Life at home is the inspiration for Aboriginal performance artist Ningali. Nothing unusual in that. Except her immediate family is 300 strong. She talks to Clare Bayley

The Edinburgh Festival: DAY 4
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The Independent Culture
"I didn't speak English or see many white people until I was 11," says the Australian Aboriginal performer Josie Ningali Lawford. "But when I went to Perth, what I really found curious was the white fellas. I was the anthropologist the other way round!" Ningali slaps her thigh, throws back her head and laughs for all the world like an Australian bushman with a six-pack by his side.

Ningali is a wonderfully unselfconscious mix of cultures, something reflected in her stage show, which consists of storytelling, a bit of stand-up, some traditional dancing, a few country songs and the merest hint of politics. The show is Ningali pure and undiluted - the story of her life told with candour, cheek and passion. Ningali has trained in dance but never as an actor - the very idea makes her laugh again. "Imagine getting a degree in how to be normal," she laughs. "That's what acting is. Storytelling is the oldest form of acting, and I think Aboriginals are all natural actors. We've had it drummed into us since we were children."

As she sits in the bar of the Traverse Theatre wearing jeans and Australian cowboy boots, chatting and punctuating her sentences with "mate", it's hard to believe the kind of childhood she had. Born under a tree on a cattle station in Kimberley, north-west Australia, she grew up with numerous brothers and sisters in the middle of that vast, flat desert landscape. Her mother and father worked for the white owners of the cattle station, but there was rarely any contact between the cultures. Ningali's father was the head stockman, a position of responsibility earned the hard way: when he was just seven years old he was taken away from his family and sent to school in Perth under the Aborigine Advancement Programme because his father was white. "They thought he wasn't as savage as a full-blood," says Ningali. "They thought we had no education."

Although Aboriginal culture and history are beginning to be known about here, Ningali is amazed by how many white Australians remain ignorant. "Now I've learnt to understand white people and the way they go about things," she explains. "Anger makes you strong, but you have to learn to use it in a certain way. I've become a spokesperson for my people, the Kimberley Aboriginals, my family."

When Ningali talks about her family, it gives a deceptive impression. As she explains in her stage show, the Aboriginal kinship system is highly complex, but roughly speaking her "immediate" family consists of up to 300 people, "and that's just the grandchildren, never mind the nieces and nephews." It's hard for Ningali to explain. "I don't think you will get it," she says. "There are eight different skins, or groups. Me and all my sisters are in one group, all my brothers are in another, following through the mother's line. Then all my mother's sisters are my mothers, and all my father's brothers are my fathers..." She trails off, and opts for the general explanation. "In Fitzroy Crossing, I'm related to everyone. When I went back there after spending a year in high school in Alaska, they all came to meet me - it was like National Ningali Day."

For children, as Ningali testifies, this system gives a strong sense of security and love. "When I was little, my Mum never worried where I was. She knew I'd get a feed and be looked after." For the sake of her four-year-old son, as much as for herself, Ningali still lives within striking distance of home, in the old pearl-fishing town of Broome, and drives back as often as she can.

Straddling ancient and modern culture with such ease, Ningali is uniquely placed to understand the best and worst that each has to offer. "I wish money never existed," she says immediately. "It generates greed and fucks everything up.We are living in a time where technology is changing things so fast, whether my people like it or not. We've got to understand it and learn to live with it. And we have to learn to reconcile with white people without sweeping that history under the carpet.

"We are very diverse. It's a similar story to the Bible. If you can understand the Tower of Babel, , you can understand the Aboriginals. There are over 200 Aboriginal languages in Australia, and I speak three or four, but they're getting lost. It's very important for us to keep our languages alive."

Ningali's next project is to collect Dreamtime myths and stories and put them in a book for high-school children. "Everything has a story about the way it was created - that's why our affinity with the land is so strong. When we get land back, white people can't understand why we don't do anything with it. They don't see that standing on a piece of land is more like going to a mosque or something for us. The land is there to look after us, if we look after the land."

n Traverse Theatre (venue 15), Cambridge St (0131-228 1404) 5.30pm today, 25, 30 Aug, 2 Sept; 8pm 18, 22, 26, 31 Aug; 12.30pm 19, 23, 27 Aug; 3pm 20, 24, 29 Aug, 1 Sept; at South Bank, London SE1 (0171-928 8800) 21 Sept- 1 Oct