I am afraid.
I fear the degree to which violence is proliferating across our planet and the ways in which it is manifesting in the lives of the young. And I’m afraid that we, the collective adults of the world, are not nearly as outraged by this as we should be. In fact, I fear we are not outraged at all. But what does any of this have to do with rituals, the topic of this essay? After all, there is no ritual by which we can improve the lives of the young, whether of our own species or any other. Children will inevitably be born into violence whether it is of home or neighbourhood, the structural violence of poverty or discrimination or the larger scale conflicts that envelop nations. They will be born, too, into a world that daily loses depth and colour as other species vanish from this earth.
But we cannot prevent the ghost spider orchids from becoming ghosts in truth or the orange-bellied parrots from flying the last of their great migratory flights any more than we can prevent many of the troubles that plague our own kind. We know that we can’t stop these things, because, largely, we don’t. Except perhaps this reasoning is flawed, and there is something we could do. And perhaps we could begin with an understanding of the ways in which ritual shapes our lives and connects us to each other and the earth.
What exactly is a ritual? I don’t like the word, because I’ve heard it used too often in the context of ‘quaint native rituals and customs’. It forms part of the colonial vocabulary used to devalue Indigenous ways-of-knowing and privilege those of the West. I will speak instead of what a ritual truly is; I will speak of process. And process is of great importance to my people, as it is to Indigenous peoples everywhere – so much so that a distinction between ‘process-orientated’ and ‘results-orientated’ is one of the key differences some Indigenous thinkers draw between Eurocentric cultures and our own.1
Ancient Aboriginal stories tell that process made the world during the creation period of the Dreaming. Whatever reality existed before the Dreaming was one that could not support life as we know it now – all that is had to be embodied before it could be:
The Above-One sat for a long time. He had brought Light. When night-time came, he went down to make his camp in the shelter. He stretched out and merged with the wall while falling asleep. He had brought Sleep. Just like us, when dark comes down and we start to make a camp and we lie down. Because Ngadjar did it, we do it too.2
And all that is must still be embodied in – and supported by – process so that it can continue:
In our ceremonies we wear marks on our bodies, they come from the Dreaming too, we carry the design that the Dreamings gave to us. When we wear that Dreaming mark we are carrying the country, we are keeping the Dreaming held up, we are keeping the country and the Dreaming alive.3
One of the broader truths these wisdoms teach me is that there is nothing inevitable about this earth. There is nothing terrible that cannot be changed and nothing wonderful that cannot be lost. And the difference between a planet that sustains our species and one that destroys us (or that we destroy) is the processes by which we live our lives and influence the lives of others.
Many of these processes are small, everyday things. Take, for example, something as simple as the way in which we use words. We have become careless of how we speak here in Australia, so much so that there is now a phenomenon known as ‘casual racism’. But what that term means is that the racism is casual to those who say the words, not those affected by them. Perhaps this is why racist language can be used so lightly to begin with: it is not the speaker who carries the weight of it. And many of those who do carry the weight – whether of racism or any other form of discrimination – are the young, who quickly learn to make themselves less of a target by being smaller than they are. The way we use our voices is one of the processes by which we create the future.
My own voice is one among the many Indigenous voices of the earth. I am of the Palyku, and the Country (homeland) of my people lies in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Like all Indigenous people, I am the inheritor of a unique connection to land, of the multi-generational trauma of colonialism and of the present-day disadvantage that is colonialism’s legacy. I am also part of a great Indigenous diversity, which was once written about by Bardi Jawi Traditional Owner Erika Spry in this way:
Saltwater Country people are strong like the rising of daily tides, which expose beauty and growth on coral reefs.
River Country people are strong like their Rivers which flow to maintain health for all.
Rangelands Country people are wise as their Rangelands heights gives them sight into the distance; displaying a wholesome view of the diversity of hidden valleys and waterways; and
Desert Country people have hidden healing gifts just like the Desert Country Deserts which can be conceived as dry, but has various times when there are carpets of colourful wild flowers in full bloom, depicting serenity and healing to ones soul/spirit.4
Our different homelands shaped not only different peoples but also different processes, which makes Indigenous people the originators of the concept ‘think global, act local’. A common characteristic shared by Indigenous cultures everywhere is a concern to sustain the homelands upon which our existence depends, but the processes by which this is done are specific to diverse peoples and places. What I learn from this is that context shapes meaning, and process must be sensitive to local peoples and environments. This is something that has been poorly understood by the bureaucracies that have dealt with Indigenous communities over the years, often resulting in money being funnelled to programs that no one wants while the initiatives that desperately need support go unfunded. Beyond this is a larger lesson for everyone: if our purpose is to sustain – whether it is ourselves, each other, or the earth – then the processes by which this is done should be respectful of, and responsive to, the contexts in which each of us exists. It is important to be willing to be wrong, to read the ebb and flow of energy around you and adapt accordingly. In the words of my mother:
In a discussion with one of my grandfathers, he commented that he thought Captain Cook was a man who couldn’t read the signs. He was talking about an intuitive way of knowing, a fluid and dynamic language grounded in country and linked to the wider world, that our old people are very adept at. Country is alive. The world is alive. This is the essential unchanging nature of the universe. This is the reality of life for Indigenous peoples.
“If a man can’t read the signs, then he might get out of his depth and end up in dangerous waters. He might muck things up for other people too.”5
I think our entire species is in dangerous waters now, out of our depth and too far from the safety of the land. And I worry that many of us have come to accept that violence, like the tides, will roll over this planet in king waves regardless of what we do. But whenever I feel myself to be powerless, I think of my great-grandmother. Born around the turn of the last century, she endured the times when every aspect of Aboriginal existence was controlled by other people’s choices. Her options were vanishingly small and her life, along with the lives of others of her generation, was one of grinding hardship and injustice. But like many of those who survived that era, she retained a wry humour and a great generosity of spirit. From these wise Elders, I learn that the only rational response to the experience of cruelty is to embody kindness. It is the one victory to be had when no others are possible and the one choice that can still be made when all others are taken away. It is also the most defiant response, because it is by refusing to allow bad experiences to change us for the worse that those who treat us badly are ultimately denied power and significance.
I am hopeful, despite the violence proliferating across the planet. Because if my great-grandmother’s generation could hold onto hope then so can I. And because if there are people across the globe who have very few choices and still do what they can to nurture others and the earth – and there are – then we all have the power to do the same.
What is a process? It is the means by which we change the world.
1. Leroy Little Bear, “Jagged Worldviews Colliding”, in Reclaiming Indigenous Voice and Vision, ed. Marie Battiste (UBC Press: Vancouver 2000), 77–85.
2. David Mowaljarlai and Jutta Malnic, Yorro Yorro: Everything Standing Up Alive, (Magabala Books: Broome, 2001), 2nd edition, 136.
3. The Yanyuwa People of Borroloola and John Bradley, Yanyuwa Country: The Yanyuwa people of Borroloola tell the history of their land (Greenhouse Publications: Richmond, 1988), xi–xii.
4. Erica Spry, “Kimberley Country Connections and Reflections”, Westerly volume 54 number 2 (2009): 127–136 at 135–136, available online at: http://westerlymag.com.au/issue/54-2/
5. Sally Morgan, “The Balance for the World”, in Heartsick for Country: Stories of Love, Spirit and Creation, eds. Morgan et al (Fremantle Press: Fremantle, 2008), 254–278 at 270.
MORE FROM THE LONGER LIGHT SERIES:
The Longer Light Series explores the idea that our personal rituals – from the mundane to the grand – tether us to special places and particular times. It investigates how our rituals are contingent on the places where we perform them, on the rhythm of the seasons, on the weather of any given day, on what we see and smell around us.
The 12 distinct works of the series detail, document or respond to some sort of ritual (as each contributor interprets that word) enacted during a week of summer days and nights. The works will be published in weekly instalments so that, in concert, they plot the arc of an Australian summer.
The Longer Light Series is supported by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund.