Clémence Overall, Victoria Regional Meeting
A view of the expansive Lake George came into sight as my husband and I turned towards Silver Wattle Quaker Retreat Center. We were going to attend a three-day workshop on Indigenous Spirituality and Culture.
As an American living in a new country, I was eager to learn about the realities of Australia, especially the realities of Indigenous people. As we veered onto a narrower road that sneaked along the edges of the Lake, I wondered what I could learn in only three days about the Aboriginal world–so distinct and unfamiliar to me.
Farther along, the landscape became spacious and hauntingly beautiful. Mobs of kangaroos munched contentedly on grass. Canberra was far behind us when we finally bumped up Silver Wattle’s driveway. A quiet prevailed and I relished the stillness, but there was a crisis: there was no facilitator for the workshop. The facilitator was ill. But the workshop couldn’t be cancelled. People were flying in from all over the country.
At dawn the next morning, I stumbled into the quiet of Silver Wattle’s lounge room to find David Carline, an Aboriginal Elder from the south-west Queensland Kooma/Gwamu People, already stoking the fire. He greeted me warmly, offering me a cuppa and some fresh bread. He was there, far from the demands of his community in SW Queensland, to write the Backhouse Lecture for next year. Overnight he was elected the facilitator for the workshop. He only had one day to reorganise it. He and the staff spent all last night contacting people and this morning setting up the agenda.
David recounted the problem quietly, speaking as if he had known me for some time. His candor was disarming. He threw more wood on the fire for me, then put on his wool cap and left, after telling me that now he had done what he could for the workshop now he was going to sit in Silence by the sacred fire and wait for discernment.
He left me in Silver Wattle’s warm lounge and leaving behind questions that I had seen played out in so many cultures: Where does a person – a person of any culture – turn to gather strength? Where is it a person turns to make sense of things?
Overnight David secured not one but four other workshop leaders. He opened the workshop by gently leading us through basic aspects of the Aboriginal culture – a culture originating more than 50,000 years ago. He explained how climatic differences created the distinct belief systems belonging to the Salt Water People, the Desert People, the River People, all of them containing the elements of the earth, water, fire and air. All of them are traditional owners of the earth guided by a complexity of totems and skins. David’s totem is the Emu People—and that leads him to certain ways of communication and to a special respect that needs to live and breathe on Emu Country; it leads him to keeping in touch with continuing cultural knowledge and a willingness to share.
David sifted through stories and legends of spirits descending into the earth and returning; ancient stories including mortuary rites involving memories of the deceased as they go to their Dreamtime. He explained how his ancestors “Cared for Country, surviving the intense heat and bitter cold, eating in the order of the seasons, never taking too much. ” He referred us to Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark Emu that provides true insight of caring for country.
His voice remained melodious as he narrated stories of an historical pillage that left behind a world where most Aboriginals are now under the age of fifty. So many die – crushed by the disease of alcohol, diabetes, heart disease; by despair leading to suicides; crushed by the loss of children taken by child protection, by the Stolen Generation’s heartache and by the grief triggered through so many being incarcerated. And others expire, shattered by the mere psychological impact of a continued, covert genocide.
“There are many young men”, David told us quietly, “who are third generation of living on the dole – without work, without skill, without a future. They are forced to be sitting around and have lost the Dreaming. Their eyebrows are locked together. Shoulders hunched – they walk crunched over at the middle. They have perpetual frowns. ”
However, this blight was only part of the story. For example, in David’s south-west Queensland community, families united to protect the river. In a documentary, Ringbalin—Healing the River, Dancing the Spirit, we learned how the community worked together not only to preserve the river as a resource for water but also in order to maintain the continuation of spiritual and cultural connection that the river and land gives people – that connection being as crucial to survival as water.
David used the words “the river’s emotional language” to describe this connection. Those words made something shift in me. I had been living in the Australian bush for over a year. When David spoke of the river, he was referring to something I had only begun to sense: a reciprocal relationship with the bush. I had always looked at nature as a one-way street—with me directing the relationship. Now, looking out the window at the gentle hills of Silver Wattle, I questioned my perspective. I sensed the landscape guarding me as much as I was considering it. Something was developing.
Not just water but land was also being protected by David’s community. His niece, Cheryl Bucanan, and her People worked to save huge tracks of land. First the Kooma Traditional Owners Association, KTOA, worked side-by-side putting in fences to stop river erosion and to keep the cows, sheep, and pigs from harming the area called Murra Murra/ Many Hands. Later, under Bucanan’s leadership, they reclaimed the 30,000 hectares of adjacent land on Bendee Downs. They fought and won the IPA status (Indigenous Protected Area) to protect it. They named it the Happy Frog Conservation, hired an Aboriginal ranger to oversee it, and opened the doors to programs in land management, water resourcing and Aboriginal culture.
As David spoke and the day progressed, a comfortable feeling was growing in the room. I felt relaxed in this room of strangers. I observed in all of us a certain quality of attention emerging. Was it David’s melodious voice? Or the strong but reposeful presence of the other facilitators and Silver Wattle staff that was influencing us? Or perhaps it was just the mere relief of leaving behind a hectic world where so much of the time many of us are working at top speed yet can never quite get on top of things. It seemed that by just sitting there I was learning about Aboriginal culture while gathering vital, yet less visible resources.
However, there was still more factual information to absorb. Two other facilitators, Shane Mortimer from the Ngambri People of the Guumaal language area, and Andrew Cooper, an archeology cultural anthropology PhD student, placed David’s stories into a modern legal context. Shane explained the way that present Western law defines Aboriginals as Squatters on their own land—living on land claimed by the British. Professor Lilenthal from the University of Malaysia, over Skype, broke down this untruth step by step by deconstructing the British laws.
Noy’s legal maxims, he explained, serve as a foundation to law and to our legal system. In the case of Australian Aboriginals, the system has broken its own maxims. For example, one of Noy’s maxims is if you try to introduce another maxim to another country through wrongdoing your maxim will never apply. Therefore, colonising using genocidal tactics among Aboriginals infringed upon the legal foundation.
Noy also maintained that laws are based on custom. Custom is created by social consent. Laws won’t work without consent. So colonial title claims don’t hold because they introduced foreign customs reflective of their own feudal systems to justify actions. These feudal systems were contrary to pre-established economic, social, and legal systems. The Aboriginals already had their own systems for conveying land titles that were in use since ancient times. They have Allodial Titles that transferred from person to person through descent, not through a feudal system.
The facilitators emphasised the land because they wanted us to understand the fusion of the spiritual and the legal and its impact on lives today. Andrew Cooper brought this to life when he shared his own journey as a PhD student. This eight-year journey took him from working as a cultural heritage consultant for a mining company in Western Australia to his role as an observer in the Aboriginal Land Rights Movement with the Yindjbarandi Corporation.
Andrew’s PhD studies originally focused on seasonality and resources, especially water resources, before colonisation. His work questioned the accepted theory that Aboriginal groups only lived near water. In the Pilbara region of Western Australia he saw this wasn’t true. Aboriginal groups lived in all types of ecological systems and managed the entire landscape.
He found himself trying to discover what the truth was for the local Aboriginal groups. He went on ethno-flora and -fauna expeditions with Elders and learned about the complexity of systems, such as totems and skins. Concurrently, as the Elders guided him through parts of Western Australia, the consequences of Noy’s broken maxims became increasingly apparent. Mining companies not only ravaged the land, but also through coercion and palm greasing, they managed to split the community. However, part of the community united, insisting on their cultural heritage and land, and challenged the companies in a painstaking legal process.
Andrew spoke of his experiences being a witness to the legal process and in the dispute between the Aboriginal Corporation and the mining company. Andrew concluded his talk by showing a short film which explained the entitled land claim process –Ask the Baby directed by Frank Rijavec. This poignant documentary highlighted many of the difficulties experienced by the Aboriginal community. Andrew highly recommended viewing another entire feature length documentary also by Rijavac called Exile and the Kingdom.
That evening Shane, Auntie Jenni, an Indigenous activist also from the Ngambri mob, and her niece Whyriana welcomed us in the long tradition of “country”. It was a clear night as we all gathered outside near an old gum tree and a dried creek bed. It was cold so Shane was wearing a possum coat, standing by the fire. Whyranna handed us handmade headbands and Jenni narrated stories with Shane, describing how the white invasion decimated the Ngambri land while germs and guns slowly began to extinguish a People in the Silver Wattle/Ngambri region.
The fire was a sacred fire, made specifically from indigenous woods and ashes from a great leader. The smoke curled around us. Shane and Jenni instructed us to walk around the fire and to wave smoke towards ourselves. This was a cleansing, an ancient practice used by many Indigenous peoples. Unlike some ceremonies, in this cleansing the atmosphere was not solemn. Instead there was friendly chatter and jokes, a sense of ease with one another. By this fire, far away from the clutter and distractions of life, somehow I felt all of us moving towards a place of trust where we could all speak and listen with something deeper than our social lives or jobs.
A few days later another experience showed me a simple way to strengthen that trust or to find quiet in a hectic day. Another facilitator, Douglas Amarfio – a teacher, a dancer, an artist – also shared how in his initiation he had learned “to read” the land and was able to discern burial sites, Coroboree sites, and ancient trading grounds. As he spoke he was weaving a basket. He explained calmly that the basket was for the spirit and body of his child lost a day ago in a miscarriage. To bury his child he would sing the unborn into a tree. He would place the basket facing the direction where the child was meant to be born, at the spot in Silver Wattle where the two rivers meet and, then, his child’s spirit could be in peace. Watching him weave the basket was disturbing but brought us in touch with something bigger than the room.
He didn’t speak much. Instead he took off his shoes and led us barefoot through the surrounding hills. He would stop at a spot, looking each way, reading the land. He looked at rocks, how they were lined; and at trees, especially scarred trees; how did they relate to the stars, to the sun? These are navigational tools; signs to how and where people used to live. Walking and listening to the world outside was his method of teaching people about country and culture.
Douglas walked then stopped, looked, and listened intently to creatures I had never known before coming to Australia: kangaroos on the hillsides, flocks of parrots soaring from tree to tree, frogs croaking, then cockatoos piercing the air with screeches. But the way we walked, then paused as a group to listen intently made this new world seem familiar, as if we were returning to something we already knew. I realised that simple everyday sounds can move us deeply if we stop to listen; that when I let my mind relax, listening can be so much more invigorating than dissecting my own thoughts day and night; that listening intently connects me most deeply to others. Walking with the group and listening to the nature at Silver Wattle opened up an unsuspected space in me.
Despite the intensity of three days and my doubts, when we finally drove out of Silver Wattle, I felt fresh and rejuvenated – in love with the world. Facts of law, land rights and Aboriginal history had expanded my world and helped me to make sense of this society. There were many commonalities between the destructive impact of colonialism on Australia and the Americas as well as shared means for coping with the devastation. Douglas’ basket weaving brought to mind the intricate clothe weaving that has been practiced throughout the world for hundreds of years. And Shane and Jenni by the fire recalled burning of incense in ceremonies in the East and West. These glimpses reminded me that our common humanity naturally seeks ways to cultivate clarity and calm and community that endures.
On another level, ironically, it was the rocky start of the workshop that taught me the most. Because of the openness of the Silver Wattle staff and the Elders I was able to observe them facing a difficulty with poise, positiveness and discernment. This set a tone of trust for the entire workshop. Within the context of this confidence—knowledge and experiences were shared from different points of view rather than one facilitator’s interpretation. The impact of multiple views was powerful. A much more potent workshop had been delivered than previously imagined. That experience reminded me that oftentimes, it’s the chaos, the so-called failures that bring depth and growth to our lives. Or as Leonard Cohen says so succinctly in his verse
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the Light gets through
That’s how the Light gets through