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March 24, 2023

Here & Now 177 Standing together

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here-now-177-picS Sorrensen

Uki. Thursday, 12.10pm

The little girl, ceremonial paint on her face, feathers around her arms, looks up at the people beside her to see what they’re doing – and flaps her arms like a bird flying. She is flying energetically when, on a cue from the didgeridoo, the other dancers stop flapping, form a circle and, arms outstretched, glide on the wind.

The little girl is momentarily confused, her arms frozen mid-flap. A woman, also painted and feathered, gently nudges the girl into the circle and shows her how to glide: arms out, leaning from side to side. The girl copies the woman, holds out her arms, leans from side to side, and soars. It’s fun. She laughs.

I like that about Aboriginal dancing – the kids are always involved. They learn through participation, by copying. This makes adults responsible.

It’s the dance of the sea eagle. The Aboriginal dancers are in a small park in the centre of Uki, where the smell of burnt eucalyptus leaves hangs in the air.

Before the dance by this Murwillumbah-based dance troupe, there was a smoking ceremony. While the barefooted, t-shirted celebrant built a fire on an old palm leaf sheath – it’s uncool to leave burn marks on the park grass – he reminded the crowd (and me) of our connection to land, of our obligations to it. He reminded us of the ancestors, of the wisdom that has brought us to here and now: We are the land.

The crowd, black and white, old and young, listened as grey clouds bunched above us. And then we walked through the tangy smoke, sharing that experience with generations that have gone before us.

The Great Sioux Nation, which encompassed much of what is now North and South Dakota in the US, also has a smoking ceremony, but the Sioux use sage, not eucalyptus. Like us, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe is having a smoking ceremony today. They have gathered on Sioux land to protect it against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Protecting the land is their obligation. They learned that as children from the adults and ancestors.

When I was a child I never learnt to protect the land.

The Standing Rock Sioux are not standing alone. The protest has attracted indigenous people from all over North America. It is the biggest gathering of Native American tribes since Chief Sitting Bull (spiritual leader of the Sioux) was shot more than a hundred years ago.

And there are modern tribes gathering there too: post-punks from Germany, hippies from Canada, Indigenous-rights groups from Central America, and white Americans from the suburbs.

And now this diverse mob in Uki, united in smoke, stands with them too.

Wisdom, whether it’s through Western science or Indigenous knowledge, points to the same reality: We are the land.

The dancers stop circling, and form two lines. The little girl runs to a line and stands next to a young man. He crouches into some knee-flexing dance steps. She does too. He stamps his feet into the couch grass. She does too.

Indigenous cultures around the world share wisdom this way, directly from adults to children. It keeps the adults honest, the wisdom uncorrupted.

Imagine if all adults, everywhere, had their children beside them as they went about their business. Would they show their children how to push oil pipelines through sacred sites and water catchments? Would they show their children how to mine coal in a climate-changing world? Would they show their children how to sell bombs to dictators, clear forests, exploit the desperate?

The dance finishes. The crowd applauds.

Indigenous people around the world are helping us remember that we are the land, and we have obligations.

The little girl claps, and then flies, arms flapping, to her mother.



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  1. “When I was a child I never learnt to protect the land.”

    Neither did I . . . but it’s never too late to learn! The best bit of advice I’d give to any future farmer or landholder: “Look after the land and it will look after you.”


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