To be honest this is a blog that I really want to write and also hesitate to publish. It is a part of life that means so much to me. And yet I have to unveil my ignorance of which I am quite ashamed. But I do believe it’s the time for it, and that it’s good for me to taste ignorance in this regard. Because I’m talking about my relationship with Australia, it’s first people, and this great land.
The reason I say that it’s good for me to taste ignorance in this regard, is because ever since my Anglo countrymen landed here generations ago, we have fashioned a life which favours our own flavor of knowledge and ways, and largely ignores the validity of another way of seeing and being in the world, the value of Indigenous knowledge and ways.
The perception that I grew up amongst was that Aboriginal people don’t know enough about Western ways, that is they are not educated enough, and therefore find it hard to function in mainstream society. I grew up with the belief that Aboriginal people are the ignorant ones.
(Even as I research for this blog I read on wikipedia “As a consequence of… problems integrating with modern westernised society, many difficult issues face the present day Noongar.”) (1)
The thing is though, I moved to the north of Australia, for the sole purpose of living and working in an area where there is a higher population of Aboriginal people. And I saw something quite unexpected.
I was drawn by a deep yearning to learn from Aboriginal people. To seek a deeper truth. To connect more fully with the land of my birth.
So there I was, working as a Registered Nurse in a small coastal town in the far north of Western Australia. I was living in a town with about 30% Aboriginal population and working in a hospital where 70% of patients were Aboriginal. (In the south of Australia the population density averages 4% Aboriginal people). I was hanging out with Aboriginal people in my down time. I was sitting with open eyes and ears.
And it hit me really early on, that the vast majority Aboriginal people I was meeting were very well educated about Western culture. They knew English. They understood about Western values like education, work and money. They understood our family systems. Many of them followed the Western religion of Christianity. They knew all about our food, seasons, calendar, festivals, dress codes, ways of thinking. Everything. To the point that I can’t even say it’s “ours”, it is just as much “theirs”.
(I must say another hesitation of publishing this blog is that, because it’s the story of my ignorance, it contains a lot of ideas of separation and difference. As if Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people are innately different. This of course, as in all of humanity, is not the underlying truth. My journey has revealed to me more and more the similarities and connections. Nevertheless I did start fro a place of disconnection and separation, I’m sorry to say. And by the way, the majority of Aboriginal people in Australia live close to Sydney (66% in NSW, Queensland and Victoria), in cities and non-remote areas (75%), live in single family households (75%) (2). There is really no “typical”. Actually I believe that when all Australians are mass educated in Aboriginal ways in mainstream school, we will grow up knowing what country (Aboriginal nation) we come from and will more rightly be able to talk about Noongar or Yolngu or Walpiri ways instead of using this generalization of “Aboriginal people”. There are about 400 Aboriginal nations in Australia (3), and 145 languages spoken (4).)
And very soon it dawned on me. It’s me who was uneducated. I was the ignorant one.
I didn’t know anything that is important to know about Aboriginal culture and people. And I am a person who always had a special interest in Aboriginal culture. My Dad grew me up knowing about the music, tools, arts, craftsmanship and the history of Aboriginal people in my home area.
By the time I was born there were no Aboriginal people living in my wheatbelt farming town, they had been forced off the land since the early days of settlement and by the 50’s were forcibly moved to settlements in various parts of the country, often separated from family. But when my Dad was a young there were a few Aboriginal people around and he told me stories of how things were for them. As a young adult I paid more attention than most to Aboriginal studies in my two university health-science degrees. I went to extra events and lectures to connect and learn. I went out of my way to work with Aboriginal services when I was a physiotherapist.
And yet I arrived to the north of Australia feeling like I knew nothing. I didn’t know the language, customary greetings, family relations. What is the sense of home? How is education conceptualized and implemented? What festival are celebrated? What are important times of life? How is death honoured? And birth? What foods and medicines are used? How? So many questions.
And it’s not that I was required to learn the answers.
Let that one sink in.
My society does not require of me that I learn deeply about the ways of the people in whose land I was born.
I experienced first-hand, Aboriginal people are perfectly capable of relating to me through my way of seeing the world and can go along with my old conditioned beliefs of what are right ways to talk, learn, work and live.
Non-Aboriginal people are very understanding if I don’t know anything about Aboriginal culture. “Yes, it is very mysterious”, “It’s complex”, “Oh don’t bother trying to understand, you’ll never get it”. Common sayings.
But it didn’t make any sense to me.
Actually it did my head in, just as it does to a lot of educated whitefellas that I’ve met along the way. (By educated here I mean people who have taken the time to learn something about Aboriginal culture). It brought me to my knees with tears, rage, frustration, helplessness, hopelessness and deep deep sorrow.
How come I grew up not knowing? How come I wasn’t educated equally well about Aboriginal ways? I could not, and can not, see that it’s an issue to take lightly.
It doesn’t matter to me that Aboriginal people are generally about 4% of the population of Australia. Especially because I now know that my people made it that way through war, closed minds and hard hearts. (Population dropped from around 700,000 at the time of the invasion in 1788 to a low of around 93,000 people in 1900.) (2)
It matters to me that I am born into this land, the land that hundreds of nations of wise and loving Aboriginal people have care-taken for longer than my ancestors’ skin has been white.(6)
It matters to me that they have taken such good care of the land and their people that they can still sing the songs, dance the dances and tell the stories.
It matters to me that they have gone out of their way to learn our ways, even while we stole their children, slaved their men and women and killed their wise people, and yet I can tell stories of my people who have gone out of their way to close their eyes and ears to Aboriginal ways, even in recent years.
(I would personally reverse the wikipedia comment and report “As a consequence of problems with Westerners integrating with Noongar society, many difficult issues face the present day Noongar. And those difficult issues impact Westerners.”)
It mattered to me, I had to learn.
And it’s not so easy to learn when you are used to whitefella style university education. You get, as a government employee who goes to work in an area of high Aboriginal population, perhaps a half day workshop on Aboriginal culture.
I remember asking, as a nurse fresh out of uni and fresh to the north, “Can I learn the language?” They said, “No, it’s too complicated because there are so many languages and if you learn one then you might offend people by speaking the wrong language to them.”
Huh? And yet we demand English? Why is that? Is it for my good or theirs?
“In the language are our ideas and we need them, the world needs them.” — Bruce Pascoe, Aboriginal teacher (4)
So I took what I could from that half day. And made my way through all the books in the library and all the articles in the hospital shelves. I met people with open eyes, open ears, open mind, trying to see what it might be that I can’t see due to my poor education and negative conditioning.
I self-educated to start with, piecing together all these books, articles, documentaries, movies, conversations and observations. Reflecting.
Perhaps my greatest asset was that I knew how to meditate, be present, recognize my thought patterns and challenge them.
It felt like a very solitary road much of the time. I probably need another whole blog to flesh out the complex situation that an unfortunately ignorant newcomer faces when they are trying to learn a new culture, and simultaneously a new profession, and simultaneously thousands of kilometers from usual support networks, and so on. I cried alone.
When I moved a few hundred kilometers east to Darwin a year later, I asked the same question, “Can I learn the language?” I got the same answer, “No it’s too complicated.”
So I took an uncommon step and enrolled in a university course. Yolngu Language and Culture. The language and culture of the Yolngu people of East Arnhem land, about 600km east from where I was living. Oh my, what a great course! A life changer.
Finally, I recognized, I was learning from a different perspective. The course was designed by Yolngu educators. So apart from the fact that it was mostly held within 4 walls, which my lecturer said is not how Yolngu people would choose to learn or teach. They would be on the country. The country would reinforce or help to demonstrate what they are teaching and learning. But apart from that we learnt in ways that were more aligned with Yolngu ways. I guess I was tasting the benefits of two-way learning.
We learnt first and foremost about family and relationship, because that is the most important thing in Yolngu culture (and the most important thing in all of the other Australian nations that I’ve been to). Relationship and connection. Social structure and support network. The inter-connectedness of all people.
Next we learnt about land, because the connection with the land is equivalent to a human relationship. The land is your mother, your grandmother. The land knows and supports you. You know and care for your mother-land. The inter-connectedness of all life.
From there we learnt about law, seasons, food, health and shelter. (From my memory and not necessarily in that order.) We learnt language by discussing these key concepts. We connected via Skype to elders on country who told us about the season, the weather, the land, the food and the activities.
Finally I could say that I started to have an understanding of the ways that Yolngu people look at life. A different world-view. I can of course see that I only know a little. I can see even the truth of those people who told me in the early days that it’s very complex. There is a depth of knowledge that would take time to grasp. But at least to know the starting points, to know what I don’t know, to know something. I never considered that there might be more than 4 seasons in a year, that a one might not be able to utter the name of their brother or sister, that people once lived without common disease, the list goes on.
And you know what? I don’t think I offended many people by speaking the wrong language to them. I made a few laugh with my efforts at pronunciation. And you know what else? I earned a lot of respect from Yolngu people and neighbouring countrymen because I could sometimes say their name right and knew where their home was and knew a word or two. I could make some more sensitive comments and ask some more appropriate questions. I could see a little bit more in a situation that I was blind to before. The benefits flowed on as I travelled to other nations in Australia.
And I have a great thirst for more. But I know as well that there is a time for everything. And I am blessed to know that there is a deep rivers springing up from the depths of Australia. There are so many wise people with open hearts who are ready to teach the open minded, the broken hearted, the blind. Like me.
This is how my journey of connection started. But like any journey there are many paths to get to the same destination. We each learn in our own best ways.
Australia is thirsting for this knowledge, for this connection, for this healing. Not only Australians, many people from foreign lands are feeling the call to connect. I’ve talked to many who feel it.
Are you feeling it?