Mäpuru - Men’s Business
Late last year I was privileged to spend some time in north east Arnhem land where Indigenous culture is alive and thriving today as it has been for the last 50,000 years. I came for a short while to live with an ancient yet post modern people- The Yolŋu, at Mäpuru. The most foreign people I have known, a world away from my own, yet within my own country.
Along with a small group of Balanda (White Fellas) we spent 10 days “On Country” being shown around, educated and adopted by the men of Mäpuru. We made traditional spears and Yiḏaki (didgeridoo), we hunted and fished, we walked, swam, cooked, shared meals and laughed with the people of this amazing culture.
We were not tourists on this trip, this experience was visceral, it was real. The difference between just looking at the surface of something and that of opening up something for a moment, having a glimpse at how it works and how it all goes together.
Although I do not understand their ways well, the Yolŋu seem to see the world in a different way to how we do. They see the world through their relationships- their relationships to each other, to their country, to the animals and elements; where we tend to see things through quantities and numbers- money, distances, minutes etc. Theirs is the quality of their relationships ours is the quantities of what we have. This is a fundamentally different way of seeing the world, something we can all struggle to understand a lot of the time. Theirs is about belonging, ours is possession.
When we were adopted and woven into their kinship system, their Gurruṯu, there is a palpable sense of this belonging. In their complex web of Kin that ensures multiple layers of support, protection, influence and mentorship- everyone has a place and all have a sense of identity within it, we all belong.
They are of their land, they belong to it- they sit and eat on it, their broad tough deft feet tread lightly its dirt and rocks. They eat its animals and it’s plants, they cook within it, they drink its waters and breath it’s air- it is inside them. It is what they are made of body and soul. They ARE its animals, it’s plants, it’s soil and it’s air. They are part of their world, not separate to or above it, just another vital part of a whole, as vital as all the other parts and all should be respected.
All are given a name, what we might call a “Totem”; they are a bird or animal, wind or tree, a river or cloud. This further deepens their bond with their country in ways we white fellas struggle to understand. They belong to the land and they belong to each other.
As we moved through this land her palette of colours saturated through me. From the interior- with its rich red earth and the infinite black of what is burnt and what is reborn. Down to the coast, with it’s turquoise sea, the white of the sand and the deep mysterious black of the Yolŋu skin- that black eternal skin- rich, infinite and as enigmatic as their culture. These are the colours of this land.
By the end of this trip I saw the thriving caring community and it’s bonds. A mob that mattered to each other and a mob that mattered. I saw a rich vibrant mob.
This journey to Mäpuru has shown me foreign lands within my own country and foreign lands within my own self. It has given me not just new landscapes but it has given me new eyes.
As we go on with our modern lives, I have come to realize that this is the real history of Australia played out every day up there. It has been a privilege to witness, an honour to be included into and an asset for this land beyond our understanding.
A Day Up Mäpuru Way
The ache of the crows and the tinkles of the butcherbird heralded the morning. A rouges breakfast and Billy tea in a dusty camp mug lifted me into the day. Somewhere off on country fires burned, somewhere, always they burned.
We packed the trailer for our trip to the coast. Progress was halted and bags dropped when word passed around that a ceremony was to take place, nothing monumental, but something. We milled over past the telephone booth of another era, a few half eaten carcasses of 4WD’s bided their time, camp dogs dawdled and lazed.
The Yolŋu women gathered, the men stood to one side. Another elder welcomed us and beckoned for a few slaves to do his bidding- “Nar just joking!”.
A wailing arose, theatrical and of centuries past- there is mourning. There is pain. Was it part of the ceremony? We are not sure what is going on. There had apparently been a death a week or two ago, a Yolŋu woman, her mother still living here within the blackness of the home they gathered around, somewhere in that mysterious ancient soul of this old old community. The primeval wail of a universal pain. The Yolŋu men meandered off and we followed. Were we called to witness, to experience? Secret woman’s business? It was not explained, and that is how it is, ours to experience not to define
We finished packing and eventually got on the track. We bumped along happily for an hour or so. The cyclone had hit about six months ago, bringing down thousands of trees, and many across our path to the coast. No one had got right through since The Big Wind. At first it was one or two, something to break up the trip- hop out, help move a few logs, hop back in. But then it was one after another. The Balanda and the Yolŋu worked well as a team. The two chainsaws were filed up then fired up. They’d cut the big stuff and we moved everything else. Two, three maybe four hours seared by, we made good progress. Much of the landscape had been recently burnt; something is always burning in this old old land. The road began to drop away, a sign we were getting close. Then out there, amongst the trees the azure sea hazed it’s vast dreaming.
The track became rougher, we all continued to walk and clear the way. Then we were there, a vast low tide held its breath in the late afternoon. An ancient land stretched out before us, and we breathed a modest contented sigh.
Michael put out a net with a few of us helping; “watch out for Bäru (crocodile)”. We swam and some of the stench and charcoal washed off but not all, the cuts and scrapes stung sweetly in the soothing Arafura Sea. We wandered up the beach in dribs and drabs. The bay faces east-southeast and the horizon is a mirage of islands that runs northeast for hundreds of kilometres. Nearby old twisted trees bleached white by a thousand suns.
As the net was brought in a stingray flashed out and away. Gary sprang and he speared the first Balanda fish, we had arrived. That night, we watched Närrkama and Minyinbulu, my Mäḻu’s (father’s), prepare the stingray- boil it, cut it up, break it apart, wash it in salt water and fresh water to taste and roll it into balls. We all ate happily around a welcome beach fire. Our mat’s set up under a full moon, we slept asunder in a mother earth night, the king tide lapping at our toes.
The next morning I ask my Mäḻu “Can we go there? Can you show me your country?” and we head down along the beach, carrying our spears and up over the headland. Another pristine bay stretches on past a rock shelf and beach. We see Marrpaṉ (Green Turtle) and then another, and another, this one is huge, it’s shell the size of the roof of a car, it has a beautiful yellow and black head and that turtle mouth. A connection to this place and a connection to Country. I am Marrpaṉ; this is my adopted Yolŋu name.
I watch Minyinbulu hunt fish with his spear. I watch how he moved, it was like the way he moved when he danced, the ancient dance of his ancestors. He stalked like the heron, like the Brolga or the Egret. His head perfectly still, his weapon’s lethal tip fixed on his target, poised. His body stealthily moves in a slowed motion, at one with the spear. Not a murmur of water breaks, not a drop splashes. A barely perceived wind up, a flash, a sudden blur of movement, over before it begins. That sudden flurry and the fish is impaled, it flails, destined for the fire, destined to be part of Minyinbulu and of us all.
We scuttle over rocks and ledges; we drink from a trickling stream. We reach the far beach where waist deep we spear fish again. I go close, I throw and the fish jumps out of the water- an “Ooh” goes up from the boys (my Fathers), close! We are all of us smiling, out here on country.
The White Man and The Black Man
A white man travelled to the Black mans country; it was a long long way from his own country. He greeted the Black man and the Black man greeted him. The Black man showed him his country and the white man watched his ways. They laughed and they shared meals together. The Black man adopted the white man into his family to help him understand more of the Black mans ways. The White man returned to his country with some of the Black mans ways about him. The White man shared these ways with other white men when they laughed and shared meals together. Slowly some of the White men started to get some of the Black mans ways about them because they were good ways. More White men came to the Black man and his country. When the Black man greeted these White men and he saw some Black man ways in these White men he had respect for these White men. When the White men greeted the Black man they had respect for the Black man because they knew some of his ways. The Black man learnt some of the White mans ways, for some of these ways were good. And they laughed and they shared meals together.
Wild Adventures and Deep Learning:
An immersion in Yolngu Rom
A few days ago I sat by a fire, covered in Buffalo blood, chewing on its freshly cooked heart and ribs, seasoned with nothing but sand and coal. I was surrounded by a group of men and boys speaking in a tongue that has been used for at least 40, 000 years. We were sharing the harvest of the day's hunt: 2 detung (wild buffalo). It was my first hunt, and the first time I had found myself wrist deep inside a warm and bloody animal's body removing its insides. I consider myself a humane, conscientious and sensitive man; yet the whole act of finding, killing, slaughtering and then providing and sharing wild meat had given me a deep sense of connectedness that brought me vividly alive.
This was one of many powerful lessons learnt through a two week
immersion into the ancient but evolving rom (life and culture) of the Men
of Mapuru, Yolngu Land, NT. An adventure facilitated by a man I deeply
respect, Sam of Nature Philosophy Australia, and joined by one other
balanda (white fella) Jonno, a gem of a human.
The community is not living as they once would have. Most live in simple, often dilapidated western housing, wear western clothing, and eat flour, sugar and milk powder as a staple. They are increasingly speaking English and many have phones. There is rubbish strewn around the land, packs of dogs and broken down vehicles. In fact, at first glance you might be forgiven for dismissing them as a people living in poverty. But you would then miss a wonderful opportunity to dive below the surface and understand that there exists an ocean of beauty and wisdom that I feel we have much, sooo much, to learn from....
On our way out to the remote community in North East Arnhem Land, we were given strong advice from our guides Sam and Kate of Nature Philosophy Australia (Kate leads the women's weaving experience) to take things slowly. We were entering relatively untamed territory; the dangers out there were very real. “Let go of our western pace, breathe, watch the Yolngu people, move like they do, take your time and you will be fine...”.
Of course the moment we got into camp I jumped off the roof of the car and hurt my right foot. I hobbled around a bit that night... thankfully it turned out that it was merely a bruising... and a good warning...
Kate was right, the Yolngu do not run around excitedly trying to get everything done. In fact, the pace of the men could easily be considered 'lazy'. Yet there seems a deeper sense of wisdom that directs their ways, a culture that has evolved organically within that specific place for many thousands of years. I think a modern western mind, and it's quick to judge attitude, often vales the genius of the Yolngu rom. The men move through the land (be it the spiky but sparse bushland, rich mangroves or the stunning, sharp- stoned coastal edges) only when necessary. And when they do, it is with an ease and fluidity that I could not come close to matching. In the heat of
the day they rest. But when it is time to act, when moving food offers itself, the response is rapid, precise and effective. In this way they survive; avoiding injury, dehydration and wastage of energy.
At the same time I watch the young ones run, jump, flip, twist, wrestle and play like energy is an inexhaustible resource. They are incredibly agile, and their strength defies their wiry frames and damper based diets. Inspired by their movements I tried to follow. But unfortunately I was not quite up to their standard and an attempted flip off a tree into the nearby water hole ended with a bruised face, bruised ego, and even a public 'shaming'. I felt stupid, and had a rebellious sense of resentment about being told what to do by the elder men and women. But upon reflection it made sense. For their intent was to protect me, both because they genuinely care for the well-being of their guests, and because an injured person is a liability to a community that exists much closer to the edges of survival. Their directions are given with a wisdom that commands respect. I would be lying if I said I found it easy, but it was teaching me the value of humble listening; a much respected practice.
As I did start to settle in; to slow myself, pay more attention, listen more carefully and observe with less judgement, I found I began to dive more deeply into their world. I was adopted and given a Yolngu Malk or skin name, which meant I was intrinsically connected to every member of the community. This gurrutu (kinship system) is a foundation of their communal existence both with each other and the land. They refer to each other by their Yolngu and their relational name, e.g. Ngandi (mother), Ngapipi (mother's brother), Waku (sisters children). Each relation has a set of guidelines that determine human interactions and maintain a balance within the complex system. It also creates an understanding of which land you belong to, where you can hunt, and the stories, songs and dances that belong to that land.
As we spent our time making gara (spears), yidaki (didgeridoos), joining morning literacy sessions at school and going on Men's business to the beach or local hunting spots, we practised
Yolngu matha (tongue). I listened to stories of the land, of secret men's business, of the views and dreams of the elders and the young. With every new word or story came another piece of the puzzle. One that is vast and complex... and profoundly interconnected. By valuing and showing an interest in their traditional ways, we were welcomed into their network lovingly and I felt we were helping them take pride in practising an ancient, endangered culture.
Mapuru is a special community in many ways. They have resisted Western influence. They have maintained language, kinship, ceremony and control over their land. While we were there they hosted a Land Council meeting and proposal by Rio Tinto to explore their land’s potential, thankfully there was a unanimous and powerful NO from community leaders. Although their school is Christian, it is co-run by two amazingly dedicated balanda John Greatorex and Linda Miller, who have invested their lives into working with the Elders and giving the community a sense of empowerment and self-determination. The Elders refuse to allow drugs and alcohol. There is no real violence, theft or maliciousness within their community. They are keeping it real.
Throughout the two weeks the challenges continually presented themselves. My western way of thinking expecting a please or thank you, the idea of ‘mine’, monitored systems of work, hygiene, rubbish disposal. My superiority complex. Resentment at the discomfort or lack of 'personal space'. It was a journey in patience and non-judgement. But it was worth every moment. It helped me see what it means to be connected to a deeply earth-based community. I saw beautiful young men spontaneously create a bungul (or ceremony) in which they danced and sung ancient songs of their lands and its beings with increasing fervor and joy as the sun settled in the west with another dazzling display of crimson hues. I had no idea what they were so excited about, but I knew that if we can come along and support the continuity of this incredibly rich culture, simply by valuing it and wanting to be part of it for a little while, then it was something of deep importance.
As we headed home, exhausted and probably a little too eager to reconnect with our own land and people, we slightly overshot a sweeping bend, went sideways, and flipped the troopie. I saw death narrowly pass over our group in a slow motion video of red dust and terrified faces. In the aftermath, to find that our worst injury was a badly bruised arm and some internal bruising, I saw the powerful lessons I had learnt emerge. Life is fragile, but beautiful. It wants to be lived slowly, mindfully, in a deeply connected way. If we rush into the western world not taking time to know ourselves, our land, our relationships, we might miss this beauty. It may not come with comfort and after dinner mints, but it certainly allows for some wild and wonderful adventures!
And sometimes we might need to step, open-hearted, into other worlds to fully appreciate and understand this amazing web we are part of!
A story by Mahli Hawke