A wiry old grandfather adorned in paint, armulets and feathers has such an aura about him – a spiritual figure from another age. He looks the part; he is the part. He‘s from another world.
As for us, we have one foot in two different worlds … Le Lapérouse and . . . Le Dreamtime.
Grandfather, singularly, assumes a rare and special role. He starts the welcome dance to the music of didgeridoo and clap sticks putting all he has in him into it. He exhausts himself, ending-up leaning, breathless and bowed, on the central ceremonial dance poles until assisted into the shade and given water.
The carved and painted poles represent each clan group. and have memorial and mourning ceremony applications. They are decorated with bands of ochre pigment, woven strings and feathers.
In this rare dance performance, we learn that the grandfather is passing-on identity and knowledge to his great grandson standing out here with others in this small community of first nation’s people dressed in a rainbow sash. He tells of ‘who we are’ and ‘where we come from’.
We are indeed honoured to be witness to this.
Grandfather is the figure head of the Galiwin’ku community on Elcho Island off the coast of East Arnhem Land in Australia’s Northern Territory.
The dancing that follows tells of the people’s spiritual journey; a journey starting with a God that comes from nothing and who is represented in the poles set up in the centre ground before us. The songs talk about the universe and creation from their view. Culture is presented in timelines. And the poles represent timelines of a different time.
We sit comfortably on chairs placed on mats laid over powdery red soil. Branches of eucalypt leaves on top of simple structures provide shade. Beyond the central open courtyard, the sea rolls in in gentle waves on a wide stretch of beach and breaks over large ochre boulders at each end. Shade trees line the shore. Last week, a crocodile took one of their dogs.
Song, didgeridoo and clap sticks herald the entrance of an enthused community, daubed with ash and white paint, branches waving in their hands, women and children included, circling around the poles dancing, stomping with clouds of fine red dust up their nostrils, unperturbed. (Our worlds are very far apart indeed.)
There’s never been anything like this here before, and they’ll probably not do it again for a long time.
After lighting the welcome fire, a couple of impressive ‘Aunts’ do all the explaining. This is first group from a cruise ship and they are so anxious to impress. They are obviously up for it. It’s a big thing to be handling an event like this and to see it carried out so beautifully.
Years ago, their grandfather’s great vision included education for his daughters, and he sent them to school in Darwin. These now older women explain to us wonderful stories of their history which they in turn are proud to be passing on to their children.
Speaking with one of the younger men, I learn of his own very interesting backstory including a little about how the people live and earn a living. His parents separated when he was five months old and his Irish/Welsh dad took him to Australia where he was educated, played Aussie Rules football, and got a trade.
He was brought up as a Pentecostal Christian where he learned the importance of honouring your father and your mother. So, in his mid-20s, he felt it time to look for his mother, and reconcile. He is now living with her in the community learning how to hunt and gather and do the things that are the members of his family have done for years.
The opportunities for employment are provided largely by the government services. Tourism and indigenous Arts and crafts figure highly in the plans of the community, and they are doing their best to respond with their own special brand of welcome and hospitality. We can attest to that. They’re on their way and hopefully to more self-sufficiency over time.
How privileged we are, not quite ‘heliocoptering’ in, but coming ashore in zodiacs from the comfort of a small airconditioned French cruise ship to land on a beach in what could otherwise be a very inhospitably hot land.
And to have been welcomed this way with an unconditional hand of friendship offered, almost imploring us to go home and tell their story. We can only learn from these First Nations people.