending into national fame under their touring name, Woomera Dancers. All of their dances were distinctively different with topics either from the Dreamtime sacred histories or secular entertaining events of everyday traditional life. The former categories of dances were individually gifted in dreams from ancestral spirits and highly prized as cosmological knowledge. However the Kaiadilt dance tradition bore no resemblance to the Lardil. The Kaiadilt were never invited to dance in the regular Lardil community dance events.

Darwin said that despite the cultural discrimination of the Kaiadilt within the mission community, it was important to maintain the Kaiadilt dance tradition. He in turn called a dance one night in their Kaiadilt village enclave to which I was the only privileged outsider invited, and in which Sally participated as well as other senior women, including May and Dawn Naranatjil, another future artist. This, I think, was the first dance event since they left their country in 1948 and unfortunately the last one. Darwin called the names of the dances which were individual Dreamtime totems such as Dugong, Bluefish, Rockcod, Southeast Wind and Bushfire. Individual dancers came forth identifying with those Dreamings and they mostly danced an identical action, which was to stomp their feet in turn, hard on the sandy ground with arms outstretched and emit a loud call with each foot stomp, like a ‘hoot’ (as in ‘foot’): …hoot, hoot, hoot, hoot, rhythmically called out in the village firelight.

My relationship with Darwin developed slowly and some years later an archaeologist and I agreed to map Sweers Island, which was part of Darwin’s estate. The Bjelke-Petersen government was threatening to build a commercial port there. We walked all over the island with Darwin and his brother recording fish traps, sacred sites and historical remains from the 1800s. The experience bonded us, so much so that I was befriended by another two Kaiadilt elder men, Pat Gabori and Pluto. They too wanted parts of their country mapped. By now I was aware that Sally was Pat’s wife. We teamed up with a young schoolteacher, Phil, who had a large boat and was interested in reconnoitring for a campsite to take school camping excursions of Kaiadilt children. We visited in 1979 and were taken directly to a place on the south-east of Bentinck Island where there was a lengthy freshwater lagoon and a large fish trap. This was Nyinyilki, not only suitable for a school camp site but also the proposed site for a Kaiadilt outstation for their future return to their homeland. Pat and Pluto were ecstatic to be back on country spearing their own fish, collecting wood for spear shafts and visiting their old beach wells.

The building of the Nyinyilki outstation enabled Kaiadilt people to return to their homelands on an intermittent basis but had seemed a political impossibility in the 1970s and 1980s under the Bjelke-Petersen government. But by the 1990s, government policies were changing in Aboriginal Australia and outstations were receiving funding on the mainland. Darwin, Pat, Phil and I organised a meeting of all the Kaiadilt people (who were now living in the town proper) and the idea of forming the Kaiadilt Aboriginal Corporation was endorsed and a group of office-bearers appointed.

Once with their own Corporation, the Kaiadilt were eligible to make regular applications for Federal Government funding. Some five years later Darwin had passed away but the first houses and an airstrip were established at Nyinyilki. The outstation proved most popular with the older Kaiadilt women who visited for long dry-season stays. Here they reminisced on the old lifeways and it became an epicentre for their art renaissance. A good number of Sally’s paintings are of Nyinyilki and its fish trap.

The other epicentre was the Mornington Arts and Crafts Centre. Here Sally picked up paintbrushes in 2005 at the age of about eighty years and began her short but remarkable art career. She was inspired by her childhood memories of living traditionally on Bentinck Island, catalysed by the returns to Nyinyilki where memories of the old times could be unpacked around campfires and on bushwalks.

By the early 2000s, one of my research team at the time, linguist Erich Round, was working closely with Sally and husband Pat studying grammatical aspects of the Kaiadilt language. Erich, a fluent Kaiadilt speaker, facilitated in-depth communications on my behalf with Sally in her own language, so as to make inquiries on our current research topics which included the Kaiadilt specialisation in fish traps, their dugong hunting methods and the repertoire of shelter types they employed (including during cyclones).

Sally positioned every memory of these topics in real events during the 1920s, 30s and 40s at the specific places and with specific relatives on country. Relatives included the grandfather Thundiyingathi Bijarrb (Dugong) and her elder brother Marrkingathi Thuwathu (Rainbow Serpent) aka King Alfred (born c. 1897) who had six wives. They too are subjects of her paintings: each time the kinsperson is associated with a place which she depicts.

Sally was now calling Pat my father and treating me as a son. Erich was in a grandson relationship. This is the way we fondly remember her. At this ripe old age, she was no longer shy but a chatterbox (with both words and paints) albeit still speaking and thinking predominantly in Kaiadilt.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 44, 2018
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