Tjapukai-An Aboriginal centre

You cannot really blog about Australia and not mention the indigenous people. I have, on one or two occasions. mentioned them on our travels to Alice Springs and Darwin not always in detail because we were advised, quite strongly, these tribes did not want to interact nor be photographed and to respect their privacy. This made it difficult to speak to them and find out anything. The closest I came to a conversation was with an Aboriginal woman who was painting at the Art Centre in the Outback, she told me her painting depicted women gathering leaves to make medicine. She spoke quietly as she worked and nodded only in response to my questions keeping eye contact to a minimum.

The indigenous people were thought to have come here from Sri Lanka many thousands of years ago, when it would have been easier to transverse the vast lands of our planet long before the seas were imploded by the melting glaciers. Their history is well documented in Australia and makes for shameful reading; when Cook arrived here in 1770 he declared the island uninhabited, ignoring the indigenous people, their land rights and more importantly what they knew out this environment. Early settlers did not appreciate the ways of the Aborigine people and there were many battles, even massacres with the loss of entire families, foreign diseases imported unwittingly by the visitors devastated the indigenous people’s numbers in the early days. Christian groups in the early 1800’s with every good intention tried to protect them by locking them up but this invariably led to them being incarcerated or held against their will unable to move freely for fear they would be harmed. Today there is sill a high proportion of indigenous people locked within the criminal justice system as a result of the historic inequalities and pathways they have been forced down.

In Alice Springs, at the telegraph station, we learned about the 1970’s children born of aboriginal women and white men who were removed to children’s homes often by force, separated from their mothers. This tragic set of affairs was to be referred to as the ‘Lost Generation’ and appalling stories are still emerging today from that period. Today Australia is trying to make amends for the deeds of the past, we read that Adelaide was the first City to fly the Aboriginal flag alongside the Australian Flag but it was evident to the tourists eye, this symbolic gesture has a long way to go before balance is achieved. The lands that have been handed back to the Aboriginal race were as a result of lengthy law suits and not through any altruistic attempt to right a wrong done. It will be a complex journey and it is clear it varies from state to state and territory.

After the Outback experience and the Darwin encounter with the Aborigine peoples, the indigenous people of Cairns, as we were to discover on our visit to the Tjapukai centre, provided an entirely different perspective. The map of Australia greets you but it is an Aboriginal Map constructed in the 1980’s to better inform people, a task the indigenous people could not have completed alone since the Aborigine people themselves would have little understanding of the size and scale of the area before the early explorers arrived. There are around 500 tribes and 300 dialects. Within Queensland alone there are 6 dialects spoken. tribes may know neighbouring tribes but rarely further than that and often marry between neighbouring tribes. Dreamtime legends and stories were passed through the generations from men on long hunting expeditions. The Djabugandji and Tjapukai tribes, known as the Djabugay people of the Kuranda area of Cairns rainforest, reflect the nuance and difference between tribes, they have different songs, traditions, dances and music from other tribes. In Australia, of those that completed a census, only 3.3% of the population, around 649,100 people identified as Aborigine.

Dreamtime is a term identified by scholars and now used universally to describe the cultural worldview and beliefs of the Aboriginal people. In Tjapukai the Dreamtime story of creation is based on their belief that following creation there were two seasons; Wet and Dry. Animals, Fish, mammals, plants and people are either wet or dry. If the father is traditionally of the Wet side (fishing) the son or daughter must marry into the Dry side, to create harmony. They believe two brothers from the wet and dry sides fought over superiority, the dry side was murdered by the wet, returning as a crocodile eating the wet side brother as he fished, on his death he became a mountain on the dry side. The simplicity of their view does have a familiar ring to it and makes sense, you can also relate it to a religious link with the creation and the story of Cain and Able in the Old Testament.

Our guide called herself Ruby however her aboriginal name, given by her grandparents, was Rainbow (Guti Guti). In aborigine families the grandparents name the children since they have more knowledge of the culture and systems of the tribe. She was a beautiful girl, black wavy hair pulled off the brow to reveal an open and warm face,with a wide smile revealing well cared for teeth (not like others we saw), tribal clothing covering her petite frame accompanied by delicate patterns of white and ochre body paint on her shins and arms. Rainbow was very engaging and willing to share stories and information about her people with anyone interested to hear them.

In addition to the history we also had a go at throwing a boomerang and spear. After our initial introductions we went to the grassed area for our Boomerang lesson. Only males use boomerangs or spears, women foraged for medicines while men hunted for food. The boomerangs shaped different for left and right hands, were intended to give the appearance of a flock of birds, it was not unusual for 10 boomerangs to be released at once. The Lion had a good technique and managed to return it twice when it was his turn. I on the other hand would have been more of a snake than a bird since my throw stayed close to the grass, 5 feet in front to be exact, suppose I might have been better at foraging.

Next up was the spear throwing; the spears were bamboo stalks with holes at either end, a wooden peg with a hook carved into the tip like a crochet needle, slid into the bamboo hole pinched close to the speak creating a spring to launch it toward the target. This ingenious weapon took a bit of practice but I was better at this than the boomerang, getting it at least near the running Kangaroo target. One thing for sure this little venture brought out the competitiveness amongst the alpha males in the group. With an invitation for anyone who wanted another go 6 of our team, all men, fought for pole position to do so. It was clear they wanted to demonstrate their innate hunter gatherer to their women but it was clear all of us women would be starving if that was the case.

Our next station was to observe tribal dancing, and the centrepiece activity, the Digeriedoo. Carved from red or white gum trees this is the oldest wooden instrument in Australia. If termites have already infested the tree there is a good chance it will be hollow and most of the work to hollow it out will have been done by the little pests. The cut and length of the instrument determine the pitch, much lower if longer etc and that can also be altered if it is soaked in water for a few hours . They use beeswax to soften the mouthpiece and fill any holes in the trunk. To create a sound (it’s not like playing a trumpet) the lips softly vibrate, like blowing a raspberry but constantly and air is taken in through the nose at the same time. A bit like the scuba diving, a tricky combination, we were invited to try to do this as he made it look so easy but we failed. It’s a practiced art to breath and raspberry at the same time.

The dancing and clothing worn has symbolic meaning for everything, the paintings on the body represent animals, ladies wear grass skirts and men, animal skins. The men also have animal tails or grass rolled with hair dangling from their waist like tails to decorate the outfit. Paint is naturally derived producing ochre, yellow and red, white or charcoal from the ashes. The dance they performed described the Cassowary, native to the rainforest and the symbol of the Djabugay people, its forage and encounters with other animals. This bird also appears in the paintings; paintings here differ from the Outback Aboriginals who paint in dots mainly, whereas here animals and people were evident. we buzzed with excitement at the chance to speak with the Aborigine people here, a very enjoyable presentation, informing us a little of the insight to the rainforest people of Kuranda.

And with that we ventured into the rainforest and to its lonely village of Kuranda by Skyrail, a tale I will provide in the next blog. For now lets enjoy the Djabugay people and their stories.