TUMBY BAY - When I left Papua New Guinea and returned to Australia in the 1970s I went to work recording sacred sites in what was then the North-West Aboriginal Reserve in South Australia.
The job was funded by the Commonwealth government through a grant program channelled through the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies and administered by the South Australian Museum.
I think part of the reason I scored the job was because of my time as a kiap. The people who interviewed me made the erroneous assumption that because I had worked with Papua New Guinean people I could also work at an intellectual level with Aboriginal people.
It wasn’t until I actually got into the field I realised that assumption was mistaken.
If one was able to create a line of cultural polarity, we Europeans would probably be placed at one extreme and Aboriginal people at the other extreme.
Papua New Guineans would be located fairly close to us but nowhere near Australia’s indigenous people.
Over countless millennia (70,000 years perhaps), the people of the Western Desert among whom I worked had built a remarkable bridge between the woken and the unwoken world.
It was a multi-faceted feat of intellectualism which is difficult to define and still puzzles the western mind.
Graeme Connors probably got close to explaining this state of expanded consciousness when he described an Aboriginal character in one of his songs as having “the dreaming in his eyes”.
In the years since they were colonised, these poor people had every ill-informed and sometimes ill-intentioned travesty imaginable perpetuated on them.
There was a standing joke that politicians used to fly into the reserve on fact finding missions and ask the people what they wanted.
Faced with blank looks they would then start making suggestions. “What do you want? Your roads are pretty horrible, what about a new grader?”
And a new grader would duly turn up. There would be no money for fuel or spare parts and no provision made for maintenance.
In my travels throughout the reserve I frequently came across shiny new machinery and vehicles where they had been abandoned after they had broken down or their motors had seized.
And there I was, just another stranger in a long line of misunderstanding.
In my case the last thing the people needed was a puzzled young white fella asking them difficult questions about matters that were the business of the elders of the tribe.
What they did find attractive, however, was the shiny new LandRover with a Commonwealth government registration plate on it that I brought with me.
At the time of my arrival the powerful old men of the tribe were in an existential cultural struggle with their young men who were abandoning customary ways for the bright lights of Alice Springs and all the superficial glitter it offered, including booze and so called ‘sit down money’ (welfare pensions).
Somehow their request for assistance had been misinterpreted by the powers that be as a request that their sacred sites be recorded and put in a filing cabinet in Canberra.
But what they really wanted was help in getting their young men to stay in the bush so they could be initiated and taught customary law. That’s why the LandRover excited the elders.
It took me a while to work this out and the old men were very gentle in the way they did the teaching.
They made allowances for the fact I was a very young uninitiated man and even took me out to some of their sacred places.
Their spiritual realm, that place where the woken world met the unwoken world of the dreamtime, was a dynamic entity. The songs and myths were an ever changing phenomenon.
At any time, an elder travelling in the dream world could come back with new knowledge and nuance to alter the narrative of a particular mythology.
Once I had abandoned the idea of trying to record such a dynamic system on paper, life became a lot easier.
We used the LandRover as the elders intended, and carted groups of young men into the bush to learn the law and visit the places of significance in the various myths.
As the driver, I had a free ticket to come along for the ride. I was even given my own small sacred wooden tjurunga boards and honorary membership of the waiuta, or possum, totem.
I learnt a lot about this very different culture and added it to what I had learned in Papua New Guinea.
Both experiences profoundly altered my view of the world.
Nowadays as I look back on those times I am amazed at the cultural resilience I witnessed in Australia’s first people.
I am also amazed at the apparently innate ability of human beings to misunderstand each other. Rather than narrowing it seems that our cultural chasms continue to grow.
Despite that, and although I haven’t seen anyone “with the dreaming in their eyes” for a long time, I have a hope that they are still out there defeating ignorance and keeping their traditions alive.