Honouring the indigenous story cycle as a part of funeral practice.

Call it bias, distortion, omission, denial, constraints of time, blind spots.  What do we call it when during the telling of a story there is little or no reference made to the facts? Resulting in the fact that the story is at best incomplete and at worst a fabrication? For reasons best known to the storytellers, they choose to withhold information that would not only throw new light on the subject, but most probably dramatically change ones perspective.

This is especially true when our commentary of how Australia was settled omits, chooses to ignore or acknowledge our indigenous brothers and sisters who were here long before us folks of European decent.

Bruce Pascoe in Too upsetting (The Monthly July 2016 page 40) tells about his six hour World Heritage Cruise “… out of the west Tasmanian town of Strahan, across Macquarie Harbour and along the Gordon River. The tour commentary is constant, about Bob Hawke and Bob Brown’s fight to save the Franklin river from the hydro-electricity engineers, about the high quality of the salmon produced in the local fish farms (and their owners fortunes) …. The prisoners and guards at the Sarah Island convict settlement … 3000-year-old Huon pines and how two men could cut down 1000 of these trees each year …. But not once are the words ‘Aboriginal’ or ‘indigenous’ mentioned.”

“Evidence of indigenous Tasmanians has been found up and down the island’s west coast.  There are the whalebone house constructions, their cooking ovens …. The whale etchings older than any other art in the world apart from that of mainland Australia …  and yet they are of no interest” in the cruise commentary.  Bruce Pascoe goes on to write: “I scour Stahan’s information centre, a vast barn of Huon pine memorabilia and nightly re-enactments, but find no mention of whale petroglyphs there either.  Nor on Bruny Island, south of Hobart, where I had gone to look for the whale songline.”  “Perhaps most Australians prefer not to know.”   And he concludes: “There’s only so much history that can be revealed in six hours.”

This leads us to a second story where we have evidence of bias, omissions, denial and blind spots also prevailing.

Galarrawuy Yunupingu in Rom Watangu: The law of the land (The Monthly July 2016 pages 18-29) writes: “Our song cycles have the greatest importance in the lives of our people. They guide and inform our lives.  A song cycle tells a person’s life: It relates to the past, to the present and to the future”

“It is through the song cycles that we acknowledge our allegiance to the land, to our laws, to our life, to our ancestors and to each other.”

He writes: “I have lived my song cycle and I have done what I can to translate the concepts of the Yolngu world into the reality of my life.  I have endured much change and seen many different faces – I have watched both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal leaders move in and out. And of course I have mixed feelings when I reflect on my life’s work.  I feel deep sadness at times …. “

He tells the story of his father-in-law Wonggu who was an elder in their community. “Just to be in Wonggu’s presence was a great honour.”

Then one morning: “I heard the news that Wonggu had passed away. I went to his camp where my sister was, and there the body lay on a stretcher covered with a white sheet. Wonggu was peaceful but we were all in shock at the death of the great man. Preparations were made, and  I watched quietly as the Djapu men sang to the spirit world. I sat motionless as my brother-in-law, with great love, removed the shirt from his father’s body. Murtitjpuy took his delicate human-hair brush and his ochres, and began to paint his father’s body. I remember the painting as the most beautiful I have ever seen. Murtitjpuy was so focused. He was in his own world, delicately working with the brush. He said no words to explain, but the painting spoke of power and authority. The work covered all of Wonggu’s upper body including his face, which was most carefully done. His hair was decorated with white clay, and his authority and greatness were obvious for all to see.

Four Djapu men then came to the body. With great respect they rewrapped it, making a shroud, and placed it on a stretcher of stringybark. With sacred words they sang a special ceremony, a song cycle of the Djapu people, and raised the great man above their heads, carrying him to his final resting place. The men and women of the Yolngu world came and lined the beach, and Wonggu’s sons carried him on high, in a procession of dignified authority. And then the tears broke: men and women, including my father, were crying and lamenting the passing, throwing themselves about and calling out in respect of this man. At the grave we were directed in the shark dance, the sacred totem of the Djapu.”

That’s how it was, but not any more.  We, by our bias, distortion, constraints of time, have imposed on indigenous societies a foreign and contrived way of farewelling their loved ones who have died.

Says Yunupingu: “Today when a man dies he is taken by the police or a coroner and he is made cold and sterile. Too often he dies violently or suddenly, surrounded by tokens of the Western world, not the Yolngu world. Tokens that have drawn him to his peril. The family loses the deceased and the deceased loses the family. He goes into a coffin, nailed in, screwed down, without love and without respect. Then he is returned in that way to the family for burial.  It is a different world today from what it was then. It will be a different world tomorrow from what it is today.”

Government agencies and the funeral industry have decided that they know best.

When we report on how different cultures practice their traditions and beliefs, we must include stories of relevance to Aboriginal people. It is time that indigenous people be made aware of how Wonggu’s life was honoured and respected in death as it was in life; that they to can be farewelled in the same way- with the same dignity and respect; with the story cycles being passed on to the next generation; without outside forces imposing their paternalistic methods and their costly merchandise.

We are told it is too hard, too daunting, too upsetting, beyond our ability, outside our understanding – every excuse in the book, but not the truth.  The truth is this – we do not need to outsource this most personal and precious of times to strangers who have an agenda most probably at odds with the storyline of our ancestors and dearly departed.

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