It was hot and the roads were dusty and at times very dark. We drove for 19 hours along some of Australia’s most isolated roads, our convoy of five cars and one bus carried my in-laws and my in-laws’ extended family, across eight different Aboriginal nations for a law ceremony. We drove for hours without catching sight of another car, and by the time we reached our destination, most of us were in a state of near delirium.
I am terrified of long drives and I did protest. I wanted to rest for the night and I told my partner that we might die in a road accident if we didn’t. He said, quite plainly, we will die if we don’t stick together. My white rationalism met his black rationalism. For him the decision to make this journey was out of our hands; we had a ceremony to get to and we couldn’t stop. No-one was allowed to be on the roads after our entourage. In the past, the ‘highways’ that coursed across Australia as foot tracks would have been empty at this time. Today, most people in Australia aren’t aware of the role these roads still play in ceremonial business. But those of us who do must follow the law. The consequences of not doing so, my partner reminded me, could very well be death brought by the powers pulsating through this Aboriginal country. So we drove through the night.
We camped for a week in a small Aboriginal community in the remote north-west of Australia. There must have been 1000 of us, accommodated by a community of less than 200 residents. A record number of 94 boys were taken through this particular ceremony. No-one could remember a gathering of this size. My partner’s son was one of them and, as one of his mothers, I had certain ceremonial obligations to fulfil.
I was the only non-Indigenous person in a sea of 1000. I was a bright white minority in another’s country and I had to listen carefully. At one point a lady called out: ‘Hey white girl, you got something to cover your head?’ Next thing I knew every woman was lined up, heads covered, faces to the ground, in preparation for the first public appearance of the boys in five days.
Organising a gathering like this is no easy feat. There is the transport, the fuel, the food, the shelter, the toilets, the showers, the firewood and the constant need for drinking water. And of course the ceremonial process—who does what, when and how. And finally the forms of trade and payment that follow through the age-old practice of wirnan. Non-Indigenous people who are paid good salaries in Aboriginal communities to organise far less, with very varying degrees of success, would be in awe at how seamlessly things flowed. I know I was. For a week we sat in the heat, under tarps held up by paperbark trunks made into post and lintel structures. We never knew exactly when the ceremony would end, and things changed regularly. It was hot and it rained, and then it got even hotter. People did want to go home. But no-one complained. Respect, patience and commitment dominated. It was an environment of social harmony and everything that needed to happen happened when it needed to.
This was something done for Aboriginal people by Aboriginal people. It took place on their terms. And as simple as it sounds, in Aboriginal Australia—a land so often dominated by white professionals—this is a rare thing.
Earlier this year I heard about a small amount of funding that was available for projects that strengthened ‘the emotional and social wellbeing’ of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people based on the needs identified ‘by the community for the community’. The funding model was self-described as innovative, grass-roots and empowering.
I helped my in-laws apply to support the logistics of these ceremonies for which they are, in large part, responsible. For the cash-strapped population of remote Aboriginal Australia, transporting and feeding 1000 people over hundreds of kilometres is no easy thing, yet people are working bloody hard to make sure it happens. The benefits to wellbeing, identity and community cohesiveness that a little cash could support through these ceremonies seemed obvious and boundless. This was nothing vague or ill thought out. It was one of the clearest things I have been part of in Aboriginal Australia. Cultural obligations, community and familial responsibility combine the social and intellectual spheres to forge one important sense of purpose and place through ceremony. This is where the things that bind people are rooted. And it is from here that wellbeing grows.
When the funding body advised us that our submission was unsuccessful they suggested our application was better suited to the Department of Culture and the Arts (DCA). Now, would DCA fund a baptism, a bar mitzvah or a pilgrimage to Mecca? When did religious and social rites of passage become art? The funding body deeply offended us. And we never wrote back.
What their advice brought home is how wider Australia generally views remote Aboriginal Australia; it’s either a lifestyle choice or an aesthetic object. It also showed us how even the most well-intentioned efforts are grounded in notions of ‘wellbeing’ that are still inherently Western. The fact that this world continues in its own way, out of sight of mainstream Australia is undoubtedly its strength. However, the inability to value the very real contribution it makes to the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal people is everyone’s loss.
As the week-long ceremony drew to its end, I stood behind my son, as did the mothers of 93 other boys. An almost endless stream of men passed before us, as every man present shook every boy’s hand and bestowed their advice; ‘be good’, ‘stay out of trouble’, ‘respect’, ‘listen to your mother and father now’, ‘I’m proud of you’. This progression of men, one after the other, continued for about 20 minutes. It was phenomenal.
I have never before seen that degree of control, of group organisation, of respect, patience, collaboration, purpose and happiness that that week brought about. This is what an individual and community’s social and emotional wellbeing is grounded in. This is what happens when things for Aboriginal people are done by Aboriginal people.