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Podcast interview with Michael Kumatpi Marrutya O'Brien

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Uncle Mickey Kumatpi Marrutya O'Brien

"So, (history) tells you that this (South Australia) was a place of connection of two cultures, two worlds."

Michael Kumatpi Marrutya O'Brien, or Uncle Mickey, is a Senior Aboriginal Man - a descendant of the Kaurna (Adelaide Plains) and Narrunga (Yorke Peninsula) people, and a passionate advocate for Aboriginal culture, language and history.

As his father, Uncle Lewis Yerluburka O’Brien, has done before him - Uncle Mickey takes much joy in sharing his cultural knowledge and promoting cultural connection.

In this episode of the Adelaide Living podcast, Mickey shares and discusses the spiritual connection of the Kaurna people with Adelaide, and how the landscape of Adelaide, and the city's surrounds, tells the stories and history of the land; of two cultures connecting in one place, and his hope for greater recognition of Aboriginal people as scientists, farmers and philosophers.

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Dr Christina Hagger combines her radio presenter, writing and researcher skills to help people tell, and share, their stories. She understands the power of voice and narrative to inform, build community, and influence change.

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The transcript has been automatically transcribed for accessibility purposes; we apologise for any inconsistencies with the recording.

Christina Hagger: 00:40
It is our stories that bind us together.

Lewis Yerlaburka O’Brien once said, When you live in a place, you learn all the stories of that place.

Uncle Lewis, a Kaurna Elder, is acknowledged for the ways he uses stories to powerfully blend Aboriginal, and Western ways of knowing. It is a skill shared by his son Michael O’Brien, Uncle Mickey, who is as generous in sharing cultural stories and wisdom.

Today, we’re going to hear some of those stories – including one of how some people say that Mulla Willa Burka, one of the last full blood Kaurna people, worked with South Australia’s first Surveyor-General, Colonel William Light, when he was designing the city … telling him about the spirit of the land itself and the importance of having life-saving greenbelts.

Let’s hear more on this story and many others - from Uncle Mickey - as he Welcomes us to Country….

Uncle Mickey: 01:36

When we welcome people to our country, it's welcoming... it's valuing the people that you welcome. And so therefore you're doing it with them, and not at them. And, that's really important. And, really we should say Niina Marni, which is a hello and how are you and, Ngai nari Kumatpi Marrutya… ngai wangkanthi marni naa pudni Kaurna Yartaana……….. tarntanyangga so welcome! Yeah, welcome to the lands of the Kaurna people and my Aboriginal name is Kumatpi Marrutya, which means I'm the sixth born male of my family and as an ambassador of the Kaurna people, and - as my Aboriginal name says - I'm known as 'the impatient one'.

Christina Hagger: 02:13

And you’re also known as Uncle Mickey.

Uncle Mickey: 02:16

So yeah! So Mickey is sort of one of those things that you want people to, to be friendly with you. You don't want them to be, you know, what you would say as stiff and, uh, resistant. And so it's about being open and honest, isn't it?

Christina Hagger: 02:29

It’s also a sign of respect. Now, you are clearly a great storyteller I gather you learnt this from your father, Uncle Lewis Yerlaburka O’Brien as well as his skills in bringing together Aboriginal ways of knowing and western philosophy.

Uncle Mickey: 02:26

Since you mentioned dad, I think what's really important first, is that, you know, dad is certainly - when you consider that he was a child that ended up in state care and was born on an Aboriginal mission - and, really had those struggles of disconnection of his culture and particularly his family. He, before he went into state care at the age of 12, was looking after six of his siblings, because his mother was poorly ill ... and sadly died. 

So, you know, dad has always been on this journey and continues to be on that journey, even at the age of 89 now, that he's not only helped bring culture back to himself, but he's helped bring culture back to all of us: whether it be in the language, whether it be in the sharing of our philosophies and the cultural stories and knowledge and the wisdom of our people across this land through his time spent with those elders, looking in those books, and spending it with, a variety of people, of not just only Aboriginal cultures from around our nation, but even wider, and even people from many other nations that we have come (here) and also go to. And so, you know, he's been very inspirational and really has led the way with many of these things. And one of his, I think, great philosophies is he talks about this word muka-muka being two halves, being the brain. Which really is about reciprocity and mutual benefit, which is about two-ness, which is about giving and receiving. And so Aboriginal people have worked on that philosophy of understanding, that everything is in balance and in harmony. And, so we look after things because we know that when our time comes, that we leave our body we travel to the spirit world and therefore we return back to, this world, whether it be, not in the human form, but it may be in the landscape, it may be in the animals, or in the skies.

And, so therefore, we had this holistic view of always continually thinking in harmony and balance. And, you know, whether it be those sort of sharing of philosophies, the understanding of the knowledge and wisdom, but, but also even the language. You know, our language, the Kaurna language was sadly, like most languages across Australia, was against the law to speak. Luckily for us, the German missionaries recorded some 3000 words, and my father, along with a number of other Elders in our community, brought the language back. So now we have some Kaurna speakers. I myself can speak some of the language, but currently learning to speak it so that hopefully one day I can speak it in a conversing or fluent way rather than in a scripted way, which I sort of am really doing at the moment.

Christina Hagger: 05:43

Because bringing back the language is, is terribly important because how can you tell a story if you don't have the language?

Uncle Mickey: 05:52

Well, and you're exactly right. And I mean, what's fascinating about our language I think, though at times it feels very complicated, it was, like our people. Our people were visual, oral, and what you would say, 'doing' people. And so therefore it even is in our words. I mean you look at Adelaide itself is known as Tarntanyangga being the dreaming place with the big red kangaroo. Well, it's telling you that the kangaroo was embedded into this landscape and the spirit of this place. Like when you look at Torrens River, it's known as a Karrawirra Pari, which means that it's the red gum forest river. So, it's telling you, you can get wood, you can get water, you can get shelter and therefore you can have all the things necessary to live along that river. And so, our people name places, not because we gave them names, but bcause we come to know those places. Therefore, the place itself told us what it was. And so therefore, we shared that information because it really is the landscape of the place. And it was really important because when you had people visiting your nation, you needed to know, 'well, where am I going to find water and, and a wood for fire?' and so forth. Well, you know that you've got to do that. If you go to Karrawirra Pari being the Torrens River. And same with if you go to Tarntanyangga, you know, the kangaroo, if you want food, well, you're gonna find kangaroos there, aren't ya? Yeah. And, so really it was describing the landscapes itself. 

But what's really interesting about Tarntanyangga is a number of things. And we can go back to really those early days of Colonel Light who, was a great surveyor and mapped out the city of Adelaide. And, you know, some people say that he mapped out Adelaide, not just because he put it in the system of a grid system of a North, South, East, West sort of system but also putting in the green belts. But Mullawirraburka, one of the last of the full blood Kaurna people worked with Colonel Light and told him the spirit of the land itself and told him about the fact that it's important to have greenbelts because it gives you safety in fires. It also enables people to have spaces to go.

Uncle Mickey: 08:05

But what some people don't even recognise is that Colonel Light actually shaped Adelaide in a kangaroo. It's not in the, what you would say, the immediate looking aspect of it, but it's actually… its elements are there. So, there are the ears of the kangaroo, the tail, the hind leg, the chest, and the paw of the kangaroo. And if people take the outline of the city of Adelaide, they'll see that kangaroo embedded in the landscape.

Christina Hagger: 08:32

So, tell me where, where would I find the ears?

Uncle Mickey: 08:34

Down here, on Dequetteville Terrace and stuff. Yeah. Yeah. And so, when you go down to sort of the West Terrace - Anzac Highway, that's where you find the other elements of the kangaroo - with the hind leg and the tail.

Uncle Mickey: 08:47

.. and you can see clearly the chest because it steps down in its description or its streets, as they are formed. And so, it's really amazing. And then when you look at North Adelaide being the emu, it's really clearly in there - that the outline is an emu. But what's really also amazing is that Victoria Square is not a square, it's actually the Kaurna shield. And so that element is embedded right in the heart of the city. Now, Adelaide itself was known as a place of conference and we actually had a word called parnpa- parnpalya . And so many of our nation's peoples met in Adelaide to share in dance, palti or to share in language to sharing cultural elements, exchange of artefacts or ochres.

And so people came here and, as we see, Adelaide is known as the conference state. But what's really important is that Adelaide, or South Australia itself, sits in the heart of our nation, being in the middle. And so therefore, when you take those elements of the kangaroo, the emu and the shield, where do we find those elements? In our national crest. And so therefore, South Australia, or Adelaide is the first nations peoples capital of this nation because those elements are clearly put in the landscape. 

And we can take that even one step further because what people really don't know is that South Australia had three flags. The first flag had the Union Jack with the Southern Cross. The final flag that we currently use has the Piping Shrike. But the second flag had two people on it. It had an Aboriginal person and a person from Britannia, a lady reaching out to be welcomed by the Aboriginal person who's sitting on a rock throne.

But what's really amazing is what's carved in the rock above the Aboriginal person's head is a kangaroo - and Adelaide is known as the place of the kangaroo. And so, when we talk about spiritual connections, it is really emphasised in all of those elements. And it shows you that the place itself tells you what it's about and whether you say people did it deliberately or whether the landscape told them or whether Mullawirraburka, who was one of those great leaders of our people, encouraged Colonel Light. It's there.

And that's what is really, and obviously we can't, you know, find out exactly what really transpired between those conversations of Mullawirraburka and Colonel Light. It would it be wonderful if we could, but you know, when you consider that Adelaide is known as the Plains, a flat piece of land. So therefore, why are these elements put in there? Because, you know, he could have chosen any design, but he chose those designs. And so, you've got to really see that the spirit of the landscape is in the design. And it's not just only in that, there's a number of other elements that also provide us that knowledge that Adelaide is known as the kangaroo.

Christina Hagger: 11:52

What else do we have?

Uncle Mickey: 11:54

Well, if you take the time to go to the top of Briens Road and Hampstead Road at night time, and you're coming from the East heading to the West, and if you get to stop at Hampstead and Briens Road and look over towards roughly about West Lakes, you'll see that the lights themselves form the shape of the kangaroo. It's amazing to see that. When my father first told me that, as well as the landscape of Adelaide itself, shaped as a kangaroo, I first thought that maybe he'd maybe had a couple too many wines. But when I saw it, it really is there and it's really amazing to see. Sadly, it's been destroyed a little bit because the Northern Expressway's come through it now and so it cuts off a part of the shape now. But yeah, I encourage people and I've taken many a people there and, and people see the kangaroo.

Christina Hagger: 12:46

I'm on my way to see the kangaroo. What else do we have here that we haven't seen, or we haven't had our eyes opened to see?

Uncle Mickey: 12:55

Well, and like we were talking, you know, stories do make up this place. I mean, when you look at, one of the most important stories of our landscape is the Tjilbruke story, which talks again, one of our last of the great Kaurna people. That story itself starts from Mudlangga being the top of the peninsula here being the nose - Mudlangga being the nose of the peninsula, which is around Outer Harbour there. Basically, that story goes all the way along that coast right down to Cape Jervis. And so it talks about the story of how, the water springs that are found along there were formed, because sadly, when he was hunting emu, his nephew broke the law, and, though he gave his nephew the opportunity to be forgiven sadly, his nephew’s brothers punished him by enforcing the law, not knowing that Tjilbruke had that conversation.

And so, wherever he cried, the water springs arose. So therefore, we know that there's water along the coast along there. But also, it talks about how the landscape itself was formed. It also talks about how to hunt emus because when you go to Mudlangga, he used to force the emus into the nose of the peninsula because they had nowhere to run because the water would surround them. What was also interesting is that, when he was so saddened by the loss of his great nephew, he decided to not be a part of this earth again. And so, he took the feathers of another bird and he ended up turning himself into the glossy ibis.

Uncle Mickey: 14:30

And so, every time we see the glossy ibis, we know that Tjilbruke is talking to us. And so again, those landscapes .. and one that's even more amazing is, Nganu who was the person who basically, I suppose, named the areas and in some ways, helped create the landscape of Adelaide.

Now, his face or head, is embedded in the rocks at Morialta but, unless you are ready to see him, you will not see him. And so therefore you have to be in the right place at the right angle of viewing to be able to see him in the landscape. And when you see him, you will know that you've seen him because he is the head of an Aboriginal man. And, uh, it is amazing, and I had that opportunity to see him for the first time this year.

Uncle Mickey: 15:25

Yeah, I was really blown away to see the face of Nganu in the landscape. And it's amazing once you do get to see it …

Christina Hagger: 15:34

...because once you've seen it, you can never un-see it, can you?

Uncle Mickey: 15:37

No. And, you may have seen or heard of those places like where all the presidents are…

Christina Hagger: 15:43

Oh, the carvings are done…

Uncle Mickey: 15:44

They are carved in the rocks and they're amazing. I've been there and I've seen those. Mount Rushmore, that's the word - Mount Rushmore. And, um, but when you see this, you think that his face is being carved into the rocks because it looks like an Aboriginal man.

Christina Hagger: 16:00

Now of course everyone's going to want to know where in Morialta...

Uncle Mickey 16:03

Can’t tell ya…

Christina Hagger: 16:04

You have to be in the right place at the right time...

Uncle Mickey: 16:06

You have to find him, you know. He has to basically in a sense uh, expose himself to you.

Christina Hagger: 16:12

Because it was your father who said, 'when you live in a place, you learn all the stories of that place'. So, between you and your father, you've been very generous in sharing your stories and with our stories so that we are building a better sense of place… so how can we continue to do that?

Uncle Mickey: 16:36

Well, you know, South Australia, in some ways is an amazing place because not only were we pioneers in whether you look at things like legislations or policies like giving women the opportunity to vote and, and as we know, we're coming up to, uh, that particular big thing of, uh, women's suffrage. But, you know, the Ngarrindjeri people of our Southern Eastern area, they were known to be the politicians and they had the right to vote way before any other Aboriginal group did. And when Federation came in, they still had the ability to vote even though other Aboriginal people didn't.

So, there were clever people in our landscape but when you actually look at it South Australia was set up in obviously 1836 - and we know this because our basketball team is called the 36-ers for that very reason. But sometimes people don't even see the landscapes that tell us the stories of history. If you ask people, well, who was the King of the day? They couldn't tell you most of the time. But if they know the main street of Adelaide, it's King William. They'll work it out. And if you ask them who the Queen was, again, they won’t know. But if you say, what's the city of Adelaide or city of South Australia, it's Adelaide. And so therefore these things are in the landscape. But what was really amazing about the King is he wrote a letter called the letters patent - which sadly sits on the records shelf department in a big wooden box - but he wrote some special words, which you could say is not only maybe, uh, a treaty or a reconciliation statement, which says that he wanted the Aboriginal people to own and occupy the land that they stood upon.

Uncle Mickey: 18:20

Now, sadly, for the Aboriginal people, that never happened. And the reason being was, one he died six months after writing that letter... and two, the letter itself never reached the shores of South Australia until 1904, which was after Federation when the laws changed that each state had laws when it came to Aboriginal people. And Governor Hindmarsh himself obviously chose to do something different even though he was instructed by the King. Because we know this because that flag that I talked about… well, that was actually the common seal of South Australia right from the very beginning of colonisation. So, every legal document in those early days was stamped with that image. So, it tells you that this was a place of connection of two cultures, two worlds.

Christina Hagger: 19:07

And what happened to that common seal? When did it go out of common use?

Uncle Mickey: 19:12

Well, that's the big question. You find these things sometimes out of pure luck, but I've been on a journey to try and find these images and those knowledges and information about it, but, uh, yet to find it.

But you know, people don't know this, and I love sharing these stories because what it does is open a different world. It gives a different perspective on how we look at the world, how we look at Aboriginal people, how we look at culture, how we look at even the formation of this beautiful state of ours. And when we look at those contexts, you really have - I think - a different picture, a more balanced and beautiful picture. And when we go back to that early aspect of talking about muka-muka, uh, you know, this two-ness, it really... South Australia was about that and sadly it didn't really come to those heights for various reasons, as I’ve said.

Christina Hagger: 20:07

It didn't come to those heights, and yet your... the work you do - and your father before you has done - to try and bring back that blending of western philosophy and Aboriginal ways of knowing has been very, very strong. I mean, that's embedded, I think in all of our, most of our universities in their science courses, their medical courses, their health professional courses of bringing those two together. It's very, very strong. How can we continue to build on that?

Uncle Mickey: 20:43

Well, you know, sadly, Aboriginal people, we sometimes get titles that we don't really deserve. We're very patient people and really, we are very passive people. As Stan Grant clearly put one time, you know, we're people that are surviving. And what he means is that really, Aboriginal people, are not at that point where they're flourishing in this western world. You know, cause sadly, we over-represent in many of the areas of poor health, education, living, housing, all those things, employment. And so, we're not flourishing, we're just surviving.

And, I think a lot of that comes through the fact that we've got the oldest living culture on our doorstep. Many of us will travel to many places around the world to see these cultural icons, or knowledges, yet when it comes to the Aboriginal people and their knowledges… we ignore them. We see them as primitive. We don't see them in the aspect that they were philosophers, they were politicians, they were scientists, they were people that had great knowledge of plants and the landscape and how to maintain it and, and medicines. And many of our medicines have the elements and knowledges of Aboriginal peoples wisdom and we're using them in many modern medicines.

And now what we're seeing is a growth in these aspects of foods. Like, you know, when we talk about Aboriginal people, we were led to believe that we were largely hunters and gatherers. But a gentleman by the name of Bruce Pascoe recently proved that we were actually farmers as well. And we made farming implements. We, uh, grew yams. We grew kangaroo grass to make bread. We're actually the oldest bread makers in the world. And, and they found these grinding stones, and elements that really demonstrated our ability to understand the landscape itself… and the importance of places and these landscapes, and it shows you the... really, in a sense, a great understanding of Aboriginal people. I mean, when you look at what is known as the Onkaparinga River, or as we used to call it the Nangkiparinga it’s actually known as the women's river. And if you actually take an aerial view of that river, the river forms the shape of the internal fertility organs of a woman being the fallopian tubes and so forth. Now, how did they know ... We didn't have drones or any of those sorts of things, but they knew this. And so, people could read the landscape and that's why many of them were taken in war time to read the landscapes in foreign lands so they could find water and shelter and protection.

Uncle Mickey: 23:28

And, you know, a gentleman by the name of Fred Hollows who worked tirelessly in Aboriginal communities to improve the eyesight for Aboriginal people. His wife, Gabi, tested the eyesight of Aboriginal people and found that it was four times greater than the average person. And so, it shows you the length of how our people were great observers and as well as being great listeners, but also great 'doing' people and that's why we were able to survive in a land that is regarded as the driest continent in the world. You know, you don't do that just by chance.

You know, and what's wonderful is today we have this opportunity to see this embracement. You know, whether it be people wanting to see Welcome to Country, whether people are wanting to have Reconciliation Action Plans and so I think that's what's truly a wonderful, you know, like I said, we're, we're seeing, you know, the foods,  being now, becoming very popular. And it's giving opportunities for Aboriginal people to not only share that knowledge but be a part of those journeys that people are wanting to do, to explore. And I think, you know, that's what gives us all purpose, gives us all identity and really in some ways, a face to really in a sense, uh, be connectable and proud of a culture that sits in our backyard.

We should display it more. I mean, if you were to really be honest, and if you were to visit South Australia itself, the cultural elements that you really largely see is the flag. And really that's not the cultural elements of a culture because that was created in the '70s and as a modern way of giving unity to Aboriginal people. It is a symbol, but the culture itself is, is not really largely embedded in the landscape. And I think, what is wonderful, which is the City of Adelaide is certainly doing is that they're dual-naming areas now, which gives that exposure to understanding the language as well as the landscape itself. And, so you know, there's certainly great aspects to understanding the culture, but we don't really have iconic places.

You know, if you were to talk about some of our religious groups, you see those iconic religious places, don't you? If you were to talk about even some of our cultural groups, they have cultural places to help celebrate and, and to really embrace and share in the community.

But when you talk about Aboriginal culture from its purest sense, there's not a real place that demonstrates what the culture, the history, the knowledges, the wisdom and really in a sense that continuous ability to share. I mean, you know, myself who I suppose is taking my own cultural journey. I mean, I'm having to learn language in a classroom now. Whereas one time you would have learned that from your family, your aunties and uncles and, and obviously your peers and did that in a community setting. But now you've gotta do it in a classroom setting, which is also in a written form as much as it is in a verbal form to learn about the native plants. You know, really… you go to another source of people who have taken an interest in understanding those native plants and what the benefits are. People like Bruce Pascoe.

And then you know, from the artefacts point of view, I’ll go to another person who’s from another cultural group who enables us to, to learn some of those understandings of how to create shields or clap sticks or woomera. But, I mean there is, quite interestingly people not just from the Aboriginal but the non-Aboriginal community that are starting to recognise, um, these I suppose knowledges, wisdoms or benefits.

I think that can enable us to, to really give a culture a proper place in our nation, which is really, it should be not only in our education system. It should be really in everything that we see or do across this landscape. Because if you're not doing that, you're denying, really, our history and our place and purpose upon this land really.

Our people believe that, you know, when you walk the land, you connect with the land and no one person holds all the knowledge and wisdom - it's shared. And so therefore, if people take that time to want to learn, we as Aboriginal people are happy to share that information and we can learn from each other. And more importantly, we can have what is really a place that embraces both the cultural world and the western world.

Christina Hagger: 28:28

Thank you very much

Uncle Mickey: 28:29

Ngaityalya. Thank you.

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