As first peoples we have an inherited birthright and a deep responsibility to try, as much as possible, to tread lightly on Country and read Country. Our older generations, many of who are passing, saw the land before the felling of the forests, before the brick and mortar or the cement; it’s a different memory, often layered, and in the telling there are tears, head shaking, fist pumping, laughter, and at times gentle sweetness.
With our boundaries north to the Logan River, and west to the Great Dividing Range, we all know of the majestic mountains that cloak our horizons, the rivers that are our bloodline and our sea country. There was much foot travel in the old ways and gatherings – up and down the coast, along the ridges, where the stories of the Three Brothers penetrated every generation, sand fires holding many secrets, humour, the forbidden love stories, and our Indian and south sea connections.
Grandparents for generations may have been living under the Aborigines Protection Act 1909 on missions and reserves, but they still watched the winds and knew to look to the sky, knew the rhythm of waterways, the tidal cycles that guide the seasonal constellations. For generations of Bundjalung it was an oral chart that alerted them to the right time to undertake travel across their estates, celebrate the rituals, planting, fishing, and where and what to gather, harvest, and eat.
The Bundjalung, like many Indigenous nations, have suffered enormous losses, while living under occupation since the arrival of the First Fleet. Attempts were made through various government policies of alienation of the first peoples, who were seen as a barrier and problem across the frontier. It was the pastoral wars, a testimony to the greed of the Europeans, that defined their ignorance of land tenure and management systems, whose guise of law introduced legislations that considered very little of people; promoting an inhumane lack of any form of humanity for the existing society, be it their political, economic and/ or cultural values.
However, as the colony continued to overthrow, they underestimated the complexity of our Aboriginal societies and the deep knowledge and environmental care for resources that had provided for a continent of peoples for thousands of years.
The tangible and intangible connections to Bundjalung territories are growing, as our land, our waterways and sky country, continue to be part of our First Nations philosophy and ethos, one that was never static. The tools, the food sources, the rituals have adapted and shifted with the environmental and societal changes since time immemorial. The first navigators, we mapped our celestial worlds; with each constellation is a varying meaning across the landscape we call mother. And through our passages of time and rituals we continue to learn, to know of our place in the universe. Everything is interconnected and has a purpose.
Today our worlds often collide, while we understand not one society is perfect, and the mass destruction in the name of colonising is no one person’s fault, and we now face those disruptive elements of violence and greed in our peoples, as we sell off our inheritance.
For some, it took Article 22 of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to gently remind us, that the state must ensure that women and children enjoy full protection and guarantees against all forms of violence.
Today the reclamation work through arts and culture is a form of healing, a testament to the eons of oral storytelling practice. Some of our custodians refer to those stories, songlines and language that have been hidden and often considered lost owing to being outlawed by authorities as sleeping. For others, the stories were simply being kept, silently stored for the right time to be awakened.
Now is the time, as the global population begins to recognise the Cultural amnesias, the mistruths, and the systemic abusive behaviour in our systems, which have slowly grown like a fungus since colonisation.
There have been many changes, and now we are moving into a new era of conciliatory dialogue, with a place and voice at the table. Terminology is changing, and as we embrace some of the difficult and robust conversations we need to have to truly appreciate the truth telling and the move forward.
Rhoda Roberts AO will perform in Bundjalung Nghari – Indigenise presented by NORPA and Byron Writers Fest, 27 &28 August at Brunswick Picture House. Tickets at: www.norpa.org.au.