A short tale of a Spirit-being with a tail 🙂
The dream’s arid landscape appeared utterly tangible. I stood on a burnt-orange and yellow sand Desert beneath a cloudless azure sky. It was daytime, though the bright sunlight and desert heat felt like allies rather than the adversaries they are. In the distance I glimpsed a telltale dust-column rising and the portent of Predator flashed to mind. Simultaneously came a sense of cunning: of something to be feared by the wise. It moved haphazardly, as if searching for a particular scent. Mine – I was convinced – and my dream-self readied for fight or flight.
Then a reverberation rose to overwhelm the approaching threat. It was a natural sound, heard before but unnaturally loud. It was the unique whisper of moving sand. I turned to the swelling noise – so unswerving I could guess its aspiration – and, in an explosive rush of strewn sand it appeared…
1: Pre-electric lifestyle
Reflecting on sixty-plus years, there’s no doubt that I was a naïve and plurri lucky Murri. Because of mum’s mum – who had sixteen children and understood the efficacy of the three R’s – readin’, ritin’ and ‘rithmetic – I too attended school daily: without fail. From year one at Primary to year ten at High school. Still, my heartfelt life and passions in those early years – pre electricity – were outdoors under the wide central Queensland sky with friends, cousins, brothers, uncles and aunts galore it seemed. In the bush, in the sea, beside rivers and creeks and around any natural fresh-water we roamed. In that space each moment was edification: every action or allusion aimed at gathering or hunting.
I didn’t become aware of racism until I started work and even then rarely. That may have been because of where we were raised. Where – if memory serves correct – actions spoke louder than class, skin color or race. Most families knew each other by sight or through acquaintances and, most respected any neighbour be they black, brown, yellow or pale pink. It seemed such differences mattered little as long as one demonstrated decent morals and ethics. For children it was a warm friendly world, the opposite of a big-city child and infinitely away and apart from our extended relations living within Reserves.
Were proof of naivety required, my first visit to a bank in my hometown on the central Queensland coast, to open my very first bank account in 1969, reinforced such claim. My hard working, single-parent mother had ordered me to this task and though extremely nervous I went. In those days it would be a unique child to say no to mother and never to dad: unless one had some type of death wish. More scared of mum’s wrath or disappointment than my own fears, I duly arrived outside the intimidating building and made my abruptly, hot-flushed and reluctant way inside.
I remember peering nervously around at the neat clean, shiny-painted very tall walls, bearing the latest fittings and artificial lighting: glancing surreptitiously at the non- indigenous, well-dressed customers that looked confident and comfortable. My tummy started doing flip-flops, my palms grew sweaty, my face hot. Nek-minute! My trusty feet had whisked me outside and nothing could make them re-enter that
unfamiliar territory. My naivety didn’t end there. On a trip to Mt Isa, onboard a Greyhound bus, a song I hadn’t heard before played on the radio.
“They call the wind Mariah,” it was called, and from the lyrics, I assumed that I had to learn another language for people to understand me and me them in ‘The Isa’. “The rain is Tess, the fire’s Joe and they call the wind Maria,” the song instructed my innocently confused mind.
In 1979, while working as an Aboriginal Health Assistant for the Aboriginal Health Program (AHP), based in Rockhampton (Rocky), central Queensland – I found that being of aboriginal descent carried with it deeply shocking historical and personal implications.
When an Aboriginal Health nursing Sister mentioned that we were on the way to visit the ‘Reserve’ at Woorabinda (Woori), I wrongly assumed we were visiting aboriginal families that lived close to an animal ‘reserve’. Imagine my shock-horror when the non-indigenous Sisters pulled off the road to enlighten my bewildering naivety. When they explained what had happened and where we were about to visit, I abruptly burst into tears. It was embarrassing, although I couldn’t have stopped the tears for love nor money.
The fact that the wonderful ‘fair go’ country I had grown up in, had imprisoned its own people behind barbed-wire enclosures and forcibly stopped them from practicing their culture and language knocked my ingenuous ‘socks’ off. Galvanizing that, a respected elder from Woorabinda explained that my mother’s family frequently visited the Reserve in the horse and buggy days; to visit two of mum’s sisters that had been taken from her family of sixteen and incarcerated there.
As soon as I was able, I rang and queried mum as to why she hadn’t told me any of this. Mum wasn’t one for beating about the bush. “Are you completely stupid boy!” she said. “I had five children to bring up by myself after your father gave in to the booze. Aboriginal children were being taken off their families willy-nilly at the time. I told everyone we were Sri-Lankan on your father’s side and South-Sea Islander on mine. Anyway, I would have thought your uncles or aunts would have told you all this by now!” she said gruffly, and then laughed at my sudden education, lightening the mood between us.
However, I would never again be that naïve youth my school-friends and family had known. Disillusionment lit pathways in my mind that I hadn’t known existed. I vowed I would always stand up for aboriginal Australians and, do any and everything possible to support ‘our’ advancement into the modern Australia that I thought I knew and had been so deeply, quietly proud of.
I leapt to this new path, listening to any and all elder’s stories of life before and after their people were rounded up and forced into these alien spaces: with no regard for ancient traditional boundaries or religious practices. I began to spend lunch hours at the local Library, reading historical accounts of first contact and the violence, which accompanied that. Indignation grew exponentially the more I learned.
One of the major problems stemming from enforced imprisonment was alcohol abuse and the relative issues that drug caused our violently subjugated people. I retained
lived experience with that socially accepted drug through my father, who turned to alcohol after losing a child, while mum turned to Jesus and women’s liberation. Mum taught us lessons that my alcohol-fuelled, often violent father and I never forgot. Dad – because mum knocked the well-known and feared ‘grass-fighter’ down and out with her stove-top clothes iron (the nearest thing to hand), and myself – through her quiet dignity and refusal to take a backward step from bullies. Tyrants of any persuasion or authority were silenced with honesty and dignity, without ever raising a hand in violence: unless lives were at stake.
In line with the AHP’s move into peer-driven education and awareness programs, I was sent – with twenty or so ATSI Health Assistants from across Queensland – to Brisbane’s Community Health Centre of Biala. There, to gain a certificate in Alcohol and drug counselling. In fact, a two year University Social Worker’s degree condensed into three months for AHP staff – so desperate was the perceived need and, so lacking in knowledge and empathy were the relevant Government departments: considering the majority of us had never finished primary, let-alone secondary school. The only positive was the paper that allowed us to work semi-professionally with local medical and health professionals with and for our people in need.
Back in Rocky, the various psychological approaches and artifices learned, proved useless in real-time situations with our honest, woeful abusers. However, the insight into Western drug addiction strategies opened my eyes to the substantial differences between the two societies I grew up in and with. I witnessed the wall between theory and practice, between theoretical thinking and hands on experience: between indigenous and non-indigenous cultures in black and white clarity. We found hard work – in education and awareness, with client and extended family – to far exceed Western-thought, individual-based strategies.
Thus – with several dignified local elders – I threw myself into setting up and running an alcohol and drug ‘in-house’ counselling service. Because of my valued education (I could read, write and do basic math), and my confidence with professional/Public Service whites, I was elected President, Secretary/Treasurer and Senior Counsellor of the Company we set up to work with relevant Government departments. We had an office-come counseling service called “Yumbah House”, and an MoU with the local base hospital to offer clients a stay in one of the State’s detoxification centers in Brisbane, Townsville, sometimes NSW, to kick-start their rehabilitation to society and sobriety.
Yumbah House enjoyed a glowing reputation that inaugural year. It was the first time an identified all aboriginal service had attempted to aid the many sore and sorry abusers in our area. We were respected to the point that we could go anywhere at anytime, with complete immunity to the social upheaval that was the norm; both for the Woori mob and the City Murris from other Reserves. I soon realized, ‘that’ turmoil would be the norm in any community where forty-seven plus Tribes were forced to live together: behind barbed wire in dry semi-desert country with many of the internees being strangers to these sacred lands.
Yet, in supposedly violent, anti-social Woori, I was allowed, even encouraged to set up a 16ml film projector on the bar of the wet-canteen pub, on a Friday evening after work. I showed cartoon type education-awareness films on the affects of alcohol on
the human body, while folk around me drank on regardless and raised cheery voices and glasses to our efforts.
Which is how I found myself on the banks of the Mackenzie River, at a site favoured by local clans for generations of generations. I was with a group of newly ‘dry’ Woori clients on a counselling retreat, where I could encourage detoxed clients and begin guiding them toward employment, to keep the drug-addict’s eternal temptation of idle hands at bay.
I remember being exhausted after that first day of setting up camp. What, with organizing food bedding and the four hour hot dusty drive from Rockhampton to Woori, with no air-con in those days. Then chasing around after the clients at Woori, who’d said they’d come but had forgotten the date and finally, onward to the Mackenzie River: all on thick, red bull-dust dirt roads.
At the site they’d chosen, our clients were happy to sleep on bedrolls and swags on the ground around the campfire. However, being the ‘boss’ as they called me, I thought it apt to have my own shelter – a one-man tent – set up on a small hillock, a little distance away from the group. As I lay my weary head down that evening, little did I suspect that this was to be a night of choices that would change my life, as much as knowledge of the abhorrent Reserves had done. I drifted off to the warm sound of chatter echoing off the river’s still surface…
2: To sleep; perchance to…
…It was the unique whisper of moving sand. I turned toward the growing noise – so unswerving I could guess its aspiration – when in an explosive flurry of sand and sound, it appeared…
My wildest dreams could never have imagined such dignified presence as stood swaying before me in glorious living colour. The Egyptian-Greek manifestation of the mythical Griffin stood transformed into an aboriginal warrior and sand-Goanna. This spirit being, with the head and shoulders of an aboriginal man and the body of a mega-fauna sized Megalania prisca spoke soft and gently. It moved with grace so full of restrained power that my fear collapsed in awe. The words were an ancient language that fit the dreamscape, yet I could understand it.
“The false thing coming will tempt you with fame fortune and flattery, but know this man of dust! Beneath its neatly polished world-wise exterior it is insipid, without substance or passion,” it said, chin-lipping toward the closing dust-trail that un- nerved me so. Then one of its leather-skinned legs, armed with long sharp curved claws reached out to stop in front of my stomach. “There is bad-thing that must come out for you to fulfil your destiny, man of dust,” I heard it say. I flinched, but more words of wisdom assuaged my apprehension and I consented to its gnarly claws within my body.
A wordless sensation later, the claw reappeared gripping a writhing amorphous mass and though I had never felt its influence, I abruptly felt a sense of wellbeing: a rapturous glow of perfect health and, at least half a bodyweight lighter. The Goanna- man lifted the claw up so it could see what it had caught and then it ate that mess, triggering a scream of frustration from the other presence; that was clearly, bluntly
ignored. The being turned away – job done I guessed – and as its long lizard tail swung to follow, it levelled several wavelike sand dunes half my height with miraculous ease.
“Wait! Please!” I called, desperate to talk, to know more. The being paused and turned its head and shoulders toward me, giving me a view of the entire massive body that took my breath and trapped hesitant, graceless emotion in my throat.
“Please? I just – I only um – wished to say ah – thank you!”
The Goanna-man grinned and turned away, then laughed: a hearty chortle that dissipated into that sound of shifting sands, then nothing.
My rejuvenated self felt so airily light, I fancied I could float up into the sky – to fly if I wished! I also sensed the need to face this predator off the ground, using any advantage height and space might give in a running battle. I rose slowly into the clear desert air, and to my utter surprise the hunter rose with me, allowing the first proper view of it. It had taken the form of a man, though in my present exhilarated state, I knew it to be a shape-shifter: one that used its victim’s experiences, memories to allay the innate fears its presence evoked.
It appeared as a pale-skinned, European-type man-of-the-world wearing a beautifully cut suit and matching tie, wearing a trilby hat. It carried an expensive-looking briefcase and hand-carved walking stick. With a confident twirl of the stick and a tip of the hat, it came on jauntily: unable or unwilling to disguise the arrogant core that shone from its eyes and demeanour.
In a flash, understanding of the Goanna-man’s warning dawned. I saw my ancient people’s attention to the sacred spanning centuries of generations. There was no comparison between the shallow world offered and the depth of the Dreamtime and its Laws. I made a choice there and then and flew away as fast as this dreaming allowed.
I heard the cunning thing shout desperately about the gifts, riches, fame and fortune that I was throwing away in an ill-conceived rush of emotion that had, “…nothing, you fool! Nothing to do with real life!” I heard echo across the sands behind me as I raced away through the desert air. What followed was sound reinforcement of my choice being the right one – I was to find – as waking reality and ‘real life’ emerged from the unique revelation…
3: A blessed Murri
I woke in my tiny tent feeling like a brand-new being: a freshly recharged human being spirit; ‘as humans were meant to be’, I thought. I shot out of the tent and ran flat out toward the river, where I leapt into the air and into the water in joyous celebration of the dream and its portent. As I rose from my impulsive baptism, I heard laughter ringing out. My clients were standing on the bank cackling and laughing at my actions and, as soon as I was out, they queried the meaning of my early morning dash and leap.
I explained the dream and how light and refreshed I felt, and an awed hush fell over the group.
“Ere! Look! See what was ‘der, movin’ roun’ your ten’ ‘der boss! Real ‘hearly-part ‘dis mornin’ eh!” I was told, as I was led back to my tent.
Surrounding it were the tracks of a large Goanna that had repeatedly circled my sleeping, dreaming form. I was told I had been blessed.
“’Dat Totem ‘por ‘dis area ‘ere – ‘e is ‘at ole Gwanna-man!” one of the men explained earnestly, to nods and grunts of agreement. The tracks were so fresh we were able to follow them down the hillock to a large tree close to the water. One of the men indicated a spot halfway up the trunk, where a huge sand-Goanna – almost as long as I was tall – yet clung to the tree-trunk…
It took awhile for that incident to gel, although I understood that something extraordinary had occurred. I felt cleansed. I observed our first people’s values, set against the Western world’s impetuous mêlée to bind time, to possess the tangible, to gain individual fame and fortune: and to dominate.
Sometimes harsh, sometimes joyous, often confusing – life has defended that dreaming experience with an integrity that held me steady. The experience fashioned my life to death and onward, to the circle through which our spirits come and go.
Riches, material possessions, appearance and self-centered superiority are illusory goals, the dream avowed. I have seen nor experienced any single thing to make me doubt that ancient wisdom. Neither do I expect to in what’s left of the times allotted my sacred journey on sacred lands…