Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Sharing the Land

By Jason B.R. Maxwell
Curtin University

 On the way to the festival, apart from the occasional gum tree and the drought beaten grass, I thought; ahh… this must be what a true Irish road feels like. The twisting, rolling hills, the wind tormented sea, the occasional blue stone farm with massive expanses of old rock wall dividing the paddocks… Ancient ways stretched out in patchwork artistry. As the distances meandered past, I imagined the weight of each boulder, rough on the hands of my mind, the least of which the size of a Gaelic football. I imagined the strain and sweat of the farmers placing each one by hand and I imagined the relief, the whistle for knock off time, going back to one of the many crowded dark wooden bars for a pint of Guinness with the mates I shared me very pulse with. I knew I shouldn’t be day dreaming like this since I was driving, but I was beginning to feel the five hour journey on my shoulders and on my eye lids. Since mum had to work the market stall, selling hand crafted women’s clothes for the next four days, I had volunteered and I was relieved that we were almost there. To refresh, I decided to put my head out the window. In the icy waking blast that hit me, there was the smell of fresh salt on the wind. For me, it was old Ireland on the air - it was fresh, wide-open Irish life- their fishermen, their whalers, the salty taste of their kippers after the hearth, the visions of waves that leapt away from the bow of many.

Port Fairy the township, wasn’t named “Belfast” by its Irish captain for any old reason. After initial settlement, Irish fishermen, whalers and potato farmers flocked to the area in fleets. And yet there were many bows that ripped these peaceful people from their green homeland families too, families they loved as much as their very souls. And this wind still tells of their salty tears, still there floating in the drift of time, salty tears that once fell on the salt encrusted floor of cramped leaking cells.

As I accelerated and saw the ocean heave its distance over the crest of a hill, I knew this howling sorrowful wind remembered the tears born of a harrowing injustice. Of being taken halfway round the world for stealing a few loaves of bread or worse or less, all in the name of crowded cities, colonisation and a flag. But taken to what? Without ceremony, the rarity of the strong, the many weak, and the rampantly diseased were all conscripted into an unofficial army. Through bloodying dictatorship of the penal colony and the dogma of monarchy, they were then manipulated into a war of muskets against spears and boomerang, pushed into pushing the native Gunditjmara fishermen off their own land.

History still echoes the massacre near Port Fairy, of whalers verse koori, as one of the worst in Victorian history. Starting with a fight over a beached whale, it led to the unrestrained slaughter of these people, a war of genocide that lasted twenty years. It was dog eat dog while the masters smirked. Surely, this wasn’t the Irish way. The genocide and enslavement of another country, this wasn’t what her heroes dreamed of…

 Yet centuries later, at a festival hosted by an ancient, strong and continued Irish settlement, at a festival with cultural experiences from all over the world coming to perform, I somehow expected cultural resilience, a renascence even, a renascence of free thinkers and community in the face of this English hangover called colonialism. At a place like Port Fairy Folk Festival I expected a party as wild as the sea, as wild as Irish whisky, Irish dancing, Irish beating hearts of poetry. I expected fluid dance floors and careless socialist freedom where everyone was welcomed to express themselves.

But as I arrived I sunk into the reality of what I would experience, the steel walls of a monarchist, neo-Liberal Australia post Abbott election, I felt it among the eyes and in the air. Where you collected your wrist bands for instance; sheep pens. Yep, cardboard cut outs of sheep and steel sheep-high barriers manipulating the incoming masses. None of the volunteer workers there seemed to wear anything else than straight jeans and white tee-shirts, and none were a day younger than fifty. As they put the wrist bands on my mother’s left wrist (instead of the right since she hasn’t any lymph nodes in her right arm and it tends to swell) I thought; ok, this ‘ol girl can take a joke, “ya better watch my mum, she’s abit of a black sheep” – and for some reason I didn’t register at the time, this prompted a severe scowling. Aloof, in the mood to celebrate my single-ness and earn a bucket load of cash, we giggled onward.

 After setting up that afternoon, after the first patrons swarmed in and a few customers were busy chatting away to mum, I got my hands on the set times and zeroed in, past the headlines, looking for the Aboriginal people’s welcoming ceremony. As a central part of many festivals I usually frequent, electronic music festivals such as Rainbow Serpent and the smaller yet potent Maitreya, I make it a tradition to always attend these ceremonies. There’s just something powerful about them, as if the core of the very earth flows through these people as they dance in the same spot their ancestors did for more than forty thousand years.

And in a world that’s constantly shifting, chaotic in the machinery streaking nightmare of capitalist postmodernism, I look at these performers, these contemporary shamans and feel as I sit in a circle with a whole festival in attendance, somehow connected to a constant, an organic source of humanities originality. In the old days, to pass into another family group’s land, travellers used to light fires near the borders, and then the welcoming family would set out to meet the newcomers when they saw the smoke. It was a matter of upmost honour for the hosts to take them back to their camp and celebrate with them, usually for days at a time.

Today, at festivals where travellers cross cities, oceans and vast deserts in the blink of an eye, this is what the central fires and dancing rituals replace. A central ritual that has lost its family borders, lost to the war fought with flags and numbered, ghost-coloured plastic paper. But of course it’s still something. Its meaning is steeped in the wisdom that those who have been there the longest know the connection to land better than anyone. They know the animals, the plants, the sea, the very rocks themselves. As I knew Archie Roach, the most famous Koori folk singer in the world, was headlining, as was the grandson of Yothu Yindi’s lead singer, Yirramal Yunupingu, with his band of traditionally dressed dancers the Yolngul Boys, I thought it was a given that this ceremony would be a welcoming of grand importance, with nearly everyone taking part.

So where was it? Almost hidden in fine print…

 Was this forgivable? At least they pay these artists and support them, right? At least everyone had fun and enjoyed them, right? Don’t get me wrong, it probably is forgivable and I don’t want to spoil the arts for the sake of making a political scene, but I just have this crazy idea that if you truly respected and engaged in the true roots of the music, one would be asking the questions. Why was the welcoming ceremony so minimized? Wasn’t it the sacred evidence of the musician’s messages, of land and community? Or was it because they weren’t ‘famous’ enough to be central?

 I knew Kevin Rudd would ask this question, he, before his apology to the Aboriginal people and the stolen generations, cemented the Aboriginal welcoming ceremony at Parliament. And I definitely knew Archie Roach would ask this question, after all he sang; “I can never return until there’s contrition and we can all breathe in my history” - Archie would definitely want this tradition in bold, on the very front page of the program. For me the Gunditjmara welcoming ceremony’s minimization, through privilege, gradually forgets that the Aboriginal people of this country were invaded and slaughtered and now have a life expectancy a decade less than white culture, forgets that racist policy and practice still runs riot through Australia and not just in the Northern Territory.

But at its worst the minimization forgets that without the enactment of tradition, tradition no longer exists. And this is how cultural war is waged, through the memory of the masses. Apart from the minimization of Gunditjmara tradition, the most alarming thing about Port Fairy Folk Festival was the absence and accepted segregation of culture itself. This is the alarming iceberg underside of the ritual problem. For one might say, what’s the big deal in minimizing the rituals, as long as the cultures engage one another at a human level right? Well the problem is they don’t. They just accept the consumer status quo which replaces the rituals.

At Port Fairy Folk Festival for instance; the accepted rule of one sitting down and not dancing. Seats were everywhere, right up to the front of the stage. During one high energy performance, a Mongolian band called Hanggai, my mother received a scowling disgruntled comment; “can you tell your son to sit down please?” In another performance, Ash Grunwald admitted how everyone just sitting and staring at him was quote; “freaking me out” and he promptly told everyone that it was ok to get up and jam it out with him. It was like someone turning on a light. And how could you not? What would a good traditional Irish publican say about THAT I wonder? But sadly, time and time again during so many acts, I saw this same absence of cultural expression. People came in, sat down and continued throughout the whole performance like watching a TV at home. When the music ended, everyone just went their separate ways. No one introduced themselves and conversed in the old language of the gypsy road, let alone asked one back to their campsite for a cup of tea, a feed or a swig ‘o whisky. Time and time again I heard the last applause of powerful, beautiful music drop as if a penny had been dropped in a dry corrugated rain tank, everyone just scattering like dust. This was not the meeting of families through artistic expression, this was a manipulation of arts true purpose.

But for me, what secured the evidence of this culture-less adherence to a monetary monarchy, was one particularly confronting experience. As we were sleeping in our stuffy van the first night, attempting to avoid the expensive accommodation not included in our ticket price, mum inquired about the fenced off area that the whole festival seemed to be camping in. Mum was not only told that no one was allowed to stay in their cars on the threat of two hundred dollar fines, but tickets were two hundred and thirty dollars for the weekend. Disgruntled, but with no choice, mum bought some. As mum was busy working, I carried the tents and bedding to what I thought was a good place. Out of the wind, under a tree, flat and with lots of soft grass, sure, it was next to a caravan, but I was nowhere near them really. I wouldn’t mind if I was them, good excuse to meet a festival friend I thought…

So, happy with my choice, I set up and didn’t return until well into the depths of night. But it was a bad move. In the morning I was hit heavy and hard. Mid sixties, medium build, brow like an overhung cliff, she was the owner of the caravan and was not happy I was on her site. Instead of a hello she looked me up and down and; “Excuse me, did you pay four hundred and fifty dollars to book this powered site? -No you didn’t” she fired. “Sorry, I wasn’t told, I thought it was just festival camping” I stammered back. “Don’t give me that bullshit, you just didn’t want to walk” she snorted.

Hmm… One of those hey? I thought, diplomacy then… “No, I just wasn’t told, I’m sorry, but I’m not using electricity and I’m nowhere near the front of your caravan, listen, we work all through the day, you have lots of space, you won’t even know we’re here,” this failed, miserably… “Ah don’t give me that lefty bullshit, you just didn’t want to walk and you won’t admit it” -since the election, I had never faced this type of political rhetoric, not in any direct personal sense anyway. I was horrified, I had been judged, politically judged, by an old right wing conservative. “Where is your humanity woman? You accuse me of lying and shove me away without even attempting to even know me, it’s people like you that’s going to be the downfall of this country…” I was surprised at how angry I sounded. “You know I was going to let you stay, but now, you move your tents or I’ll call management” this was her concluding humph. “You were going to let me stay? HA! Yeah right…” She walked away with my rude finger hanging in the air.

I really didn’t like being called a liar, let alone a lefty bullshit artist. Later, when I came back to move the tents I found a sign from management; “Please move these tents, you are on another person’s site –management.” And so it was with political glee, with a full knowing of which side of parliament truly acknowledges the true ‘management’ of this land, that I blue-tacked the sign squarely on her caravan door. In hindsight it was interesting, because that very morning I was considering which clothes to wear, conservative straight jeans or comfy hippy pants, fitting in or standing out. Hippy comfy pants were the choice of course – comfort to me always comes first over fashion choices, especially conservative fashion. Sad as it is though, I now have to wonder if the quantum split of that choice would have changed the outcome of that argument. Especially the ‘lefty bullshit’ bit of it. That was the clinch. But most probably the liar bit as well. Under Koori law, she had a right to be angry, I had entered her territory without asking permission nor receiving a welcome to country. However under Koori law, you have to be hospitable to all family groups if reasonable requests are made, you can’t accuse anyone of lying just because of the way their dressed.

 As I drove away from the festival I thought; wow, that’s what cultureless-ness represents. Shallow judgement. It was shallow judgement that grouped the Aboriginal people amongst the fauna of this country and it was shallow judgement that slaughtered and still disinherits a culture of beyond forty thousand years. Yet it was shallow of the Irish to go along with it, shallow of all the convicts and colonising people to go along with it, shallow to go along with the status quo and not think beyond the colour of the skin.

 This was a shallow judgment given to them by a Monarchy who enslaved most of them in biased dogma and unfair laws and shipped them away from their homelands. Sure, there was still cultural fear in the lower classes, but that didn’t lead to genocide, it was only the Monarchy and the Church, the rich strong arm tactics that taught the colonies that. Today, the same shallow thinking cuts multicultural Australia from its roots and in Port Fairy, cuts these Irish and Koori from true reconciliation, once again, all in the name of crowded cities, colonisation and a flag.

 And yet beyond the colonial race, beyond the dogma of nationalism still present today, the music and the rituals all remain to speak the truth, that we all once danced and laughed and shared the stories of our traditions with all strangers and friends alike and still can. And so as our van drove over the last bridge to the sea, with thoughts of my children, I asked myself, can we change? How can we ensure our combined cultures wake up to the welcoming of others? Surely it’s not too late, surely we’re not all too greedy with our time that we’ll refuse to dance to the ritual music of community, surely, we will remember the way to share this land… 

Works Cited

 Archie Roach. “The Tracker.” Mana Music, (2001). CD-Rom. 

Australian Bureau of Statistics. “3302.0.55.003 - Experimental Life Tables for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, 2005–2007.” abs.gov.au, (25th May 2009) Web. 29th May 2014.

Clark, Ian, D.”The Convincing Ground Aboriginal massacre at Portland Bay, Victoria: fact or fiction?” Aboriginal History, 35 (2011). Web. 25th May 2014.

 Heritage Australia. “Port Fairy” Heritage Australia Publishing, (2014). Web. 25th May 2014. Korff, Jeff. “How to name Aboriginal people?” Creative Spirits, n.d. Web. 25th May 2014. 

Mcauley, Gay. “The National Apology Three Years Later.” Performance Studies, University of Sydney, n.d. Web. 1st June 2014

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