Sunday, September 20, 2015

Sacred Landscape or Massive Monolith?

For many non-indigenous Australians, Ayers Rock is just a massive monolith in the middle of the Australian continent that is begging to be conquered and photographed. To the local Pitjantjatjara people, Uluru is a sacred place with great spiritual significance.  For thousands of years, they conducted both men’s and women’s ceremonies here. With the discovery of the rock by Europeans, this tradition was tragically impacted. We literally trampled all over a sacred landscape.
We renamed it Ayers Rock and we proceeded to climb it and photograph it with little or no respect for the wishes of the traditional custodians who had considered this to be a sacred site for thousands of years.

Today, more than half the native mammal species that lived around this area are locally extinct and many alien species have suppressed the native grasses. Within a short span of time, we have managed to destroy a landscape that sustained indigenous people for thousands of years.

People of both cultures are now managing the park and I wonder is it possible for the two traditions to co-exist?  I want to believe the answer is yes. We are a lot more enlightened than we were 200 years ago, but we have destroyed their way of life and have insisted for many years that there is only one way to live.

So, we gave them the dole, we built them houses and wondered why they didn’t aspire to a 40 hour working week and a life of debt that will enslave you for 30 years or more. Perhaps it is because they know better. If you have come from a culture that only worked about 4 hours a day to provide for your basic needs, then why would you aspire to be locked up in an office for the better part of the day?

I often wonder if the lack of respect in western cultures for the natural environment is because most urbanised people have lost their connection to the land. They see the environment, as something outside of their existence and find this idea of connection foreign.

While at the park visitors’ centre we watched a video, depicting an indigenous person’s perspective of how westerners behave. The video says that the ‘white fellas’ are like ants. They all come together to the rock, then run around taking photographs and climbing to the top. At sunrise and sunset we
congregate at the same spots, then minutes after the sun has risen or set we disperse. There are a lot of trigger happy tourists but hardly any contemplation to discover the spirit of this incredible place.

While we think of indigenous people as nomadic, I am surprised to learn they only travelled within the boundaries of their ‘country’. They were responsible for managing the land and were entitled to its bounty including the animals that existed in it. The waterholes were a key part of their life. They travelled from one to another, learning or teaching the dreamtime stories, but only within the bounds of their own country. They hunted at the waterholes very cautiously; only taking the last animal, so as to not spook the rest of the herd and often digging a little well some distance away to avoid leaving their scent at the waterhole.

I am begging to understand why the rock is sacred. It was life giving. So they ‘worshipped’ the land that provided for them and some of these practices were gender specific and taboo if you were of the opposite gender. Hence the restrictions on taking photos as they have no wish to inadvertently see places that are off limits. I read that the Anangu’s request to refrain from climbing the rock comes from their desire to keep all visitors safe but also because the path crosses a sacred traditional Dreamtime track.

The ‘white fellas’ are slowly learning to respect this sacred landscape and to learn to connect with nature rather than to conquer it.

I believe the rock is a sacred landscape. What about you?

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