Today is Day 5 of the Australian journey, and we made our way from Canterbury (a suburb of Melbourne) where we spent the night in the offices of the Life Is " Foundation. We continue to be a cross-cultural delegation from Coyote Institute, Union Institute & University, Concordia University, and the University of Arizona. Today we drove to Metung, Victoria, where we were shuttled by boat to Boole Poole, an island in the Gippsland Lakes. Boole Poole is the site of Culture Camp 2011, where we will be until Friday. We were here last year for Culture Camp 2010, and many improvements have been made in the property since then. This island is sacred because of its ancient burial ground where ancestors of our hosts reside. We were happy to see Uncle Albert again, whom we had met two years ago for the first time. After too large and delicious a lunch, Albert began the welcome to country. Albert is an elder of the Gunnai-Kurnai people -- the oldest person he knows at age 78. He began by preparing a fire site for the smoking of the people (similar to the blessing we do in North America with sage and cedar). Here cherry leaves and gummy leaves are used for the smoking and the fire is prepared with dry bark. We process past the fire and through the smoke and then back to where we began in a circle. Then Albert told us his history, the history of the Gunnai-Kurnai people, and about the land upon which we were standing. He introduced us to the ancestors. We know from our first trip that their territory ranges from the ocean to the mountains along the entirety of Gippsland. On our first trip, we had brought back boomerangs of both kinds (practice and hunting) made by Uncle Albert, as well as clack sticks and other of his art. Today, he told us about his years of advocacy for his people and how last year their land claims had finally been granted. (When we were here last year, the land claims were in trial status and we had wondered what the outcome had been.)
We were also happy to see Shadow and Lily, people from the far North of Australia, who had been at Culture Camp 2010. Lily is a healer for her people and Shadow is her husband and a character. He had given us numerous memorable quotes last year, including "Brown King Snake; second deadliest in the world; but you can eat "em." Last year Shadow had asked me what I wanted for dinner. When I said, "Kangaroo", he grabbed a rifle and within ten minutes was back with a medium sized kangaroo, which he promptly skinned, butchered, and starting cooking on the "barby" (barbecue). After Uncle Albert's introduction to country, Lily prepared an area for "burning" people the next morning. We had heard about burning people last year, and knew that no one actually got burned, but rather, heated well. I will write more about this procedure once I see it done on Day 6 (tomorrow), for today; all I saw were the preparations. Firewood and bark are laid down on top one another in layers. Then, termite and ant hill dirt is placed on top, full of termites and ants. We were amazed to watch the termites running through the wood pile. It cannot be rocks, Lily explained, for that would make you weak. It must be termite and ant hill dirt. She then laid out paper bark and a bucket full of water and seaweed. We will see how this will work in the morning, for people must be burned between 8am and 10pm to make them strong and healthy. Any later, and they would also grow weak.
Then it was our turn. We had to repair the inipi (sweat lodge) structure that we had built last year. Last November, the building had turned out to be very difficult, because our only choice for sapling had been tee tree, which is brittle and unbending, compared to our usual choice of willow. We had built in May last year, which is the North American equivalent of November. This year we are building in March, the North American equivalent being September. The saplings, while still brittle, were much more bendable than they will be in May. Members of the community accompanied us into the bush to find appropriate saplings and we explained the meaning of the tobacco offering before cutting them. Albert encouraged us to watch where we put our feet lest we step on snakes or pesky wombats. Our friend Willie tried to scare us with crocodile stories, but we knew that crocodiles didn't live here and that they closest they had ever been sighted was 400 km to the North. We were able to find 14 suitable saplings and spent the rest of the afternoon taking down the broken lodge poles and replacing them with viable green saplings. The result was a perfect dome shaped lodge of which we were very proud even though it was too tall (the tee tree saplings can only be bent so far, or they will snap!). We had begun our work on the lodge by burning sage and cleansing everyone and then placing it in the fire pit in the middle of the lodge to slowly burn as we worked. We finished the construction with a tobacco offering.*
It is the end of a marvelous day in which we met old friends and new friends. Lily had brought another woman with her from the Northern Territories who showed us the plant she used to cure ringworm and scabies. Nicky, an aboriginal man from this area was new and was somehow related to Willie. Lily brought two of her grandsons who are learning her healing arts.
At the end of the day, Nicky observed, "Indigenous people are more similar than different." He was commented on the similarities of how Uncle Albert had conducted the smoking ceremony, Lily had prepared to "burn people", and we had prepared the sweat lodge structure. "When you listen to the earth and respect her, when you honor the ancestors and do what they tell you, and when you let the spirits guide you in all things," he said, "it appears that people all over the world do things pretty much the same. When you're guided my money and don't respect the spirits or the ancestors or the land, then you also do things pretty much the same all over the world, but in a bad way." I agreed with him. "Oh well," he said. "It's their loss. Look what wonderful sharing we are creating here." On that note, we watched the sun set and went to the evening's dinner which was kangaroo curry.
* Note: our delegate who will be leading the sweat lodge ceremony tomorrow meets the criteria proposed by Orval Looking Horse for who is qualified to lead such ceremonies.