Op-ed by Kado Muir – NNTC Chair and FNHPA Co-Chair, for the National Indigenous Times
Across the deserts, in communities at the farthest reaches of Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory, mobile phones are buzzing, Elders are planning, swags are being rolled, vehicles serviced, stores stocked high with fuel and food.
Discussions in hushed tones bring young men and old to make the pilgrimage from urban centres as remote as Sydney, Perth, Adelaide and some regional towns, to set up camp in small remote communities at places where they have kinship or family ties, to settle into the timeless rhythm of the bush, to feel the beat of multiple generations before who practised and passed on ‘the Law’.
Our Law is carried in songs, dances and recitations of oral history which define and reify ancient linkages to place and to each other. The beat comes from the timeless Dreaming directly into the present.
Law ceremonies have been practised across Australia for countless generations, for thousands upon thousands of years. These ceremonies unite people – men and women, young and old, even the occasional white and black as families – in country and in spirit.
Rituals confer status to practitioners as men, or wati, or puntu, depending on which part of the desert you come from. They are titles from an institution, ancient in its origins and shrouded in a secrecy which serves to preserve its sacredness (and its inherent danger to all those who do not participate).
The revered and mystical Elders, songmen, religious leaders, masters of ceremony and final authority in governance and jurisdiction in the spiritual and real worlds inspire young men to be like them, to learn the songs and carry on these traditions.
The intrusion of White Australia and the impact of globalisation have shaken the foundations, but not damaged the core, of these timeless traditions. “We still got our law” is the often-heard proud rebuke to questions about cultural survival. However, the future of our traditions is in a fragile balance as each year passes and we are left with fewer elders born in the bush in the time before contact.
Young men too have to leave the bush to work in White Australia. Some become victims of alcohol abuse or imprisonment. The generations born on missions, settlements and stations when their families were exiled from their countries by force removal to allow for atomic bomb testing, or born in lands long settled by Whites, must wrestle to manage modern life and maintain the old ways.
There are other, less visible, but culturally devastating impacts to manage. An education system that diminishes our language skills, separates us from traditional learning methods and chips away at our self-esteem, in both the White and Black worlds.
The heart beats on here in the deserts, giving ancient breath to the relationships between each community, each family, each individual and each landscape. Yet I feel something is needed to hold this breath, to guarantee its immortality.
A new First Nations cultural support policy was announced by the Federal Government in February of this year, and the nation rightly applauded. We continue to look forward: to a Voice to improve the relationship between the settler State and First Nations. We watch some continue to play politics, count votes and wash their hands of responsibility.
But we are here. Wati (law men) and Minyma (law women), following the yiwarra (pathways) of the Tjukurrpa (our Dreaming). Occasional glimpses of this rich and vibrant ritual life are shared with the outside world. Aboriginal art adorning the walls of galleries and institutions throughout the world incite wonder at their source of inspiration, but the critic and admirer understand little. Such is the design of the Tjukurrpa. One can never fully understand this immense canvas of knowledges and relationships, which connects and explains all things from beyond the stars to below the ground. Many Elders are required to perform these annual ceremonies to ensure the connection with the law from ancient times is maintained.
As we careen down new pathways of political adjustment and break the systemic silence at Australia’s base to creating and making a noise, from demanding to be heard to finally finding a Voice to explain what White Australia needs to hear, I suggest there be special consideration for this heritage.
It is my wish, and that of many followers and practitioners of Aboriginal Law, that those bodies of ceremonies, lores, rituals, songs, dances, stories, cultural heritage places, artworks and languages inspired by the Tjukurrpa are also given a Voice. My wish is that this set of traditions, our cultural heritage, be recognised for its place as the heart of this country and receive global recognition worthy of inscription as one of humanity’s great treasures and take its rightful position on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
Chair of the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance