A newsletter for the Portland area Didjeridu player......March  2000 Volume 6 Issue 3


Reconciliation, an Interview with Geoff Eagar

by Ed Drury



 How important are our teachers? Is there anyway to know how far their influence lasts into our lives and how much a part of our approach to life they gifted us through their dedication to learning? I am always in awe or educators at every level who put so much of themselves to enrich our lives.

 Reconciliation. The word keeps coming up in reference to Australia. What it is and how it is achieved in Australia holds valuable lessons for us in our respective countries. Where it starts, though, is with our young people. Attitudes passed on from generations of relative new comers must be corrected if we can step toward better understanding of who we really are as people and who we choose to be in the future.

 These past few weeks, I had the good fortune to correspond with an educator in Australia who is very aware of the social, political and ecological importance of reconciliation in his home country. Playing the didjeridu has many benefits for all of us to enjoy. It teaches us a great deal. And if we listen with our hearts and turn our eyes and minds back to the source of this wondrous instrument, we have real chance to better understand the problems being addressed in Australia and therefore the challenges facing all peoples in the world. We have a chance to see that we can not dismiss the needs of the few to suit the desires or wishes of the many. Not without tearing apart the fabric of this reality.

            - Ed Drury Feb 24th, 2000 



[Ed] Can you tell us a little about the Aboriginal Communities in your part of Australia?

[Geoff] I live about 100km north of Sydney at a place called Toowoon Bay. The area is known as the Central Coast of NSW. First contact in this area with the local people was made by Govenor Arthur Phillip on a short voyage he made to look at Broken Bay which is the drowned river valley of the Hawkesbury River. Missing a front tooth, he was welcomed by the local Kuringai People as tooth evulsion was an aspect of male initiation rites in this area. Within 50 years many of the local people were dead from diseases to which they had no resistance. As well conflict between settlers and traditional landowners severely depleted the local Kuringai and Darkinung populations with the result that many saw local cultures as extinct. Despite this much knowledge and tradition has surprisingly survived.

The contemporary Aboriginal community around here includes the descendants of Kuringai and Darkinung Peoples as well as people from other parts of Australia including Dharug, Wiradjuri, Awabagal, Kamilaroi, other language groups from many parts of Australia including Torres Strait Islander Peoples and many members of the stolen generation and their descendants.

The focus of the local community is the Darkinung Local Aboriginal land Council. As well there are dance groups, sporting teams and school/community based groups which I will come back to later.

Where I now live was a camping ground and there are middens and tool making as well as petraglyph sites 5 to 15 minutes walk from my house. This is Kuringai land. Kuri was the local word for man and ngai for land. It was shared at times with the Darkinung People who lived mainly in the mountains to the west of here. We often take our students to the Darkinung land about an hour's drive away to visit art and occupation sites in Yengo National Park. This is one of the places where Biamie stepped down to the earth during the Dreamtime to firstly create the world and later, on returning to give the Law. This legend is recorded in petraglyphs in the sandstone around here. It is a very spiritual and quite beautiful place. It is the location also of the main traditional trading route which linked east coast Peoples and was followed by the Europeans making the Great North Road.

[Ed] How did you get started playing the didjeridu?

[Geoff] I've always been interested in Aboriginal culture, technology and spirituality. Through my life I've had many exciting times pursuing this interest and when I was posted to my present school I found myself working in an environment where Aboriginal Studies is a vital and very important part of the school. As a result I've been able to really explore my interest deeply and become involved with the Aboriginal Community where I live. About 5 years ago I needed some time off work and looking for something to occupy my mind I determined to learn didge: specifically circular breathing. I started with the vacuum cleaner's extension pipe and after two weeks could circular breathe. Given that I'd spent 20 years of my life as a singer it was inevitable that I'd pick up a didge. It amazes me that it took so long.

[Ed] What efforts are being made to include the Aboriginal people in the consideration of the material being presented in the classrooms? Are there government guidelines about cultural sensitivity?

[Geoff] The NSW Department of Education and Training has a very strong commitment to Aboriginal education and has taken many steps to promote the educational achievement of Aboriginal students as well as educating all students about Aboriginal Australia. To that end the Department has developed an Aboriginal Education Policy in consultation with the Aboriginal Educational Consultative Group that sets out clear parameters for these goals to be achieved. In addition, the Board of Studies has developed a senior matriculation course called Aboriginal Studies for students sitting the Higher School Certificate examination. The Aboriginal Education Policy identifies 6 focus areas and I would like to look at a couple of those areas as they are directly relevant to your question:

1.Aboriginal Communities.

  As educators, we are to empower Aboriginal communities so that they will become active partners in the whole education process; we are to, recognize and value the knowledge held by Aboriginal communities and educational policies and programs are to be developed in consultation with Aboriginal communities.

2.All staff-all students-all schools.

 In the public school system, knowledge and understanding of Aboriginal Australia is to be evident in all schools; policies and programs are to reflect the views and aspirations of Aboriginal Australia and all students are to participate in Aboriginal studies programs.

 At my school, The Entrance High (7-12 coed comprehensive) we are lucky to have an Aboriginal teacher on staff plus other staff who are very knowledgeable, Aboriginal community involvement and well written culturally sensitive teaching programs. Through our Aboriginal Student Support and Parent Awareness (ASSPA) committee we work with our Aboriginal community to promote and realize the goals of the department's policies. We have an Aboriginal Education Assistant at the school and teach Aboriginal perspectives across the curriculum. Out of this has grown our own local AECG, the Kuriwa AECG, which has provided a point of contact for a wide range of Aboriginal community members to have an input.

 Certainly there is a great deal of goodwill and leadership but clearly such lofty goals are not going to be achieved immediately. Ignorance and fear are great inhibitors despite the best of intentions. Add to these problems the legacy of colonialism: the Stolen generation, deaths in custody, racism, high rates of Aboriginal imprisonment, educational, social and economic disadvantage....the area becomes increasingly complicated. We're getting there but it will take a long time.

[Ed] At what grade level do students first begin to study these things? Is the didjeridu taught in schools at some point?

[Geoff] Aboriginal Studies is being taught in preschools! I've actually been a guest speaker/performer at our two local preschools which was a lot of fun. The students were mostly turning 4 or 5 years of age. Aboriginal Studies is a component of junior and senior primary and secondary schools usually being taught as a part of the school's history syllabus.

  However, Aboriginal issues both contemporary and historical are addressed in English and Drama courses as well as Music and Art. Moreover there are many opportunities to place an Aboriginal perspective in Science, Geography etc. Teaching didge at school is not a specific part of any course, however, many schools would have a didge lying around somewhere and when it comes out the kids are lining up to try it. Raw beginner as I am, I'm asked to give the odd lesson. I would imagine that a student could possibly select didjeridu as a performance major in the HSC music course but I wouldn't know for sure.

In addition, most schools would have at least one Aboriginal performance each year...at our school we will be seeing Sean Choolburra and Fred Reid this year. Both are great didge players/dancers/storytellers and are very popular with the kids. Part of each show generally involves questions and answers about the didjeridu. I always try to get a tip or two from each performer...

[Ed] It sounds as though you have no shortage of great didj players around. I wonder if you could talk about some of the performances you've seen. I'm curious, what do you think of street buskers?

[Geoff] With a couple of exceptions, all the performances I've seen have been associated with traditional dance and story telling. My first hearing was when I was about 12 or so years old. 32 years ago! It was a corroboree by a group of NT dancers at night at my local football(Rugby Union) club. I was transfixed by the spectacle of something timeless and elemental. It touched a part of me that belonged in the bush.

 Many years later I found myself working in a high security juvenile detention centre. I'd just returned from 2 years working as a volunteer on Yule Island just off the coast of Papua New Guinea and was used to seeing nothing but black faces yet still I was shocked by the high proportion of Aboriginal kids incarcerated. Each day we started by walking down to the dormitories where the boys were imprisoned overnight. I'd knock on the door and the guard would check who I was then open the door to release 7 students to my care. My job was then to march them in single file to the school. Each morning one of my boys would place a PVC didge on the shoulder of the boy in front and play a slow mournful rhythm as we walked up the hill. No talking. Very moving, very powerful and quite unforgettable.

Since then I have seen many performances, usually in a school context. The didge is used in two ways:

 1. To provide a rhythm to dance to and

 2. To provide a context within which a story unfolds: both atmospheric and/or onomatapoetic.

 Generally speaking most performances involve a bit of both. The didge would start to play to provide an atmospheric quality prior to the commencement of the dance then move into a rhythm as each dancer began to enter the dance. As the story unfolds, the rhythms would change with the movement of the story and would provide the sounds/movements of the different animals and/or humans and actions that constituted the development of the story. You may hear the buzzing of the bees as the men searched for honey, the bounding steps of a fleeing kangaroo or the sharp raucous laughter of a kookaburra or the menacing howl of dingoes hunting. You may hear a boomerang whirring through the air as the hunters closed on their prey......

 Often the performers use the didge in fun. The sound of trucks approaching and passing a lonely hitchhiker on an outback road, the airbrakes as the lorry stopped. The driver asking "Where are you going?" and the invitation to hop aboard. The toot of the horn. The truck moves off into the distance. One performer played what he called a didjeridu rap! He went hard. He entertained a whole school for 20 minutes at the drop of a hat on a borrowed didge..

Often the performers get the students up on the stage and teach them to dance. It's great fun. Last year a performance group of boys from the Detention Centre I spoke about earlier came to my school for NAIDOC Week and danced and played. That was a pretty nice development. For me, the performances I like the best are those which involve dancing and story (especially by firelight) with the performers painted up. The stories are the parables of Aboriginal spirituality, the lessons of survival for my homeland. Lessons of respect, compassion, sharing, responsibility, love and the importance of wisdom and the law. As I learn them I can see the stories and the reminders of the law in the animals and plants and the earth, sky and sea that I and my family walk through. This is what counts. I teach these stories to my children. Street busking is a rare and very unpolished activity where I live. Perhaps in Sydney there are people playing didjeridu in the street. Taken away from the stories, didge performance to me lacks purpose and relevance though I do enjoy the virtuosity and skill of a good player. Taking money for this is getting into the deep water of cultural appropriation and comodification: these are issues we must tackle candidly together. Sharing cultures is a wonderful thing and leads to a better world for our children. Ripping peoples' beliefs and values off to make a quid for yourself is very destructive.

 I have only seen one busker playing the didge and that was only a month or so ago. I find the sound of the bamboo didge he played very uninspiring. It doesn't sing. He'd wrapped the bottom 30cm of his didge with heavy cord to improve the sound and whilst his playing was dreamy and smooth and very skillful it was out of context but that's a personal taste of mine. I did enjoy what he did but it did not hold my interest.

[Ed] Although we hear much from people who espouse the didjeridu as being "of the earth" and such, in many cases closer inspection reveals that the proponents of this are more interested in selling didjs than protecting the environment. Do you see the teaching of Aboriginal Studies in schools as potentially raising the awareness of issues which are not only cultural but ecological?

[Geoff] I certainly hope so!

  Central to the understanding of traditional and contemporary Aboriginal cultures is the notion of country and belonging. Let me quote from a teaching resource prepared for my area in consultation with Aboriginal community members:

"...Aboriginal peoples' sense of belonging to country is distinctly powerful because of the awareness of ancestral occupation, historical occupation and the religious interpretation of human birth and ancestry. Aborigines take their identity from their country...."

 Central to the idea of belonging to country is the responsibility of caring for the land. In my area the story of Biamie's creation and subsequent despair on seeing it ruined by greediness and bickering prompted His second return to the people to give them the Law. Part of the Law is caring for the land. This story is artistically recorded in petraglyphs near where we live. We take our students to the site.

Caring for the land was accomplished in many ways. The most obvious was burning off. Cook's journals as he sailed up the east coast recorded many fires. When the first settlers (Europeans!) arrived they marveled at the park like nature of the bush yet within only a few years the grasses were replaced by woody scrub...no burning off! In addition, taboos on various foods, totemic responsibilities, prohibitions on hunting in certain areas at certain times all worked together to ensure that over-harvesting of any one particular species did not occur. David Suzuki's "Wisdom of the Elders" records a couple of Australian examples of this. In addition Tim Flannery's "The Future Eaters" is a more comprehensive perspective on the Australian situation.

 Clearly then, a real understanding of traditional life brings ecological lessons if not responsibilities. In Australia, such lessons are critical. Our land is pretty well exhausted compared to the new lands of the Northern hemisphere. If we wish to maintain such things as bio-diversity, sustainable agriculture, clean water etc we have to tap into 60,000years of workable environmental science. Since European invasion, soil degradation, habitat destruction, inappropriate use of water etc have ruined many of Australia's prime agricultural lands, forests and waterways: fresh, marine and estuarine.

  In 1998 we took 40 people to Uluru. One of the many amazing things we saw was the difference between the land cared for by the Aboriginal People and pastoral land. On one side of the fence was the most beautiful diverse desert vegetation. It was breathtakingly beautiful but on the other, drab, grey, stunted saltbush. It looked exhausted. Australia has lost many small mammals...at first it was blamed on feral cats, foxes etc. Latest research indicates the cessation of traditional burning off regimes has resulted in such severe habitat degradation that many animals such as the brush-tail possum and the bilby have become locally extinct.

 At my school we have started a school Landcare Group. Landcare is a grassroots community based volunteer effort to restore degraded land. It is well supported by local, state and federal government funding and advice. Our aim is to restore our local beach foredune system...it's also to teach the traditional notion of caring for the land in real way that's relevant to now. Such groups are becoming more widespread throughout Australia and include Farmcare, Dunecare and others. Cultural/ecological issues are inseparable when learning about Aboriginal culture.

The earth is mother.

[Ed] If you could tell me only one thing about teaching the didjeridu to Americans in terms of honoring the culture from which it sprung, what would that one thing be?

[Geoff] What a hard question! Read some Dreamtime stories for yourself and your children. Try: "The Dreamtime Book" by Ainslie Roberts and Charles Mountford (Reader's Digest/Rigby) Library of Congress Catalogue Card Number: 72-83790 Here's an interesting site:

http://www.aboriginalaustralia.com/edu/dreaming/dreamstories.htm

Look to the stories of your land too. A good general start would be: "Wisdom of the Elders" by David Suzuki

[Ed] I had the opportunity to play didjeridu for a introduction of a film on Ainslie Roberts in the US a few years ago. The sound track featured Alan Dargin and Stephen Kent. The work that Ainslie did was absolutely breath taking and I've been told that the books produced by Mountford and Roberts are quite prized in Australia. But I've often wondered about the accuracy of many English versions of many dreamtime stories. Reading Berndt and others, I'm struck by the subtleties on one hand and the explicitness on the other of some of the more esoteric interpretations. Many of the Dreamtime stories like how the kangaroo got it's tail and all, read like a heavily Judeo/Christian spin. How do you know if these stories aren't "made up" to target a non-Aboriginal, and perhaps youthful audience?

[Geoff] A great film that! And... Another hard question! The specifics of your question about the accuracy of English translations of Dreamtime stories is not one I'm qualified to answer. There are books and other sources approved of and/or written/produced by Aboriginal people which are readily available and these form the base of our reference material.

 I suspect that the English language is, in most Western countries, essentially Judaeo/Christian anyway and that some bias in translation is difficult to avoid for many reasons. Clearly the strongly Christian ethic of many early recorders of Aboriginal culture will be an unavoidable influence. The Awabagal language to the north of here was saved by the translation of parts of the bible into their language. As well, there are aspects of English that may be suited to describing Aboriginal culture, identity or spirituality. An example is apparent in a previous answer where I used a capital letter for Biamie. This is not an attempt to put a Judaeo/Christian spin on anything but rather acknowledgment and respect for perceptions of identity, culture and spirituality...Judaeo/Christian as well as Aboriginal, (and others for that matter Buddha, Ra etc). That we generally associate these conventions with a certain cultural perspective (in our case Judaeo/Christian) does not necessarily mean those conventions are culturally universal...they may just be the best way to convey across cultures a specific meaning/connotation etc. We can truly get bogged down in semantics here! The use of capital letters is confusing enough let alone trying to evaluate the accuracy of thousands of translations. The bottom line is that until recently, those conventions were not thought of as necessary when writing about Aboriginal cultural values, that we now do is a step forward. I might add that at a conference I attended last year the use of capital letters when writing about issues of identity, culture and spirituality was specifically addressed by the Aboriginal speakers.

  Your observation that many stories seem to be children's stories could again a matter of perception for some people, for example many early colonials, saw Aboriginal People as childlike. Thankfully we are becoming aware that such observations were shallow and uninformed, despite the best of intentions. Certainly,  stories that were reserved for initiated men and women were not likely to be told and if they were, they probably should not have been repeated. As well, early anthropologists/diarists were nearly always male and so much women's business has not been recorded. I guess this relates to an earlier question regarding cultural sensitivity. As educators we steer clear of sites and information that are not appropriate for us or our students. Just the same, what is wrong with children's stories? These are stories which can be told to uninitiated people. These are the stories that formed the first education for Aboriginal men and women for countless generations. They are an obvious place to start learning aspects of Aboriginal culture. They are a wonderful gift we should accept with gratitude and respect. I guess that explains my last answer about honoring the culture from which the didjeridu sprung. I keep thinking of a line from the novel "Dune" where one of the characters says something like "Accepting the gift honors the giver." (I think that's right!)

 Another issue you raise is the possibility that stories are made up. There are a couple of avenues of thought to consider here. That information given to early anthropologists/diarists may have been made up is probably true. When colonial Europeans asked for information about aspects of Aboriginal culture they had no right to know, or aspects that were difficult to explain, especially in English, the temptation to make something up to keep the questioner happy would have been too easy for many to refuse.

  Certainly when we compare the interpretations of local petraglyphs by early writers to that which we now know to be true, it is clear that either the Europeans were deliberately given false information or they did their best to interpret the images without local knowledge. I'm pretty sure that both are true. Indeed I have seen books by respected authors which are way off the mark...and these have been published relatively recently! I guess that when you look at the similarities between the Judaeo Christian tradition and Aboriginal stories it emphasises the universality of the human experience which is a nice outcome when you consider that since invasion over 200 years ago aboriginal people have been denied humanity in their own land.

[Ed] What exactly is reconciliation? What does it mean to you and what does it mean as an official policy? And finally, does the popularity world wide of the didjeridu lend any support to the goal of reconciliation in Australia?

[Geoff] Defining Reconciliation is a little like defining the length of a piece of string. It is a very complex and involved issue...certainly too much so for me to be confident and happy to be an authoritative source here. It's a very appropriate question to ask and for the official line visit this site where you can get a handle on where we're up to now:

http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/orgs/car/docrec/draft/index.htm

 My dictionary defines reconciliation in this way: 1. to render no longer opposed 2. to win over to friendliness...to bring into agreement or harmony. Clearly Reconciliation in this context is a much broader and more complex issue though the definitions above are still true. It means starting by acknowledging that "White Australia has a Black History." A shared history. I think that when we as a nation take this on board there is a way forward. History is about finding the truth of what has happened, squaring up to those truths no matter how awful and then walking on together. As we do, issues like Genocide, Land Rights, the Stolen Generation, Deaths in Custody, Health, Education, An Apology...the list is huge, (see the site quoted above) can be properly dealt with. At the same time, we will also be delighted. I can say that my land has a human heritage more than 60,000 years old! The oldest surviving culture. As I walk through the land I walk through this history and this spirituality. The reminders are everywhere: in the stars at night, in the bits of stone tools lying in the sand, in the plumage of the black swans. It is wonderful to learn and share this with children.

 There must be lessons for all humanity in this heritage. That Aboriginal People share this land and heritage is, after all that has happened and is still happening, an inspiring and humbling experience. To me personally, Reconciliation is about sharing our strengths, acknowledging and repairing past and present problems and walking together as partners to make a better place for our children. I can do this in my job as a teacher. We can educate all our students about these issues, take them to places that are both special and significant, provide support for Aboriginal students in the education system and involve Aboriginal parents in their childrens' schooling. As a parent I can join my childrens' schools' ASSPA Committees (Aboriginal Student Support and Parent Awareness) which I do, despite the fact that I am not Aboriginal. I have been invited to join my local AECG (Aboriginal Educational Consultative Group) and have done so..the only non-indigenous member of my Group.

 I have been welcomed and we work together as parents, educators and community members at a grass-roots level to promote Reconciliation. It is an exciting and optimistic journey. Through shared experiences trust, respect and friendship grow. I have made some wonderful friends and my life and that of my family has been greatly enriched. As an official policy Reconciliation does a number of things. Firstly it acknowledges Aboriginal People and their struggle for recognition and equal participation in the broader Australian society. That in itself is a great step forward...mind you a long journey but...symbolic gestures are so important (like an apology from the Prime Minister to the Stolen Generation... but we won't hold our breath waiting for that!) As official policy it means that government resources, funding, advice etc can be provided to effect issues of Reconciliation. That in itself is very important but only if people at grass roots community level pick up the ball and run with it. It means we have Aboriginal Education Assistants in schools, increased educational opportunity for Aboriginal people, that we have funded ASSPA Committees, that we teach Aboriginal Studies across the curriculum, that Aboriginal Health Units are set up in the community staffed by Aboriginal people, that courses in Aboriginal Studies are offered at tertiary level, that farmers, national parks rangers, foresters and other land users are learning about traditional land management practises, that Aboriginal art and culture are seen as relevant and dynamic in our community, that the community at large is becoming aware of issues and in so doing placing pressure on elected politicians to sort through issues legislatively. This will lead to the economic, political and social empowerment of Aboriginal People so that they may fully participate at all levels of our community. Not only is this their right but we will all be enriched as a result.

 Finally, does the world wide popularity of the didjeridu lend support to Reconciliation in Australia? You already have in a real and surprising way. Through this site I contacted Peter Lister who then contacted Peter Brady in the Northern Territory who very generously is at the moment sending a couple of didge blanks to two senior students at my school to make up into instruments as a Personal Interest Project for their Aboriginal Studies Course as a part of their Higher School Certificate Examination. The two boys are inspired! For myself, I am very grateful to all of you, especially the two Peters, who support this page for making this possible. It is very exciting.

 In an earlier answer I referred to the problems of ignorance and fear as inhibitors of Reconciliation. These can be overcome by education and your sites and links provide great resources for people, both in Australia and overseas, to learn about the issues we face here. So in that way you are helping. Moreover in a shrinking world, the net will increase in influence. There is more to do. However I worry that sometimes a single interest like the didge runs the risk for some people of seeing much of contemporary Aboriginal Australia as not "authentic" whilst at the same time placing traditional culture in an anthropological zoo. Both are adaptable, vibrant and dynamic and to see Aboriginal Culture in any other way is incorrect and possibly paternalistic... it also means you miss out! I guess I also worry about cultural/historical/spiritual values being distorted, adapted and/or used to justify/realise individuals' agendas. This seems to happen out of ignorance, greed and arrogance not to mention by accident! When you look around there is some absolute rubbish being touted as "authentic" whether Chinese didgeridus, art, information, books etc...As teachers we are responsible to our Aboriginal Community to get it right, this should also be the case on the net and elsewhere. On balance though, I see the world wide interest in the didge as a very positive step forward.

The kind of problems I mentioned in the last paragraph are always going to be there. Human nature. Let's ensure we're aware and ignore it.

 


Postscript - just as Geoff and I were finishing the proofing of this article, I received this in private email from him. I thought it was an important message to pass along. -Ed

"I guess an important bit of news for this interview hit the headlines yesterday as our prime minister John Howard, the one who can't say sorry, has deleted the legislative deadline for the document of Reconciliation that he "set in concrete" ten years ago. Howard recommitted himself to the document of Reconciliation, and the deadline for putting it in place, during the last election.

The draft document for Reconciliation which is on the website I referred to in the question was to be legislated by the Centenary of Federation early next year. Ten years work by many people. Howard's move has the potential to derail Reconciliation at government level and is pretty disappointing.

Until we as a nation sort this out we will continue to be diminished.

It is quite shameful.

Geoff


  Questions about this or other articles in this series can be directed to Ed Drury

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