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Book Review: Norman Baird – A Spark Within by Kathleen Denigan

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The spark within that energized Norman Baird must have come from both parents. His mother Dinah was an Aboriginal woman, his father a Scotsman. Although little is known about Dinah, from the delightful pictures and captions in A Spark Within it is fair to say that Norman’s mother was no different from other Aboriginal women who often worked as hard as men – but were also family oriented, and when necessary, self-sufficient.
Norman Baird: A Spark Within
At the time of Norman’s birth in 1888, his father — after proving his worth as a younger man raising cattle and later, discovering and mining tin — had settled a homestead he named Connemara. This entire north and eastern region of Australia, known as Far North Queensland, had been the home of the Kuku Yalanji Aboriginal peoples, or Bama, as the natives call themselves. But Bama land had been stolen from the natives by Europeans who cleared the land for farming, cattle-raising, logging, and a host of business enterprises.

The discovery of gold brought a rush of white wealth-seekers from Europe and from more densely populated areas of Australia. The thousands of unfortunates who did not find gold, uncovered tin, and when those claims became exhausted, these folks claimed and cleared the Aboriginal jungles for their own homesteads. No attempt was made to compensate the KuKu Yalanji Australian natives for loss of their traditional hunting grounds.

A Spark Within tells of the clashes that broke out between Bama and white land-grabbers. Sadly, the natives were no match for these invaders. Local police became “soldier, police, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner” towards any KuKu Yalanji who dared interfere with efforts to clear land. There are records of entire Bama clans being murdered to crush resistance. An Act of 1894 allowed Aboriginal people who appeared to be problematic “to be removed to” various isolated reserves. Often, those who remained worked under slave-like conditions, relying on rations for survival.

Moving articulately between two worlds — since he was half Aborigine — it was against all of these dehumanizing Bama conditions that Norman Baird struggled while trying not to have himself forceably “removed.” His articles about Bama history and life in the bush appeared in a column, "Around the Campfire," in The North Queensland Register. His influence over the years prevented many KuKu Yalanji adults and children from being removed against their will.

Norman Baird did much to alert sympathetic Queenslanders about the conditions found in the camps where Bama lived in cramped, unhygienic quarters. Where he could, he organized the building of lavatories for these folks. By petitioning the regional Protector, he obtained a small flat-bottomed dingy to carry children across a crocodile-infested river so they could attend school. In the same manner he procured tools so the Bama could cultivate their own soil.

Determined to prod outsiders to interact more civilly with the Aboriginal culture, Baird created a list for translating Bama words into English. He helped translate parts of the Bible into the KuKu Yalanji language and even translated Christian hymns. It is reported in A Spark Within that Bama still sing some of these songs today.

As a whole, A Spark Within is very factual. It was difficult indeed for author Kathleen Denigan to find appropriate material and then condense Norman Baird’s entire life into less than 70 pages. The book reads quickly. I found myself loosing my trend of thought from section to section until I stopped studying the fascinating graphics and read the entire narrative as one continuous story. I would suggest that a reader do the same because the tale is interesting, yet sadly true. The pictures and documents clearly authenticate the debilitating disenfranchisement of the KuKu Yalanji Bama.

Attached to the inside back cover of A Spark Within is an MP3 CD that narrates the main thread of the book. It is complemented with background music played on the Mezon accordion. The reader is excellent. I enjoyed his voice, crystal clear with his fascinating Aussie accent and pronunciation.

I would recommend A Spark Within to others interested in the collision of the Bama and Caucasian worlds. Hopefully it will provide enough clout so that interested citizens will goad government officials to set aside huge parcels of Australian land for the KuKu Yalanji. Then this vanishing Aboriginal population can return to the freedom of their instinctive, self-sustaining native ways.

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