A group of people – adults and children – gather around elder Miriam Ungunmerr-Baumann as she sits by the side of the mighty Daly River in the Northern Territory community of Nauiyu. She is explaining to them about the Aboriginal way of being she calls dadirri, which can be translated as a deep, respectful listening to self, other and to land. “The way that we talk about nature, the universe, it’s kind of poetic and creative way of describing something, because it sustains us as well. When you read a book, you don’t just read the words, you read the meaning of it. What the story’s about. And that gets you really worked up and excited about it. And that’s what the bush is like for us. We read it in detail.”
The group has gathered as part of the first ever Cultural Connections Tour to the Nauiyu community, initiated by the Miriam-Rose Foundation, an organisation established to further the well-being of the community and especially their young people. Tour organisers Pip Gordon and Nicole Kinnaird were asked to invite people to come and get to know Aboriginal people, to sit with them and learn their ways. Twelve people responded and brought themselves and their families to take part in a week-long experience which included traditional welcome and cleansing ceremonies, dance performances, art-making and weaving. Participant Alyson Goff says has found it life-changing. “I decided to come on the Cultural Connection Tour mainly to immerse our family in the culture of the traditional owners because I think it’s important for every Australian – or anyone – to understand where they come from and to experience the world before us. What I actually ended up getting out of this was more than that. To me, what I take away is that it’s really about your ancestry. Where you come from forms the essence of who you are.”
“Knowing who you are” is one of the main themes of the week. As Miriam and the other elders initiate the group into some traditional Aboriginal culture, they emphasise how important it is that their young people grow up with a firm grasp of their place in the order of things. One of the highlights is a demonstration of traditional dancing. Children from the local school gather excitedly, dressed in red loincloths and with faces, body and legs smeared with white ochre. They perform dance they only recently learned, faces wide with grins and clearly enjoying themselves. A group of men, also painted, provide music and rhythm on clapsticks and didge and members of the community gather to watch, whooping and clapping their appreciation.
“There hadn’t been any dancing for the last 15 years and I’m starting to do this for the young ones”, says Miriam. The Tour group also takes part in a welcome ceremony, something the Aboriginal people have done for centuries to alert the ancestors to the presence of strangers. “We let them know we have visitors, “ explains Miriam, “And ask they might have safe passage through our country.” Despite the stories people love to tell about crocodiles who live in the river, two community members wade into the shallows and one by one, we line up to receive a sprinkle river water onto our heads. This, it is said, carries the scent of each person to mingle with the water, so that part of us is now immersed in the nature of the place.
Participant Andrew Lindsay feels that the trip has begun to answer life-long questions about the country in which he has always lived. “Growing up in this country and identifying as an Australian. Knowing that we’ve only been here a couple of hundred years…and always wondering what was the Aboriginal relationship to the land. To be beginning a personal relationship with someone who embodies that is a really special thing.” This kind of tour is a way for communities like this to earn an income. Miriam feels it’s important to recognise that knowledge exchange is now a currency and that elders should be recompensed for their wisdom. “Our elders are like our consultants. They’re like our encyclopaedias and anything we want to know we ask them. But we’re in the era now of keeping things going, and to keep (our elders) interested in giving that information we have to pay them.”
Art, too, is a commodity understood by the community. The Merrepen Arts Centre, established on the community over 25 years ago and now a thriving social enterprise, is known all over Australia for its quality art work. This career path is being opened to the young people and an art sale set up by the school, children exhibit paintings accompanied by a professional-looking certificate of authenticity with an artist bio for each of them. The paintings, of turtles, lizards, waterlilies and butterflies, reflect the local landscape and and are well worth the $10-20 dollar price tags. Between the art and the tours, Aboriginal communities like this are striving to overcome the difficulties associated not only with their remote location, but with poor health and high rates of suicide, particularly amongst the young.
Elder Agnes Page, a trained tour operator, has been working with Miriam to educate young people coming up from the South in the ways of traditional bush craft and medicine that has so often been lost in from tribes in Australia’s south. She tells me that for her, hosting these groups has been an effort to establish something for the next generation. “I want to do it for my children”, she says. “To leave them something they can continue.”
Kristy Pursch, a Tour participant and descendent of the Butchulla trible of Fraser Island, grew up estranged from her culture and although she now works on health projects in Aboriginal communities, saw the Cultural Connections Tour as a way to deepen her understanding of and connection to, Aboriginal people. Kristy has heard the call of the elders for support for their young people and has arranged to take a young student from the community on a Homestay with her own family back in Coff’s Harbour. On her return from the trip, Kristy wrote down some of her impressions, which I quote here without editing. It seems to me to be a fitting tribute to the elders who so kindly welcomed the Cultural Connections Tour group into their lives.
“A quietness and completeness. Born of love and acceptance. To sit in the inner stillness of my being. And trust all as it should be. My old ones guide and love me. And will support me to mother my babies as they… Create their own identity.” Kristy Pursch. 2015.