go to content

The Indigenous Man Trying To Save A Dying Tradition

One of the last traditional storytellers.

Posted on

Sitting in a large overstuffed armchair in Sydney's western suburbs 93-year-old Uncle Wes Marne is doing what he does best, telling a story.

Anna Mendoza / BuzzFeed

"I was a young man when the old people came and told me you are the next story teller and I was then groomed to be a storyteller," Marne tells BuzzFeed News.

As a child, he was selected by his Bigumbal tribe in southern Queensland to carry on the legacy of storyteller and keeper of their creation stories.

"Whenever the stories were told to me as a kid my mother would question me and say, 'tell me the stories you heard last night'. She wanted to hear the Dreamtime stories, the creation stories I was being told, and even though she had heard these stories a hundred times or more she wanted to make sure it was sinking in with me," Marne says.

Marne's early childhood is one of living in the bush with his extended family where they lived traditionally, like his ancestors, and spoke in traditional tongue.

At the age of nine, his family and tribe were forcibly relocated to a government run mission called Deadbird Mission in regional New South Wales.

Under the control of the government and the church, in some cases, practicing cultural ceremonies, speaking native language and speaking about their Indigenous heritage was strictly forbidden and punishable by law.

Marne reads an extract of a certificate of exemption issued by the commonwealth government to an Aboriginal man in 1952 giving him permission to go into town without supervision. The document reveals how little rights Indigenous people had at the time.

"This document entitles the bearer to leave the reservation or mission at which they live to go to work," the certificate read.

"Additional benefits include: Walk freely through town without being arrested (Note: Curfews apply). Enter Shop or hotel (You may or may not be served - at the proprietors discretion)," the document goes on to say.

Despite growing up under this oppression Marne never forgot his destiny as a storyteller.

"My grandfather told me these stories, my father was a storyteller but his heart wasn’t in it. My grandfather carried on the legacy right up until he died," Marne says.

Marne is now opening the door to this very private and sacred world in the production in the hopes of saving the stories that have been the bedrock of its foundation for thousands of years in a show for the Sydney Festival.

Fire Bucket is a night of Marne telling stories to audiences in backyards across Sydney over seven nights.

"This is the ultimate and all these years of carrying these stories with me have come down to this one big thing, this show. After it finishes it doesn’t matter whether I tell another story or not because this show is what I have been working for all my life," Marne tells BuzzFeed News ahead of his Sydney Festival performance .

Festival-goers will hear stories of the Dreamtime (the period of creation for Indigenous people), and stories relating to Marne's tribe.

"I use to do this years ago [perform the stories for people] but the police had us stopped and when I was young Aboriginals were not allowed to tell or be told stories. Now that’s genocide to stop the culture".

"Today I am the only one left and I got a million grandkids and great grandkids, but it doesn’t appear that they’re interested in storytelling," Marne says.

Marne describes Fire Bucket as his legacy and alongside the traditional stories, the show is filled with tales from his extraordinary life, including his days as a radical black rights activist in the sixties and seventies.

"We are going to have many, many stories from my culture, but they will be mixed with some of my life stories about living in the bush with my grandfather, about how we conserved the land for thousands of years, my time protesting and I'll also talk about spiritual things like shape shifting".

"I want people to come back for more after the see the show. Not to me personally, I want them [the audience] to come back and seek out knowledge and pick up the culture and I’ve found out over the past few months that people are looking for culture," Marne says.

Fire Bucket is running from the 11th to the 17th of January at various locations around Sydney. You can find more details at Sydney Festival.

Allan Clarke is an Indigenous Affairs Reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.

Contact Allan Clarke at allan.clarke@buzzfeed.com.

Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.