Masaryk University Faculty of Arts Department of English and American Studies

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3.3. Barungin (Smell the Wind)

Barungin (Smell the Wind) closes the trilogy The First-Born. The plot is set in Perth, Western Australia and the action of the play takes place during 1988. Barungin (Smell the Wind) is Davis’ most political play. Its main theme is the reality of Aboriginal deaths in police custody. The play also deals with other issues of Aboriginal communities, such as alcohol abuse, family relationships or racism and search for identity.

3.3.1. Poverty and Crime

Crime plays an important role in Barungin (Smell the Wind). It is Micky, Meena’s fourteen-year-old son who does most of the stealing. As we gradually learn throughout the play, he regularly commits a great number of petty thefts, mainly of small things, such as electronics that he can’t afford:

[… MICKY … pulls a packet of batteries from his pocket and unwraps them. He

throws the packet on the floor, goes to the door, checks the others have left and goes outside. He stretches his arm under the house and produces a new Walkman. He unwraps it and conceals the package. He returns inside, puts the batteries in it and sits listening to music. GRANNY DOLL, MEENA and LITTLE DOLL enter, talking. MICKY hears them and stashes the Walkman under the cushions …] (Davis, Barungin (Smell the Wind) 14)

The Walkman is obviously acquired illegally; otherwise Micky would not hide it. Later on in the play, he does not manage to hide his criminal activity from Peegun, a family friend who is staying with them at that moment:

MICKY. Anybody home? Anybody home?

[He walks from room to room checking that the house is empty. He exits and re-enters with an array of stolen property including a camera, several cassette tapes, a 'ghettoblaster' tape recorder, another Walkman and a pair of binoculars. He looks at the audience through the binoculars. He selects a tape and places it in the tape recorder. He dances to it. He picks up the broom and climbs onto the table and dances. He fails to notice PEEGUN enter and stand watching him. He spots PEEGUN, stops in his tracks and jumps off the table. He turns off the tape.]

PEEGUN. Where did this stuff come from?

MICKY. It's not, um it's ... Oh, it's mine.

PEEGUN. [examining the goods] I know that. I bet you knocked it off.

[MICKY is silent. He nods slightly.] (Davis 41)

Micky mainly steals things for fun. He commits these thefts with a friend of his, Slugger. Micky is fourteen but he tries to behave as an adult. Stealing might be just a part of looking for his identity and trying to prove himself capable of doing things like adults do. His sister Little Doll comments on his adult-like behaviour when he is with his friends:

LITTLE DOLL. Yuck! I’m not walkin around with a big mob of boys, an Mummy, they was smokin’ and walkin’ around like this. [Demnostrating] Makin’ out they was big men. (Davis 9)

But still he is only a child afraid of his mother’s reaction if she finds out what he does. And he is not a professional criminal, which is clear from what he and Slugger do when after what happens when they have a joyride in a Porsche they steal once:

PEEGUN. And what the hell did you do with it?

MICKY. Nothin’. It ran out of petrol, so we dumped it. (Davis 41)

Micky is not a dangerous criminal, however stealing electronics and cars at the age of fourteen is a sign of pathological behaviour. Moreover, it is Micky’s loot that puts Peter, Micky’s uncle, in prison eventually.

Peter’s imprisonment is the key issue discussed at the end of the play. Several important factors lead to it and it is important to look at them. Peegun tells Shane, a cousin, that there is a much higher chance to end up in prison if a person is of Aboriginal descent:

PEEGUN. [calling after him] Look, in this country you got ten times the chance of ending up inside if you’re black than if you’re white. So you gotta keep a step ahead of the cops. (Davis 29)

This statement was made by Davis in 1988. A study from 2004 shows how accurate this claim was and that not much has changed over the years. According to the bulletin of NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, the rate of conviction in NSW courts in 2004 is nine times higher19 for the Indigenous population than for the non-Indigenous (Snowball and Weatherburn 20). The bulletin also produces results of several rigorous studies that tried to find evidence of racial bias in sentencing. The studies have shown that the courts cannot be seen responsible for the high rates of Aboriginal imprisonment and that there were several instances when the courts proved to be more lenient to Aboriginal offenders (3). As such, direct racial bias has not been confirmed. What is called into question here is that “racial discrimination in sentencing is indirect rather than direct” (Snowball and Weatherburn 3). This includes everything before the actual trial in the court, i.e. the way police investigate or the likelihood of Aboriginal people being charged more than non-Indigenous Australians. This might actually be why Peter gets imprisoned in Barungin (Smell the Wind).

There is a riot in Koolbardon where Peter drives his car with his sister Meena and her daughter Little Doll. The other members of the family wonder how he got arrested:

SHANE. It’s Peter. He was grabbed by the cops in Koolbardon.

ARNIE. I bet they got caught up in that bloody riot.

PEEGUN. What did they get picked up for?

ROBERT. They was goin’ through all the blackfellas’ cars.

PEEGUN. Aw … gawd … Fuckin’ hell!

(Davis, Barungin (Smell the Wind) 57)

The fact the police “was goin’ through all the blackfellas’ cars” suggests the indirect racial discrimination, because the police were targeting only the cars driven by Aboriginal people and that is why there was higher chance of an Aboriginal to be charged with an offence. And actually, Peter does not commit any crime, he just happens to be driving the wrong car at the wrong place:

ROBERT. Apparently there was a lot of stolen stuff in Pee’s car.

SHANE. What? … What stolen stuff?

PEEGUN. Aw! Micky knocked it off and I stashed it away for him.


ROBERT. Yeah, that’s what he was picked up for. (Davis 58)

Due to a series of unfortunate events, Peter ends up in police custody where he meets his fate. He is found dead in his cell just after midnight. The coroner’s comment on the autopsy reveals traces of beating on Peter’s body:

CORONER. … There were abrasions over the lateral aspect of the left cheekbone and above the left eye-brow. … There was extensive

bruising of the left epicranium and the scalp most marked on the

left. … there were fractures of the sixth and ninth right ribs. A

hairline fracture of the right temporal region. … Both lungs showed

intense congestion. … The brain showed some flattening of the

right cerebral hemisphere. … Cause of death: closed head injury. …

(Davis 58)

Peter’s death is depicted as a violent act of the police, it is shown as an unnecessary loss of a human life, an Aboriginal life. The topic of deaths in custody is a much discussed one and quite controversial as well. With no doubt the police are to blame, as Davis shows on the character of Peter, who is beaten to death. However, there are many deaths caused by suicide. Nonetheless, the numbers of Aboriginal people dying in custody are high and Barungin can be seen as a play to honour them.

3.3.2. Family Relationships

Family is again depicted as something essential for Aboriginality itself. It is the bond of the people, the feeling for each other. The depth of the roots of the family tree is touched upon at the beginning of the play when Eli is buried and the Wallitch family meet their relatives:

SHANE. Big mob there, anyway.

GRANNY DOLL. Yeah, there was ‘lations I haven’t seen for years.

MEENA. All them cousins, couldn’t get away from ‘em. Kept shakin’ hands and tellin’ me who they was. How many we got, Mum?

GRANNY DOLL. Gawd knows. (Davis 62)

It is apparent that having so many relatives, Granny Doll even does not know how many of them the Wallitch family have. Even though it is not only typically Aboriginal to have an extended family whose members meet and express their sympathy at a funeral, but this sense of community is definitely present here.

Micky is the character that has most problems in this play. He steals and he also starts to drink in a very early age. The fact he is not ready to drink alcohol like the adults do is clear from what happens to him when he drinks too much:

MEENA. Mickeee! Where have you been? You’re drunk.

MICKY. So are you.

MEENA. Where did you get the grog from? Who gave you the grog?

MICKY. Wetjala. Who gave you yours?

MICKY. It’s good enough for you and him and everybody else to drink, but not me.

MEENA. You’re fourteen years old …

MICKY. I don’t care.

MEENA. I’ll make you care. You’ll care. (Davis 24)

Again, by drinking, Micky tries to be more adult. He sees the adult members of his family drink alcohol and he wants to be allowed to do so as well. Drinking is just a manifestation of the revolt typical for his age, for the transition from being a child to being an adult. The play also wants to show how difficult it can be for an Aboriginal person to grow up in a community, where drinking is common and not to start it as well.

3.3.3. Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal Relationships

The issues of crime and deaths in custody among Aboriginal population, which have a lot to do with latent racism and as such represent the issues of Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal relationships are discussed in the previous section. This subchapter wants to focus on the search for Indigenous identity among the Wallitch family. The Wallitch family live in Perth, in an urban setting dominated by the majority non-Aboriginal culture. One Saturday evening, Peegun gets to play the didgeridoo, which makes Granny Doll think about the importance of the instrument for the Aboriginal people:

GRANNY DOLL. [pointing at the didgeridoo] That’s all Nyoongahs got now,

and that don’t really belong to us. Dances are gone, laws are gone, lingos just about gone, everything finished. (Davis 44)

She repents the nonexistence of Aboriginal culture in their lives, taken away by the white culture. She misses the music, dances or language that are typical for forming the Aboriginal identity. The Aboriginal people have been expressing their culture since the very beginning of their existence, however, this ability is somehow lost in the area surrounded by the majority culture. It is seen on Little Doll, who is being raised in the urban society, that she does not know much about these things, and she is curious what yarns Granny Doll was told when she was little:

GRANNY DOLL. … The old fellas used to tell yarns.

LITTLE DOLL. What about, Gran?

GRANNY DOLL. All sorts of things. About our lot, the massacres, the burnings … old Grandfather Walitj, and how they used to go hunting in the Avon valley and that old man, he would stand on the side of the hill and barungin, barungin! (Davis 45)

Here the explanation of the term barungin is offered. As Granny Doll tells the story, even Meena becomes interested in it and wants to know more:

MEENA. ‘Barungin’: what’s that mean, Mum?

GRANNY DOLL. It means ‘to smell the wind’, ‘coz that wind used to talk to him and tell him where the kangaroo and the emus and the ducks were, and the rain and when people were around he learned about barungin from the old people from a long time back. But now the wind’s got too many smells: motor car, grog, smokes, you want meat now, you go to the supermarket. (Davis 45)

This is quite critical of the conditions the Aboriginal people live in the city. There is no traditional hunting, people cannot barungin because the air is polluted by the smell of the city and the traditional culture is only present in the form of a didgeridoo.

The play also directly criticises the non-Aboriginal Australians, mainly the first settlers on the Australian soil and their descendants. When Robert, Meena and Peter’s cousin, is going to give a speech at a rostrum about how the Aboriginal people have been treated in Australia, Arnie and Meena tell him what to tell the audience:

ARNIE. You stir ’em up, Robert. Make the wetjalas [white people] piss.

MEENA. You can’t hurt wetjalas; they’ve got no conscience.

ROBERT. Yes they have. We just gotta help find it.

PETER. There hasn’t been much sign of it in the last two hundred years.

MEENA. And there won’t be in the next two hundred. (Davis 52)

This voice, claiming that wetjalas have no conscience presents a very strong argument by which Davis addresses the theatre-goers, who are predominantly non-Indigenous (Shoemaker, ‘The Real Australian Story’ 34-5) , and by this statement he gives an impulse to a debate about the treatment of the Indigenous population in Australia.
His decision and determination to promote Indigenous equality made Davis a pioneer of Aboriginal literature using not only his plays, but also poems and his position as an elder statesman to educate non-Aboriginal Australians on the reality of the Aboriginal people’s condition. As with most Aboriginal writers Aboriginal identity is a major issue which Davis portrays through the use of traditional language, dance, song and themes relating to colonisation and cultural oppression. Although his poems discuss issues relating to Aboriginality, they are more apparent in his plays as the medium allows for, particularly if performed, a greater understanding of the presented issues through the more personal setting. Davis himself felt that theatre was the “best means of influencing public opinion and bringing about an improvement in the Aboriginal situation” (Chesson 191). Although his poems are often viewed as secondary to his plays, they similarly focus on the “injustice towards Indigenous people and an awareness of nature” (Mudrooroo, Milli Milli Wangka 133) and both are renowned for his naturalistic depictions of Indigenous life.

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