Connection with country: is it still ‘invisible’?

What to write about PM Tony Abbott’s recent comments regarding remote Indigenous Australians and his view that being connected with country and living on ancestral estates is a ‘lifestyle choice’? I will let the rest of this blog (the archive of stories about Indigenous and non-Indigenous people’s deep connections with country) speak for itself on such matters. I would prefer to highlight some of the perspectives from Indigenous peoples on this issue; why they affirm that they must be allowed and supported to maintain their ancestral connections with the land and the entities that they are custodians of.

Yuin elder, Uncle Max Dulumunmun Harrison, who is also the Director of Culture for Life, said this about Abbott’s recent comments:

By dismantling the Communities of remote Australia this Prime Minister is attempting to make the current generation of Elders the ‘Last Generation’. This is not about money and so called ‘lifestyle choices’, it’s about cultural genocide and destroying the linkages our communities need to maintain our connection to country and title over our ancestral lands. Abbott’s colonialist mentality and obsession with a foreign monarchy is widening the gap. Hold tight – it’s going to be an ugly ride until he is gone.

Indigenous educator Chris Sarra makes some very pertinent points in his recent article , Without connection to country, Australia is a shallow nation. That’s what Abbott doesn’t understand, (The Guardian), including:

If we cut or stifle this tremendously deep human connection to country we will be left with something so incredibly shallow.

The best way for all Australians to forge a deeper sense of belonging to our country is to enable such ancient human connections to be sustained. With that, all of us are better placed to respectfully embrace those descendants and the ancient rituals they offer us to be a part of something that has been occurring here for many thousands of years.

As Uncle Max suggests, there is a broader agenda underlying WA Premier Colin Barnett and PM Tony Abbott’s moves to centralise service provision for Indigenous peoples to larger town centers and cities.  Getting traditional owners off their ancestral estates and into larger towns and centers (see ‘Outstation message: Closing remote communities with ‘finish Broome”) will have huge ramifications on people-country connections: how and whether these can be maintained, people’s health and wellbeing post-dispossession, the health of the country without its people living with it, social fracturing in communities that would receive dispossessed peoples, housing shortages, the list goes on.

In my view, inherent in Abbott’s comments is a blindness towards the ancestral connections maintained by Indigenous peoples on this continent, how those connections shape people’s realities and why they are so necessary for cultural survival.

 

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In their branches

The ABC Radio National Earshot Documentary ‘In their branches‘ tells us about people’s love of trees. These are true expressions of intimacy and joy. Here are some images of the trees I love, climb and dream of.

IMG_2316 Jigal at B IMG_1750 IMG_1723 IMG_1650 Twisted Titree 922ac-img_2492

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Speaking the land

In deep summer I wrote about the relationship between stories and the land – Stories that endure – yet, what about words and their ability to connect us with place?

Sitting beneath the Woronora bridge by the river’s side, Uncle Max asked me if I knew any language names for country. I said some, mainly place and plant names and some animal names. He told me that I only needed to know a few, that I should say these names as I moved through country. Was he encouraging me to invoke the spirit of place through these words? A language that the land could understand?

In a recent article published in The Guardian, The word-hoard: Robert Macfarlane on rewilding our language of landscape,  Macfarlane writes about the ways in which words shape our sense of place. He reflects upon his time on the Isle of Lewis (UK) where he came across Gaelic words and phrases that described with stunning beauty the landscape of the moorlands.

Other terms were striking for their visual poetry: rionnach maoim means “the shadows cast on the moorland by clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day”; èit refers to “the practice of placing quartz stones in streams so that they sparkle in moonlight and thereby attract salmon to them in the late summer and autumn”, and teine biorach is “the flame or will-o’-the-wisp that runs on top of heather when the moor burns during the summer”.

Each word and phrase is a well that once stepped into, takes us deep within the interior of the land. We see the land in new (and old) ways, we remember that there is profound beauty that we are connected to. We say the names that invoke and acknowledge this beauty and these connections. But how often do we utter these words that take us beneath the veneer of the land, deep into its heart?

Macfarlane shares his dismay at the erasure of our connection with the land which is precipitated through the erasure of powerful words from our memories and lexicon.

The same summer I was on Lewis, a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary was published. A sharp-eyed reader noticed that there had been a culling of words concerning nature. Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow. The words taking their places in the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail. As I had been entranced by the language preserved in the prose‑poem of the “Peat Glossary”, so I was dismayed by the language that had fallen (been pushed) from the dictionary. For blackberry, read Blackberry.

I am reminded of George Orwell’s 1984 and the way in which words that reminded people of their humanity, humility, freedom and connections were systematically erased to create a new reality based on control and compliance. Languages that speak the land and people-place are crucial if we are to keep remembering who we are and what we are connected to, so that our imaginations can continue to roam and dream in country.

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‘Seeing’ the whole and the collective consciousness

I have been following the work of Otto Scharmer and Peter Senge (Theory U and the Presencing Institute) since I first started by PhD and have found many parallels between their work on shifting the collective consciousness and what is emerging in my own research. There are many aspects of the video below which I could highlight here, but the one I wish to give attention to in this post is that of ‘seeing’. In this conversation between Scharmer and Senge, they discuss the idea of ‘seeing’, both as a metaphor and literal experience, in relation to groups of people/collectives becoming aware of the collective – they talk about the system becoming aware of itself. The precursor to this ‘seeing’ is the presencing of the collective; otherwise stated, going into a space of silence and deep listening, which allows people to tune into what is seeking to emerge. Senge talks about how he is encountering communities all over the world who are having these emergent experiences. What I love about this conversation is the way it challenges the way of being in and with the world which has become so integrated, that it is now invisible. To be with the unknown and to let it precipitate and come into being, relies upon a very different cosmology to the one that most western societies operate by. The attention that Senge gives to feeling, not just thinking, is key. Many Indigenous societies hold fundamental the notion that feeling (liyan, intuition, gut feeling, somatic knowing, attunement… there are so many ways to describe it) is paramount to being in and with the world. The work by Scharmer and Senge makes a contribution towards making visible this way of being (ontology) for non-Indigenous people without appropriating Indigenous wisdom.

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Stories that endure

I have written before about the work that stories do and their ability to move through country, people(s) and objects as they do this work. In the last few weeks I have come across a story that brings to light (for a broader circle of people) the ways in which stories in country endure.

The first story was told by the Adnyamathanha people whose ancestral estate takes in the northern Flinders Ranges. (Listen to the 2-part radio documentary, Yulu’s Coal, featured on ABC Radio National’s Earshot program, here: Part 1 and Part 2 . It is better if you listen to the Adnyamathanha tell these stories. I will only offer a brief summary here to help tell a bigger story). Adnyamathanha storytellers trace how their ancestral creator beings, Yulu (the Kingfisher Man) and two Arkurra (Giant Rainbow Serpents) formed the landscape as they journeyed through country, including a large deposit of coal near Leigh Creek. These stories belong to Yuramuda (a complex understanding of spiritual existence that is present in the landscape and how to live in harmony with country – akin to the Western notion of cosmology and ontology ‘the Dreaming’) and continue to inform the Adnyamathanha’s existence. Arthur Brady, an Adnyamathanha man, said that:

Without these stories Adnyamathanha people won’t be the people they are today. The thing that makes us who we are is our stories.

Stories are constitutional, they give meaning to people’s presence in, and experience of the country. The knowledge that is held within these stories is held within the people – who in turn belong to these stories. The knowledge contained within Yuramuda stories also highlights the relevance and important of Indigenous knowledges in understanding country. While some anthropologists and people in general may have, or continue to, interpret Yuramuda (or the cosmology/Dreaming of another peoples) as myths about creation, the Adnyamathanha, along with other Indigenous peoples on this continent, in partnership with geologists, are showing people that Yuramuda accounts corroborate with Western scientific stories about country (see another account: Ancient Sea Rise Tale Told Accurately for 10,000 years). On Yulu’s way to an initiation ceremony at Ikara (WilpenaPound), he lit a big bushfire near Leigh Creek to tell the mob further south to wait for him. The coals that were left behind in from this fire, form the large coal deposits that are present in that land today. The Adnyamathanha understood that Yulu left coal behind in that place long before geologists and mining companies set their sights on Leigh Creek.

There is a personal link here to a bigger story, one about the way in which people are assembled by stories. My ancestors come from a village in the Macedonian province of northern Greece. The name of the village, which has endured for a long time (not as long as Yulu’s story), means black spring and relates to the vast coal deposits that sit beneath the ground in that valley. The fields and homes, and all the other places where my ancestors dwelt, are soon to be disassembled and an open pit coal mine put in their place. The land will no longer endure as it has for millennia, in relationship with people. Soon, all that my family will have left of this place, as with the Adnyamathanha, are stories about the country, albeit different types of stories to the Adnyamathanha people. The stories endure when the land is gone, they can still live within the people, but there is an emptiness and a deep connection that is lost.

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Places to dwell in deep summer

Ancient rock and ibises make me ground and soar.

Ancient rock and ibises make me ground and soar.

Getting pulled through the Blackwood forest by lyrebirds that call.

Getting pulled through the Blackwood forest by lyrebirds that call.

Diving into rock pools laced with Neptune's Necklace and glimpsing the pink octopus that dwells within.

Diving into rock pools laced with Neptune’s Necklace and glimpsing the pink octopus that dwells within.

Colours of this place open the doors to my memories of being here.

Colours of this place open the doors to my memories of being here.

The land cradles us in her folds and pockets.

The land cradles us in her folds and pockets.

IMG_1575  IMG_1574 IMG_1579 IMG_1573

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Sustaining Oral Tradition

Stephen Muecke writes the preface for Stuart Cooke’s edition and translation of George Dyuŋgayan’s Bulu Line: A West Kimberley Song Cycle, which also appears in the Cordite Poetry Review (20 Oct 2014, see: Sustaining Oral Tradition: A Preface to Bulu Line: A West Kimberley Song Cycle).

Muecke writes,

The complex process of translation spelled out by Bulu Line: A West Kimberley Song Cycle – from a spirit being to Dyuŋgayan to Roe and Butcher Joe, to Ray Keogh to Stuart Cooke; from Nyigina to Broome English to Australian English; from oral production supplemented with gestures and sand drawings via tape recorders and notebooks to alphabetic script printed on paper – reinforces the idea that translation is emphatically never about reducing the number of mediations, nor indeed facilitating the transfer of meaning.

I am reminded of my own process of watching stories translate between contexts and materialities in my own research. These stories of being with, performed on country, move through. They might offer a moment of fixedness/stability (Frans; Law 2004), otherwise, they draw on metaphor to metamorphose and translate into new forms, including oral stories. Just like the rainbow serpent creator beings that are said to have shaped parts of the Australian continent, stories too ‘dive and reappear in new places’ (Emerson in Levin 1999, p. 3). Stories make themselves visible in one manifestation or another: in country and through storytelling, before they disappear or transform into some other materiality: into transcripts, conversations of remembrance and onto paper. Following stories and metaphors as they reveal themselves as actors in my research, my task as the researcher is to ‘… seek to understand, and to watch what they’re up to’ (Nicholls 2013, p. 42). There can be no prior assumptions about what these actors do; as John Law (2004) states, actors as entities ‘… are not given, [instead] they emerge in relations [with other actors]’ (p. 102).

References:

Dyungayan, G & Cooke, S 2014, Bulu Line: A West Kimberley Song Cycle, Puncher &​ Wattmann, Glebe.

Law, J 2004, After Method: mess in social science research Routledge, Oxon.

Levin, J 1999, The poetics of transition: Emerson, pragmatism, and American literary modernism, Duke University Press, Durham, N.C.

Nicholls, A 2013, ‘Paper work’, Learning Communities: International Journal of Learning in Social Contexts, vol. 12, pp. 40-3.

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