On Indigenous wisdom / by Tim Mahlberg

I'd like to start by acknowledging and paying my respects to the traditional custodians of the land where I am writing this, the Cadigal people of the Eora nation, in what we now call Sydney.

I was born on the lands of the Wallumedegal people. This may seem like a strange thing to hear from an Anglo-Australian, and it is an idea that I myself am still sitting with. After all, we traditionally trace our lineage back through our great-grandparents, following surnames and marriages back through time. About two years ago, I was introduced to a very different concept of personal history by an Indigenous friend of mine; one that has resonated and stuck with me. He shared with me that Indigenous Australians trace their history back to the land that they are born on, because land is at the heart of their culture and the way their beliefs and whole society is structured. He had me curious to understand more because, as somewhat of a nomadic being, I've struggled to identify one place as my point of origin.

To be honest, I've never had much exposure to Indigenous Australians. As a young boy, I lived in cities and suburbs which were relatively culturally homogenous: the Hills district of Sydney, Hobart and Canberra. It was only after living close to central Adelaide that I started to watch, learn and listen. Adelaide has a thriving Aboriginal art community centered around the Tandanya Arts Centre, like the Spirit Festival, which I would often go along to to marvel at the incredibly beautiful painting and music I find so haunting and mesmerising. I noticed the huge disconnect between non-Indigenous and Indigenous Australians, and my own ignorance was and still is a challenge. I want to know more; to uncover the wisdom of this culture that is right in front of us all. With some strange feeling, I sense a strong pull within myself to delve deeper into the rich cultural messages and open myself to listen and learn.

Back to my friend who was sharing his message of belonging to land and place. His vision for Australia is that one day all people here, whether Indigenous or not, feel a deep connection to the land upon which they are born. He wishes that the philosophies of his people are shared and owned by all Australians, and celebrated, in a similar way to what is experienced in New Zealand and other countries celebrating their indigenious cultures. He dreams of a national festival where we all learn, watch, perform, and partake in traditional cultural practices (where appropriate and respectfully, of course). And, he hoped that this would help the dire siituation that many Indigenous Australians are in today.

So, I held this for over a year, and started to talk about it with people around me. I started to see the larger story unfolding; after all, our Indigenous people were such beautiful story tellers. For a people that represent the oldest continuous living culture on Earth, over 40,000 years, how does the story continue? There is no doubt how devastating the last 217 years have been for them, but what is the next chapter in this narrative? What might it be? As I reflected, the significance of now dawned on me... 

People from all countries of the world have arrived here to the oldest lands with the longest custodianship. Why? How is this meaningful for all of humanity? What is the learnings that we have been unable to hear up to now, and the answers that no other culture from East to West have been able to provide? How can we live more meaningfully and purposefully because of this ancient wisdom? These are some of the questions that I have pondered for the last year.

I was fortunate earlier this year to meet a mob from the coast of northern NSW, the Goodjingburra people who are sharing their wisdom for the first time.

Baanam is the name of the organisation, which loosely translates to "second brother", the member of the community that is dedicated to supporting the "first brother", Gogaun, who is the traditional custodian of one piece of community knowledge. Over a day with them, I learned about how knowledge is transferred through a beautiful system of mentorship, respect and community who collectively hold and share the wisdom and understanding of the land. We learned about the model of "5 stars" or "5 stones" which is the philosophical framework behind their relationship to land, law, ceremony, language and each other.

After a visit out onto the land they look after, I walked away with a much deeper appreciation for ways that indigenous culture is organised, some ideas about how we might learn and integrate this knowledge into Australian society. After all, the way we do things now is far from perfect; there are lots of social challenges that we'd love to improve.

I feel there are plenty of clues about how we can do things differently right in front of us, and that by listening to Indigenous wisdom, we might just find that the current poor conditions of many Indigenous Australians is lifted to a status of recognition, respect and that their beautiful culture is embraced by all Australians.