An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham … Read it here. (Matthew 1:1-18). Note that Ahaz was a horror, as were several others in the list. Rahab was a prostitute. Ruth was not Hebrew, but Moabite: an enemy. Bathsheba was Uriah the Hittite’s wife, but King David slept with her, then arranged to have Uriah murdered to cover up Bathsheba’s illegitimate pregnancy. And so on: this is a dodgy bunch of ancestors.
John Danalis grew up with an Aboriginal skull on the mantelpiece, which they named ‘Mary’. Riding the Black Cockatoo is his account of recognising the horror of this, seeing Mary safely returned to country, and his subsequent breakdown and healing. Here, he is visiting the ‘sacred flame’ at Camp Sovereignty in the Domain parklands in Melbourne.
My nostrils found the ‘sacred flame’ for me. Unlike the odourless, gas-lit flame at the official Shrine of Remembrance, this flame was fed on native logs and branches which were hauled in especially. White smoke wafted about the camp, its native scents at odds with the deep green weeping foliage of the surrounding trees and the glinting office-tower backdrop of the central business district. A couple of red, black and yellow banners roughly marked the perimeter of the camp. In my readings I’d learned that it was traditional etiquette never to walk into a camp uninvited; one had to sit at its margins in full view of the clan, sometimes for days, before the elders felt the visitor was trustworthy and free from bad spirits. At Camp Sovereignty, a hand-painted sign politely asked visitors to do the same. I waited, a little nervously. Before all this business with Mary, I would never have dreamt of wandering into any sort of protest site, let alone an Indigenous one … After about ten minutes, two Koori women approached us with large smiles. They led us into the camp, explaining that visitors were not permitted to go near the fire unless escorted. The sacred fire was set within another clearing, the perimeter of which was marked out with foot-long upright logs. “There’ll be a smoking ceremony a bit later, so we’ll all get the chance to breathe in that good healing smoke,” one of the women explained. “Come and get yourself a hot cuppa, there’s plenty of bikkies too.” A couple of folding tables were set up with provisions and a gas camp stove brought a billycan of water to the boil …
The women explained that the hill we stood upon was a traditional meeting place called Mumajah, a neutral space where clans had come together for centuries.
“Big corroborees were held right here,” she said, as a breeze slowly billowed the Aboriginal flags on their makeshift bamboo poles. “Business was conducted here, too, disputes between different mobs worked out; still is. Every few days the lawyers come, the Lord Mayor has visited too. And just over there,” she said, motioning with an outstretched hand but with eyes averted from the place she was pointing to, “lie thirty-eight of our people, returned after a long battle with the Museum. There’s also generations of ancestors buried all around us.”
A little later a bearded Koori approached us. He appeared to be in his late fifties or sixties … He wore loose clothing of earthy weaves; beads, stones and feathers hung from him with transcendental potency. A green, yellow and red cap – the Rastafarian tricolour – topped off his ensemble. He smelt of the smoke; he was the smoke. I had met my first Wirinun – an Aboriginal shaman.
The Wirinun formed us, black and white, into a line and brushed us over one by one with the smoking branch of a green eucalypt sapling. Despite the smoke, the leaves felt cool, their oily freshness resisting total ignition. He explained the importance of fire and how it lay at the root of Aboriginal law and culture. “Fire is our gateway to the Dreamtime. This smoke is a healer; come, breathe it.”
The fire had been primed with fresh green branches. As it billowed with white aromatic smoke we were led slowly around it. Some of us wept cool tears, some of us simply smiled; we breathed deeply and allowed the smoke to penetrate our personal cuts and private wounds. Memories of Mary’s handover came flooding back; I thought of my family, my parents, the elders with eyes full of forgiveness, and cool tears streamed down my cheeks. Gone was the psychiatrist’s couch, gone were the ‘If You Don’t Like It, Leave’ bumper stickers. As I drew the smoke into my being I felt a peace rise through the soles of my feet. Our procession snaked its way around the ‘sacred flame’ in a continuous circle, and all of us – black, white, city, country, rich and poor – became one. Ω
Reflect: What skeletons are in your family closet? Tell God about the things in your family history which you are ashamed of. Ask God to lead you to a place of compassion and acceptance of your ancestry, and, if necessary, show you how to act to rectify any historic wrongs. Give thanks that God uses ordinary sinful families and people to achieve God’s purposes in the world.
#Lent2020 © Sanctuary, 2020 quoting John Danalis, Riding the Black Cockatoo. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2009. Order it from your faovurite bookseller.
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