The Aboriginal Gift as Non-Violent Resistance
Australia is spirit country,
and we will all have to face the
sacredness of the land.
– David Mowaljarla
Permeability to the sacred
Growing up as I did in Alice Springs, central Australia, I had a sense that the consciousness of Aboriginal people was closer to the divine than that of my own European-Australian culture. It was an odd reversal of the usual perspective, because the environment in which I grew up was racist and Aboriginal people were perceived as socially inferior. Yet I had a strong sense that the consciousness of the indigenous people was more developed spiritually than the European mind. When the British arrived here in the late 18th century, a technologically advanced but spiritually impoverished culture came into contact with a spiritually advanced but technologically limited one. It was a collision of worlds on a vast scale, and the culture with the developed ego supposedly won the battle, or so it likes to believe.
Ever since early adulthood I have been aware of a collision of ego and soul in my own life, almost as if the clash outside me was being enacted within. And, as in the outer world, the ego typically appeared to win.
But what fascinated, even haunted me, was the sense that indigenous cultures had deliberately chosen not to develop the ego at the expense of soul. I felt that ego development had been available to them in the long historical process, but they had chosen not to take it. Instead, they had developed the soul and maintained a permeability to the sacred. Indeed, indigenous cultures encouraged the dislodgement of the ego and the foregrounding of the spirit. That is what their life-changing initiations were about. They put the ego to ritual hardships in initiatory ceremonies. In such rites, the ascendancy of the ego was terminated and the ancestral image of the sacred was enthroned in the soul.
This is what the ancient Greeks called metanoia, a transformation of personality in which the ego’s dominance is cancelled and the sacred is put in its place as the central authority. Metanoia is2 what Jesus called for in his ministry Ironically, Christian missionaries sought to ‘convert’ Aboriginal people to this spiritual perspective, but the missionaries did not know who or what they were dealing with. This inability has been highlighted by numerous elders, most notably by Wadjularbinna Doomadgee of the Carpentaria region:
Our people, before the white man came were very spiritual people. They were connected to land and creation through the great spirit, there was a good great and a great evil spirit …. So the sad thing about it all was the missionaries didn’t realise that we already had something that tied in with what they’d brought to us. They saw different as inferior, and they didn’t ask us what it was that we had. And it’s very sad because if they had asked … things may have been different today http://australianmuseum.net.au/indigenous-australia-spirituality
It was a case of failing to see beyond cultural differences, or to recognise spirituality when it was staring them in the face. True Christianity was more pronounced in indigenous cultures than in those who came here crusading under Jesus’ name. The land Down Under is a place of reversals, and there is no more potent reversal than the fact that there was more genuine spiritual life in the indigenous people than in those who sought to win their souls for European traditions.
Aboriginal cultures work hard to ensure that the ego is kept thin and transparent to the divine. I imagine the Aboriginal ego as a slight membrane, a psychological equivalent to what the Celts speak of when they refer to ‘thin places’ By contrast, the Western ego is like a reinforced concrete bunker. No wonder the West believes that God is dead, because it is incapable of experiencing the divine, and the spiritual senses have been eradicated by our materialistic consciousness. Indigenous people everywhere have a significant role to play in reminding Westerners of the possibility of reclaiming the spiritual life. Thomas Berry said:
Just now one of the significant historical roles of the primal people of the world is not simply to sustain their own traditions, but call the entire civilized world back to a more authentic mode of being
The only word I disagree with here is the word ‘civilized’. It suggests that indigenous people are somehow uncivilized, and yet, as I’ve said, in spiritual and religious terms they appear far more civilized than those who have appropriated the term ‘civilisation’ for themselves.
Westerners sometimes talk about the presence of the divine in theological discourses but rarely seem to experience it. The typical Westerner lives in a cocoon which does not allow him or her to feel the holy presence. As a result, few Westerners are able to experience the transformation of which the scriptures speak. I am not sure how long ago Western culture lost its permeability to the sacred, but I suspect centuries ago we exchanged it for an encapsulated self which is focused on human, not divine reality.
Aboriginal elders in remote communities of Australia sometimes say they have a gift they would like to give to settler, immigrant and all non-indigenous Australians. In the Kimberley region of Western Australia this gift is called wungud, the spirit that connects all things and makes everything come alive In the top end of the Northern Territory, the gift is called dadirri, or deep listening to country http://www.miriamrosefoundation.org.au/about-us/about-dadirri Urbanised indigenous people seem to be in a different frame of mind; they do not, as far as I know, speak the language of the gift. They are detribalised and obviously do not feel they are in possession of traditional practices that are able to bestow gifts upon others. Instead, most Westernised Aboriginal people are, understandably, in protest mode and speak of what they have lost rather than what they are able to give.
But why would traditional elders want to bestow a gift at all? It does not make sense using Western logic, and that is because it is part of traditional Aboriginal law. According to anthropological studies, gift-giving is part of the settlement and peace-making process that has been used by Aboriginal tribes for forty thousand years If a tribal region is trespassed or invaded, the elders confer and work out a strategy to incorporate the invading element, often by offering a gift. It is believed that the gift will bring out the humanity of the trespassers and cause them to set warlike behaviour aside. This method of dealing with conflict and threats is almost unknown in the Christian West, despite the fact that Jesus advocated precisely this method of dealing with conflicts: ‘Love your enemies and bless them that curse you’
For indigenous cultures, sharing is a healing force, and acts as a way in which tensions are resolved. In Aboriginal protocols, strangers are welcomed to country in the understanding that they will become reciprocally bound. Most often, Westerners do not understand this protocol. It is not just permission to walk on land, but an invitation to participate in an ancestral life-world which involves ethical and spiritual considerations. The ‘welcome to country’ comes with obligations, and principal among them is to do no harm. There is much written on this subject, but to enter country in Aboriginal law is to enter an intricate system of visible and invisible relations, involving much more than what casual observers are able to appreciate.
Aboriginal cultures speak to us from a life-world we can barely comprehend, due to our secularisation and modernisation. These processes have taken us far from a sense of the sacred based on nature and the cosmos. The call of the elders to accept their gift is a call to reconciliation and peace, but also a call to return to the sacred bond with creation from which we have departed. It is a call to an ego-based culture to remember the sacred foundations of life, and the ethics that flow from this awareness. It offends progressive society to be made to realise that it has lost so much in the course of its development and there is considerable ambivalence about the Aboriginal gift. To accept the gift means that we accept and acknowledge the damage that colonisation has done to indigenous people. Some would prefer to keep this far from the mind, and we are reluctant to negotiate about the gift. Sister Veronica Brady has written that the wounded relationship with Aboriginal cultures is where we might find the sacred in Australia:
I suggest that to see the sufferings of Aboriginal Australians in terms of the biblical figure of the suffering servant is to discover a deeper and richer sense of where and how God may be speaking to us in this country today
What is powerfully redemptive, in my view, is that Aboriginal elders want to alleviate the sense of exile and alienation that afflicts the non-indigenous in their land. But there is a great deal of complexity to this situation, as I will discuss.
returning good for evil
Aboriginal elders believe that the non-indigenous are in denial of their need for a spiritual belonging to place. They can see we don’t have it, and they want to show us how to develop it. They understand that we do not have roots in this country, and want to help us grow them. Aboriginal people do not think we have departed so radically from the human condition that we have no need of spiritual connection to place. What they want to share with us is that we, and all beings, are not isolated fragments in a cold, unfeeling world, but we are part of the universe and need to restore our sacred bond to it.
Tribal groups achieve this in ceremony, rites of passage and meditative practices. We however, think of such activities as antiquated and a waste of time. We have no cosmology that could make sense of the idea of restoring our relationship to the whole. All indigenous cultures know that when our connection to the mystery of the world is strengthened, our identity is renewed and we are able to move on with our lives in meaningful ways. ‘When I experience dadirri,’ says Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr of the Daly River, ‘I am made whole again’:
I can sit on the riverbank or walk through the trees; even if someone close to me has passed away, I can find my peace in this silent awareness. There is no need of words. A big part of dadirri is listening
What spiritual experience teaches is that our deeper identity, our inmost self, is given to us by something other than the ego: ‘There is something else that makes you become who you really are. Find that spirit within you, we all have it but you were not taught about it’
Miriam-Rose refers to dadirri as ‘inner deep listening and quiet still awareness’, and says ‘it is something like what you call “contemplation”’ She says her people have developed and ‘passed on dadirri for over forty thousand years’ It is most likely the world’s oldest contemplative practice. Deep listening has given Aboriginal people their spirituality, law and belonging. Miriam-Rose belongs to the Ngangikurungkurr tribe, a word that can be broken into three parts: ngangi means sound, kuri means water, and kurr means deep. So the name of her people means ‘Deep Water Sounds’ or ‘Sounds of the Deep’. She makes use of these associations in her teachings on dadirri, which she refers to as ‘the sound of the deep calling to the deep’ There is an allusion here to Psalm 42:7: ‘Deep calls to deep’, and by using these allusions she hopes to show that the truth revealed in the Judeo-Christian tradition was always present in her indigenous culture.
Many Australians think of deep listening as listening intently to the sounds of birds or to wind in the trees. It includes that, but goes beyond it. Listening is meant as attunement to nature and the forces within it; the echoes of place and deep time. It is ancestral listening, or attunement to spirit. Miriam-Rose invites non-indigenous Australians to join her in the art of deep listening. This is what we lack, she says, and what we need:
We know that our white brothers and sisters in this land carry their own particular burdens. We believe that if they let us come to them – if they open up their hearts and minds to us – we may lighten their burdens. There is a struggle for us too; but I believe we have not lost our spirit of dadirri. It is the way that we strengthen and renew our inner selves
She believes that this depth of spirit needs to be brought to the surface in this country, and when it does her culture will ‘blossom and grow’, and new life will come to ‘the whole nation’ It almost sounds like a folk tale; the land is blighted and under a spell, and if we perform certain activities the spell can be lifted. This is what has always astounded me about Aboriginal cultures; even though they have been seriously damaged by colonisation, they turn toward us, the colonisers, and want to help us in our plight. They can see that we are not happy, are exiled from the land and locked up in ourselves, and they want to liberate us.
Miriam-Rose admits that Aboriginal people have suffered a great deal and continue to suffer. But despite having lost so much, the foundations of their spirituality are intact, and those who suffer can turn to deep listening and be renewed. But she insists it cannot just be Aboriginal people who listen and attend to the sacred:
We all have to try to listen – to the God within us – to our own country – and to one another…. My people are used to the struggle, and the long waiting. We still wait for the white people to understand us better.… Learning and listening should go both ways. We would like people in Australia to take time to listen to us. We are hoping people will come closer. We keep on longing for the things that we have always hoped for – respect and understanding
Aboriginal people do not proceed from a typically Western ethic of conflict and division, but from an indigenous ethic of integration and sharing. Across millennia, their strategy has been to incorporate the foreign element and grow through it. It is by understanding others that progress will be made and reconciliation achieved.
Miriam-Rose says there is a gift that Aboriginal people want to give to the newcomers to this land:
Deep listening is a special quality of my people that I believe is the most important. It is our most unique gift. It is perhaps the greatest gift we can give to our fellow Australians. This is the gift that Australians are thirsting for
It is hard for Westerners to understand such generosity, although we might try looking at the Sermon on the Mount for a parallel. As a nation, I don’t think we have been able to comprehend their unselfish attitude, as we are too far removed from the radical ethics of Jesus. It is not what we recognise, and so we don’t know how to respond.
ignorance and disrespect
The filmmaker John Pilger said there is a vast area of silence around what he called ‘the genius [of Aboriginal people] for survival and generosity and forgiving’. This extraordinary gift, he went on, ‘has rarely been a source of [national] pride’ www.serendipity.li/cda/breaking_the_australian_silence.htm Pilger closed his speech for the Sydney Peace Prize by imploring Australians to recognise that Aboriginal people ‘are what is unique about us’. They are ‘the key to our self respect’, he said. Prime Minister Paul Keating made similar statements, but they got lost as subsequent national governments lurched to the right.
A similar view to Miriam-Rose’s was put more emphatically by David Mowaljarlai, a senior lawman of the Ngarinyin people of the west Kimberley region. In a 1995 ABC radio Law Report address to the non-indigenous of his country, David Mowaljarlai said:
“We are really sorry for you people. We cry for you because you haven’t got meaning of culture in this country. We have a gift we want to give you. We keep getting blocked from giving you that gift. We get blocked by politics and politicians. We get blocked by media, by process of law. All we want to do is come out from under all of this and give you this gift. And it’s the gift of pattern thinking. It’s the culture which is the blood of this country, of Aboriginal groups, of the ecology, of the land itself.” http://www.abc.net.au/rn/talks/8.30/lawrpt/lstories/lr311001.htm
By ‘pattern thinking’, Mowaljarlai means the interconnectedness of things, a vision of unity and oneness. This is close to dadirri, as it is the deep listening that connects us with the One behind all manifestation.
There was a desperate tone in Mowaljarlai’s voice because he felt he was running out of time.
Indeed, two years after his speech, Mowaljarlai died of a paroxysm after he learned of the suicide of his son in police custody https://www.library.uq.edu.au/ojs/index.php/aa/article/viewFile/971/969 What concerns me, and what should concern all of us, is that tribal elders like David Banggal Mowaljarlai are disappearing from this world, and the rising generations are, understandably, not as connected to traditional teachings and ancestral customs as their forebears. Elders are dying, ceremonies are ending, and the culture is under threat. As anthropologist Bill Stanner put it, ‘indigenous youth are stuck between the Dreaming and the market’ http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-05-18/frank-brennan-renews-calls-indigenous-constituional-reocognition/6477426
Elders such as David Mowaljarlai and Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr never advocate violent protest or rebellion, because that is not part of their culture. Their approach to integration and peace-making is a hallmark of their civilisation. Antagonism and rebellion are integral to Western notions of marginality and disempowerment, but for indigenous people the only thing that can work is to make the intruders similar to them, to give the colonisers the gift of belonging, as only then might the demonic impulse be arrested, and the colonisers extend respect to the original inhabitants.
In his book The Aboriginal Gift, inspired by Miriam-Rose, archaeologist and Catholic theologian Eugene Stockton writes that the gift of dadirri is being offered, but we are unable to accept it We cannot accept it because we are riddled with guilt and do not see ourselves as worthy of the gift. Moreover, due to our secular conditioning, we do not see ourselves as possessing spirits or souls which might receive their gift. Only the indigenous have ‘souls’, we have egos; this is in the national perception. To receive the Aboriginal gift, it would be necessary for the colonising cultures to open to the spiritual dimension, because it is a spiritual gift. Here is where our secularism is a real obstacle and sticking point; the secular is embarrassed by the sacred, and cannot turn to it with openness and warmth. It is left to what remains of Australia’s depleted religious cultures to accept the gift on behalf of the nation, but these traditions seem as lost and confused as the political culture.
the cultural politics of the gift
Why are Aboriginal elders so insistent on us accepting their gift? They are generous, as Pilger says, but they know that if we accept their gift, their future is more secure because we would then respect their pact with the land and claims on it. To accept the gift is to become reciprocally bound. The gift is given in the hope that it would release a new spirituality in the recipients, which would cause them to respect the life-world of the indigenous and act with compassion. But the non-indigenous are bemused, don’t know how to respond and Australia’s development is arrested. So I might put the conundrum this way: Giving us the gift we will not accept is their last chance at survival.
I fear for the gift in some ways, because mainstream society, and its New Age happiness industry, is in a consuming mood. Wherever there is a gap or absence, the commercial industries are only too happy to gift-wrap a product and sell it to us as the real thing. I can only imagine that all kinds of hungry consumers must have come to Mowaljarlai and Ungunmerr anxious to devour their gifts. But the elders are not pushovers; that’s why they not only invite our hunger but call for something to be activated in the recipient. Miriam-Rose says ‘the gift comes with obligations’
There is a spring within us, and it’s in everyone; it’s not just an Aboriginal thing.… Everybody’s got it, it’s just that they haven’t found it yet, and hopefully one day people are able to touch on dadirri https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2YMnmrmBg8
This is an implicit warning to New Age bounty hunters and all who want to take the gift and run. The gift involves digging within ourselves for the ‘spring’ that will bring renewal. It involves deepening our own story, and finding resources in it to meet the Aboriginal challenge. Herein lies the rub: secular society doesn’t have spiritual resources to draw on; or rather, it once had such resources but it chose to abandon them. We can’t steal the Dreaming from the indigenous, because this would be the ultimate act of desecration. After having stolen their land, identity, traditions and children, to take their Dreaming too would be the final act of abuse. Many of us realise that we have to develop a spiritual awareness that is parallel to the Dreaming in some ways. But we have to do this in our own way, from our own resources.
There is a fine line between being inspired by other cultures and appropriating property that does not belong to us. We can draw on
indigenous traditions for inspiration, but the content of our cosmologies will have to be found in our cultures, whether Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu or others. If these traditions have dried up and lost their mystical resources, we have to dig up the ancient well-springs and make them available again. This is another sense in which ‘deep calls to deep’ can be understood. The ancestral depth in Aboriginal people calls to the ‘ancestral’ indigeneity of the non-indigenous. Their cry from the depth is a ‘sounding’ to the buried depth in ourselves. When I met David Mowaljarlai and spoke to him about his cosmology, he turned to me and said:
What is in your ancestral background that you can awaken in yourself, to activate the spirit?
He suggested I might have to look at the cultures of my European ancestors, and go back to the time when the spirit of the earth was alive for them. This might be to go back a long way. This might be dormant in your culture now, he said, but there is the possibility of going back to awaken it. This made a great deal of sense to me, and I learned much from him that has shaped my life. I thought, for instance, of my grandfather’s Celtic Christianity, and of the profound connection with place that is still evident in some parts of Celtic Ireland. For me, the writings of John O’Donohue were a thrilling introduction to this area
But I realise that not everyone is religiously oriented as I am, and for them religion won’t do the job in any of its forms. There are a range of new traditions which are engaged in the art or science of re-enchanting the world. I am thinking of ecological psychology, eco-feminism, deep ecology and philosophical animism http://environmentalhumanities.org/arch/vol3/3.5.pdf Although at times running perilously close to New Age industries, these areas can avoid the problems of the New Age as long as people go deeply into these fields and do not merely linger at the surface. It is superficiality and slickness which is the bane of all attempts to re-enchant the world. The New Age thinks it can overcome dualistic thinking, and enter non-dual reality simply by waving a magic wand. Needless to say, this is sheer fantasy. It is important that our interest in Aboriginal spirituality does not become parasitic. Aboriginal people are generous and want to help us, but as I read the situation: they want to challenge us to find something similar to their land-based spirituality in our traditions and interior lives, not steal theirs.
As far removed from the New Age industries as one could imagine, on the other side of the spectrum is the politically correct movement. This movement, of increasing strength in government, law, media and education, says ‘hands off’ Aboriginal spirituality, because any interest can only be exploitative. This ideology has arisen from inner city campuses that have no relationship with indigenous communities and do not know what the elders are calling for. This ideology is a product of materialism and has vested interests in protecting itself from spirituality. Ironically, political correctness began as an attempt to defend the interests of marginalised groups, but when it comes to Aboriginal cultures, it backfires and subverts the indigenous cause. Its instrumental reason is incapable of responding to the needs of Aboriginals. Putting up barriers to dialogue is counter-productive to the survival of these communities. As indigenous writer Vicki Grieves puts it, spirituality is ‘the basis of Aboriginal social and emotional wellbeing’https://www.lowitja.org.au/sites/default/files/docs/DP9-Aboriginal-Spirituality.pdf
One can cite any number of elders who contradict the antiseptic attitude of political correctness. To take one from my home town of Alice Springs: Kathleen Kemarre Wallace, an Eastern Arrernte elder. She said this to her non-indigenous biographer:
Come, listen to us, we will tell you our culture. Learn from us. That way we will all survive. We share this country. We need to work together and learn from each other. We must do things together: respecting, listening, thinking together http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/dotted-layers-of-tradition/story-e6frg8n6-1225841075285
The keyword is ‘together’; in white cultures, ‘apartness’. People would be shocked if one points to the links between apartness and apartheid. The apartness of the white ascendancy is meant to be a sign of respect for indigenous cultures (‘keeping a respectful distance’), but it is experienced as disrespect. The logic of the gift cannot be understood by our current political discourse. Les Murray says that all the chatter in educated Australia at present is against the possibility of accepting the gift. He says there is a possibility of convergence between white and black, but ‘it lacks the force of fashion to drive it; the fashion is all for divisiveness now’
The best way to avoid predatorial behaviour is to see the gift not as a thing but as a perspective on things. The gift is an invitation to awaken what already exists within us. It is just that this awareness of the interconnectedness of things has been overladen by dualistic consciousness and alienation. The connections between ourselves and things are already there, but we need to become aware of them through attunement. As Miriam-Rose says, ‘To listen deeply is to connect’. Once we experience this connection, the desire to impose our ego upon the world and triumph over it is overcome and we can see ourselves as part of an earth community. A philosophical rather than a literal approach to the gift might prevent us from devouring indigenous cultures.
the great tradition of liberation movements
The Aboriginal gift is not a box of candy that we take away and consume. It is a gift that demands a responsible ethics that must follow from an activation of spirit. There are parallels between the cultural politics of the gift, and the non-violent resistance strategies of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. Gandhi, Mandela and King wanted to return good for evil, and stop the sources of oppression by showing compassion to those who had harmed them. These were similar to the non-violent politics of Jesus, as evident in the Sermon on the Mount Martin Luther King said:
We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory
In the Aboriginal situation we find a similar strategy at work. Darkness cannot drive out darkness. By offering the gift that demands a spiritual and ethical response, indigenous people appeal to the heart and conscience of their oppressors. Miriam Rose says: ‘We keep on longing for the things that we have always hoped for – respect and understanding. Like Dr King, they hope for a double victory: cultural dignity and freedom for themselves, and moral and spiritual transformation in the colonisers.
I can’t avoid the sense that a sacrifice is required before Australia can achieve this transformation. Something in us has to die before the new can be born. We can’t just generate cultural reconciliation because we think it’s a good idea. There is something that has to be let go of at a deep level, before we can be renewed. Our alienation from nature and our deeper selves has to be overcome before we can move on. In religious terms, there is a paschal element here, a need to die before rebirth can occur. But neither the consumerist New Age nor the secular mainstream wants to die; both seek to preserve their identity and perpetuate what they know. The dualistic consciousness that sees us as living subjects and the world as inert objects has to be sacrificed. We have to throw out a bridge between soul and world.
The elders who bear the gift of listening and pattern thinking seem like voices crying in the wilderness, and yet despite their lack of visibility and the muted response, their work is in the spirit of the great liberation movements of the last hundred years. The gift shares with Gandhi, Mandela and King the idea that only an activation of spirit will set people free. I will close with a final reflection from David Mowaljarlai:
What we see is, all the white people that were born in this country and they are missing the things that came from us mob, and we want to try and share it. And the people were born in this country, in the law country, from all these sacred places in the earth. And they were born on top of that. And that, we call wungud – very precious That is where their spirit come from. That’s why we can’t divide one another, we want to share our gift, that everybody is belonging, we want to share together in the future for other generations to live on. You know? That’s why it’s very important
What Mowaljarlai is alluding to was noted by anthropologists Spencer and Gillen. They reported meeting Aboriginal elders in 1896-7 who told them that it is not possible to usurp foreign territory, because in it there dwell ancestor spirits who reincarnate themselves in the new-born https://archive.org/stream/nativetribescen00gillgoog#page/n15/mode/2up
I don’t know what to say about this, except that it is an extraordinary idea that my Western mind finds hard to assimilate. But it gives a completely new meaning to the idea that ‘we are one’ in this land.