‘In fulfilling whatever role you’ve got; it brings about a well-being or a capacity to engage respectfully and genuinely with others. I think for me, I haven’t had the ceremonial processes. What I have been given is the capacity to communicate through art and while there are always temptations to do other things, the things that I always have to do with genuine respect and truth is to practice that practice and to allow the old people to come through that and to speak out of that. Once I started doing this, the dysfunction in my life has begun to disappear. I’m a lot more able to deal with things. I’m able to control those things that would make me as I said dysfunctional. I think this is a very important thing to talk about. The creative stuff, whether that’s doing ceremony or whether that’s doing art or dance or whatever, is important if you do it with respect and with intention.’
Urban, recently unpacked and presented to the world as Aboriginal, and enough, I come to this question of creativity, not so much as an artist who paints but as a person who participates in healing and emerging wholeness. I come from the experience of becoming what I was before I was born on the pathway to what I will be when I live amongst the ancestors. I come as one to be lost in the ‘every‘when’, discovering what I have within and how to enter the intercourse of being.
This is not the domain of intelligence, knowledge, learning, privilege, or right. It is the space in between, the void only the heart can cross, a heart that has been slashed open and laid bare through the trauma of existence in a world that doesn’t see, hear, or recognise you. Such a heart seeks healing, not from medicine, psychiatry, psychology, or any other external practices even god.
It seeks its re-existence from that which it has been separated – country which is mother, home, and heart. This re-existence is found in separation from the layers of demands and pressures genocide has imposed in its mission of erasure. We as a people living in a life-giving relationship with country since the beginning of time continue to experience erasure – dispossession from our country and loss of language, law, and spirituality.
Re-existence is the creative de-linking from slavery to the embedded colonial matrix of power (CMP). A universal way of being has usurped the diversity of peoples who lived and continue to live in this land. We have lost our languages, lore, and spirituality to a range of universals – English, the Western legal system and Christianity. Our sovereignty has been discarded for an imposed sovereignty without, it may be argued, legal authority in a stolen space.
Through invasion, massacres, missions, stolen children, and more we have found ourselves dominated and destituted by those who now enjoy the privilege and entitlements that emanate from their violence. I say creative de-linking as it is not within our reach to turn back the invasion by reciprocal violence. Our resistance or remaining relies on a deep strategic reimagining of self and country, affirming ours and its sovereignty in a way that may be welcomed by the CMP – art, music, “oldest living culture”, economic benefits, and more – all awhile speaking our truth and remaining in defiance of those deemed to be in power.
A strategic reimagining allows us to recalibrate how we have thought about ourselves and responded, often from a deficit view or ourselves, as victims of others’ perceptions of us. We are not what they see. We are the unceded people, embedded with country. We belong to no one but ourselves – we are country. In this place, we revisit ceremony, lore, spirituality, and law and reshape it so we can both hear and be what we hear.
A key element of strategic reimagining is the praxis of creativity. This is not to be confused with creative practice which we used to describe the various forms we used to express our creative side. It is the practice of listening, hearing, and reflecting that allows us to adapt, adjust and bring into being something that has not been before or is here in a new form. It is deep listening, with all the senses, that allows you to embrace the unexpected, unwanted, and the unnameable.
Creativity sits at the centre of ceremony, lore, spirituality, and law. These are not sterile receptacles of past traditions or practices. They do not stay as permanent statutes to be followed and utilised without question. They are alive and contemporary, responding to that which sits in country and water for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples. While it may serve the colonisers to celebrate “the oldest living culture”, we re-existing it in contemporary shapes and forms dissimilar to what has been mediated through Western language and representations.
This creativity is not about maintaining the past or the imaginary of the past. It is not about ensuring that traditions that we have known in the past remain untouched by contemporary needs and the overlay of the colonial matrix of power. It is about applying the underlying wisdom of such practices in a new powerful way in a foreign space, that of invasion and genocide. In this space, we are called to instigate change leading to a rebalancing of power in what now has been weighted heavily against us and our people.
We witness this creativity in the places and the ways we dance, sing, and tell our stories. Our stories appear on the big and small screens, in theatres or in the open air, places that would seem to be out of place for “oldest living culture.” Art has transformed from the styles and uses it had pre-invasion, allowing our stories to morph and infiltrate what was previously a Western-only domain. Our sung stories and the voices that make them find themselves being used and heard in a way vastly different from how and where our voices were familiar before. Even some of our rituals and practices have adapted to find a new audience, tell a different story, and reshape a practice, as a way of remaining in our space.
The Statement of the Heart signed at Uluru is an example of creativity being utilised to reimagine an ancient practice to address a contemporary issue and chart a course of justice and hope. In the popular mind this statement and the elements it contains – Voice, Treaty, Truth, and Makarrata) are seen as the ladder allowing settler Australia to climb out of guilt and shame and into a sense of self-respect and regained integrity. For some First People, it is seen as an entry into recognition and reparation, a level of self-respect, and a return of that which was taken – sovereignty that as never ceded.
These viewpoints are not wrong. They are simply not all the Statement is. The Statement is a from-the-edge intervention in the process of legal fixes, legislation, protests, and failures that have dogged the unbalanced interaction between peoples. Yes, it has eyes behind, but it also has eyes ahead, all firmly grounded in the present.
Every’when is a First People’s concept reminding us we are only ever living in one place, the every’when where all that has been, all that is, and all that will be is now. We do not separate time as in the Western mind which categorises all things on a linear progressive continuum meaning the categories, past, present, and future are treated as independent but connected entities. For us all is now. There is only now. In this now are all who have lived, all who live, and all who will live, and their voices, languages, lore, law, and spirituality are alive and dynamic in this space.
It is in this worldview that we can begin to understand the Statement of the Heart as a creative process bringing into being a new language of custodial interdependence necessary to both address what we may call the sins of the past and to engage in the process of building a new country. And it all can begin and be birthed in the every’when.
At its centre is neither reconciliation nor revenge. As in all First Peoples’s response to personal or corporate failure is justice as in a return to wholeness. This justice is not about handing out punishment. It is restorative. It is about restoring the community to wholeness and the individual(s) to their proper place within the community. Appropriate reparation or consequences are applied not to exclude but, ultimately, to include. For non-First people, the idea that there will be no punishment for punishment’s sake or the indiscriminate destruction of personal rights such as home ownership, wealth accrual, and more is difficult to grasp. In their law that is what happens. People have things are taken away to repay others – money, freedom, and life. There is a fear that this is how justice will look and they demand detail to ensure they are safe.
Justice in this creative process is restorative not destructive. The various elements of the pathway to justice and wholeness is built on communication and collaboration. It is built on reclaiming equity through Voice (recognition), Treaty (conciliation), Truth (reconciliation), and Makaratta (reparation).
If you’re not heard, you’re not seen. The squeaky wheel gets the most interest taken in it. If you’re not seen, you don’t exist. You don’t exist in the eyes of others, and you begin not to exist in the eyes of yourself. You begin to gather up shame. I am wrong, and I shouldn’t be here.
Voice is about us speaking so that we are heard. By enshrining it in the Constitution fellow Australians especially those in power are required to hear us. They cannot choose who to listen to and who not to listen to. Must listen to the Voice.
Others make the decisions about who is heard and who has the right to be heard and those decisions are made by non-Indigenous people. Non-Indigenous people make the decision about who gets heard, whose voice needs to be heard, or whose voice is the most applicable to be heard.
Embedding the Voice of First People in the Constitution takes away the right of non-indigenous people to only listen to the voices they choose. The Voice will be representative of all our people and therefore each of us will have a voice and will be heard.
Enshrining the voice in the constitution is constitutional recognition of the sovereign voice of First People on matters pertaining to them. We’re generous. We’ll allow you to do the things that are necessary to govern the country, but we will want a voice on those things that directly affect us.
Once you recognise that somebody else is here in the space you saw as your own, you have a choice. You have a choice to annihilate them and to get them out of the space, so you have it all to yourselves, or to come together with them and agree that seeing that you both are here, you will work out how to move this project forward together. That’s basically a treaty.
It is an agreement that we both exist in the same space. In this space, we agree that there are things very important to each of us. As we work through a treaty, we begin a process of looking for how to make this project called Australia work together.
Treaty is conciliation. There has never been a time in Australian history when we have been together as one. We’ve jumped right from the invasion, through extermination and assimilation to reconciliation, and we have never ever come together as one. Treaty is that point of conciliation, that point of coming together and saying, we are both here. We are not compelled to like each other, but we are compelled to find a way to move forward from there. That’s important.
- Truth telling.
If you don’t have a place of conciliation, a place of agreement that you’re here together, it’s very difficult to tell truth. The situation here is unlike what happened in South Africa. Truthtelling occurred in the direct shadow of what occurred. In Australia, we are some 250, years from the invasion and the subsequent genocide. As a result, we have limited the truth and truth-telling to First People’s voices speaking about the bad things that have happened to us as individual and corporate First People. Truth-telling in this scenario is historical and requires us to get up and take our clothes off in public and show the scars.
I would suggest this is only one part of the story that needs to be told, face-to-face. The truth-telling must include the other in this story standing up and telling the truth about their forbear’s motivations, about how they thought, and how that continues to influence their behaviour in the 21st century.
At a recent event for several schools, an 11-year-old boy asked the following question: how is it possible that one group of people could think another group of people weren’t human, and therefore they had the right to kill them? That is the key question to be explored in any truth-telling.
The truth must be told from both perspectives and not just the impact it has on us. First People’s community is to move from the delegated role of victim in this reconciliation process to be able to stand up and say, hang on, you’re a victim, too. You need to explore your dodgy thinking that allowed this to occur and to continue to occur and allow us to see it for what it was and is. You were wrong, and you need to tell the truth about being wrong. We must hear both sides of the trauma.
The most horrific stories I hear come from non-Indigenous people in their 70s and 80s, etc., who tell the stories about what their great-grandfather or their grandfather did, massacring people in the river at the bottom of the house paddock, and more. We need those stories told to allow us to witness the impact of these inherited stories for non-indigenous people who are continuing to carry trauma in a similar as we do. Only then will reconciliation occur.
This process that leads us to makarrata is the creative justice occurring customarily in our communities. If somebody had misbehaved badly or impacted another or the community and they would work through the elements of voice, treaty, and truth, arriving at the point of settlement and reparation.
This is makarrata. People speak of makarrata in this statement from the heart dialogue with a sense of unreality. Yes, it is about getting along after a major dispute. It is not about a Hollywood movie ending where we all ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after. Makarrata is not that.
Makarrata is about justice, what are the appropriate consequences for the things that have happened before this, and what will need to be done to put right the thing you did wrong. Makarrata is about reparation. It’s about paying for the privilege of being the dominant society in Australia. It’s about how do we repair, repay, relink, and re-exist our continuing ancient and modern culture, and return autonomy to our people whose ideas and philosophies are contemporary and future focussed.
There is an Old Testament Biblical story that fits here, and it’s the story of Jacob at Peniel, and he’s being pursued by those he has taken advantage of. He sends his family and all the servants on ahead of him, and he stays on the banks of the river. That night, he wrestles with a young man, who is an image for God. When he wakes up in the morning, he walks with a limp. His hip is dislocated.
Makarrata is walking with a limp, because one of the ways that we would do reparation in traditional communities would’ve involved a spearing, usually in the thigh. It was rarely a superficial wound. People walked differently because of that injury. You might not have been able to catch as many kangaroos on the fly as you used to because you have had a spear in your thigh.
It’s about walking with a limp, remembering what you did, remembering what needs to happen to make it better, remembering that there are consequences. It was not just for the individual involved as a reminder for the rest of the community to see that if you misbehaved, there is an outcome
The Statement from the Heart is a creative justice process, pathway, or a Songline. It is a heart-healing process that will heal both the heart of this country and if used personally everyone’s heart. Arriving at makarrata, doesn’t mean we stop there as if we have done all we need to do.
To maintain justice, we must stay in this circular process of wholeness. Through this process, we will begin to understand there are other things we need to do this process for because justice isn’t a one-stop shop.
We must remain vigilant and avoid talking about voice, as somehow it is going to resolve all the issues to do with the original sin of Australia and the trauma it has caused on First People’s people. 1967 didn’t do it. The apology to the Stolen Generations hasn’t done it. This won’t do it unless we are faithful to the process, and we are serious about learning to walk with a limp.
 Jacob At Peniel: Gn 32,24-32