Navigating through time in Bulmurn, A Swan River Nyoongar
O'Neill, A. (2005). Navigating through time in Bulmum, a Swan River Nyoongar. Altitude, 5 Article 3.
Richard Wilkes’ multifaceted novel, Bulmurn, a Swan River Nyoongar, is an intriguing treatment of Nyoongar myths and Law, spanning thousands of years as it traces the creation of cultures (even worlds) in continuing conflict. Set in the early 1800s, it depicts a significant period in the life of Bulmurn, a traditional spiritual healer of the Darbalyung Nyoongar people, following his movements across an area stretching from Murin Morda to Walyalup and Wadjemup (Watson 214-224). The novel works to transpose Nyoongar oral traditions into the written word in English, making them more accessible to contemporary Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal readers, and giving hope for race relations in a future born, at least partly, of the darkness and desperation of the past. One of Wilkes’ major aims is to reinforce the contemporary value of Nyoongar traditions and the Law, while yet acknowledging that change is inevitable and the sort of cultural purity fiercely defended by Bulmurn is no longer possible. Against a background of miscegenation and racial objectification, Wilkes invokes a wealth of traditional songs, stories and corroborees. In so doing he directly addresses the sort of colonial misrepresentation of Aboriginal myths and oral tradition perpetuated, for example, in the work of early twentieth-century novelist and so-called anthropologist EL Grant Watson, whose short story ‘Out There’ will be discussed later in this paper. Wilkes does this by establishing an opposition between the history and law of the invaders, or the wadjbullas, and the myths and Law of his own people. This opposition brings into sharp relief the enduring power of the Dreamtime  and ancestral spirits in maintaining a sense of self and place among the Darbalyung Nyoongars, transcending the restrictions of space and time as elucidated by Paul Carter – and the restrictions of the written word so earnestly propagated by the wadjbulla community. Ronald Wright suggests that myths are ‘an arrangement of the past, whether real or imagined, in patterns that resonate with a culture’s deepest values and aspirations. Myths are so fraught with meaning that we live and die by them. They are the maps by which cultures navigate through time’ (Wright qtd in Wilson 4). If this is so, then myth is at the centre of this text.