Friday, July 21st 2017

Spirit Journey into the Heart of Australia

By David Toyer

At the beginning of June I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a ‘Spirit Journey’ out at Alice Springs.   I was doubly fortunate that we only had a group of 6 participants on this trip, instead of the normal 12.

On the 25th May, 2 days before I left for Alice Springs the St Mary’s Ebulletin arrived in my inbox with the quote by Mudrooroo Narogin ‘Our spirituality is a oneness and an interconnectedness with all that lives and breathes, even with all that does not live or breathe’ – how true would those word become over the forthcoming week.

But firstly - to back up a little, in order to give this homily some context.   Sometime before our journey began each participant was asked to outline what they hoped to gain from the Spirit Journey.  By far my main desire was to develop a greater understanding of what “Land” means from an aboriginal perspective.  I intuitively understand connection to land but I have always sensed my understanding is much different to, and less intense, than the aboriginal understanding.

I grew up in a little country town by the name of Wellington – just south east of Dubbo.  Wellington was discovered, for the English, by Oxley in 1817 and it was the second town west of the Blue Mountains to be settled by Europeans.  It has a long history of indigenous and non-indigenous association.  When I was a child my father was a vegetable grower and obtained most of his harvesting labour from the local ‘Nanima’ Mission Station, situated on the Town Common.  Back in the 1950s I remember my father returning from the mission with 30-40 people stacked on the old truck – all these spindly little legs dangling over the side of the truck as they bounced down the road– other people sitting up on top of the cabin – they were always happy, laughing and hard working.

About 5 years ago Patti Miller, a woman of my age who was also born in Wellington wrote a book entitled “The Mind of a Thief”.  It was about a Claim lodged under Aboriginal Land Rights Act in Feb 1994 by Rose Chown representing the “Wiradjuri Wellington Aboriginal Town Common Committee” – I went to school with Rose.  Title, under Rose’s Claim, was granted in July 2000 and the Land was handed over on 1st Nov 2007 – almost 13 years after the claim was originally lodged.  There had been some division in the local aboriginal community as Rose had based her claim on “residency”, whereas another group from the “Gallanggabang Aboriginal Corporation”, led by local elder Joyce Williams, considered they had a more legitimated right to the Claim based on “ancestry”.   (PHOTO INSERT – JOYCE, DAVID & JANET) I was fortunate enough to catch up with Joyce in Wellington last year – this photo was taken a few weeks before her 90th birthday, an amazing woman, highly respected in the district. The root problem of the dispute was that the Land Rights Act had “collapsed the distinction between the right to identify with country and the right to speak for country''.  Gallanggabang claimed Rose had the right to “identify” with country, but not the “right to speak” for country.

During the long fight, Rose lived in her tin hut on the town common, as she had done in her childhood, and kept alive her dream to one day return the land to the idyllic days of her youth, when a number of aboriginal families lived there, at one with nature.  Sadly Rose passed away, in 2010, somewhat disillusioned.  She had hoped to be able to get funding to turn the land into a retreat for troubled aboriginal youth, but was unsuccessful on that score.

Since I read “The Mind of a Thief” some years ago I have begun to question my understanding of the importance of land to aboriginal people.  When people have asked me:  ‘why is this land issue so important?’ I have felt inadequate in giving an answer with any sort of depth, particularly to people who don’t understand the most basic connection.

This homily is my attempt to convey my understanding of what Land means to aboriginal people.  I am not speaking for any other person or group of people, either indigenous or non-indigenous – that would be, at the very least, naive.  I most certainly do not expect to get it even partially correct – all I can do is improve on my understanding and continue the search.

Thus began my “Spirit Journey” – through the desert country - sleeping in our swags, under the stars, by night.

During the journey proper we travelled east, through the East Macdonall  Ranges, for a day and then headed north at about the point the ranges finish and the Simpson Desert begins - breathtaking country.  (INSERT – JOHN BY THE FIRE)  We had an Eastern Arrernte elder and traditional healer, John Cavenagh, as our guide and we travelled through his country – the country he grew up on and where he worked as a stockman and tracker.  One of the most memorable things about our whole journey was John’s depth of connection with his own country, his depth of personal spirituality, and his deep commitment to connecting with and sharing with non-indigenous people - a truly amazing man.  John is always keen to receive criticism, always keen for people to take photographs.  He has deep wisdom and knows that discussion and criticism are key factors in developing a deeper mutual understanding, he knows that if people take photographs they are likely to share those photographs with other people throughout the World and thus spread the understanding further.

The first two nights, prior to departure, we had camped at “Bluegums”, a property about 15ks SE of Alice.  We spent a lot of time sitting around fires and listening to talks from various elders.  The first night we heard from John and his lovely wife Mali (Maralyn) and John cooked roo tails for us in the fire. (INSERT – JOHN with ROO TAILS, by the FIRE).  He outlined the importance of respecting the fire and keeping it clean, not throwing rubbish in the fire.  He also mentioned the importance of cooking with good spirit, how bad energy impacts on the food and on those who eat it.

John and Mali showed an amazing integrity, resilience and determination to live with much daily hurt and sorrow and yet continue to work towards true reconciliation with the non-indigenous World.  They aimed to remain positive and bring all, including their close family, along on the journey of life.  Their opposition can sometimes come from their own people trying to make out that, John and Mali, in their effort to engage with non-indigenous people, are somehow deserting their own mob.  This is something of have heard from a number of indigenous people in other parts of Australia.

Aboriginal people have reverence and respect for all natural things; earth, water, plants, animals and the skies.  They have respect for the soil, the rocks, and the landforms.  They have respect for the waterholes, the rivers & the seas.  They have compassion & respect for animals, even when they have to kill some of those animals for food – there is sadness, they feel for the animals, nothing is wasted, they use every part of the animal.  They have respect for the stars, the moon, the sun and the various signs and forms within the skies.

Many times during our journey I had observed John wispering to himself and sometimes singing in a low voice as we walked along.  It became apparent that he was talking to everything in nature around him – to the earth, the rocks, the water, the trees, the animals.  (INSERT PHOTO – WATER HOLE) We came across this magnificent water hole near Altunga, where he knelt down and whispered something.  John explained that he was saying “werte! Kwatye” (Wert ah! Quoga”) or “Hello Water” – Werte being Arrente for “Hello” and Kwatye meaning “ Water”.  John explained the importance of talking to both animate and inanimate things whilst travelling.

I still hold wonderful memories about our visit to that waterhole.  We were all so awe inspired that we broke into a spontaneous silence for about ½ an hour, whilst sitting around on the rocks – totally unplanned - no one felt the need to break it.

(INSERT PHOTO – WATER IN THE ROCK) On another day John took us to through the bush to a rock outcrop.  He stood in front of this large sloping rock, with a small rock sitting on the surface, and asked us to move the small rock away – it was covering a hole.  (INSERT PHOTO – HOLE IN ROCK) You could put your hand inside and touch the well of water that he said never dried up.

We lit fires all day – firstly when we awoke in the morning – that didn’t take long to kick into action with temperatures below zero overnight!!   We lit fires for morning smoko, lunch, afternoon smoko, dinner and then of course all night – John explained how fire keeps any wild animals at bay.

(INSERT PHOTO – JOHN WITH BUSH FUSCHIA) One day John took us to visit a patch of Bush Fuscia and explained how that is used as a medicine to smoke people.  We brought some back to our lunch time fire and felt the effects of the smoking Fuschia, as we sat there (INSERT PHOTO – BEING SMOKED by BUSH FUSCHIA).  It had the amazing impact of making each of us immediately more present and alert, clearing our breathing and re-energizing our inner spirit.

We had some deep and meaningfuls around the fire each night and some good singing.  Many comments usually surfaced about John and his likely future Guru status.  When he was sufficiently primed, late at night, he would come out with some humours comments such as “move over Dalai Lama”!! – accompanied by his usual happy giggle.   John’s humour would always come to the surface and when he said “OK - Time for a quiz!” you had to pay attention – he had a great knowledge of popular music and a lot of the quizzes revolved around rock stars.  He pointed out how humour was a very important part of aboriginality.

One night the a quiz question was “How to trees communicate?”.  (INSERT PHOTO – BLUE GUM in RIVER BED) As John explained it was via their roots – the extensive interwoven root systems.  This seemed not at all beyond the realms of possibility.

(INSERT PHOTO – KW TURNER) On our second night camped out at Bluegums we had a talk from local elder and author KW Turner.  The first reading of this liturgy came from KWs writing.  She was there to explain kinship, tribal and language groups and the connection to land.  (INSERT PHOTO – KW TURNER’S ‘LAND’ CHART) This is a chart developed from KWs knowledge to explain the depth of aboriginal connection to land.  There is the central country ground or earth and sky I have previously alluded to, but there is also connection to:

  • The people of the land and their identities – including owners and managers of the land
  • The relationship networks
  • The ceremonies, rituals, spirits
  • The animals and plants and their kinship and support
  • The ancestor spirits incorporating; creation, spiritual reverence and healing.

Finally I will leave you with a song composed and sung by Steve Bevis in tribute to the work done by John Cavenagh  and to celebrate the Spirit Journey.   Steve is a singer/songwriter and is also the Minister of the John Flynn Uniting Church at Alice Springs. (INSERT VIDEO)

David Toyer – Homily 8-9th July 2017