(Take a seat and have a coffee with this one – or maybe read it in installments – because some bees got in my bonnet – a lot of stingy ones because I got a bit swollen with the issue. Sorry in advance.)
If I’m underqualified to write anything current-affairsy (i.e. most of this blog) then I am horribly underqualified to write anything at all to do with Aboriginal affairs. So don’t, I hear the Aboriginal community say, not your business and how dare a non-Aboriginal discuss our business with other non-Aboriginals. Fair enough, says I, but I’m going to give it a go anyway so here up front I am sorry if I’m pissing anyone off. And is sort of my business actually, because I live in Australia and as you mob are the Traditional Owners of the place then I am a tenant and all good tenants do their best to understand and respect the beliefs of their landlords. Already you are pissed off at my use of ‘mob’ so I won’t – at least – do that anymore. Phew, this is one egg-shelly topic. But I’ll press on…
It all started when I took my 5 year olds to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. The first exhibits we saw were in the Tasmanian Aboriginal themed room. They were full of questions (the 5 year olds, not the Aboriginals). My son asked why there was an illustration of a man shooting a brown man. I fumbled about with some kind of response involving the brown people living here forever and the white people coming and wanting their land and fighting them for it and how a lot of Aboriginal people were killed. All the Tasmanian ones died, I added as I realised it was my responsibility not to sugar coat it. Then I imagined Michael Mansell’s knickers twisting and further added, the full blooded ones. Then a big sob came out of me and I blubbered and had to press the interactive button near the clap sticks, which was a mistake because clap sticks always make me feel kind of sad. My bewildered children took my hand and dragged me to the stuffed animal room where things were less uncomfortable (if slightly skanky). And with that, the can had popped and the worms came wriggling out right into my conscience, with frontal lobe seats.
I wanted my children to understand the importance of Aboriginal culture in our country, and to ackowledge what us white people had done not so very long ago. But there was the slight problem of me not knowing enough to confidently begin anyof these passings on, and there is nothing very noble about making shit up. This is why, in the book shop before my Port Douglas family holiday, I bypassed my usual pink-hued holiday reads and picked up a copy of Bruce Chatwin’s ‘Songlines’. I figured that Tropical North Queensland would be a good place to smarten up on Aboriginal culture, as opposed to Tasmania, where there are few touristy Aboriginal interpretation places (and the grumpy lady at the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre hung up on me when I asked about the people of the South-East where I live). Once in the tropics, I braced myself for some hard work with Mr Chatwin but he had me at hello. He was a pommy dude who came to Australia to extend his life long study of nomads and to ”to try to learn for himself – and not from other men’s books – what a songline was and how it worked.”
Here’s what Bruce Chatwin taugh me fairly early on:
Dreamtime (or apparently more correctly, Tjukurpa) refers to the time when Aboriginal ancestors sang the world into existence. (My romantic side jumps with joy at the beauty of it but again I see the stern faces of Aboriginals as I make fantasy of their truth). So, at the beginning of time, the spirit or totemic ancestors emerged from the earth. they were half human / half animal or plant and they moved across the barren, bare surface of the newborn land. As they went, they sang the names of elements of the landscape – the trees, the sand hills, rivers, mountains…and as the names were sung, the elements were formed. They sang people into existence too, and animals, water, air, fire, sun, moon and stars. Then, the work-weary spirits sank back into the ground, or rested as rocks, or mounds, trees or other landscape features, all returning to their state of sleep. The spirits that turned into landscape became sacred sites, to be seen only by initiated men.
The Dreaming The dreamtime continues on as ‘the dreaming’ in the spiritual lives of the Aboriginal people today. Every Aboriginal person has a dreaming; which particular dreaming depends on which dreamtime ancestor or totemic species they are descended from (i.e which ancestor’s footprints were stepped on by their pregnant mother as her baby first kicked, which is known as ‘spirit conception’.). So if an Aboriginal person tells you they have a honey ant dreaming, he means his totem is honey ant or he’s a member of the honey ant clan. Any species can be a dreaming, including plants - and elements too.
Songlines Each totemic ancestor, while travelling and singing the country into existence, was thought to have scattered his song – it’s words and musical notes – along the line of his footprints. These tracks became known as songlines or ‘dreaming tracks’. If descendents know their song, they know their dreaming track and could always find their way across country without trespassing on another’s territory or dreaming. These songlines criss-cross the whole of Australia; some are short, others traverse thousands of kilometres, through language and family groups. In the latter case, the lyrics of the song will change with the language, but the melody and rhythyms are recognisable to anyone with its particular dreaming. The songs are passed through generations without ever changing a word or a note, so that every man will forever know the boundaries of his land and always find his brothers - the people who share his dreaming. Aboriginal people don’t believe country exists until it is seen and sung. And if a land is unsung – if its songs have been forgotten, it is dead land. To allow that to happen is the worst of all possible crimes, the avoidance of which is the central aim of Aboriginal spiritual life.
Sacred Sites Each songline is dotted with sacred sites, which are features of the landscape that hold a story of the dreamtime. For instance, a sandhill may be a resting lizard, or a waterhole might be where the lizard drank – or whatever the words or cadence of a song tells you. The distance between sacred sites is made up of stretches of song.
Walkabout To avoid the atrocity of unsung lands, Aboriginal men make ritual journeys, or go walkabout. This is not an excuse for bludging off work but a rite of passage in which adolescent males walk and live in their dreaming country for up to 6 months, unravelling the encrypted meanings of their dreaming tracks, recreating the creation and learning to keep the land the way it was and the way it should be. Older males go walkabout to spread messages between peoples, finding ‘family’ and to trade resources, gifts or ideas. In theory, a man could sing his way across Australia within his own terrirory so long as he knows the right tune. To sing the country over and over is to keep it fresh and alive.
Corroborees or the correct Aboriginal term, Caribberies, are another way the Aboriginal people keep the stories and songs of the Dreaming alive. They are like festivals of dance and song, held at night and commemorating something in the form of a ceremony. They can be public or private depending on the nature of the ceremony. Some, like initiations (where scary things happen to young men, not approriate for me to discuss) - are sacred and open to a select few. Others, like when the Elders decide it is time to sing a Songline in its entirety, can be more open. Musical instruments are used, costumes and body paint to help animate the dreamtime stories.
Aboriginal Elders are the older people, who possess the wisdom, spirit and skills to keep the stories told, the songs sung and the country as it shoud be. They are responsible for the teaching of such knowledge to younger generations, and to make decisions when it comes to their country. In most cases the elders make themselves accessible for consultation.
So this new understanding (which only touches on the complexity of it all) got me wondering about Port Douglas and just whose Songline I had stepped on or crossed (a crime once punishable with a good old spearing), whose traditional ownership I’d imposed my hooligan children on and whether a sleeping cockatoo has been decimated to make way for our hotel and it’s ‘lagoon’ pool (complete with bleached sand imported from Stradbroke Island) by which I have sat my arse and sipped caprioskas (a sugary vodka delight not to be confused with the rummy mojito or Cuban highball).
First up I asked a white digeridoo player at the market, “Do you know who the traditional owners of Port Douglas are?” He looked awkward, shook his head and suggested I ask the boomarang sellers over the way (then he convinced me to buy a CD which I have since found to be a bit shite, sorry dude). The white Boomerang sellers said I shoud go to Mossman Gorge and find out there. It struck me then that I hadn’t seen a single Aboriginal person after 2 days in Port Douglas. And here I was with all my new knowledge, feeling all brainy and respectful and no one to shout out, “Hey fulla, what your dreamin’?”
I popped into an art gallery selling Aboringinal paintings and the grumpy bloke in there told me the closest clan would be the Kuku Yalangi, but that Port Douglas itself ‘doesn’t have much significance’. Ok so I had a name at last but what does ‘doesn’t have much significance’ mean? Am I holidaying on unsung lands? I left the bloke to his grumps and resorted to my ever-reliable mate Google.
A note about Aboriginal Painting: Bruce Chatwin discovered (and kindly passed on to me) that the aboriginal paintings with all the dots often represent the travels of the totemic ancestors. The artist uses their first and second fingers - representing the footprints of the dreamtime men – to make the double lines of dots. The rest of the story is in the sequence and pattern of dots, the colours and the pictures. So now I can get all righteous and smarmy with the couple in the gallery I overheard saying, “That blue’s not the same blue as the carpet” and imagine shouting at them, “There’s a story in them there dots, bugger your carpet!”
In Google land I found that the land where Port Douglas was settled (by Sugar farmers and Gold miners in 1877) is known to be a meeting place between three Aboriginal groups and is significant in its connections to the wider countries and past Elders. It was a place of judgment, reverence, memorial and diplomacy (so big raspberries to you grumpy-gallery-man). I also found that an ‘Indignenous Cultural Heritage Assessment of Port Douglas’, commissioned in 2009 by the Cairns Coucil recommended that in accordance with the Aboriginal Cultural heritage Act of 2003, interpretive plaques should be placed at Port’s significant sites, including Four Mile Beach, Flagstaff Hill, Rex Smead Park, the Sugar Wharf and at the site of the Sheraton Mirage.
So with my baby on my back (in the way, I fancied like the wanker that I can be, of the Kuku Yalangi women through the centuries – except maybe they didn’t worry about the colour of their baby carrier matching their attire), I walked to the sites in search of plaques. At Rex Smead park I found that Rex Smead was a port Douglas councillor, not a strapping, muscular warrior of shimmering black (of course not, with a name like Smead). At Four Mile beach I found a sign saying “Jalun - Aboriginal for sea” and that was it. Flagstaff Hill, said to be a sacred site on the Rainbow Python Songline, had nothing but a few real estate signs and some deflated balloons hanging sadly from a ghost gum (deeply symbolic thought I morosly). I went and bought an $8 milkshake (!) and delved into Safari on my I-Phone. Turns out Port Douglas is thought – by the Aboriginal community – to be cursed. They don’t visit there much and surely never buy houses there in case the curse causes sickness. The bad spirits are especially prolific on the South end of the beach and at the Mirage Resort. Evidently good old Skasey dug up a burial site, displaced bones, disgruntled the spirits and then denied everything. He died a pretty horrible death if we are to believe his wheezy claims of illness. And today, the Mirage is a sad, empty shell of a place with beautiful grounds and no one to show them to. It is about to be redeveloped under new ownership and Kuku Yalanji Elders have approached the new owner to talk about popping up some plaques to ackowledge the burial ground – they say this will put the spirits to rest and help break the curse. They are yet to hear back but jeez , I hope they do. I walked around the place feeling uneasy and won’t rush back. And now my baby has a tummy bug damn you Skase. Bring on the plaques.
I did get some plaque satisfaction when I eventually got to Mossman Gorge. Here, the Kuku Yalanji are well and trully recognised, and all over the place. We passed an Aboriginal settlement, which I passed feeling all hyper-sensitive and songliney. On the Kuku Yalanji cultural tour I was fair bucked off my high horse by an affable, half Irish half Aboriginal tour guide called Rodney who cheerfully told us that the Dutch used rainforest cedar to build boats, and that we should all move forward.
Sorry Rodney, you almost had me but I’m not convinced; you were doing your job – very well, but the old bloke who gave the bird and a death-stare to a passing car in Mossman was more believable.
We’ve said sorry to the stolen generations (Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander children removed from their families without evidence of negelct or abuse). We’ve voided Terra Nullius - the idea that there is land that belongs to no one, leaving it open for settlement, which is why the English saw fit to park their arses over here in Australia. And in 1992, thanks to Eddie Mabo from the Torres Straight Islands, Native Title legislation was passed, enabling “the recognition by Australian law that some Indigenous people have rights and interests to their land that come from their traditional laws and customs” (there are now 500 or so native title claims in process).
But the truth is, our Aboriginal people and Torres Straight Islanders (around 2.5% of our population) are living in shamefully poor conditions. Their standard of living, while white Australia is ranked 4th on the UN scale, comes it at 103rd. Unemployment is high, their health is generally shithouse and so is their education. So, while the grand gestures are moving and meaningful, I think we need more than warm fuzzies.
So here, from my high horse (I’m back on it), in my tropical resort thinking vaguely about another mojito and a leg wax, is my sage advice – get stuck right into education, on both sides. We all - Aboriginal people and white Australia alike – need to have a good old look at ourselves. Get Oprah or somebody down here again to give everyone what-for. Put understanding into the mainstream. Hand out Respect for Aborigional Culture with Who Magazine and Pokemon and embrace each other for goodness sake. I for one, am about to start right now – well in fifteen minutes to be precise – with a facial and massage using traditional Aboriginal tradition and techniques. Then I will read the Rainbow Serpent to my children and maybe have a roo pie for lunch. No one can tell me off for being all talk and no action. Thanks fullas. xx