March 2, 2012
Day 10 of the Australian Journey 2012
By Lewis Mehl-Madrona
Today was Day 10 of the journey and was a day for reflection and preparation for the Sydney portion of our trip. We reflected upon what culture camp had meant for people and confirmed that we would come again next year. Then we flew to Sydney and ate a marvelous fish dinner.
::::::::Today was day of reflection and the day that we travel to Sydney for that part of our cross-cultural exchange. Before the flight, we spent the morning caucusing and planning for the next year. We learned that funding exists for next year and that a camp will happen, which pleased and excited us. My highpoint from camp was Lily, the woman healer/elder/leader from Millumgimby in the Northern Territories, crying during the men's choir concert. On the last evening of every camp, the men's choir comes over by boat to eat dinner with us and sing to us. The choir is led by a Maori man, James, who I described in my blog last year. Briefly, James is a Maori nuclear physicist who has worked for years for the Australian defense industry and has run Maori-style sweat lodges in Australian prisons for Maori inmates ( and anyone else who wanted to come). The choir is composed of, as they say, "black fellows and white fellows." After dinner the choir serenaded us with Maori songs, a song from the Solomon Islands, from where one of its members hailed, aboriginal songs, and English language favorites (West Virginia, Oh Shenandoah, and the like). Lily cried because she had never believed in her life time that white men would sing to her. I thought this moment got to the heart of what we are trying to accomplish with cultural exchange -- for all the Voices to speak and be heard with equal volume and respect; to equalize the privileged voices and the dispossessed voices. Lily's tears were evidence to me that we were accomplishing our mission.
I wrote last year about the "black-white" distinction in Australia. It rings strange to my eyes. When I look at aboriginal people here, I do not see black people. I see Australian aboriginal people. So when they call themselves black fellows and talk about the white fellows, it's strangely disconcerting to me. It reminds of how people talked in the American South during my childhood which was deeply disturbing at the time. I confess to thinking of "black" people as people who identify with ancestors who came from Africa to North America against their will. Of course, they don't all look black either. In fact, an actually black person is very hard to find. Most people are varying shades of brown depending upon how much melanin they have in their skin. The colder the climate, the less melanin you need. The more sun, the more you need. The downside to having lots of melanin is that it slows the absorption of some of the vitamin D in climates with little sun. A theory exists that African-Americans have more depression than white Americans (controlling for poverty, etc.) because of a relative lack of vitamin D. I know when I measure vitamin D in Vermont, it's always low. I stopped measuring it and just give everyone vitamin D, because that's more cost effective, since it can't hurt you anyway and it's cheap. Maybe if I practiced in Arizona, I'd rethink that position. But, anyway, it's confusing to see people calling themselves black fellows, but I've come to understand it's a result of the colonizing position that the British took as they invaded the Australian continent and forcibly imposed their will upon the people who lived here. I suspect it justified their actions because, in the 19th century, "black" fellows were seen as inferior to "white" fellows -- primitive, just one step above the animals. Of course, "red" fellows in the United States (why red, I do not know) were even seen as below "black" fellows. All this was justified with a variety of pseudoscience, including phrenology, the study of the shape of skulls and what that revealed about intelligence. Charles Darwin, to his credit, argued vigorously that skin color was a minor gene that had very little relation to anything else and almost no correlation with anything except the strength of the sun where one's ancestors evolved.
Part of the success of our project is echoed in the increasing number of requests we are receiving to come to other communities and to assist other communities in creating "culture camps". Apparently this idea of spending one week together exchanging culture and participating in each other's ceremonies is novel. In Canada, culture camps to celebrate one's own culture and heritage are common. In North America, now, many people spend over one week together to celebrate the sun dance. But apparently spending time together to exchange culture is new. We have seen that the process results in increased awareness of the value of one's own culture and culture carriers (elders, leaders, etc.). There appears to be a beneficial effect of watching someone from another culture share his or her practices and participating in them. The process brings us closer to together. In celebrating diversity, we find unity. We have seen that culture camp has inspired some of the "white fellows" to look for their own ancestors and practices, whatever those are.
We also heard that being able to tell one's stories -- personal and cultural -- to others and to feel heard by them was also important. For aboriginal people to tell their personal and cultural stories to "white folks" and for the "white folks" to listen was powerful. Whenever trauma occurs, all the stories must be told and culture camp provides an opportunity for this to happen. The energy of the story is what happens between storyteller and listener when the story is told. This energy produces healing. The obstacles in the story are the gifts of the story. In the myths and legends of a people, our personal stories can emerge without the complication of interpretation which suppresses the story and the healing. We heard that non-indigenous cultures always want the newest, shiniest, most dramatic stories, while indigenous cultures like the old stories, the ones that have been told over and over.
A woman in our group told about working in Croatia soon after the war. She was hired to help women tell stories to their children, but the women had lost all the stories of their culture and only had Disney stories. She was puzzled about what to do. She went to a house one freezing morning when it snowed, and sat with the young mother around her kitchen table, who said, "It's bad for us, but not as bad as it is for the lions." This family had little food and was virtually malnourished but they were most concerned for the lions in the zoo who were suffering more than they. Our friend told about walking through the snow and entering the zoo in the middle of winter and how heart-wrenching it was to see the desperately thin, starving animals. She came upon the fence around the lions and thought that once upon a time, this must have been nice, in a Communist sort of way. She switched her task to working with the local women to create a new story about saving the lions and finding a way to get them out of the zoo and to a place where they could thrive.
Then we flew to Sydney and were met by Pauline, who will be our hostess for the next three days. We drove through incredibly thick rush hour traffic to her home in Manly and had a marvelous meal of cioppino, prepared by her husband who had lived in San Francisco.
Authors Website: www.mehl-madrona.com
Lewis Mehl-Madrona graduated from Stanford University School of Medicine and completed residencies in family medicine and in psychiatry at the University of Vermont. He is the author of Coyote Medicine, Coyote Healing, Coyote Wisdom, and Narrative Medicine.