Bunjil, ochre on stone, by Sylvan Oats, age 8

Bunjil

(photo of artwork – ‘Bunjil’, ochre on stone, by Sylvan Oats, age 8)

I stood in a small circle in the centre with the Dreaming team. Hundreds of black ducks, water rats, rainbow lorikeets and pobblebonk frogs were perched around us on the grassy clearing by the creek. Hand-made costumes clad the child performers, who were struggling to keep quiet and seated in their allocated positions, energised at finally being there, about to begin. Each mob had an adult or two to try and keep them calm, but the noise was cacophonous.  Dressed in my raven outfit of raggedy blacks, I struggled to focus on the instructions of the director. So much was running through my mind. There were dozens of tasks to get done before and during the festival the following day, let alone acting in this show, the culmination of the festival. My role included leading a group of unruly amateur actors, the Waas, the tricksters of this crazy outdoor extravaganza, in their key role of narrating the story. Thousands would assemble the next day, and we wanted to make sure the meaning got through. But first we had to get through this, the dress rehearsal.

Or did we?

Our theatre was a retelling of an ancient Dreaming story of the creation of the world. This story was shared with us by Ian Hunter, Wurundjeri elder, our guide and collaborator. His mother had passed the story to him, his mother the great grand-niece of William Barak, the last traditional headman of the Wurundjeri, who met with the colonisers when they first came ashore in 1835. That landing unleashed a cataclysm on the culture of the First Peoples, and the deaths by disease and settler violence, of four out of every five Wurundjeri people within the first few decades.

Ian thought it time to bring a creation story back to life. He told us the tale of Bunjil, wedge-tailed eagle, creator, who made the earth, the rivers and creeks, the plants, the humans and the animals. Once he was done making the world, Bunjil directed Waa, raven, the protector, to make a whirlwind to take him into the sky. From Bunjil’s vantage point, he saw that the world wasn’t finished. He’d forgotten to colour it. That was the role for his wife, Branbeal, the rainbow.

For our telling of the ancient story, there I was, flying with the Waas, wings outstretched, sprinting around the theatre ground, making the whirlwind. We made a wind, it lifted Bunjil, and all of us dropped to ground. As I lay there panting, the song to call in Branbeal the rainbow began. A slow chant, a rising melody, to humbly request she colour the black and white world. This song had been written anew, for if there ever were such a song, it was lost long ago.

And while the song was sung the clouds, gathering in the west, thickened and darkened above us. The song ended. And into that silence came the storm.

The rain began. Hard rain, fat and pelting drops. Loud rain, drumming into us, into earth. Within seconds all of us were utterly wet. Everyone got to their feet and fled, adults hurried children away, musicians covered precious instruments, artists draped their bodies across their rainbow-painted props and ran for cover. From underneath my soggy black hat, water leaking through my feathers, I watched our rehearsal turn to ruins.

Gathering what I could from the wreckage, I dashed with the dozen or so other organisers back up the hill to the gates of CERES Park, our workplace, the community environment centre that was the host of this huge community pageant. In the five minutes it took to get to the Village Green, the large open space at the centre of the park, the rain had stopped. From torrent to absolutely nothing. But there, arcing above the Village Green, was the brightest, most vivid double rainbow anyone had ever seen.

 

For a long time I haven’t wanted to look deeper into the story of the day Branbeal came. I’ve been content to keep it as a precious memory, separate from almost everything else I’ve known. But it’s time to explore something of the making of myth.

 

When I was four years old, a wedge-tailed eagle came to live close to my home in Albert Park. Grandest of all birds, a wingspan two and a half metres wide, sightings of a bird like him in the city were extremely rare, let alone the wonder that one would choose to reside in an inner-city park. I remember school outings to visit the eagle, peering up through hot sunlight into the sparse, silhouetted branches of the largest tree in the park. We saw him, perched at the very top. Who knows why for this eagle, this eagle only, the city suited him. For five years he soared above the suburb, becoming something of a neighbourhood mascot, and given the name Sam. For us kids he was special, he was magnificent. There was magic in his existence, thriving in the city. But he wasn’t Bunjil.

 

As a child, many of my favourite books were Aboriginal stories and mythologies. These stories were of the spirit powers of the earth, sometimes benevolent, other times menacing. I was the first generation of white Australians to have access to these kind of picture books, books written and illustrated by Aboriginal people. I could take them up myself, even before I could read, and immerse myself within them. Pouring over their pages, pouring into those images, absorbing the feeling and sensing strange meaning, these contributed a sacred framework to my secular upbringing. Yet not in any sort of communal sense. It was, rather, a private, introverted accumulation of attachment to wild and beautiful places and the mysterious beings of those places. Landing into meaning, with community, that wouldn’t happen for many years yet. But it did come. It came when I started work as events coordinator at CERES.

On the banks of the Merri Creek in inner-city Brunswick, CERES, named for the Greek goddess of agriculture, hosted a ritual. The telling, one year, of the Wurundjeri story of Waa and Bunjil and Branbeal, was nested within that ritual. Every year, the story of the return of the sacred kingfisher became a ritual enacted, danced and sung. The sacred kingfisher, a small and beautiful bird of cloud-white and sky-blue, had lived before time began by the Merri Merri. Kingfisher migrated north in winter, returning each spring to nest and breed. Kingfisher vanished for decades when the creek’s ecologies collapsed due to land clearing, pollution and industrialisation. But when local residents began to clean up and replant, the renewed ecosystems could once again support the species, and sacred kingfishers eventually returned.

This story of hope is analogous to the story of CERES itself. That land was cleared, quarried, relegated to a rubbish dump then finally rehabilitated to become an organic farm, environmental education and community hub. CERES began the festival to celebrate the annual return of this emblematic bird, a ritual that symbolised natural renewal and grass-roots efforts.

The heart of the festival was the involvement of children. Many local schools took part, acting within the pageants, getting involved with tree-plantings as part of the preparations, learning Wurundjeri lore and natural history, and learning how their actions could positively impact their futures. But the experience landed most fully in the ritual’s ability to create enchantment. To walk along the revegetated creek at dusk to the sounds of flutes and drums and bells and crickets, to light a candle for the ancestors, to dance the Kingfisher’s dance around the fire beside the giant Mother Kingfisher puppet; these experiences blended beauty with meaning. They become, in some small way, initiatory, awakening the participants to the power of a positive, integrated vision for harmony and communion with our natural world.

Ian Hunter, co-founder of the festival, worked closely with a group of artist activists he named the Dreaming Team. Together they wove traditional Wurundjeri knowledge within the tellings of sacred kingfisher’s return. I was lucky to be part of the team for many years. As a custodian of these stories, recruiting volunteers, organising, programming, promoting and fundraising for the festival for months of every year, there was, at that time in my life, no day more important, more meaningful, or more sacred than Kingfisher.

It wasn’t just me. There was huge meaning in the kingfisher story to many seeking to make change. The biggest meanings, in fact. That we could save what we love. That we could repair. That we could recover lost things. That we could belong.

 

For Kingfisher Festival, there was a role for which I had custodianship. It was that of Waa, raven, the gang of trickster clowns, to which I devoted many years to coordinating and then performing. Waa’s role was as intermediary between humans and Kingfisher, the elusive, silent star of the show, and other lofty beings who sometimes featured, such as Bunjil, the Eagle. The Waas gave commentary, they were cheeky and bold and rude, they sometimes stole food from the audience’s pre-show picnics. They strutted and hunched around the park, poked their shiny black cardboard beaks into bins, called to each other in harsh, gargling caws. Dressed in old black boas, tuxedos, and tattered satin frocks, their elegant dignity came forth when they ran as a flock, arms high outstretched opened wide their hearts and lifted their joy, that’s when they flew.

Eagle and Raven species live throughout the world, and everywhere they are significant to people. Their particular and vivid characteristics had, I suspect, a profound influence on what we tend to think of as human. The powerful and soaring eagle, the clever and opportunistic raven, these beings have become archetypes, and have shaped cultures around the globe for hundreds of thousands of years. Here on Wurundjeri country, eagle and raven were the two moieties, a way of dividing clan members into two groups for purposes of marriage and other ceremonies. Every person was either eagle or raven. So it was interesting to play the role of Waa over the years, to feel connected to them in some small way, and wonder what it meant to know, all one’s life, that you belong to that group.

 

Visiting my linguist friend Myf in Alice Springs, she took me, on one of her errands, to the house of her colleague Margaret Kemarre Turner ✝︎. Known to all as MK, she is a highly respected teacher of her Arrernte language and culture. Myf was working with MK on an education project, a poster called ‘Birds that Teach People Things.’ It featured traditional knowledge of the roles specific birds played in cultural life; bird that signal the presence of water or game or a change in weather, the visits of kin or the coming of misfortune.

Born in the desert, brought up on Country in ‘traditional way,’ MK’s family was moved onto a mission when she was young by miners planning to dig up her family’s ancestral lands. At the mission she learned English and adopted Christianity. We chatted outside her home in the sea-green shade of a ghost gum. She was sharp, vital, and over eighty. Both authority and humility are evident in how she expresses her knowledge in her book, Iwenhe Tyerrtye – what is means to be an Aboriginal person.

…it’s land that reveals things so that people can remember what it is that they’ve forgotten. Land teaches you. And Land memorises you. Itelarentye mpwarerle, it makes you remember. The Land is the real teacher.

The Story is the Land, and the Land is the Story. The Story holds the people, and the people live inside the Story. The Story lives inside the people, and the Land lives inside the people also. It goes all ways to hold the Land.

To experience a mystical state in nature with no deep context or knowledge behind it is very different to someone immersed within their deeply storied place. A place with stories that are ancient, unfathomably intergenerational, stories that are, in effect, identical to survival. Stories that you have lived, over and over, all your life long, without the distraction of abstraction. No abstraction because one was never not on Country: known, loved, listening and speaking earth. Every place unique, distinct, and inhabited. Every place alive.

In traditional Aboriginal culture every family is an integral part of the web of knowledge keeping, which includes land tending, and singing and dancing the lore. The subtle and complex skill of perceiving the earth’s aliveness and how this interacts with humans was required of everyone. I imagine certain individuals refined the capacities further than others, but this depth perception, this shamanic capacity, was required of everyone. It was, quite simply, a survival skill. In this, the driest continent, primarily covered by terrain that Europeans found to be challenging or downright impossible to inhabit, Aboriginal people thrived for tens of thousands of years. They did this through listening, deep listening, to achieve accurate perception, and then act, collectively, from what they learned.

What have been called superstitions by a de-animist culture were often practices of tending relationships. Returning words, songs, gestures and gifts to the great gift of life. Honouring and recognising presences. Where relationships mattered because the intimate, low-tech, localised and small-scale nature of the human community meant causes and effect were real and visible. Hence ecological learning was a daily, every-moment feedback system. All life was lived within this system, this system of life. Living like this, everything was responsive, alive. It’s just how thing were. Now that most of us don’t live like this, now that we’ve stepped, with our conceptualising, outside of life, we call it animism.

Strange and lucky grace is one thing, a precious thing, utterly mysterious, profoundly transformative. But it’s not the same thing as bone-deep knowledge of country. It’s not long, hard-won symbiosis with country, where ancient and inherited understanding fuses with initiatory and body knowing to create an intimacy with place impossible to fathom for a modern. An intimacy where the idea of human loses meaning, to be replaced, perhaps, with Country acting through, with, as human. Add to this the knowing that one were always, also, Eagle, or Raven. What then is the self? What is Country? When, where, what, who is telling the story?

Mythologist Joshua Schrei calls it normative consciousness. Normative, as in normal. He makes the point that this has been an utterly integral mode of perception for almost all time, essential to the functioning of hunter-gatherer lifeways. Ninety-nine point nine percent of human time we all lived as hunter-gatherers, according to the latest studies of pre-history.  He describes the arrogance of the de-animist with the analogy of the last person in a line of one thousand ancestors, looking back on them and pronouncing all of them as wrong, of holding an inaccurate understanding of the way things are. Our ancestors, who lived for tens or hundreds of thousands of years alongside the other beings of this planet without fatally compromising those ecosystems. It’s a useful framing.

And as my friend Jack, a Nyoongar Aboriginal man from South-Western Australia, said to me once. ‘If it’s only available to us, then it’s not the real and objective awareness that Aboriginal culture insists that it is, it’s just an artefact of a particular people. So by definition, if it’s real, then it’s available to anyone who is willing to listen and to take seriously what it is that they hear.’

But until, or instead, of that deep, long listening, there may be moments of unaccountable grace. Such grace, or synchronicity as Jung called it, can affect us profoundly. I think it does so because it reveals the felt sense of true communication, true communion with Country. For all of human evolution we relied on this communion – the intense pleasure this knowing gave us was a sign of its importance to our flourishing. I suspect we must find this pleasure again.

 

Uncle Max Harrison ✝︎, Dulumunmun, Yuin elder was my teacher for a time. He is a compact man, with a quiet, grounded presence. He takes people onto the earth in order to make clear his instructions.

He bends down to the earth and takes up some soil or sand. ’See this, this earth? This is what we must reconcile with. All of us. Both mobs, aboriginal mob, and whitefellas. All of us are out of touch.’

As Max explains, all of us are estranged in some way or another, because colonial ideologies are diffused into all the structures that order our common life. To creatively, compassionately and curiously engage with this quest to reconcile with the earth is, teaches Max, our common project. It can guide us, keep us focussed on the bigger and more enduring relationship – people with place, our aliveness, here within life process.

My friend Michael is a physiotherapist based in Katherine in the Northern Territory. He works remotely, visiting Aboriginal communities to provide care to, generally, the old folk. On Country, he often works outside. Under a tree’s shade somewhere, directly on the earth; that’s where both he and his clients are most comfortable. There are strong traditions of touch therapy in Aboriginal culture, so his work is appreciated and understood. But then, one day, the touch went the other way. He was with one of his clients under the tree where she tended to sit most days. The rise upon which the tree grew afforded a wide view of her land. They were watching the world together when she leaned over to him, and said, look, and touched his hand.

And with that touch the view transformed.

He described it like this:

Suddenly I could see the patterns and energies that connected everything. Everything was alive and communicating, shimmering. It was totally real. I don’t know what happened. But I wondered if, when she touched me, I saw through her eyes.

Transformative awareness emanating from another’s body. There’s a word for such a thing in various spiritual traditions. In Hinduism it’s called shaktipat, which translates as ‘sending energy’ in Sanskrit. When I first met the man who would become a Zen teacher for me, I walked through the door into the small lecture theatre and his magnetism effected a kind of shock wave in my system. Another couple of times, in the presence of energy healers, the room crackled and sparked when I entered. People who work within profoundly different paradigms, cultivating in their bodies subtle awarenesses — perhaps their bodies speak to ours direct.

Michael continued with his story. “Later that day I was driving out with one of the visiting doctors, and the road passed near to her where she still sat under the tree. The doctor gestured towards her.

“’What a waste of a life’, he said. And the way he said it I don’t think he meant the travesty of her talents not being recognised. No, it was a judgement on their seeming contentment to do nothing but just sit on the earth. I see the old folk doing everywhere I go, sitting on the earth, but I understand now that they’re doing something far more than that. They’re being present with it. They’re experiencing it. In some mysterious way, they’re being it.”

We could turn this doctor’s phrase around. What a waste of a life, to never know what is possible when one truly belongs. The human culture I came of age in could be framed as the juvenile, the uninitiated, incapable of accurate sensemaking, because it doesn’t understand the irrevocability, or the morality, of our interpenetration with life.

 

I’m aware of the tendency, particularly among the Australian intelligentsia, to consider certain types of experience to be off-limits. That particular experience might be real for you, but it’s not real for us; this is considered to be the respectful, non-appropriative stance. There’s much to commend in this stance. Casual, shallow appropriation of another culture’s images or practices reveals ignorance or arrogance. But there are ways of respectful learning. There’s settling in for the long haul. There’s ongoing commitment to listening to places, and peoples of place. There’s learning slowly, over decades.

Those of European ancestry may have to dig little deeper to access other ways of knowing, having been coerced, on threat of violence or cultural expulsion, to give up their animist vision for a few hundred years now. But it is important to remember that a few hundred years is a miniature step in the evolutionary journey of our animal being. It’s time, I think, to stop projecting culturally repressed sensitivity and awareness onto Aboriginal peoples and take responsibility for our complex, lively, intelligent animal selves.

Before we are a person of particular ancestry or gender, before, indeed, we are a person, we are an animal. Like all animals, we seek to survive, to thrive in our terrain. Multidimensional, open, liminal, and contextual states of awareness are skills that evolved for survival and they have potency outside of their original applications. That’s because they are skills most attuned to life, to aliveness. The animist vision could well be the most vital awareness for everyone to be cultivating at this time in history.

 

There is a passage in Inga Clendinnen’s book Dancing with Strangers about the Sydney Aboriginal people’s response, in the very early days of the First Fleet’s penal colony, to the horrific violence inflicted on the convicts by their jailers. They had never seen such cruelty. Apparently they ‘wept like children’. They tried to tear the torturers away from their victims. This was prior to the white men turning such violence onto the First Peoples, before the beginning of centuries of brutality.

There is a deadness to shame that is stuck. I wish, after all these years of thinking and feeling on these matters it were easier, but it continues to be painful to bear our past. Stories of atrocities continue to freeze unless we actively give compassion to the child self within whose innocence is shattered by knowledge of what humans will do to each other.

I imagine I am not alone in this. That’s useful. To imagine myself, not alone. To imagine myself as one of countless people striving to be real, integrated, and alive. I know that, in fact, to be true. And so it becomes salutary to understand that the true story of this country is initiatory. Mindfully, kindly and creatively attending to the betrayed child in ourselves and in every one of our ancestors is not optional. How else can this country move through wilful blindness and belligerence? How else to move our fury and shame into soft, fertile sadness? And, from there, find non-damaging ways to be useful.

People who know the world alive know all humans belong, because they live the awareness of the wholeness of the system. They know there is nothing outside of this. Those people will call everyone to remember. Ever since Europeans arrived the First Peoples have been calling with their significant skills and wisdoms to the descendants of the colonisers. To turn the invaders into stayers. To show them that the land could heal them.

Some people have been listening. My friend Michael is someone who has done some feeling on these matters, evident in the depth of his work and the trust he has gained of his Aboriginal patients. Of the gift given him, in the open hand of his patient, his patient teacher, I am reminded of the last few lines of a poem by the great European animist poet Rainer Maria Rilke.

Nearby is the country they call life.

You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

 

I take responsibility for the many shortcomings of my work. It’s a stumbling attempt to respond to that powerful and pertinent request from Indigenous teachers – get your act together – don’t expect us to do the work for you. Work on your own belonging.

But don’t, ever, presume you are doing it alone.

 

I’m not doing it alone because I am, of course, the beneficiary of many teachers. Some of these teachers I have mentioned here. But there are many others whose influence I will never know. There are centuries of patient teaching from First Nations people imbued into Australian culture if we know how to look.

Decades ago when I first got involved in activism alongside Indigenous folk I met people who had learned, over generations, how to translate their cultural knowledge into teaching that might be able to reach into the heart of colonial culture and transform it. One powerful tool was their ability to reveal the aliveness of their world, and to create, in the activist community, a strong sense of solidarity with all life. So that all of us were resisting thinking that turned whole and healthy places, flourishing with a multitude of symbiotic life, into product, into profit.

While activism for Indigenous lands and peoples is becoming more mainstream, negative reactions to this call for justice also becoming more extreme. Amid all this, thoughtful, caring people of all backgrounds are seeking to bring forth what they love, what they find meaningful, and processes for transformation, into our common life, the system of capitalism and individualism and ideologies of separation. That’s bound to be difficult. That’s bound to twist and contort the best of intentions.

I feel it is not often enough understood how it was those in power that promoted de-animating philosophies and practices in order to further the colonial project. Most everyone else were peoples of place. It began in Europe but spread around the globe: people of place were violently extracted from their homes and animate worlds and forced to adopt separation ideologies in order to survive in the cities and industrial wastescapes that replaced the alive world.

And it is also not often enough identified that to become a person of power in this system meant losing, on some level, one’s experience of aliveness in the first place – almost certainly through some form of trauma or violence. Everyone, no matter their cultural background, carries some of the damage. But it doesn’t seem useful to hoist our identities solely around the trauma-package of separation ideologies. The Aboriginal teachers I have learned from have clearly expressed this. They ask us to attach less strongly to our human identity, and learn what wisdom may come from expanding our identities into other realms.

 

Now I’ll try to explain, if I can, another way in which I’m not doing it alone.

It has taken a frustrating amount of time to write this. In desperation at my slowness, I ask for help. I take myself outside to write – something I tend to avoid, as too often I’ll leave my chair and garden instead, but this time I’m determined. I know I cannot do this alone. Looking into the sky and into the trees, seeing nothing but the usual beautiful tangle of light and cloud and greens, and listening, hearing nothing. Or nothing for me.

So, following a dim trail of thought, I prepare to write this sentence: ‘I’m not an eagle or a raven person.’ Then it happens. A raven calls, from somewhere beyond sight. I waited and waited, and no, he didn’t call again.

All the rest of the day I listened.

I heard dozens of other calls that I know and love, I listened as I do every day, all day I listen and feel companioned by these creatures as I aurally track the pathways of these colourful friends, semi-consciously following their individual songs, their warnings and quarrels and courtings and congregations, their feeding of their noisy babies, tracking the air of this place where I cultivate habitat and food for them, these birds that live in or visit my garden; corella, rosella, currawong, kookaburra, gang gang, galah, king parrot, black cockatoo, sulphur-crested cockatoo, blue wren, scrub wren, spinebill, weebill, thornbill, firetail, honeyeater, white eye, magpie, tree creeper, fantail, wattlebird, lapwing, wood duck, pacific duck, blackbird, bowerbird, boobook owl, tawny frogmouth, and, a few times a year in the spring, the call of the sacred kingfisher.

But, raven, on that day, he never again called.

He called just that once, at that moment where I was about to declare my non-allegiance. Just that once, on the lip of my declining, perhaps, the invitation.

 

I can’t get to the bottom of it.

So instead find the grace to accept. To float within the grace as it flows towards me, and allow myself to be claimed. Claimed not as something particular, but claimed as part of the complexity, the alive and lively mystery, submersed and surrendered, waiting, and listening.

 

Under the aegis of Ian Hunter, CERES initiated the very first education program dedicated to teaching Wurundjeri knowledge, local Aboriginal wisdom and lore. Ian’s stance is that if you’re born here, you’re native to this place, which means you have responsibilities to Country. He works to impart that message to the thousands of children and adults he’s taught. He emphasizes the importance of honouring all one’s ancestors, and he always acknowledges his Scottish father and the traditions and knowledge of that lineage line.

At Kingfisher Festival, he would explain it something like this: ‘I’m someone of Aboriginal descent, which is different from being an Aboriginal person from, say, the desert mobs, those people with so much intact knowledge and culture. Mine is a mongrel way. I have responsibilities to pass on what I know, what was passed on to me or what I had to research to bring back to life. But you lot, living here, also have responsibilities to Country. We all do.’

 

These are early days in the journey of reconciliation. Or perhaps not. Perhaps these are late days, luxurious late-capitalist, time-rich, reality-poor musings, divorced from the challenges of living by our own means. When we return to that at the fall of consumer culture, what knowing will emerge from our intertwining with the mongrel ecologies remaining?

Regardless, it is past time for us to listen to those who thrived here, courageous, generous, adaptable people, the oldest continuous culture on Earth.

Regardless, we can watch and listen as culture inevitably changes, as young people grow up in a different world than the one I was born into. And my four-year-old nephew tells me, as we walk to his inner-city home, his hand in mine, about Bunjil, the crater, because he learned Wurundjeri lore that day at childcare. ‘The what? Oh! The Creator, darling, Bunjil the Creator. He’s the wedge-tailed eagle. We see Bunjil at my place on the river. But you never know, you may one day see him in your sky here.’

Finally, I return, to myth. Do we make myth, or does myth make us? As MK might say, it goes all ways.

That late afternoon long ago, after the rain, under the rainbow, we went, and there’s only one way to say this, we went wild. A group of humans, together, in our home, within our dream of healing and hoping and striving for the world to change, we were in the change, we were changed. We hooted and laughed and cried and squealed. We ran around the Green, we hugged each other, we sang and danced under the rainbow. The striving in the long months of planning, the tensions of the last weeks, the stresses of the day, all these lifted into the luminous air. They vanished, to be replaced with the knowing that all was held in the vast and beautiful hands of something far greater than us.

 

CODA

Humans, wild together. Humans, being more than human, together. Together, dancing and singing place, becoming story, becoming character, becoming other, expanding self, enacting their enlarged belonging. Everywhere in the world, for thousands, for tens of thousands of years, this was done. But in Europe, not much more than a few centuries ago, everything changed.

As power consolidated in kingdoms and nation-states, the project of building wealth required that communal celebration be supressed. The expanding armies of colonial conquest required disciplined soldiers, the emerging industrialism demanded a sober, compliant, punctual workforce. The dominant religion was reshaped to enable a populace aligned to these needs. Whole cultures internalised hard work, thrift and efficiency, as well as loyalty to the powerful, as Christian values, becoming enshrined as the Protestant work ethic. Middle class manners meant upright bodies, controlled movements, temperate voices. The ecstatic, the exuberant, the collective expression, these were considered dangerous, and demonised. Celebration, carnival, and seasonal festivities were brutally quashed throughout Europe, and then everywhere else as the colonisers spread their values throughout the world.

Sometimes the well of decolonisation seems bottomless. Years ago, when I got my head around the effect of the enclosures of the commons, the stealing of lands from peasant peoples and the subsequent loss of cultures of place, I thought I had most of the picture. But they didn’t just steal the land. They also stole the dance.

The dance is the body, free to be itself, itself which is also always other, the expression of other; of place, of bird, of wind or fire or water. To be the spirits of these things; their archetypal expression, their eternal beingness and complexity figured as deity, and experienced as wonder and power. Power-with, not power-over. The dance, the celebration, that was power-with, a communal knowing of wonder. It was something that all our ancestors practiced regularly. Sometimes, I’m sure, the world joined in.

That evening there at CERES, on the Village Green, was a remembrance of ancestral ways, streaming through all ancestral lines, pouring forth in joy. Yet behind that joy lay grief, deep grief at the centuries of forgetting, and the horrific costs to the First Peoples of that forgetting. The horrors of what happened here in this land are finally coming into the heart of culture, as they must, and must be felt in their entirety. But this feeling will not be deep enough unless there is a turning inward, from everyone, to their own abandoned First Peoples, brutalised long ago but ghosting our bodies with shames and pains. Inside every one of us are broken-hearted dancers, waiting to be freed. Waiting to dance with the whole alive world, after the rain, and under the rainbow.

 

 

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