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Story-telling helps sooth sorrows: Researcher

By Patrick Nelson

Delyna Baxter prepares to record the story of an Aboriginal pastor worker Delyna Baxter prepares to record the story of an Aboriginal pastor worker

A Charles Darwin University researcher has revealed for the first time some of the details of hardship and heartbreak that she gathered in interviews with elderly Indigenous men in Northern Australia.

Northern Institute PhD candidate Delyna Baxter said she sensed that she “fulfilled a cathartic service” for many of the 250 people she interviewed for an oral history project featuring some of Outback Australia’s hardest workers.

“As they told me their stories, their sorrows eased. After each interview I was always hugged, tears would always flow, and often we would drink lots and lots of tea,” Ms Baxter said.

But Ms Baxter, who addressed the Australian Association of Gerontology Conference in Alice Springs recently, said there was one sentence she heard repeatedly that had a deep emotional effect on her.

“ ‘I’m glad you’re here, now I can die’ was the sentence I grew to dread yet heard many times,” Ms Baxter said. 

“I struggled with this statement and with the weight of the story that person would tell me, not wanting to become known as the person they talked to before they died.

“But my burden was lifted when an Aboriginal man in Alice Springs reminded me of how important it is for Aboriginal elders to transfer knowledge in an appropriate way.

“He told me that Aboriginal people collect knowledge and stories as they go through life, but when they reach the stage in life that we refer to as ‘elder’, there’s a new responsibility: they must pass on that knowledge to the next generation.

“I was told I was providing a service for Aboriginal people by taking the stockmen’s stories. I was freeing up old people by taking that part of their story and holding it for their family. They could pass (die) unencumbered, knowing their knowledge had been transferred in a legitimate way.”

Ms Baxter told delegates that she believed “transfer of knowledge” was a “key driver” that motivated many people to share their stories with her. Another was loneliness.

“Some were all but heart-broken, and I’m quite sure this was another reason people wanted to talk.

“The search for justice motivated others, in the sense that I was someone who at last would listen to their stories, to record them and believe what they had to say.”

Ms Baxter gathered the stories in 2011-2013 for an exhibition highlighting the contribution of Aboriginal Australians in the pastoral industry, which is now on permanent display at the Stockman’s Hall of Fame in Longreach, Queensland.

She has begun to analyse some of the interviews for a doctoral thesis in which she is exploring whether the period 1950-1972 was a golden era for Aboriginal people, or a period in which they were exploited.