Monday, February 14, 2011

Aboriginal Camp

After our last post, our group said goodbye to Sydney for the last time and spent 6 days at an Aboriginal immersion camp in Wollombi, about 90 minutes outside Sydney in the Hunter Valley. From the beginning of our trip this has been the week that’s made everyone apprehensive, as we were told close to nothing about the camp other than that it would be “intense.” When we arrived, our group was shuttled (by whom we would come to know as Uncle Wayne) to a waiting area under a tree in the middle of the bush. We were told not to talk and to wait there for further instructions. Soon, Uncle Wayne returned and led us through the bush to another shaded area (it was about 100 degrees F) where we were told to pick someone who would speak for us and to think about why we were there while we waited for what we were told “could be a while.” We gathered in a circle and began to talk about what we each hoped to get out of this camp, and it was determined by the students that I would be the spokesperson for the group. After sitting for maybe 30 minutes, we were approached by two Aboriginal women wearing only skirts, their bodies painted with ochre, speaking a language that we obviously couldn’t understand. I stood as they approached and tried to let them know that we had come with open minds to learn about their culture, but was soon motioned to sit down and we were told to wait for the warriors to come. After another 15 minutes, men in kangaroo skin loincloths and ochre began slowly approaching through the bush from different directions. It’s difficult to convey the nervousness we were all feeling as we tried to decide how to approach the men respectfully and communicate with them. Once again, I stood as they came closer and asked me why we had come. Unfortunately, no answer seemed to be the right one and eventually we were told to sit and listen as one of the men explained that in order to come into the camp we had to be humble, respectful, and do what we were told with no questions. Once we agreed we were led through the bush to the camp, where we were told to walk through the smoke of burning eucalyptus to purify ourselves before entering the camp.

This is how our week began, and by the end of it, it was hard to believe that we had been so intimidated by these people who would become our “uncles” and “aunties,” and who, in just a few short days, would make such an impact on all of our lives. It’s difficult to capture the entire experience in this blog, so I’ll highlight some of the things that were most memorable. First of all, we were fortunate enough to be taught Aboriginal culture and lore by Uncle Paul, the most senior and respected elder in all of New South Wales. During the week we were divided into four “skin groups,” or “mobs,” each of which was given a piece of land to look after and learn about. Each of our mobs had an uncle or auntie who walked our land with us and taught us about the different plants and animals from which we could pick our totems. During mealtimes we ate with our mobs, and at night, nobody could go anywhere without waking someone to go with them (even to the toilet.) Each mob had something on its land that we all needed; for example, the dining room, the toilets, our cabins and the swimming holes. In order to enter each others' land we either had to make permanent deals between groups or ask permission each time we wanted access.

Our days began at 7:30 am with breakfast and didn’t stop until well into the night. During daylight hours we often worked on men’s and women’s business like making clapping sticks from wattle tree branches or learning how to throw boomerangs.  Each day we also had two hours of dance practice so we could learn many of the traditional dances from Uncle Paul’s or Uncle Wayne’s people. Somewhere in there we usually managed to work in a cooling dip in one of the swimming holes on our land . . .

Everything changed one morning as I stumbled out of our cabin to use the toilet and noticed orange ribbons tied on some of the trees and buildings. As I approached the toilet I was told sharply by Uncle Wayne that he had settled that piece of land and I was no longer allowed on his property. Confused and still half asleep, I stumbled back to the cabin to tell Andy what had happened. That day began a simulation of the "whitefellas" arriving on the land and taking whatever they wanted, cutting us off from each other, and from much of our land, kidnapping people (including Andy!), and forcing us to work together to figure out how to survive amidst these changes. It may sound silly as you read this, but it was actually emotionally and physically draining, especially with 4 or 5 hours of sleep a night.

While all this was going on, we often had lectures from Uncle Paul, and on two special occasions, had the privilege of visiting sacred Aboriginal sites in the area that date back tens of thousands of years. The first site was a cave that overlooked a beautiful valley and contained a painting of Biamie, the powerful and all-seeing father spirit. He was surrounded by handprints outlined in ochre that had been there for thousands of years. As we left the cave I was so overcome with emotion that I found myself crying into Nat’s arms as everyone boarded the bus to leave. The beauty and importance of these sites, combined with the difficulty Aboriginal people have in visiting them due to land rights issues and a lack of cooperation from the government, is overwhelming. Uncle Paul also led us to a “map site” that we visited by torch after dark. (By the way, we saw kangaroos in the grass and trees on our way to the site!) It was a flat area of stone in the hill country covered with engravings that taught ethical lessons and also explained what could be found in the surrounding valleys. Uncle Paul shared stories about the figures and taught us how to read the different symbols. He also showed us how if you look at the rocks in the daylight, with the sun shining directly down on them, they are almost invisible. It’s only at night when lit from the side that they show up. It was a special experience that few people get to have and it was made even more so by having Uncle Paul’s knowledge to help us understand what we were seeing.

One night we were told to gather around the fire after dark and were joined by Uncle Paul, who told us stories of some of the darker spirits and creatures that haunt the bush at night. That afternoon we had all been shown a cave behind the camp and had been told find a stick and place it inside. After Uncle Paul’s stories we were instructed to go one by one through the dark bush to find the cave and retrieve our sticks . . . all in pitch black darkness. Each of us had an intense experience that night at the cave that can’t be described here but has stayed with us ever since. 

Our daily dance practice prepared us for the culminating experience on the last night of camp: a corroboree, which is a traditional celebration in which different mobs dance, swap stories, and “have a feed.” All week we had been practicing our dancing, working on our clapping sticks, and making the items we would wear that night. A couple of hours before dusk the men and women went to their respective areas down by the river to prepare for the dance. In the men’s area we first went for a swim in our swimming hole to cool off and then built a fire next to the river. We were given kangaroo skins to shred into strips and tie to cords so we could cover our groins. We then proceeded to mix charcoal with water and paint our entire bodies from head to toe. Everything was covered (including the insides of our ears), so that only the whites of our eyes and teeth showed. When we were completely covered with the charcoal, Uncle Rob and Uncle Wayne painted different designs on us with white ochre. The effect was magical! We had all heard that we were dancing “naked,” but we all found that we actually felt “dressed up” in our charcoal, ochre and kangaroo skins. As it got dark we gathered around the fire with Uncle Wayne and began warming up by hitting our clapping sticks, stomping the ground (a way of paying respect to Mother Earth), and letting loose traditional yells that echoed through the night and were answered by kookaburras and other birds. We then marched barefoot through the dark bush to join the girls, who wore only cloth skirts and were painted with white ochre. Together we made our way through the dark to the dancing circle that we had all spent hours preparing by turning the soil, removing all rocks and clumps of dirt, and encircling with white ochre. In front of the elders we danced for approximately 90 minutes with fires burning on four sides of us . . . it was truly a magical experience hard to put into words.

The next morning was our last at the camp, and before we left on the bus that afternoon we gathered in a circle with the uncles and aunties to talk about all we had experienced and learned that week. I’ll just say that there were many tears and emotions shared by all of us. Andy and I feel so grateful to have had this experience and are still, almost a week later, processing and talking about what we all went though. We’re also grateful to all of the uncles and aunties who shared their stories and culture with us, a group of whitefellas from America! It was truly a once in a lifetime experience.

We didn’t take a lot of pictures at the camp, and unfortunately Andy and I left our camera in Melbourne yesterday (don’t worry—the tram company found it and will send it on), but we will post a few pictures the first chance we get. Hope all is well with everyone!


The girls making their clapping sticks

Listening to Uncle Paul

Philip making his clapping sticks

Andy making his clapping sticks

A goanna lizard climbing a tree in our camp

The dancing circle

Painted for the corroboree




Getting painted


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