I have been looking out of the Fly screen door all afternoon, and all morning, in no particular order. Outside it is bright and still. Now, there is no-one but me remaining here at the settlement. I have no compulsion to do anything, neither to think nor to plan. But there is no sense of being in limbo, or bored out of my mind either. I am suspended. I am awake.
It might seem on first sight that I am a kind of white wild man, caked in red mud, squatting in a hut in remote Desert scrubland. Ninija and her People always call us ‘white fella ghost.’ You may also think that I am trapped here in the Desert, just like lumaluma was. ‘lumaluma?’ This is another strange name the Desert People have for us white skins, but especially those who exploit ninija and her People. Actually, roughly translated it means ‘money-money’ in their ancient tongue. However, ‘wild white man’ or ‘lumaluma,’ neither epithet applies to me, as you will see from ninija’s story which follows.
Ninija and her People all left the settlement some time and Day before ‘right now’ and ‘right here.’ I cannot determine exactly which Day. However, I can tell you it was the end of the Wet season – this is the time in Australia when the Rains pour so much that the Lands are suddenly flooded. Even huge Trees and Rock formations are submerged. Then, quite suddenly too, the flood Waters recede and the heat starts to build up like a furnace again. As I say, there are no humans here now so no need for outbound words or inbound thoughts, not that I have any desire to make any.
Once, my inner life used to be made entirely of a coarse fabric of such words and thoughts ‘back there’ and ‘back then.’ Nowadays however, they are mostly irrelevant, and I feel smooth and silky inside. You may be wondering what these strange terms like ‘right here’ and ‘back then’ I’m using are? I’ve learned that it’s better to first accept people’s words unconditionally, and then later to understand their meaning if it’s obscure to you. In these Lands especially, spoken words have very little value so perhaps it’s more effective to just sit back and listen with your heart, not your head. Now, I have absolutely no doubt at all, that opening our hearts without judgement is preferable to opening our mouths willy-nilly.
Today, I decided to come inside this shack to get my very last experience of being in ‘white-fella’ Lands before I leave. I really should explain this key phrase ‘The Lands’ though. It is so vital to life out here in the Desert. ‘The Lands’ is the term used by ninija to represent the physical country which belongs to their People, and also their psychological or spiritual dimension. Both of these consist principally of stories, legends and the tribal laws. ‘The Lands’ having other dimensions apart from the physical Earth may seem a strange concept at first, but ninija’s story will explain this beautifully. She officially put it into my safe-keeping when Moon was full just before she departed, ready for you to read.
So, I am standing behind the Fly screen inside this clammy ‘dog-box,’ as these temporary shelters of concrete and tin are called, for the very last time. I recall vaguely how it used to be home to me. You see, in ninija’s ‘Lands’ there are stories everywhere, even on the horizon. And the Skies are filled with songs. It’s hard to imagine I know, and I also had trouble understanding it at first, but ninija’s story will make it really clear to you
The other amazing thing is that, as I mentioned earlier, here it is possible to stay always right in the centre of the vital moment, in ‘the right here’ and ‘the right now’ as ninija refers to them. I can illustrate this by asking you to close your eyes for a moment and try to keep your mind still and empty. Probably quite soon, some thought will appear without you doing anything. Probably it’s a thought about the future, maybe a worry or fear you have about something that’s going to happen. Or about the past, something you regret or long for, but can no longer reach. But here in the Lands there is no future, and no past, so such unbidden thoughts don’t exist.
In fact, in ninija’s Lands, bizarre as it may sound, it is possible to take up our rightful place in the Universe. By doing this, we can become truly and consistently happy. This is something I never dreamed was possible, but I’ll let ninija tell you about that in her own way. It’s no good talking about it in ‘white fella’ way. It has to touch the hearts of each of you who read from her lips directly.
For many who inhabit ‘white-fella’ Lands, there is only one chance at life before they die. To make it worse, they are terrified of dying. So most of them spend their time regretting the past, or worrying about the future, and are in fact rarely fully in the moment. No wonder lumaluma needs to soothe away the stress of having only one chance at life with drugs, with alcohol and nicotine, and worse pleasures. And no wonder he wants everyone to be like him. There’s perhaps certain safety in numbers. I can see that now.
As I look through the mesh of the Fly screen, it seems that I have looked out at the vast blue Desert Sky and the red Ochre of the Land below it for eternity. The two are held together by the dark outline of the huge Casuarina Tree. This Tree was so cherished that ninija insisted on white fella making their settlement around it. I can still see them all staring in wonderment up into its muscular Branches, especially so at the meetings of the elders convened at the base of its massive Trunk.
‘Back then,’ as I looked out, I remember that at certain times of the day something high in the Tree would shine, dazzling me so I had to look away. It was like a bright star. When I asked what it was, ninija told me that by the end of her story I would understand what it was.
Then, somewhere in this rectangular frame of the mesh that I stare into, there is me. My pale eyes. White skin reddened by the colossal heat. My unkempt hair and fuzzy beard strained through the thousands of minute wire cells to become part of everything outside. Then, everything outside is filtered back to become part of me. One moment I become strong Tree and Sky, the stunning blue and red, and the next the Sky and Earth somehow take on my pale strangeness. There is no separation at all, and there is no beginning to my gazing, and no end to it. ‘Right Now.’ ‘Right Here.’ ‘Now.’ ‘Here.’ On and on. I would try to explain it to you intellectually as ‘integration.’ ninija taught me how to do it.
As I look around outside, from one rubbish heap to the next, it nowadays seems bizarre to me that the so-called ‘developed’ human species has a compulsion to collect material objects. And then, to sequence and sort them, arranging them in heaps like these. Or on shelves, inside custom-built drawers and cupboards, or in albums or boxes. With time, the collections become the entire identity of the collector. In fact, the collectors think they are nobody without them. I too have stood in the ranks of these collectors, for most of my life until recently.
This ‘dog-box’ I am presently standing in was once walled with stacks of meticulously ordered green notebooks, written up every day since my arrival. Then, there were wads of photographs, taken religiously, sorted into wallets and numbered to correspond to passages in the notebooks. Stacks of cassette cases containing taped conversations with ninija and her People, their counter numbers indexed with the main body of notes. All this data was rigorously cross-referenced and clinically collected. Any subjective observations were censored out to give clear insight, evidence and finally proof of the tribe’s ancient lives.
This collection would one day be presented to the intellectually curious, becoming the intellectual property of the ‘Foundation for Indigenous Peoples,’ known for short as FIP. It was this organisation which sent me to this Desert to make these studies. Yes, there is no doubt now that my own data had come to represent my entire identity too, and that without it I was nothing or nobody. My brief as a salaried anthropologist was to study in depth the “tolerance of pain assisted by magic and other non-chemical means” of these Desert People.
To explain further, there are no chemical medicines or mechanically assisted treatments out here in the Desert, so traditional folk medicines and cures are highly developed by aboriginals. But my research interest was how the aboriginals, indeed any ancient Peoples, use magic or shamanism (the communication between the spiritual and the human world performed by medicine man) to cure and deal with pain. My subjects were a female aboriginal Traditional Landowner named ninija, mentioned above, her granddaughter gina, and their People. The location of my field work: 1100 miles deep in the centre of Australia, reached by land-cruiser surfing the Desert, or ‘flying-doctor’ planes if the money was available.
Ninija calls land-cruisers, ‘white fella’s silver Goose,’ and aircraft, ‘white scratching Bird of the Sky.’ The Desert People have never known these modes of transport until very recently.
I was indeed a professional collector back then! My neat rectangular book spines and sharp corners, and the sharpened leads of pencils and precision-made nibs, had actually become my arms and legs, my eyes. And yes, even my heart, my strange collector’s heart. In fact, all my indexes and bibliographies practically formed a fine film under my fingernails and across my top lip. Oh yes, it is true that I would have killed to protect my collection ‘back then’ in ‘white-fella ghosts’ Lands.
Then one day ‘back then’ I was moved to do something very strange. Call it a sign from heaven, a directive from my higher self if you like. It happened the day they, ninija and her People, finally left, and I stayed behind to make the last arrangements. Almost immediately the queer procession had disappeared from my view, I was moved to go out and bring many Grass baskets made by ninija’s women into my ‘dog-box.’ Then, as if hypnotised, I stiffly took armfuls of my precious records, and fed their spines into the baskets, as easily as if they were unlatched concertinas.
As I fuelled the baskets, the meticulous order of my precious records slipped and slid inside their curves. Then, because of the intense heat, I slowly carried each basket outside, one by one. It was still hot even during the Night at the beginning of the Dry season – the time in Australia when there is no single drop of moisture in the Land, and the Rocks are hot enough to fry eggs and boil a billycan of Water on.
Outside, I walked from one of the many rubbish heaps to another. I opened each note-book unseeingly, tore out chunks then mixed them with my hands in with the other discarded items. A page here with a blue dress, a few pages on the back seat of a derelict Ford station wagon inhabited by striped Emu chicks. Emus by the way are the very tall flightless Birds which inhabit the Desert, rather similar to the Ostrich which lives in Africa.
Perhaps I should explain the presence of these rubbish heaps here in the Desert. If you rummaged through them, you would find a thorough treatise on the subject among the discarded pages of my notes and photographs. Perhaps rubbish heaps also constitute some kind of collection. Though in this case of deliberately discarded items, not those worn out, finished-with or rotted as in civilised societies. The items which compose a rubbish heap here consist of anything which is not part of Mother Nature.
During my field work here, one of the most important things I have learned is that ancient ninija and her People are truly not collectors. On the contrary, they do not value these unsolicited donations from the real collectors. What is their motivation for donating you may ask? In short, to civilise, to sterilise, to regularise, and to make life ‘Easy,’ ‘Happy,’ and ‘Sexy,’ to use lumaluma’s words.‘Easy-Happy-Sexy’ is another place in white-fella’s Lands, along with ‘back there’ and ‘back then,’ according to ninija.
In fact, the rubbish heaps exist exactly because ninija and her People have no use for disposable material goods. They snatch them with no sense of gratitude, initially aroused by their novelty. They are attracted by their unaccustomed colours and textures, and by unfamiliar concepts such as those of toys, culinary aids, paper goods, textiles, metal and plastic fashioned into shapes. Then they pass them quickly through their fingers and discard them. In this way, the heaps of mixed ‘civilised’ gifts accumulate inside and outside their uninhabited dog boxes. They very quickly discard them too because they are made separate from the Lands inside.
On my way back from the disposal of my own data collection in the ‘civilised’ rubbish heaps, I made my final walk around the deserted settlement. I looked up into the massive Casuarina Tree. Its strong arms holding up the Sky and balancing the Sun: its roots gripping the Earth. I stared out at the Wind-disturbed remains of the sacred Burial Grounds built entirely out of Sand, the purification trenches, the Dreaming Mounds. I climbed on to Gina granddaughter’s evening Hillock where she used to howl at the Sunset each Day. And I sat up on ninija Rock by the Water Hole and lumaluma’s hollow, the highest point in the Lands.
It was from here that ninija as chief could carry out her duties as overall keeper of the Lands. ‘Traditional Landowner ninija – sole keeper of the stories, songs and artefacts of her People and her Lands.’ That is her full title. Now, she has gone to find another Rock deeper inside her massive Lands which stretch across the hottest area of the world. There will be new stories and songs to record about her journey, but not by me this time. I am no longer an observer.
On departure day, as I watched the group prepare to leave, they packed nothing at all. They took only a few handmade possessions which they habitually carry or wear: their dilly bags woven from Mangrove string containing personal effects such as churingas (totemic identity badges); their Wood and Grass carrying bowls, coolamon, sported on heads, shoulders or against bellies; their custom-made digging sticks slung across shoulders with ornate Kangaroo straps; beautifully crafted decorated boomerangs for hunting; and perfectly cylindrical Hollow Log coffins containing Bones of their deceased.
Churinga. Coolamon. Hollow Log Coffins. I remember how strange theses names were to begin with, but how now they have become the objects they describe. They are so beautiful, so practical and of course hand-made.
If only you could have been there to see them go. Ninija’s tribe, leaving the dis-organised collection of tin-roofed huts, each with its rubbish heap outside. All naked and all barefoot, now all indifferent to white man’s comfortable way of living! They are mostly advanced in years, weakened by a cultivated dependence on ‘Easy’ supplies of ‘civilised’ bags of white sugar, flour, pre-packed snacks, tea-bags. Modern medical assistance and intervention was forced on to them at the settlement, their own natural remedies and healing practices kicked aside as voodoo.
Ninija, leading the exodus, tall and broad. Her strong frame stooped to carry the extra weight gained as a result of unaccustomed starch and lack of exercise. Her hair a flaxen thatch cropped short by sharp ‘white fella’ scissors. She carried a large Grass dilly bag slung over one shoulder, a digging stick of the Pelican clan across the other. And held loosely down by her thigh the perfect wooden cylinder of her treasured Bone coffin, distinctively that of a Traditional Landowner. This would soon contain the precious remains of her son ginger.
At her side was small gina, her granddaughter, ninija’s successor to be. She was strapped up with her own digging stick of the Porcupine clan. Her grandmother’s coolamon, carrying bowl, balanced perfectly on her small head. Gina spiked the sand as she walked with a black tightly furled umbrella, outsized for her, its crook and ferrule of lacquered wood now flaked by strong Sun.
The party of shiny black skins with their blond and red topknots of wild hair was joined occasionally by competing Kangaroos. On one side they were flanked by a massive flock of high Emus, great scratching Bird of the Lands, and on the other by a troop of wild Camels. I had been so surprised to come across wild Camels in the Australian Desert. Apparently, they were once imported by Arabian explorers and have now become naturalized. Above the whole assembly, white Pelicans flapped their slow Wings through an indigo Sky, muttering to the full Moon.
The shimmering tribe was walking away from civilisation, from ‘security,’ from ‘safety,’ without compasses. Away from health care and education. Away from the culture of ‘the thinking’ stuffed with words and ideas. Following them, at some distance, was the party of newly arrived white workers adorned in multiple protective layers. They were led by the tall blond rifca in her loose-fitting blood red dress. Rifca. She was to help in much greater ways than the practical work of building shade shelters assigned to her and her group. Like me, she was to become a link between ancient Desert knowledge and wisdom, and modern People. But that’s another story for another ‘here’ and ‘now.’
The group members wore Fly nets and Snake boots, carried heavy brightly coloured sacks on their backs, and various pouches fixed tightly around their waists containing ‘valuables.’ They walked slowly as one, like a huge civilised reptile of some kind. Behind them were two creeping land cruisers, silver Geese, transporting all their supplies. For my part I, like ninija and her People, have discarded the baggage I do not need. Need is so often an illusion. ‘Right Here’ and ‘Right Now’ I am certain that all I need can be found in the Vast Hot Desert. I am completely sure that the Lands will provide everything.
Today, from my strange position between worlds, I will never ever forget their departure. It has for me the quality of a fantasy, the first-hand experiencing of a fable or myth. There was no need for ‘goodbyes,’ only the silence of real trust. Looking around inside this dark clammy dog-box, I remember so clearly when I first arrived at the settlement some years ‘back then.’ I would religiously sit down to write painstaking observations of ninija and her People.
Once tightly shut inside, I would light various deterrents warding off the swarming Flies, and then nervously remove my net from my face and sweat-sodden bush hat. But soon I began to run out of deterrents, and in desperation I called for extra supplies on my transmitter. Then the Wet season came and flooded out my dog-box, ruining my transmitter. No supplies were delivered. I was suddenly on my own, news-less, unsupported by my culture, stricken by a deep-seated panic that what had been my world was land-sliding away and leaving me behind.
I became fearful of dying a Desert death. But most of all, I was absolutely petrified of intolerable pain. Despite my studies, I was convinced that it would not be assisted by the ‘magic and other non-chemical means’ available to my subjects, once my own ‘chemical’ medical supplies were completely exhausted. It was when I was utterly consumed with my mortality, not any longer daring to step outside, that I began to speak in my dreams.
At first my scurvied lips seemed to be talking to myself using strange unconnected strands of language. I became quickly persuaded that I was in the early stages of malarial madness. But then I realised that there was someone else involved. I searched wildly in my four clammy corners for my interlocutor. To my amazement, ninija was giving me words like supplies of glucose to sustain my frail life, but she was nowhere to be found.
After that scary time when I feared for my mental health, and as I gradually accepted her as an invisible guide, ninija was with me most of the time. My Sleep-dreams and Day-dreams were woven into a gigantic carpet. She invited me continually to believe in ‘abundance,’ a word I had little recollection of ever using before. This word broke my conditioned addiction to the idea of ‘scarcity,’ to fending off hardship, to over-protecting myself until I became a dried Twig. Instead, this new notion of ‘abundance’ gave me a bright outlook of plenty.
Soon, after this mystical dialogue with her had begun, my aids to protection from Desert assaults did indeed run out entirely. Then one strange night, besieged as usual by armies of Flies in here, I inexplicably removed all my clothes, opened this Fly screen door, and walked outside. To my amazement, I no longer compulsively swatted or cursed the winged squadrons. I was no longer repelled by their persistent tickling and foraging for moisture.
Outside, Moon welcomed me and banished all fears of poisonous Snakes and pernicious Spiders. I was given permission by the Great Mother to be a naked and innocent creature, without collections of possessions or status. I no longer had any use for sensual cravings, and suddenly my heart and mind were empty of their stuffing of pictures and words. I stood there with my bare feet dredged in Desert dust turned blue by Moonlight, shrouded by insects for which bared white flesh was a new sensation. I was empty and yet full. Instead of images, many of which had been planted there by the media and education throughout my life, the battery of my being was charged with Desert, Earth, Air, Sky, and Moon. My head was unusually clear and quiet.
It was simple. I had taken up my place which the Great Mother had been saving for me. I no longer cowered before the terrifying giants of Desert death and intolerable pain. Instead, I had listened to ninija, and she had led me to freedom. Looking back, I have to confess that my own personal terror of disease and dying in a drawn-out agony had been my major motivation in the choice of my research for the foundation. I had selfishly coveted the secrets of primitive or indigenous Peoples once I was certain that western science had no sure solutions to death or disease. My original motives may seem entirely selfish, but perhaps there was some unconscious wisdom involved, as you will see.
That Night, quite soon after I stepped naked outside, ninija arrived and led me, without any verbal instructions, away from the settlement. She turned left and right ahead of me among interminable thickets and Mulga scrub, the thorny bushes which cover the Desert. It was as if she was obeying invisible signposts. Her broad back was dark blue in colour as we walked quickly. Then, beyond the hillocks of Spinifex Grass, which she and her People called ‘Yellow Hill,’ we went on to a collection of large clay holes which had been dug into the ground. They were deep and smooth-sided.
Ninija turned and pointed at one, and I knew to climb down into it. She slowly lowered her strong body into the hole to straddle me, her cheeks swelling and emptying rhythmically, her eyes closed. Then she began to produce long rivulets of saliva which silvered down the narrow cleft between our bodies into the bottom of the hole. She reached blind arms below us, kneading her mouth fluids with the skin of the Earth to make paint. I must have smiled in a bewildered way, for I had no idea what she was doing, or what it would lead to.
Then her black eyes opened and penetrated my blue eyes as she brought her fingers close to me and began to paint the traditional patterns known as ‘clan lines’ on my naked body. She made what looked like Fish or reptile scale shapes which ranged down my chest and thighs, and a huge tooth-filled jaw line across the width of my collar-bone. As she painted she unexpectedly pronounced the words ‘Baru, Crocodile!’ Finally, moving to my head, on my cheeks she painted Baru’s tiny hooded eyes, and on my chin his ovoid nostrils. I shuddered.
She directed me to lie face-down in the clay grave. Then I felt her strong fingers marking bigger scale shapes across my back, and Crocodile’s thick spine in line with my own. I struggled to resist blathering while she worked, but failed, blurting out impassioned questions. I demanded to know why she likened me to a reptile, exactly what type of Crocodile I was, and so on. But she remained immune to my talk. After a time, the realisation of how inappropriate words and thoughts were on this occasion slammed into my mind, and I was silenced.
When she had completed painting me she told me in broken English that the Great Mother had shared my soul with Baru, Crocodile. That I must go and watch and care for my scaly brother and sister ‘totems’ down by Green River. Baru, Crocodile Man, according to the Dreaming myths, created Fire with the friction of his tail by accident one day during a ritual. He later learned how to burn the Lands with Fire to make them more fertile. But then he couldn’t stop making it. So, the Vast Hot Desert came into being. Soon, all the species the Great Mother had created started to disappear in the ensuing drought, so she and her helpers created the Wet season exclusively to put Baru’s Fires out.
My clan lines painted, ninija left me in the strange blue light of the Desert clay hole. I had only ever seen pictures of Crocodiles, and most of them were in zoos! Now suddenly, this animal was my spiritual sibling. Everything was to be transformed after this Night. During the following days I did not set foot inside the biscuit tin of my dog-box. Instead I found myself walking, still naked and painted, away from the settlement and its giant Casuarina Tree towards the Buga Hills. I was no longer afraid of getting lost.
There I became magnetized to a group of pink Rocks, staring at their smooth surface. Then, I searched among piles of Stones nearby, in crevices, at the mouth of Caves, the faint traces of questions still between my lips. What was I looking for? Why? But their answers took the form of a sharp Stone axe between my fingers. After that, I forged the form and the spirit of my new soul mate ‘Crocodile’ into the deep channels I had carved in the Rock. Crocodile. Baru. Me. I have been down to Green River day after day, often sleeping there, always within watchful distance of Crocodiles. They are pleased to see me, their tails expressively welcoming me to their homes of Mud and Water.
It was quite soon after I started my wordless dialogue with ninija that she gave me sole custody of her story. This was a supreme act of faith. She knew in some deep way that she could trust me to be her representative to the developed world: although, she and her People had no reason to believe in modern men of European descent, or in anyone with vaguely white skin. She also knew that she and her People would leave the settlement forever soon, and that it was time the world knew the true story of white man’s cruelty to the aboriginals of Australia, and to Great Mother Nature and Father Earth.
As a result of this amazing process of piecing together her story, I believe now that a story is a precious jewel found by accident in a pocket. It is to be brought out again and again, gazed at closely, breathed on and polished with a silk scarf, then secreted away once more in the darkness. I marvel at the change in me as these words tumble out. Me-the academic, the one who once detested anything made-up and insisted on the facts and proofs. Ninija says that stories are made of pure Sun and Moon, without time, without space. She insists that they live deep in the veins, the soles of the feet, far behind the eyes, and that their energy is indestructible.
Ninija knew that I must communicate her story through the elaborate means of the written word. First I must find enough pens, spending tedious hours at my notebooks reviewing and correcting, attempting to pin down ‘the Lands’ on white-fella’s paper. She giggled, calling my spiky handwriting, running Ant. I meanwhile envied the simplicity of being able to commit everything to memory as she did and her Ancestors before had always done. I promised her that I will explain all the phrases commonly used by her People as the story goes along, so that nothing will be missed. In fact, I made a glossary so you can read up before you start the story which follows.
Oh! I almost forgot. Ninija requested that all of the Great Mother’s creations should be given the greatest of respect, and that she, her family members, and other individual names of people should remain insignificant. To try to show her deference I therefore have capitalised all natural phenomena and omitted ‘the’ to match her native language. It was difficult to explain to her the sentence conventions in English, as you can imagine, so occasionally such proper nouns are capitalised because they begin a sentence. I thought it wise to retain the conventions so that you could read ninija’s story as easily as possible, and she left that up to me entirely. However, intellectual concepts made by white fella about Great Mother Nature’s creations are not deserving of any special indications such as capital letters.
To fill in a little more detail before you start to read, it was after the glorious burial ceremony of Ninija’s son Ginger, known as The Djang, and the banishment of lumaluma, meddling white fella ghost, from the Lands forever, that Ninija and the elders put an end to all the dependence. They decided that they would move back into the centre of the desert to resume their traditional life. They no longer wanted the ‘Easy’ of white man. As I mentioned before, the group consisted mostly of the elderly, and the orphaned or abandoned children of the straightbacks. They are the young adults who were compulsorily clothed, shoed and cleaned up, then dragged off to desert schools. There they were forced to study hygiene, along with reading and writing, in white fella’s style.
Before she left, Ninija told me with great joy that she had called the straightbacks who were slowly making their way back to join them. Soon the whole tribe will be together once again to make a new start deep in the interior. That’s where rifca and her team come in. They had been sent quickly by the Rotary Club to help ninija with the hard physical work involved in erecting shade shelters. These would protect the tribe from the intense day-time heat so they could walk during the night. But the white-skinned people would only be able to accompany them a certain distance because white flesh was certain not to survive the rigours of the very centre of the Lands.
Rifca’s ‘white-fella’ group had walked into the settlement one day and made an encampment around one of the larger dog-boxes. They were exhausted, bruised and dizzy, after two days of gully flying in their silver goose,. Their clean bodies were already encrusted with desert orange dust which they hated. She, ninija, knew when and how they would come. She had seen it in the Lands, in the new Dreaming forms made by Rainbow Serpent, the Lord of the Dreaming Ancestors. Also, she heard it in an important new Lands story called ‘Red Dress Woman’ given to granddaughter Gina in a sleep-dream. Ninija has no need of telephones or radios, telegrams and letters.
Each member of the white team had come with skills to offer and the need to learn more from ninija’s wisdom before she disappeared out of human contact. An acupuncturist, hoping to exchange skills with her for Bush remedies; a herbalist, come to collect botanical knowledge of Desert Plants; a musician, come to learn the story-songs and how to make rhythms with hands and feet and Earth as instruments; an ecological architect, come to learn how to build ancient shelters from natural materials; a painter, come to learn how to make pigments from Earth, Rocks, and Plants. And leader rifca: story-teller and psychic, who had come to learn more about intuition, natural intelligence and integration with nature.
It was not long after the ‘white-fella’ group arrived at the settlement before rifca asked me how I came to be here. I said the real words of how it had happened out loud for the first time, sitting there opposite her, a naked Crocodile man. But I listened to myself as if to someone else. I heard how I had been a foreign tourist at Ayer’s Rock, the ‘Earth’s belly button,’ and of how I had been mesmerised by the magic of it.
One day at Sunset I went wandering off to explore the innumerable galleries of Rock paintings made by aboriginals, and got lost. The mighty Ayer’s Rock was changing colour like a chameleon from one moment to the next as Sun disappeared. Then how I had heard ninija’s voice calling me, and had seen her black naked form disappearing into a sheer wall of topaz, encouraging me after her. It is curious that in this account I made no mention of my profession of anthropologist, or my Desert contract, my precious brief and record collection, or my academic standards.
Rifca’s blue eyes lit up as she told me that she too had been called by ninija in a series of strange dreams. As a result, she had also unhesitatingly made her way to Ayer’s Rock, selling up her secure civilised life in London. For us both there had been no previous connection with the plight of indigenous peoples in Australia. Indeed neither of us was truly aware of what our emigrant forefathers had done in the name of pioneering in the remote southern hemisphere.
Then, once we had established our common calling, I admitted that I had no idea how long I had been at the settlement, or even where it was in precise geographical terms. I remember clearly saying the words, ‘There is no more need for questions.’ Rifca added that for her there was, ‘never a need for them, only a flirtation!’ The word ‘Dreamtime’ occurred and re-occurred many times in our short conversations together whilst the white workers were making the complicated preparations for the tribe’s departure. It had for both of us been a phrase that we had played with through the years, a fashionable pre-occupation in western life at that time.
We laughed together when we each confessed what we had previously thought the ‘time of Dreams’ might be made from: ether; vapour; strange substances through which people might walk; sequencelessness; a conveyor belt through a mountain side; a gigantic mirror; and other surrealist fads. We realised then that this was part of the paraphernalia of thinking, of words and images, all mere frivolities to traditional life. They had nothing to do with the real meaning of ‘Dreamtime.’
Ninija! It is not that I have ever spent quantifiable time with her. Time spent with someone can often be a measure of their influence, but we have no use for such measures in the desert. She was both accepting of me and at the same time kept her distance. There was actually no need for the long talks I craved with her when I first arrived. Rifca clearly was more enlightened, remaining silent and getting on with the practical preparations for the departure.
When I first arrived in the desert without fail I had my latest observations ready for the area warden to come to collect on a pre-arranged day once a month. When the document was safely locked in the dispatch box he or she would volley the giant land-cruiser to meet a Doctor’s plane to take my package to the mail. Deadlines were no trouble in those days. I was accustomed to writing up my field book daily, but gradually, I lost track of the days. I no longer remembered if I had entered my daily notes. In the end, my package was not ready for the appointed collection day.
Eventually I told the warden not to bother coming anymore as I had nothing else to send. He was perplexed, insisting that his contract was for a further year. But I insisted that it was a waste of time. After that he came once more on the appointed day to deposit various official letters which I never opened. They were probably bold demands for ‘goods paid for’ from FIP. I stacked them away with my notes, and they have eventually joined the rubbish heaps outside.
As I slowly assembled the collage of ninija’s story, I began to smile at Ninija’s utter commitment to global balance and peace. My heart opened wide at her wisdom and cosmic authority. I was ready to hear and accept her wisdom. It was at this time, as her scribe, that I really understood more about why she was the most spiritually evolved of her tribe. I sat back and relished images of millions of copies of her vision being devoured by my lost but arrogant people. The Great Mother indeed provided abundantly. My last sheet of paper, my last droplet of ink, has brought me to the story’s end.
I also told her of my strong belief that my People had learned how to be transformed by receiving the written word through their eyes. That it had the power to reach directly into their dreams and unconscious minds, so frequently gave me dreams and visions. I must have scribbled them in a trance state, coming upon them later and reading their rich imagery delightedly for the first time.
Before the Desert and ninija I was a human camera. I was an archivist, and a repository for captions. ‘Say it. See it. Say it. See it. Check it. Now prove it!’ After arriving here, I soon stopped looking and listened instead, and so slid into my rightful place. Now, if I cease listening to the Universe for an instant, ninija strides into to my mind and elbows me roughly in the ribs. She strictly guides me away from the needy eye, and from the very needy ‘I’ of my ego.
Look! As Sun finally goes down, the warden is coming. I can see her silver goose skimming the red Earth. The enormous dust mushrooms she is creating are fragmented a million times by the fly screen mesh. She is on her way to make the final collection from me. She is no longer employed by the University Congress, but instead by me personally. I have arranged to give her my very last store of money and some precious stones, diamonds and amethyst donated by ninija from her Caves, in exchange for taking her finished story to trustworthy contacts in Melbourne. They will then get it to an agent for publishing.
This is the final thing which keeps me here at the deserted settlement. Once I have handed the manuscript over, that’s it! There will be no corrections. No critique. No rewrites. No editorial whims. That is it. I will not be at the end of a telephone to negotiate this and that, a capital letter here, a new paragraph there. That piece of white fella’s business completed, I will set off in the same direction as the tribe went, through the Buga Hills. I will vigilantly watch for ninija’s Fires, and make my own to let her know everything is accomplished. In this way, she will guide me to her and I will be with her forever.
Here is the glossary I promised. Hopefully it will provide more explanation of some of the terms and beliefs prevalent amongst ninija and her people, and outline some of the Dreaming stories which ninija and gina tell. Ninija was adamant that I ensure that everyone who reads her story will understand deep in their hearts. This is her greatest wish.
‘Now’ and ‘Here’
This represents the innate ability or talent of becoming utterly absorbed in the moment. Ninija and her People (children are included in the term ‘People’) possess it. It is also found in certain non-primitive sectors, e.g. young children below the age of 7 of any epoch, modern people who have some kind of sensory deprivation, e.g. visual impairment, auditory/speech impairment, physically or mental disability. It is especially so for those who are diagnosed ‘autistic,’ along with anyone involved in artistic activities i.e. musicians, composers, sculptors and others who express themselves in modes other than language. I like to use the term ‘aesthetically absorbed,’ as it perhaps makes a distinction between intellectual and aesthetic absorption. This has also been coined by colleagues interested in the phenomenon.
Those experiencing ‘Now’ and ‘Here’ have the capacity to become the thing in which they are absorbed. They may become a song they are singing, a drum they are playing, a painting, cloud, rain, gong, flower-head. In this state nothing other than the thing in which they are absorbed matters. They are absolutely ‘Now’ and ‘Here,’ utterly engaged. There is no ‘Then’ or ‘There.’ Their senses and spirit are working at maximum capacity, their intellects are quiet. They interact with the natural world as if they are creatures. In other words, they are not driven by thought or language. To ninija and her People ‘Now and Here’ is their natural state, their native home. ‘Now and Here’ is not connected with time or place; they are constant states or conditions, and usually they know no other way of being. In the kingdoms of ‘Now and Here,’ they are eternally present, integrated, notched into the Earth, eternally grateful and reverential.
These three words occur a great deal in the text and of course they are simply adjectives known well, for the most part, to us all. But on the lips of ninija they are her way of describing what happens when you live ‘There’ and ‘Then,’ as she believes most of my people do. In the story she is forced by lumaluma to experience this state briefly, but generally it is alien to those who live ‘in the moment.’ Often all three words are used together to evoke a cumulative feeling, ie. the second depends on the first, the third on the second, etc. Each component is now described individually. a) In more detail, ‘Easy’ is about the convenience of modern living e.g. switching switches, opening cans, travelling at high-speed in vehicles without effort, stealing from others, and corruption, etc., all of which are unnatural in traditional aboriginal life. The so-called ‘ease’ with which we live, according to Ninija’s beliefs, means that we lose touch with our native instincts and thus cease to have any direct interaction with our environment. In other words, we live always indirectly, or at a distance, through materials and commodities.
Ninija says that if we have ‘Easy’ then it follows that we also have ‘Happy.’ She considers this to be an illusory happiness which obscures a natural state of being in which ‘Happy’ or ‘Sad’ are not considerations. This concept is elucidated in gina’s story, ‘Mini, Honeybee Girl .’ b) Then ‘Happy’ leads to ‘Sexy.’ This in ninija’s view is the tireless obsession with physical stimulation because we are no longer directly seeing and sensing the world. It is also bound up with an enduring power over other people, which ninija believes generally white men have over white women, and of course, children and black women. The power is created insidiously by developing a dependent state in others, and by a lack of genuine identity. This concept will become clearer during the course of the story. At this stage it is perhaps important to say that ninija and her People have entirely different moral-sexual codes to those of white Europeans/Americans. There is no such thing as ‘Sexy’ out in the Desert. This is made clearer by one of the stories ninija tells in chapter 6, namely ‘Sacred Love.’
white fella’s flashing pictures
Ninija believes that my People live by words and pictures rather than by stories and ritual language, as hers do. During the events of her own story she discovers that white People often make sense of their individual worlds through millions of pictures which they store in their memories. These consist of both pictures that they take with their cameras and eyes, and those which are forced upon them through the media. There are others which are handed down to them through the nuclear family and other social groups they belong to. Each person must match him or herself with the pictures. On top of this, the pictures all have words or captions associated with them so that each person can make a continual internal commentary based on them. I suggest that this is because my People have largely ceased to use the other senses in tandem with the dominant visual sense, ie. taste, smell, hearing, feeling, the kinesthetic sense of our bodies moving through space, etc. This means that our lives and our self-images are often constructed totally from words and pictures.
Ninija also believes that ‘white fella,’ a term she will often refer to us by, has the power to flash his pictures into the lives of Peoples who inhabit ‘Here’ and ‘Now,’ thus tempting them away with ‘Easy Happy Sexy.’ This has until now been a common occurrence among the young male and female straightbacks of her tribe, and of many other tribes. This is exemplified by her story for gina called ‘The Telephone Box’ in chapter 3. 5. ‘The Lands’ This is a state of consciousness rather than a particular place, although of course ninija is also the traditional landowner of a massive tract of Desert. Here she and her People move around with the seasons, and these are called her ‘Lands.’ She does not own them in a material sense, but is the custodian as a result of her spiritual enlightenment. Often when she refers to ‘the Lands’ she is alluding to the Earth and so to her intimacy with Nature. ‘The Lands’ could be said to represent her integration with the cosmos, more of which will be revealed in the narrative.
The Dreaming Legends
There is a great deal more awareness of the Dreamtime nowadays, but in her precious story, ninija tries to give a special insight. Its design illustrates how the Dreaming Legends are an integral part of real aboriginal lives, both told as a prayer in ritual language over and over again, and present physically in the Land forms around them. So the spirits of the Dreaming heroes, known sometimes as the Sky Heroes, are tangible and constant in their daily lives. They have no choice in whether to believe in them or not. They do not question. The heroes represent their moral models as well as the spiritual.
standing and becoming part of Earth
This is similar to being absolutely in ‘the moment’ or ‘aesthetically absorbed’ (see 1. ‘Now’ and ‘Here’). Ninija and her People are so integrated with nature that by standing completely still and projecting themselves into the Rock on which they stand, and by concentrating on their blackness (their skins are some of the blackest among the Peoples of the world), they are able to get inside the Rock. They, and nowadays me too, become part of it. There they/we shelter, nourishing themselves/ourselves under the skin of the Earth
A totem is an aboriginal’s main link with the Dreaming legends. Children are born into a totem Clan and so become eternal members of a group of People all of whom take the same name and identity of a natural object or phenomena. They share their soul with this creature or other natural phenomenon, and a great deal of their lives is spent caring for their soul mates. If an aboriginal should for some reason deny the existence of his or her totem, then they will lose their personal identity totally. More crucially, they will be forced to lead a life of agony and isolation outside Nature. Ninija’s custodial story, Jundal Gianga, in chapter 4 skilfully describes how totems are bestowed. I too have related my experience of how my own totem Baru, Crocodile, was transmitted to me.
travelling on /making campfires
Ninija and her People believe that physical death signifies the termination of a visit to the physical world, and that this is merely an interlude in perpetuity. After the Djang, the departure of the spirit from the human body, the spirit resumes its travelling on in the Lands of the Dead. Each spirit lights a campfire which is visible in the Night Sky as it goes. According to western knowledge, this ‘campfire’ is observed as the phenomenon of a star. There is no translation of the word ‘star’ in most Australian languages. I realise now that ‘star’ is merely a concept supported by scientific discovery and by looking into the Universe in ‘white fella’s’ way. Towards the end of Ninija’s narrative we experience the Djang as her son Ginger’s spirit quits its body and goes ‘travelling on’ in the Sky (chapter 12).
This expression is used to denote the elders or wise people of the tribe. They are similar to shamans in other traditions and occupy a special place between the physical and spiritual worlds.
These are the young strong People of the tribes who would customarily look after their elders and rear children. During ‘white-fella’s domination of the native Peoples of Australia, and of New Zealand and Tasmania, there was a movement to ‘civilise’ the young people so that they could live in a ‘normal’ western society. These cruel acts entailed removing them from their natural state and forcing them to attend colleges where they were taught hygiene and brainwashed into behaviour which was socially acceptable to the white middle-classes. But in truth, as with Negroes in North America, this was essentially to ensure a supply of slaves. Predictably perhaps, eventually these young unspoiled beings were corrupted by white fella’s money, liquor and drugs, and often died of excess in the back streets of cities, which were alien to them.
Ninija believes that the way her story has been set down will allow my People to understand how they can achieve balance in their lives. Also, how allegedly ‘civilised’ people may discover other ways to live that do not deplete the world’s resources or disconnect them from natural lives. But perhaps above all, for in all other respects I am confident that her story will speak eloquently without further elucidation, it is important to boldly underline the cruelty and total insensitivity that many of our forefathers and more recent kinsfolk have perpetrated on primitives (or indigenes.) Their attempts to ‘civilise’ those whose lives are judged as savage is perhaps one of the grossest, most arrogant acts ever.
Speaking as an ex-anthropologist, I believe that all such attempts have been inspired by fear of different value systems, and disdain for magic, spiritual evolution, and the like. But, like ninija, I believe they are forgivable in many ways. You will discover as you read that forgiveness is always possible where people dwell in the Lands of the Heart, in ninija’s Lands.
In what seems another life time, I took the bus from Alice Springs to visit Ayer’s Rock deep in the interior of Australia. Later that day ninija called me to her as you will remember. The seemingly genial bus driver was making a commentary by microphone as we drove along. He kept his bespectacled eyes always conscientiously on the endless road ahead. I see his eyes often in my mind’s eye, dry and myopic. I can also hear his reaction-less flat voice relayed through the sound system of the sleek bus.
We were soon to make the only turn south towards the cul-de-sac of Alice Springs, the last ‘civilised’ outpost before ‘the Dreaming Lands begin. When we drove past the Aboriginal College, established by missionaries he seemed extremely proud of, we stared at a utilitarian building. He continued on with his drawling clever commentary as we looked at it.
He spoke. ‘The aboriginals come to this college from their townships to learn reading, writing, arithmetic….but first they have to learn hygiene.’
He paused to measure his morality.
‘It’s not true that we have a colour bar in this country! No. We have a dirt bar.’
I wonder if it was a coincidence that there were no aboriginals cluttering up the front of this deserted college of ablutions and fumigation as living specimens of his discrimination. Incidentally, neither were there any traveling on the bus?