Culture Wars

My Place

I don’t see you. Walking through my place,

I don’t see your run-down shops or cars and power-lines,

I am walking on the red earth, not this artificial stone.

I look through your Ray-Ban stare to the black cockatoo in the distance,

Foretelling rain or the spirit of an ancestor, or whatever,

you don’t deserve to know the secrets of my dreaming.

The skyline isn’t Woolworths and McDonalds,

Pizzas, two for ten on Tuesdays.

My skyline is ancient rock, marked with the hands of my ancestors.

This is my place, has been for 40,000 years before your mob

turned up to chain and rape and kill, the land and my people.

What is it you see in your cycle of consume, control, pollute?

Always grasping for more than what the mother gives,

the land that is always enough.

My veins might pulse with your poison,

But in my heart I am still dancing the brolga and emu around the fire,

Telling and preserving the dreaming of my place.

Your place is a phantom, a shambles of broken and fragile things,

I wait for it to fade, for the day I wake up,

and you come to my camp asking for a handout.

The poem above is in response to spending a few days in Darwin and Katherine in the north of Australia. I have traveled to quite a number of places around the world where native populations have come to an uncomfortable but stable balance with a colonising invader. Whether it be Hawaii, New Zealand or America, I have sensed that a portion of the original people has found a way to coexisting with the new population. It is never without a sense of loss, but in each of the other countries there has been a way for all the local people to take pride in their culture and balance commercialisation for the tourist dollar with genuine and powerful preservation of identity.

To a certain extent this type of arrangement is even true of the Australian native peoples in New South Wales and Victoria. In the Northern Territory, however, it is a tragic disaster. The people wandering the streets of Katherine seem to behave as though the white people and their town appeared last week and they are wondering when the apparition is going to disappear.

Maybe it is purely an issue of time, and that the peoples of America, Hawaii and New Zealand split from the common European ancestor a few hundred years later, allowing them to adapt to the Western mindset more easily. Could it be that an extra 10,000 years of development has left the two populations in an un-reconcilable state?

I should make it clear that I am not preferring one culture over the other. Yes we have superannuation, iPhones and advanced medical treatment, but few of us know the lives and exploits of our parents, let-alone our great-great-great-great-grandparents. Fewer still could name the grasses, trees and shrubs in the area where we live, or the history of how the land was formed. In our branching of culture, we both lost and gained.

Wherever I have traveled, I have tried to learn some of the history of the local people, understood the reverence with which King Kamehameha is held, the language of Hula, the significance of the Marae in Maori society. In the case of Australian first people’s society, it feels like I don’t even have the mental capacity to begin to understand. Yes I know about boomerangs and digeridoos, even the Rainbow Serpent and song lines, but it still seems like I am missing the point.

A friend once explained to me that the peoples of Micronesia have a cosmic view that white people are aliens and that the complexity, strength and pervasiveness of their culture meant that western style democracy and society could never function there. I definitely now feel that something like this is true of the people in Northern Australia.

What is that answer? I don’t have one of course. I know it isn’t stealing their children and giving them to abusive catholic priests. I know that whatever is being done in Darwin and Katherine isn’t working. I also feel that hidden in the flesh and bones of a 40,000 year old people is the secret to our culture learning to live on the planet without destroying it.

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