This blog highlights a few stories of my journey as a proud Aboriginal man. I love stories, stories are an important part of Aboriginal life, passing down laws, knowledge and ensuring a spiritual and physical connection to Gunni Thukkun (mother earth). I believe no one has the right to dismiss your story, no story is wrong and every story is valuable. I believe it is the recollection of lived experiences in which we can learn from. Sharing my story is important. Everything I have learnt about culture has come from the old people who have shared their stories with me, so it is important I recognise my knowledge does not belong me, it is not mine to keep, only mine to pass on. My old people are my greatest inspiration and one of the reasons why I am proud to be Indigenous.
My spiritual and cultural learning is my most prized gift, given to me by our old people on behalf of our ancestors. Learning culture can be challenging and confusing; it takes time, dedication and being open minded to a new way of thinking. It is important to show humility and be prepared to see the world in a different way. A world with more meaningful dialogue then the life you had before the journey began. It is not something I share openly, its important to share, knowledge is only powerful when it is shared, but its even more important to share it with the right people, don’t devalue your teachings by sharing it with people who will devalue it. If for some reason I have shared my cultural experiences with you, or I’ve told you how my culture makes me feel, it’s a privilege, honestly, I trust you! To put it into perspective, I have never shared my cultural experiences with my best friend of 26 years. Not that I don’t trust him, there is no one in this world I trust more. I just believe he can ever understand this journey, not everyone can, and not everyone needs to understand, so why dish it up to every person you meet? Particularly if you believe it is your greatest gift. My cultural and spiritual connection is something a majority of people will never understand, this includes both Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal people.
What does being Aboriginal mean to me? My Aboriginality has evolved since I was a child. Then as a teenager and now a man in the eyes of my ancestors. My Aboriginality is like a book, the book has always in front of me, I knew the title of the book, but only through opening the book and uncovering the layer of pages can I learn what the book is about.
To be brutally honest, I was insecure about my Aboriginality growing up; this lasted until my early 20’s. As a child I seen the stereotypes presented by mainstream society, the reinforcing that Aboriginal people were born to fail, that a life of helplessness and despair was inevitable. I saw my Aboriginality as a burden. I avoided topics around my identity, mainly because I never totally understood Aboriginality beyond being dark skinned. So I avoided it as much as I could. Just when I thought I had it figured out, I was met with new challenges like racism as an example, things I didn’t have the knowledge, confidence or self-esteem to deal with.
I was slowly making my journey bit by bit. It started in my primary school years. As a young man I was slowly making a connection to my identity and ancestors, I clearly looked Aboriginal, so that was a start (no offense to fair skinned black fellas), I could build on that, it was clear to others around me. I could connect with the other kids I knew were Aboriginal. I was getting involved with traditional dance, learning to play the didgeridoo, most of the stereotypical things white fellas see with our mob. I was engaged in it, but was still struggling to understand it.
As a child I was apart of an Aboriginal dance group. We travelled to schools far and wide performing, and our name was the “Minimbah Dancers”. I loved performing. There was a great demand for us to perform; so this gave me the feeling of social acceptance. One instance I remember dancing in a Newcastle Primary School (which I will remain unnamed). It was another day in which we were excited to perform, after performing we hopped back on the bus and went back to our school. Suddenly I could hear our supervisor (Aunty Alma Denny) talking about accusations of a stolen wallet being made against us. At the time it didn’t mean much, but a few weeks later the Principal of that school visited and sat down with us in a circle. He suddenly pulled out pictures of us performing that day and said “remember this day, we had so much fun, thank you for performing”. He continued to talk and then apologised for what had happened that day, I was confused. The story goes that a teacher had misplaced her wallet that day at school. Fingers were quickly pointed to the group of Aboriginal kids that had entered the school to perform. So it turns out, the teacher found her wallet, but it was to late, the damaged had been done and accusations had been made. At the time I just thought “a wallet, so what!’ I was oblivious to the political context at the time.
My Great Grandmother
The day was the 13th February 2008. I had turned up to my workplace, the RTA of NSW. Upon arriving, I was informed by my manager that the RTA had graciously allowed each Aboriginal staff member the opportunity to watch Kevin Rudds “National Apology”.
My mum often told me about my Nan and her siblings being taken away from her mum (my great grandmother). I vaguely remember my great grandmother, we used to call her “Nan Toot”, she was beautiful and wise and she passed away when I was four years old. My mum tells the story of when she passed; they put her coffin in the back of a station wagon and drove her from Newcastle to Grafton (where she rests). All the relatives had scraped together money for her funeral. It was a traumatising situation for all my family at the time, particularly having a loved one pass and not having the money to lay them to rest. Nan Toot had worked all her life to provide for her family and she had nothing when she passed. All her money was garnished under the government pretense of being put into trust fund, in short she never seen a cent of her money. She passed away with only her pension in her purse. When mum tells me the story of taking “Nan Toot” back to Grafton, I would always cry, it made me sad. When I got older the sadness turned to anger. Anger of knowing someone you loved was never treated with the dignity or respect they deserved, as human beings we can accept bad things happening to ourselves, but we can never accept bad things that happen to the people we love. I would do anything to protect my family. The day of the “National Apology” I was angry, sad and relieved. The reason I talk of my great-grandmother is because during the apology all I could think of was her image and the how she felt when losing her children. I tried as hard as I could to contain my emotions in front of my work colleagues, I couldn’t hold it any longer and the tears came, I cried uncontrollably and couldn’t stop, I couldn’t remember the last time I cried. It took a few hours for me to compose myself before I could start work. I knew deep down inside the treatment of my great grandmother had left scars on the inside. I was and still am bitter to this day for what happened to my great grandmother and my mob, I will never, EVER get over the way my people were treated, despite the Warren Mundines of the world saying we should forgive white fellas and Government. I am proof you can still hold a grudge and be a productive member of the community. I often think of my great grandmother when I’m alone, her struggle is a part of me and who I am, her struggle inspires me to move forward and make my old people proud.
First ever experience of traditional culture
When I was five I visited a special place; an Aboriginal cave painting. It was a trip with a group of Aboriginal community members who were part of a bus trip organised by the Awabakal Co-op (in Newcastle). It was amazing! I had never seen anything like it, EVER! I seen a man painted in a cave with long arms, embracing the land, he was big, at least fifteen feet long, and beautiful. The guide had told us his name was Biaime; he was our father, the creator of ever thing. That day is still vivid in my memory, as if it were yesterday. I didn’t understand much about the painting or the broader meaning at the time, but I knew it was special and felt an instant connection. After visiting the cave I would often wonder growing up where the cave was. I wanted to go back and visit but could never remember getting there. Twenty-six years later I know my father Biaime wanted me to come back and him visit him, learn my culture and take my place in the world as an Aboriginal man. I just needed to find the right path back to him.
Finding ‘Ngrurranpah” (lore) and spirituality
In my early twenties, I started working at Hunter TAFE in the Aboriginal Unit. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to learn more about my culture and discover who I was, and hopefully one day reconnect with the cave painting of Biaime. As part of my new role at TAFE I had connected with a proud Aboriginal man. At the time I didn’t realise how this would change my life. I was at the age in which I had a well-defined path, I was well educated and had a great career. I excelled in sport and had a loyal group of friends who I had known since high school, but I knew something was missing, spiritually I felt like an empty shell.
During this time we were invited to an Aboriginal men’s camp as part of a community gathering of men. The camp was held at Paynes Crossing; fifteen minutes from the small settlement of Wollombi. At the camp we sat and yarned. An old fella called Uncle Paul did a smoking ceremony, the first time I was apart of a smoking ceremony since I was young. After the smoking ceremony Uncle Paul shared a ceremonial song, it was beautiful! We then visited an Aboriginal site known as the map site. The engravings we visited were amazing and Uncle Paul shared the stories behind them, I felt an instant connection. I could not believe what I was learning, and couldn’t believe this knowledge was still being passed down like the old times. We finished at the map site and went back to the camp. At the camp we were yarning around the fire with a cuppa and I mentioned to Uncle Paul how I visited cave painting of ‘Biaime’ as a child with the Awabakal Co-op. Uncle Pauls eyes instantly lit up and told me during his time as the cultural officer with the Awabakal Co-op he would lead tours to the Biaime Cave, and he remembers my dad (Norman Brennan) and his son (me) on one of those trips. It was though my path had come full circle and it was finally making sense. Knowing Uncle Paul was the person that took us to the Biaime Cave made me feel good inside, he was so calm and wise, you knew he was a special old fella, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. He had a way of explaining culture so that it made sense, even for beginners like myself. I felt an instant connection with Uncle Paul. I told him I had always dreamt of going back to the cave. Uncle Paul replied “let’s go tomorrow morning, it’s only a half hour drive from the camp”. The next morning Uncle Paul took us to the cave. Biaime was exactly as I remembered him; I remembered he had long arms that encompassed the land and big eyes. Uncle Paul then proceeded to talk about “lore” or the “Ngurranpah” (meaning the world in which I live) and how it encompasses everything in our world, and that Biaime had descended from the heavens and made love to “Gunni Thukkun” (Mother Earth) and shaped the land, gave us our language, stories, ceremonies, dance and everything we needed to live in peace with our mother earth. Uncle Paul was impressed by my willingness to learn and invited me to join him and other men to come “up bush” and learn more about “lore”. I took to culture like a duck to water, going bush gave me the opportunity to learn about myself, and who I was. I learnt about my personality. Being in the bush has a funny way of helping you learn about yourself. I learnt importantly that I don’t talk a lot, and that I often need time on my own. I get my energy and strength from deep thinking and particularly connecting with my ancestors on my own. I learnt not spend too much time with people who talk a lot, and more importantly spend time on my own, searching my own feelings and inner thoughts.
Eight years later I owe everything to Uncle Paul, he has taught and shown me things most people don’t know exist in our day and age. That the continuation of thousands of years of knowledge is being passed on through ceremony and learning in New South Wales. My spirituality ensures I am strong, regular visits up bush and time on my own ensure ability to work full-time, complete a law degree, work a 2nd job as a residential career, volunteer at the local PCYC and help my community and own family during my own time.
Corroboree: My favorite time of year
Once a year we dance Corroboree, it’s my favorite time of year. I am totally high on my culture and I am thoroughly in love with it. The old ancestors are always with me when I dance Corroboree. During the 2013 Corroboree in Tamworth I remember practicing on the hot sand, it was so hot we had to stop. When we finished I had five to seven painful blisters on each foot. I was terrified of the thought of not dancing Corroboree; I waited all year for it to take place. I didn’t think my feet wouldn’t allow me to dance. I could hardly walk after practice, so a few hours before Corroboree I went to the chemist, threw on some lotions and bandaged my feet. I could still hardly walk. I hobbled to the dance “bora” (a circular ceremony ground). I could hear Uncle Paul singing, the pain instantly went away. I knew the old ancestors were there with me, easing my pain so that I could dance in honor of “Gunni Thukkun” (Mother Earth), “Biaime” (Father) and our old ancestors. I danced at least 30-40 dances that night. As soon as the last dance finished, I collapsed to the ground in pain. Sand had made its way into the blisters, it was miraculous I lasted to the end. Only five minutes earlier I had been dancing and running around. I knew the old people were with me helping me get through Corroboree, they gave me the strength to dance. They know how much I love to dance, much love to my old people for being with me that night.
My culture and its impact on my life
I can honestly say that my culture saved my life. For years I had a problem (one I’m still not ready to share, but will one day) which lead to a downward spiral of no longer having control of my life. I was always in control of my life, but couldn’t control this. Then by chance Uncle Paul gave me a scenario and a lesson, he said it was part of my spiritual and cultural learning. I knew the old people were trying to connect with me. They told me it was time to move on to a new phase of my life. I knew what I had to do; I would do anything for my old people. The teachings I learnt through culture had enabled me to move on with a new phase of my life. It changed my life instantly, which was a good thing, I was going down a road with an undefined destination, it was like I was living two lives. I have never told anyone about my problem, not even my family, I felt isolated, trapped and alone, but I wasn’t alone as my ancestors were with me wherever I went, they gave me the strength to get through that situation, they led me back on the path in which I needed to be.
I love to learn, my culture has given me many great lessons to bring back to the urban world. I love connecting with the natural environment and fauna. I learn to love, to have humility, and the respect and trust of others. I just love to sit and listen, not speaking a word; I believe talking is highly overrated, and is best in small doses. These lessons have translated across my life. Our culture and lore will survive; I know there is a revolution happening. It will continue to thrive and grow stronger in an ever-growing urban society. I have found a unique balance of being a man connected to the ‘Ngurranpah’ (lore), passing on its values and its ceremonies. On the flip side I can just as easily throw on a business suit and live in the urban world; this world is also part of my “Ngurranpah”, it’s a meshing of two distinct ways of thinking happening in the same world. I always believe I can learn, especially our culture and lore, it is the most natural way of thinking for me. I have found who I am and now can build on the foundations that the old people have given me.
These are some of my key stories in my life, and why I am proud to be Indigenous!!!