The spirit and stories of Kakadu Traditional Owner ‘Big’ Bill Neidjie live on.

Story Amanda Burdon  Photo Sarah George

In Bill Neidjie’s ancient culture, it’s not customary to record and publish history. Instead, it is ‘written’ on rockfaces, whispered on the wind, and handed down through the stories and dances that embody Aboriginal society.

But by 1995 the Traditional Custodian of the Kakadu region was one of the last surviving speakers of the Amurdak and Gagudju languages, and in his “wisdom years” Bill feared that important legends and lessons that he alone held would disappear with him. “You need to get your story back or your lore might go down for good. It’s better to do it now. Might be later, it’ll be too late”.

That year, Bill met young educator Sarah George on his homelands. She expressed interest in teaching local children and he saw his chance to preserve the stories and history. 

It wouldn’t be Bill’s first foray into publishing. He had contributed to 2 previous books by that time, including the eponymous Kakadu Man that inspired a documentary film, but now his time was “running just like a creek”.

“In the beginning, he wanted these stories kept for children, but once I got through all the transcripts I could see that it was so much more,” Sarah says. “It was his biography and his thoughts on the problems facing Aboriginal communities today, including governments making laws on behalf of Aboriginal people without consulting them.”

And so began a remarkable collaboration that stretched 20 years and resulted, last year, in the release of the book Gamu: The Dreamtime Stories, Life and Feelings of Big Bill Neidjie. Bill died in 2002, but his determination to chronicle his history was matched only by Sarah’s dedication to sharing it. Over a 7-year period she exchanged audio tapes with Bill, painstakingly transcribing each one. Every time she returned to the stone country to visit Bill, Sarah would then spend weeks with him verifying details. The result is a powerful collection of Dreamtime stories interwoven with Bill’s personal history and reflections on modern life. 

“When he was alive, he was pressing me to get on with it, because it was such a large body of work,” Sarah says. 

This story excerpt is from Issue #150

Outback Magazine: Aug/Sep 2023