The first part of our tour began yesterday with personal storytelling, and today begins our formal gathering. The local aboriginal woman who was planning to welcome us to country got ill, so no one from the original custodians of this land, the Upper Yarra River, came to welcome us. This was unexpected, so we paid homage to the people, to their ancestors, to the spirits of this land. My colleague, Rocky, who is a professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, sang a Yaqui welcoming song he had learned in ceremony in Tucson at the local Pascua Yaqui Reservation, while my wife, Barbara, went around the circle and smudged each participant with smoke from dried sage plants. I welcomed everyone and the directions and the spirits to our gathering in which we will share our culture and our stories in the hopes of liberating others' stories from within them. Barbara led a heart meditation to open our heart brains to the stories within us. Then Rocky began to speak about his ancestors.
His grandmother spent most of her life denying her ancestry. When that happens the spirit of alcohol and the spirit of domestic violence can rule the family as has been so common in North America and is too common in Australia. The story that brought so much suffering into so many people's lives came to Australia from England and taught that dark skin was inferior, shameful to have, and made one less than human, less than heroic.
Rocky spoke about his people, the Choctaw of Mississippi, being force marched to Oklahoma, a land that had been sold to them as the garden of paradise, which it wasn't. Twenty-five percent or so of the people on the journey died before arrival. Not everyone wanted to go, which meant hiding. Rocky's grandmother was born into hiding and never knew any different. This reminded me of a Latin American movie I watched on the plane ride to Australia, called, in English, A Clandestine Childhood. This movie tells the story of a child whose parents are Cuban revolutionaries living in Argentina and planning actions to resist the government. We see less of the plight of the parents and more of the plight of the child, which reminded me of Rocky's grandmother.
Rocky's grandmother married a person of lighter skin and hair color than hers and moved to Texas, where it was less stigmatized for darker people to be married to lighter skinned people, considering the many people of Mexican origin who married Texans of European origin. Like the character of the movie, Rocky's grandmother grew up in shame and fear, whose friends are violence and alcoholism. Rocky remembered joking with his relatives that, if they were to have a family reunion, it would have to be in the Texas State Penitentiary.
This is the context for many aboriginal families in Australia, especially in the areas of southeastern Australia where assimilation had happened longer than the Northern Territories, where people were able to resist assimilation and retain their culture and language. So we come into a time of high levels of alcohol and substance misuse and domestic violence. This is a story that Native Americans and Native Australians, aboriginal people from both continents share. In his book, In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts, Gabor Mate, writes about the pain that substances address. Those who find themselves addicted are usually suffering greatly from some pain, and usually always some degree of the pain of social distress.
Our stories about who we are influence how we manage our pain and suffering. If we are not one of whom we can be proud, if we are inferior to others, and if we are less than human, our pain can know no respite. If we can recover the stories about our greatness as a people and a community, we can resist the pain of social separation; we can heal the pain of loss of loved ones, parents, and relatives. This is why culture matters. When we can tell our tradition stories, we honor our ancestors and our heritage. When we tell our traditional stories, we build upon a tradition that says that we are a valuable and important people, that we are equal to any other people, and that we are proud to be from where we are. When we connect with our ancestors and their stories, they can aid us, they can help us feel strong, powerful, connected, and well.
So here's our task, I proposed. Our task today is for you to become aware of the stories you have been living. Our task is to help you transform these stories into those that give you more pride, more personal power, and more connectedness. Our task is to help you feel more heroic. For aboriginal people that means finding your cultural stories and telling them to each other and living them in your daily interactions. The stories are medicine. They are more powerful than the drugs used to "treat" addictions, including naltrexone, acamprosate, bupropion, and the host of other drugs that have been and will be tried. The stories help us feel proud. The stories empower us. They chase away our hungry ghosts by feeding us a sense of connectedness.
Since we don't know the local stories and it wouldn't be right for us to be telling them even if we knew them, our job now is to tell our stories to inspire you to find your stories and tell them. Let's begin by thinking about ways you have acted or been heroic. When was a time you did something about which you are proud or should be proud? What led you to act in this way? What happened? Pair up and tell the story to each other of that time. There's usually a time at which you realize you can do nothing but take the heroic step even though it was no foregone conclusion before that moment. What led up to that moment? Who helped you get there? Who opposed you? What pre-existing attitude got you through this heroism? What stories did you have to overcome to act in the way you did?