The general perception of Indigenous Australian culture in our society is defined by snapshots from the media, documentaries and political debates, rich in stereotypes, assumptions and generalisations that encourage Australians to assume that Aboriginal people in Australia all fit under one simple category, and share a common story. It is sources like these that reject one fundamental factor of understanding, this being an empathetic, authentic relationship with people and appreciation of their history and stories. Through the Verity Immersion, 24 girls along with 5 staff were offered the unique opportunity of travelling to North-East Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, to live with an Indigenous community and experience their ways of living and thinking first hand.
Whilst I could delineate many stories of long bus trips across the red earth, sunrise sceneries on Yellow Water and three metre salt-water crocodiles that jump completely out of the water; the most resonant and rewarding aspect of the trip was witnessing the joy and warmth of the Bukudal community, a family of Yolngu people whose hearts were as beautiful as the beach on which they lived. We arrived a group of strangers, and within minutes, we were members of the family, with a stripe of white ochre across our foreheads and a traditional smoking ceremony certifying our connection to the land and the people. There were a number of children, from babies to teenagers, tentative at first, but smiling from ear to ear as soon as we united in song to the familiar tune of ‘Let it Go’, before playing games of cricket and ‘Piggy in the Middle’ until the sun began to set and we were called for dinner.
Time flowed on in its own relaxed fashion. There were no clocks or bells, no rush like we experience in our daily scheduled lives, but at the same time, no time was wasted as we painted shells with Charmaine, dug for crabs with Darius, and made necklaces out of shells and seeds that Ruth (one of the elders) and the other women of the community had collected and pierced by hand. In the absence of Brayway (the elder) from the homeland due to ill health, Charmaine took on the task of allocating us each our own skin names and groups, so that we could truly be immersed and become a part of their family ourselves. We were also privileged to be taught some of the fundamentals of Yolngu, the traditional language of the area, and were tested daily on our capacity to pick up basics about introductions, family members and animals in words that sounded incredibly different to English.
One of the most resounding memories that I will retain from my stay on the Bukudal homeland were the night-time campfires, when we would sit, intermingled with the community, as one big group under the stars. We would watch traditional dances and songs, joining in when invited, laughing and singing with the community, care-free and open minded. We would hear the dreaming stories of the ‘Morning Star’, and learn about the songlines that mark the paths of the creator beings and tell the history of the land on which we sat. And we would return the favour, singing songs and doing dances for the community just as they had done for us. It was around the campfire that I came to appreciate how powerful simple things such as music and laughter are in uniting people, and how in essence, whilst we may come from different ways of living, and speak different languages, no barrier is too big to be broken down by song.
Whilst what I have recounted is but a tiny snapshot of the ten-day trip that myself and 29 others experienced, what I will take away is not only these incredible memories of untouched scenery, smiling children, and songs by moonlight, but a renewed understanding and appreciation for the oldest living culture on the planet. Whilst the modern view of our Indigenous people is one inhibited by a political slur, we should be attempting to reciprocate the acceptance and openness of the Bukudal community, a family who had enough trust to welcome a group of 29 strangers into their home with open arms. In the end, what I take away is the image of an eleven-year-old girl holding a 30cm fish that she had been brave enough to catch on her own in croc infested waters, a two-year-old girl with enough trust in people to hug anyone that smiled at her, and a family that may live a simple life and speak a different language, but have more happiness, empathy and understanding than many who live in the most built-up cities with the most advanced technology in the world. I wait for the day where our own culture can have this acceptance, bravery and trust, and when we can openly share it with other groups without prejudice or judgement, because in the end, we all share the same land, and sing the same song lines.