Thursday, September 17, 2015

Indigenous Australia: Oral Traditions & The Joy of Singing

Aboriginal people have lived in Australia for more than 40,000 years but most people in Australia have never met an indigenous person.  Certainly most Australians would not count an indigenous person as their friend. So we count ourselves lucky to be in Alice Springs during the Desert Song Festival to hear the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir sing. The choir have just returned from a successful tour of Germany and it was a privilege to hear them sing.  The singing is complemented by a documentary video that plays on the screen behind them, giving us an insight into a story of over 100 years of choral heritage and practice in remote Central Australian Aboriginal communities. 

They sing in Arrarnta, Pitjantjatjara, Zulu and English. I recognise some of the hymns from the days of my childhood and learn that through their oral tradition these women have preserved hymns that are no longer sung by the Lutherans in Germany who first brought it to the German mission at Hermmansburg in the late 1800s.

Earlier in the week we had visited the Hermmansburg mission and learnt a little more about the turbulent history of the European invasion, 200 years ago.  When the pastoralist came to the centre, they brought with them their livestock and their way of life. Unable to converse with the indigenous population and with little knowledge of the Australian bush, they trampled through waterholes and over time unwittingly destroyed the bush foods and water sources that had enabled the aboriginals to survive sustainably for over 40,000 years. The indigenous people finding their way of life being destroyed started to kill and eat the livestock. Their cultural rules dictated that they were entitled to anything on their land. In the ‘white fellas’ world this was stealing. Hence, began a horrendous time of conflict in Australian history, with many aboriginal people losing their lives and ending up in chains.

The Hermmansburg mission provided a safe haven from the turbulent world outside. Two Lutheran missionaries established it as a mission in 1877, but it was in 1891 when Pastor Carl Strehlow arrived that the connections strengthened. He learnt the local Western Arrernte language and is credited with translating the Bible into this language.  The women learnt to sing the hymns in Arrernte and found little conflict between the Christian message of loving their neighbours and living simply.

After all this is actually what they had been practicing for over 40,000 years…

However, life in the mission was very different to the cultural traditions they had practiced for generations. Their kids were suddenly required to go to school, learn the alphabet. For years, these kids had learnt their lessons in the great outdoors. The lessons were all aimed at teaching them the survival skills. Dreamtime stories taught them their moral values and were associated with a specific place, where the landscape provided the clues to these stories. You moved to a new place to learn the rest of the story and as you moved, you also learnt to navigate. There were stories specific to gender and rituals associated with initiation. They had to give up their love to go walkabout and sit in rows in a classroom. Their diet changed. They could no longer pick the berries from the trees but rather were required to queue for their rations.

As I wander through the water holes and splendid landscapes of Central Australia, I can only imagine the sadness of living through those times. To see your life of living freely in the great outdoors completely destroyed. To be conquered by a people who wanted to teach you their religion but had no idea of what it meant to be spiritually connected to the land.

But it was worse.  At Hermmansburg we are introduced to the concept of the double negative. 

Two hundred years ago, we didn’t just destroy their way of life, we taught them that it was wrong and asked that they conform to the rules of western civilisation. We asked them to give up their life of freedom and learn their lessons, so they could get a job, and earn money to buy food.  Food that had once been freely available for the picking. As we are faced with the realities of climate change, ravaging bush fires, and the invasion of species such as buffel grass, we have begun to realise that the indigenous people actually knew a thing or two about managing their environment and we now ask them to go back to the way of life they abandoned.

This is the tragedy of the double negative.

Unfortunately, in some instances we have damaged the environment beyond repair. Things can never be the way they were before the European invasion. I see in their faces the despondency and sadness of the blow that the 'white fellas' dealt them. Finally, as a nation, we have at least said ‘SORRY’. But words alone cannot right the wrongs that have been done. Today, their communities are torn apart by many issues fuelled by alcohol and drugs. We have thrown money at these communities to assuage our guilt at what happened but giving them the dole has only compounded the problem.

What most Australians are probably unaware of is that indigenous Australians are trying to return to the way of life they once knew. Now about a third of the Aboriginal population of the Northern Territory live in Homelands. They have been established so the indigenous population can maintain connection with their traditional, ancestral land. These communities have lower levels of social problems and significantly better health outcomes. They are happier and healthier.  However, once again they might be hard done by. When our current government talks about cutting funding to   As citizens of this country, it is our duty to be informed about the real issues that confront us all. It is our duty to choose leaders who will do right by all of us who call this beautiful land home. 
remote aboriginal communities, it is a code for homelands.

As more and more Australians demand we close our borders to refugees, we seem oblivious to the fact that our European Ancestors created a refugee crisis in the people who had called this land home for 40,000 years! 

The concert is over and the choir is singing Waltzing Matilda in Arrernte.  There is poignancy in the music that draws tears. I think our journey of creating decentralised communities will bring us back to Alice next winter.

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