14 August 2013
I am in my hire car, driving the straight and dusty road to Barcaldine in Bidjara Country. The sun bounces and spits on the asphalt and the air is heavy with the rich decaying carcasses of kangaroos that lie at twenty-yard intervals the entire 110km section of the road I travel. They have been pulled to the side, or still lie heaped in the middle of the road, to appear suddenly from under the high clearance of the vehicle in front.
I am going to meet Janeece, Gerry, Phyllis and others at the Red Shed where paintings are being prepared for the My Earth Calls art exhibition at Stockman’s Hall of Fame in Longreach. Aboriginal artists from around Western Queensland are exhibiting.
I receive a warm welcome at The Shed. Doors on one side open onto an orange grove, and on the other to a sheltered patio, set up with a few plastic chairs and a table for smoko and cups of tea. Parrots haggle over the juicy flowers in a nearby tree. Inside the shed benches are strewn with paints and canvases. There is an air of quiet industry.
Phyllis, an Elder of Bidjara Country, shows me her painting.
“It represents the night sky and spirituality and the earth. The dots around the outside represent our mob trying to reach their spirituality”.
Phyllis shows me a face that has emerged in the middle of the painting.
“I left the centre of the painting bare, and as I was taking photos of my work to document the progress, there was a face appeared in there. It used to be the face of my cousin. I haven’t worked the painting at all. I didn’t put the face there, but it changed to the face of my mother. Now it has changed again to the face of an unknown young girl. We believe strongly in our spirituality and in our ancestors. They let us know things, or that they are with us. If we look after our land and our law and heritage, they will look after us and guide us.”
I look at the painting and very clearly the beautiful face of a young girl emerges at the very heart of the work.
Phyllis tells me about the strict traditional laws; affecting everything from the relations between boys and girls, to the details of how food was distributed, and what animal or part of each animal could be eaten, by whom. The rules around food ensured the survival of all the species.
Phyllis believes the loss of laws through non-Aboriginal intervention has led to loss of respect and contributes to the problems seen today in drug and alcohol abuse. “The people have forgotten their roots”, she says. “It worked for thousands of years”.
“But we still teach our children the bush medicines and bush foods. We share this knowledge orally only to the people we want to know. There are people who will take advantage and exploit the knowledge; people who aren’t Australian Aboriginal are selling traditional medicines for big money”.
It seems a recurring theme that I am told by the elders and Aboriginal people I meet; that one way to solve the social problems that exist today in Australian Aboriginal communities, the poor health and the early deaths, might be to take the people back and re-teach them traditional ways, about culture and living on their land; to undo the shame that was taught by the banning of language and traditional ways, and replace it with a very worthy pride.
Gerry tells me of the mining threats to the Diamantina, Cooper Creek and Georgina Rivers of the Lake Eyre river systems and the government support for fracking in the area, revoking the Wild Rivers protection. I think how destructive that will be, not just for the fragile environment, but also for any progress in the wellbeing of the Aboriginal people of the area, if progress is to come from re-teaching traditional ways and living on the land.
Gerry, Phyllis and I pile into the car to travel out to some country. They take me to the place they bring the children to teach them about their heritage and show me the traditional tree-branch shelters the children have built. Phyllis bends down to pick up flints from ancient stone tools, which are lying everywhere on the sand; and they lead me to a scar tree, an old tree with a scar where a Coolamon (a carrying vessel) has been carved from the bark.
I stand for a while to listen to the landscape. The creeks are dry; gum leaves rustle in the breeze. And there is a complete stillness in the air that hangs behind the sighing trees like a mantle to another world, somewhere between the stark blue sky and the silvery green scrub.
(I have added some more reference links to the Australia Digital Resources page of the blog)