In 2020 Reconciliation Australia marks twenty years of shaping Australia’s journey towards a more just, equitable and reconciled nation, with celebrations commencing tomorrow to mark National Reconciliation Week. But what does reconciliation mean for our local Gumbaynggirr people? How far have we come? What is needed to attain true reconciliation?
Uncle Cecil Briggs is a proud Gumbaynggirr elder. (Pictured above with daughter Nicole celebrating his 80th birthday). He has lived all of his 80 years on Gumbaynggirr land. But he is somewhat ambivalent about the term ‘reconciliation’. “Reconciliation is a word- it’s something but it’s looking for a place to land,” he says. In his eyes, true reconciliation would be a coming together, working side by side to repair mother earth. Therefore, he is buoyed by the theme for this year’s National Reconciliation Week ‘In This Together’.
“We have to give back and stop taking,” he says. Uncle Cecil grew up with the words of his wise elders and lore men. Like them, he understands the importance of working in balance with nature. “This is our only hope. For many thousands of years before white settlement, this country was our provider and we were the keepers of our provider. We protected everything that was put on this earth, never destroying a thing,” he says.
He sees the pending reconciliation celebrations as more of a chance to share Indigenous stories of old and in doing so, waking us up. Yes, we are ‘in this together’. Our survival depends on it.
“We believed in three things. The Heavenly, Earthly and Spiritual realms. We had the earth, water and our garden that we lived in. Nothing lives without water. The earth provided food, medicines and shelter. Everything was here for a reason.”
Of special significance was the tree, as symbolised on the Aboriginal Land Council logo. “Trees provide food and medicines, they attract water to the surface, clear the air through the production of oxygen, provide shelter and corridors for animals, buffer the winds and provide shelter from the sun. They hold the riverbanks together and rain follows the timber belt. Without the trees- our landscape becomes desolate. Ploughing acres will result in as much heat coming up from the ground as comes down from the sun,” he says.
In fact, Uncle Cecil believes the value of the tree should be mandatory learning in schools. “We need to think about the value of the tree when we destroy each and every tree.”
Like the trees, he despairs the fate of the Indigenous peoples. “We were the richest people in this world because family was our wealth. We lived according to traditional lore. Women ran this country. We understood birthing was spiritual. Women taught the children and knew when the young men were ready to be passed over for ceremony. Men would never question the women.”
“The rite of passage Ceremony was a learning and spiritual time for the young men. A fire was alight for the duration. During the day young men would learn to make their tools. Nighttime was for the spiritual. They would study the stars, telling the time by the stars and reading the star patterns. The moon provided information about the seasons, whirlwinds would provide information about the approaching weather.”
“We used traditional mosaic burning principles for many purposes, always burning at predetermined times and in season. This would make access easier through thick and prickly vegetation, maintain a pattern of vegetation to encourage new growth and attract game for hunting and encourage the development of useful food plants, for cooking, warmth, signalling and spiritual reasons.”
“We were unique peoples with a unique system; knowledge holders and visionaries. But we fell from the richest people to the poorest in the shortest time, brought about by invasion, domination, hatred and greed,” says Uncle Cecil. “We’ve lost our provider and the keepers of our provider don’t have that role anymore. But we still have carers for our families- that will never be lost.”
Despite what Uncle Cecil knows and has witnessed personally, he still holds hope. “While ever there’s life there’s hope.” He sees his role as educator and storyteller and desperately wants to keep the traditional stories alive. If family is wealth, he is a wealthy man, held by his 7 children, 33 grandchildren, 16 great grandchildren and 2 great great grandchildren. In his eyes the world is in a mess, but he knows the traditions of the oldest race on earth could still hold the key to our collective futures.
So his message for all of us for National Reconciliation Week? “When I was only a boy my wise mum told me that there would be a food shortage on a huge scale. She told us to live near water, grow our own crops and keep our own chooks. She also said treat people like you would like to be treated. This is a good message for everyone. I believe if we work together for the renewal of this earth, we stand a chance. We are in this together.”
Photos kindly supplied by Ruth Holmes.