01.01.2011

Heartsong

Only love will overcome the disconnect between black and white in Australia
In 1986, a British author came to Central Australia, stayed for a short while and left to audaciously publish an account, Songlines, which told the world more about Aboriginal Dreaming from his brief visit than the average white Australian had learned about in a lifetime. Songs, tracks of melody, invisible pathways across the continent, linking waterholes, following ridges, telling tales of totems... these were alive and well, sung up now as the ancestors had sung them long before, keeping the land healthy and fertile, ringing out creation from east to west, braiding laws in all directions, tracking the stories. They were all around us, and most of us knew nothing of them until Bruce Chatwin told us they were there.

Since then, you may have heard a little more about the Dreaming stories from Aboriginal men and women elders, who, in their own care for the land and their people, have been concerned that the wisdom of the track will be lost unless the story is shared - although it must still be shared carefully.

Noongar elder Noel Nannup was at a wedding I attended today, and he stood at historic Gallop House on the Swan River and welcomed the bride and groom and guests to country. Amid the proceedings, he casually indicated towards the foreshore, where the two dogs' creation first happened and the story was first told, now lived out prosaically by people still walking their dogs, often two at a time.

Noel knows the river well, and the stories and the places and the sites, and he is careful to share the Dreaming, careful but generous as well. It must be a delicate balance, risking giving the precious stories away, having the dreams trampled by the same folk who have trampled so much else, and yet hoping that the songline will touch something in our hearts. It takes courage, dignity and trust to do what elder Noel Nannup did so well today.

In this loosely stranded story of reconciliation, the relationship between white and black still has a long journey to go, from places where the anger between our two cultures is still brooding, and is acted out indirectly, to the still, clear waters that must one day replenish us both. The hurt, the loss, the theft is often kept in grim silence, brought out by blaming the other, or by hurting the ones that are most loved.

Mostly, the stories are not spoken into life. In the state where I live, Aboriginal people had their land taken, and even then when they paid English pounds to buy some acreage to farm, the 1905 Act took it all away again. The stories of mission, and dispossession, and rabbit proof fences and orphanages, boundary streets and bans after dark, the laws against white-black marriage denying there could be love between us, mark a new kind of songline that incises across our continent.

Even trying to unmake the wrongs somehow got complicated. Equal pay - and could there be anything less than equal pay? - pushed drovers and their families off many a pastoral station, away from the breath and heartbeat of their site-specific indigenous stories. The closure of missions - and should not these paternalist arrangements not have been remade? - sent a diaspora of families in all sorts of directions, pushing them further from their land, ending the connections between kin, ending the secret corroborees a shy walk away from the church, sending folk to the numbing anonymity of the city.

Welfare cheques didn't feed the spirit. Alcohol and petrol did not replace an old Dreaming with a better one.
Payback and jealousing have evolved to put communities and love under a strain that would have been easily and quickly counterbalanced in traditional society. Yes, there have there have been a sea of hands, and bridge walks, and the speech at Redfern and the sorry apology in parliament, but our songline track has barely begun. It seems to start, and falter: interventions that become invasions, friendships that lose their way, native titles that get handed back to the mining companies.

There is a sense of tragedy, a willingness to walk alongside, sometimes, but more often I guess there is a painful timidity. In knowing how hard it is, we don't now risk doing anything. Look round to find non-Aboriginal organisations that are still game to seek out an Aboriginal name for themselves, to celebrate Australianness - for there is a vague fear, not without justification, that it might be only "appropriating".

In New Zealand/Aotearoa, clearer with a treaty more than 150 years old, the pakeha white folk seemed to have woven some Maori greetings and vocabulary into Kiwi English, beginning with mutual rhetorical courtesies unknown here. Australia doesn't seem so simple, or as mutual, in dealing with understandable tensions that must exist between Indigenous and newcomers.

At night, the Milky Way displays its glory of stars, but Aboriginal guides point out the spaces between: the emu with its head in the Magellanic cloud, a huge dark object in the night sky easily overlooked by focusing on the stars. And yet the evening star Venus appears in some Dreaming stories, and so do the "seven sisters" of the Pleiades, remarkably resonant with tales from the Lakota to the Andeans, from the Maoris and Japanese to the Greeks. Ironically, such stories in the sky speak of the stories below, depicting a common humanity we ultimately share in a language deeper than the spoken word or racial type.

In the relative radio silence in the desert of inland Western Australia, the Square Kilometre Array is being conceived. The project is one of two contenders for European Union funding. Whether it ends up in Australia or South Africa, this scientific marvel will, in a short decade, tell us more about the Universe than science has told us in the last millennia. More information will flick within the Square Kilometre Array than the entire volume of the rest of the world's Internet. When all the switches are powered on, a billion galaxies at the edge of the Universe will be ready to be mapped. Einstein's theory of general relativity will be tested at Creation's extremity. Scientists will view the light between the time just after the Big Bang, a fresh 300,000 years old, to the time when the younger galaxies are seen, a billion years later. The hardware and software to make it all possible will inevitably find application in this breathtaking information age we live in.

In a short time, we will know much more about space, but still very little about each other; a songline into space, but not yet between our hearts. We are a troubled people; the smouldering smoke of the barbecue hides a story or two. And yet the story is not over yet, since it is barely begun. It is up to each of us to dare sing into the heartlines between us in this country, in our love of the land and water and sky, that seeks out those who are different, and finds the love that might bind us all.

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