How should non-Aboriginal Australians relate to our indigenous people and their culture? Should we bother? What should we “do” about Aboriginal “problems”?
I have learnt over a longish life that when we get to the essence of seemingly difficult or intractable issues there can be simple answers. Simple, though not necessarily easy. Challenging perhaps, but ways forward can be readily identified. So it is proving with my own, fairly recent experience with Aboriginal culture and people.
I have spent a couple of weekends in sacred country, participating in simple but ancient ceremonies, and being with Aboriginal families. I also hear people talk about their experiences, listen to Aboriginal music and lyrics, own a bit of art, and read a lot. I am much more alert to opportunities than I used to be.
It’s still not much, you might think, but it is quite enough for me to get some important lessons, and begin to see a few basic things.
Twice now I have spent a weekend with Yuin people on the South Coast of NSW. Their most sacred ground is Gulaga Mountain, also known as Mt. Dromedary. We greeted the sun and moon, celebrated the whales, farewelled the departed, walked up the mountain and listened to ancient stories and recent experiences in a locality that inspires awe no matter how you relate to it.
Countless people for perhaps tens of millennia will have done those things in those places. No matter how prosaic your view of the world, that is a simple truth to grapple with.
The modern Yuin will tell you about sites out under the ocean, and song lines that run from land to water, and under the water. In scientific terms, those stories are from before the oceans rose at the end of the ice age, 11,000 years ago.
There are stories of giant wombats, kangaroos and emus of the dreamtime. They were immortal, and they had to die so there would be room for people to live. Those stories are from 50,000 years ago.
As much as the stories, there are the values, and the ways of the people. The land is to be revered, cared for, and passed to the children with its diversity, abundance and health intact or enhanced. Read Bill Gammage’s recent book The Biggest Estate on Earth to be given a transformative view of how intimately and comprehensively the land was cared for. Being a “custodian”, having your identity intimately involved with a place, suddenly takes on much greater meaning.
Despite the catastrophic loss of many people and much culture, despite the traumas that continue to this day, these people are humorous, welcoming, accepting and, most amazingly, forgiving. Forgiveness is not something our popular white culture knows very well. It is about choosing not to be held prisoner by the past. It is about accepting what can’t be changed, grieving and moving on, though never about forgetting.
I am as fair-skinned as they come. Not a drop of Aboriginal blood as far as I know (and you realise you can’t be 100% sure about that if your family goes back a couple of generations or more). Never mind, they say, you were born here, you belong. In their world view, everything and everyone is part of creation, and belongs. If you were born in this land, your spirit came from it and is part of it.
You are welcome to learn the culture. They are wise enough to say “If you want to keep it, you have to give it away”. If the culture is to survive, it has to be shared around.
We can certainly benefit from this culture. We desperately need to learn to live with the land instead of extracting from it. We have no future until we do, it’s as simple as that. We fearful white Aussies can certainly learn to be more accepting, tolerant and welcoming, and we’ll be much happier and richer for it.
Because of generations of rape, unsanctioned couplings and genuine relationships, there is every shade of black, brown and white among our indigenous people. There is every experience from living in country relatively recently to growing up in the city (“concrete koori”) to being raised white. That is what our fraught domination of these people has resulted in. That is why being Aboriginal is not about skin colour, it is about how you were raised, and who you feel yourself to be.
Plenty of city people, displaced people, stolen people are choosing to discover or rediscover their past and their culture. They show the rest of us the way. If you want to benefit from an ancient, wise and generous culture hiding right here in our midst, open your eyes, look around, and learn.
Here is another simple, powerful thing we can do. I heard recently that in Dubbo all the school kids were learning Wiradjuri, the local language, in school. (And more recently, that an oblivious government, trapped in its materialist obsessions, cut the budget and stopped it. But what has been done will be done again.) Really, it’s not as important to teach our kids Asian languages, we have plenty of Asians here who are native speakers. It is important to start raising our kids to know, as part of their scenery, the unique and ancient culture in our midst. What a gift to them, and to ourselves.