These stories were originally published in Edges Magazine, Volume 4, #1, in 1991. The theme of the magazine issue was “The Fusion of Nature and Culture”. They are based on my experience with my family living and working with participatory community development in Murrin Bridge, NSW, from 1981-1983. I tell them in gratitude for the learning I gained from members of the community.
Auntie Lena was one of the last Ngyiampaa women to have spent her childhood in the bush in her own country between the Lachlan and the Darling Rivers, in New South Wales. In the 1930’s the government intervened and moved the Ngiyampaa people off their ancestral land onto first one reserve and then to another. Since for Aboriginal Australians, the land and all of its life forms play out a drama that provides people with their essential life patterns, things fell apart. Auntie Lena, however, had gained a foundational sense of who she was as a person in growing up on the land. She witnessed her own children flounder in the vacuum of meaninglessness, and saw her grandchildren hungry from neglect.
Yet years later, when we met Auntie Lena, she maintained a centeredness, a sense of humour, a non-judgemental attitude, and an ability to reach out in the midst of all the chaos of the disrupted society, I remember her delighted laughter and dry comments, as she sat on a broken chair in a yard glittering with bits of broken glass. She was one of the elders who put together a book and went into the schools to teach Ngiyampaa language and culture to the children, both black and white. It took a lot of courage and self-respect to go into the school when she had never learned to read and write. Later she asked me to teach her. I have a wonderful photograph of her learning to write her name at age 80, something she had yearned to do for 60 years.
A week after the photograph she had a stroke, was in a coma for a month, and was never the same again. She lived for another year, somewhat confused about time and place, but still an emotional and symbolic anchor for her family and the community.
The Black Superman
The children in an Aboriginal Australian community are generally left pretty much to their own devices. They are watched to see what they’re going to grow into, but they’re not moulded into their parents’ image. In the old traditions, the mythology of the people, intimately connected with the ancestral land, was the Law. The words “story” and “law” are often used interchangeably. The Law provided for order and stability in the community. Sometimes the consequences looked like something swooping down out of the sky and taking you away if you got out of line or did dangerous things. Children’s behaviour was governed by the Law more than by parents’ rules and punishments. At puberty children were initiated into deeper meanings of the Law, which changed them into adults. They then assumed all the responsibilities and roles of adults.
When the Ngiyampaa people were moved off their ancestral land in the 1930’s, the Law lost its foundation, and the initiation rites went out of existence. Since that time, the people have been without a symbolic transition to responsibility. By the 1980’s, children and young people were operating without mythic patterns to guide behaviour. Adults were worried but had no way to deal with it.
Uncle Bushy understood at some level that mythology was the key to managing behaviour in the community. He invented the Black Superman, a terrifying creature who lurked in the bushes. It made sense to the kids, because it bridged the mythology of modern life they got from television and their own sense of natural limits. Bushy told the kids that if they went out after dark down near the river, the Black Superman was going to get them. It worked wonderfully. Kids would come over to visit and we’d have to walk them home after dark because no kid was going to go out where the Black Superman might get them. For that aboriginal community, the Black Superman story became part of the Law, a story about life which shaped the way people behaved.
When the Ngiyampaa people were moved off their ancestral land, they lost contact with their mythology, In this “foreign” environment, their story had no meaning. The centre of life became a black hole. As this happened, self-respect eroded and order dissolved. Some of the manifestations were family breakdowns, drinking, breaking things up, and fighting – classic symptoms of lives without meaning.
There was no way to recover the myths, the old symbols, the ancient depth stories of the Ngiyampaa people. The last initiation – a ritual involving depth communication of the mythology – took place in 1914. One initiated man was left in that community, but he had no one to share the mythology with. He could not share with anyone who was not initiated, and it took several initiated ones to re-enact the rituals.
The people didn’t live on the ancestral land so the patterns of the mythology made limited sense. For the younger people who had never lived on their ancestral land, the old stories did not hold together, so they seemed silly. But after a couple of generations of living without meaning, people began, in small ways, to recover the heritage, the depth story, and a new myth and identity for themselves as Aboriginal people.
One of the things they did was to take an Aboriginal myth from another tribe and act it out as a play. Then they acted out their own recent history, how they had been moved in the cattle trucks to one reserve after another, put their own lives into the story. The children acted these stories out in the school, giving them dignity and meaning and significance.
When they began putting the “storying” into their present being, there was a change in the community. This is not to say that abusive behaviour disappeared. But things shifted measurably so incidents of alcohol-related violence dropped dramatically. Even white people in town said, “Things are different. People meet us differently on the street.”
For Aboriginal people, life and mythology are much more a unity than can be expressed in the English language or can be understood by the Western mind. The Ngiyampaa people are now in a time of recreating their mythology after a long time of silence. As the dramas are rewoven, essential life patterns are being reborn. Self-respect and meaning are returning.