News & Insights

A Memory of Forgetfulness

by Laniyuk

This piece is part of First Nations in the House, a residency program as part of Refuge that invites writers from across the country to share and respond to the matter of displacement, honouring and respecting local stories of resilience, survival, loss and the future.

“Ay we should get Aunty a chair hey”

“Yeah I’ll go get her one, here’s her bag”

N’arweet Carolyn is sitting at the head of the group, the only person sitting in a chair, raised above us. When asked to elaborate on her biography she speaks on the word ‘Aunty’. She explores the impact of Indigenous ways of relating to each other when we’re using English expressions of kinship. She goes on to talk about the role of an Elder and her responsibility to it, the process of studying to be an Elder, gaining knowledge in food, seasons, language. Aunty is using this intro to not only position herself in a western framework but as an Aboriginal Elder. Through this, she is resituating herself and resisting the displacement that she has inherited from the colonisation of her land and people. She doesn’t ease us into the topic but dives straight into deep theoretical critic of language.

“It’s been a journey… it’s still a journey cause you’re at conflict with your western mind and your Indigenous ways of knowing cause what you have to hold is strong… for your ancestors. You can only get the surface of what I have to give you… the rest I have to give to my family” – – Aunty Carolyn 

“Kungarakan” Dad says to me. “Koong-ara-ngun” he says again and again. Emphasising pronunciation. Whenever family speaks language volume drops and everything is said with gentle power. My tongue slides over sounds, young and nervous. “Koong-ara-ngun” I say softly to myself.

‘The power of the knowledge is the deep listening” – Aunty Carolyn 

Dad is speaking to me of our totems and who I am. He says words that I don’t know yet and doesn’t tell me what they mean. I listen carefully and piece things together. I listen carefully and let my skin absorb these sounds, hoping to hold them within my bones.

“It’s the investment in the future of the young ones… We are scaffolding their process. They feel comfortable and they feel safe. And that’s the challenge for us. There’s a big shift for a lot of our kids. Shifting a lot of their identity through song and through dance. Teaching them that they are not the deficit of the other.” – Aunty Carolyn

“When are you having kids daughter?” he asks and I wish I had a date to give him. A grandchild to hold out and place in his arms. Little ears to let listen to our language from his voice. Where is the most radical place to invest my time? What is the most radical mode of resistance? An institutional certification gained from years of speaking to imperial education? A chain wrapped around my waist and looped around the trees of the Djab Wurrung? Or perhaps in the time and care invested in rearing my beautiful, culture-filled child?

“We have to go into institutions to change what we do. There’s no right or wrong. It’s how we survive it.” – Aunty Caroline

My vocabulary is growing slowly but not as quickly as the guilt that sits in my stomach, taunting me, telling me I don’t do enough for my people or country. Why am I here in the south when I am needed on my lands in the north? I hope my ancestors don’t resent me. I hope the winds won’t resist my return. I hope the waters still know the salt in my scent and the sounds of my spirit.

‘They wanted us to forget who we were… and they monitored you. There’s a forgetfulness. A memory of forgetfulness. There is a disconnect. We can give you words for a moment.  It’s hard because you’ve been removed from it and then they wanna get it from you. Work with us but allow us to explore our own way of reclaiming. Then it’s open. If it’s taken us two hundred years (to be displaced linguistically) then it’s probably gonna take us another two hundred years (to return).” – Uncle Larry

I am scared of forgetting and scared of being forgotten. Not by the textbooks of the west, or the leaders of the colony. I am scared of my country not recognising me. Our language was gifted to us from the land, brought up from its depths and placed on our tongues, lips, throats. How dare I not know how to speak to my family. How dare I allow my mouth to favour the sounds of the coloniser. How do I return and reposition myself in the arms of my ancestors? Strolling through a museum on the other side of the continent, with the faces of my ancestors and family. English words inscribing my language and culture and talking to me as an outsider to my own history.

“Missionaries wrote down language and words but from a colonial understanding so you need to decolonise the text before you even access the words.”
– Uncle Larry

“I was under protection. If my mother gave me language we would have been removed”
– Aunty Carolyn

‘If you didn’t conform to a western structure- being clean, going to school, eating from a supermarket. We were checked- it was a regime. Every family in this state is documented of the visits and removals’ – Uncle Larry


I look to you


I look for you in my face and my blood

I look for you in my father and my niece

I look for you in our lands

In our waters

In our language

I look to you Alyandabu

For guidance

For resistance

For survival

I am trying to return Wetji

I am fumbling and clamouring

In darkness

Touching the hands of others feeling through the night

I see your light

And hear your words

I will return


“I am a linguist but I’m using linguistics as a means of revival. I’m trying to prove something” – Harley Dunolly-Lee 

 I am filled with the anger and screams my ancestors swallowed into the pits of their stomachs lest their children be removed, lest their limbs be removed, lest their lives be removed. I am filled with the anger held in the black and white photos of black bodies swaying from trees. I am filled with the rage of injustice and slaughtered children. I am filled with the voice of my lands, screaming to be free. My tongue is foreign but my spirit is home. I will avenge my ancestors, the people, the spirits, the trees, my kin. I am the rebirth of culture and resistance.

“We resurrected ourselves.” – Aunty Carolyn

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