Last night on the eve of a Water Summit here in Payahuunadu – a man came in my dream …he had returned to where I was living. I went to see him, at first not knowing why. And then, along with a huge bolt of lightning and a bang of Thunder – I recognized him. I reached out through the rain that now came along with my tears – asking why? Why did you leave and not come back? A memory flooded through me of our love, our meeting, our soul connection. He did not talk much back then, when we were first together and now words, too, came very slowly.
“How long ago was it?” he asked.
All had been buried so deep, I searched to remember.
“30 or 40 years maybe”, I said… “I thought we had an agreement?”
Only now in this moment did it become clear he was Metis, mixed blood, native, Indigenous, white. He had returned, he shared, to his people, his reservation, his ways, with no contact again outside of that story for so much of the time. As I realized this, the idea or notion of our agreement, even after we had made love, seemed so small -somehow lost in a much bigger story. I touched again the pain of it all; the memory of our meeting, our recognition of each other, our short yet very real relationship, our love, our loss, our life. And yet something so much deeper, bigger, than our story was at play. We both reached out to hold each other once again at the exact same time.
I awoke with a start, some might call it an unbelievable pain in my heart, my body, my being. And now, as in the dream, another memory suddenly returned. It was maybe 38 years ago when I heard the Dolphin Legend – so much about our relations with the water, the ocean, the star Sirius…. so much about a song line from Turtle Island across the Rainbow Bridge across the Pacific to the “land down under.” It wasn’t long after that day, that day of knowing that I would go “down under,” knowing that I was called somehow…not necessarily to live there but to offer and receive …something (?)… that I would go – not once but 6 times over 6 years. Somehow, I was part of this story.
One of those journeys was with W. (I make his name that out of a protocol of respect – as I have no living contact and do not know if he is even alive today.) W. was a photographer, an artist, a white man – at least presenting as such. He was a storyteller who had come to share an invitation amongst a few from this land – to walk with Aboriginal people across the land “down under,” to walk and move on camels across the Kimberleys. He had been initiated there into the oldest aboriginal tribe and found it was there he belonged, no matter what his blood count might indicate. They, his elders there, had agreed they wanted to teach as they walked, to share, to open people to the dreamtime.
After meeting, we spent many days together sharing story; I listened to his dream, his invitation to come, to support, to walk with others. Across the fire we met; we knew we had something to do together. His last night on Turtle Island, we drove to a beach just north of the Channel Islands, that Rainbow Bridge. In my “combi,” we drove far out on a sandspit parked in the stars and made love. At dawn, we woke to the sound of water all around us just in the nick of time to drive away before the ocean took us in.
A few months later, I responded to W.s invitation to come to the center of Australia, to scout the track, to meet the “camelero” with whom we would ride and walk, to confirm the dream; to meet some members of the tribe, some of the people that we would walk with. We had planned this trip over many months across the Pacific from each other with W. driving often an hour plus just to find a payphone to make the dream come true.
By the time I arrived, one might say “the shit had hit the fan” in aboriginal relations with the whites. No one was to be trusted between Whites and Blacks. It was about land as far as I could tell, about all of it, years of it…. maybe about Uluru, the sacred site at the center. And then there was men’s business, places, talks and ceremonies where women were never be allowed to be. I could not, even now, describe further the centuries of complexity. I surrendered to the chaos. I spent some of the time alone, sleeping, dreaming, wandering in the washes outside of Adelaide until W. said it was safe to come, to go, to continue with our relationship, with our shared dream to somehow be part of the healing.
We arrived at Uluru – some say it to be the center of the universe – after hours driving over the red washboard road. We walked into a world there of beauty, pain, and power. Still W. was unable to talk about how the plan to meet and be with elders had changed. I knew I had become a problem. Even though changes and upsets were not directly about me or us – it was about us as well. Most of all, I knew that I was, as a white western woman, no longer an asset, that our dream, this walk, our love was not going to support what was wanted. The timing of such a pilgrimage was off at best and we were not going to make a difference in the world the way we had hoped. One plus one no longer made three and something else needed to happen.
That day we separated; we walked around the Rock going in different directions; that day we parted unable to talk or even be with each other. At the day’s end, I found myself called, stumbling upon, drawn into, a cave at the base of the rock …there in the dark…. asking, praying, singing for the healing to somehow continue, for the love to override broken agreements and bring us, not just W. and I, but all peoples, together again. Before leaving, I played a music tape gifted me just before leaving for Adelaide by another aboriginal elder, a dolphin dreamer. He had told me to play it at Uluru. What a surprise! There I was feeling hopeless and who came into my ear and heart but Bob Marley and The Wailers. I had to laugh and cry at the same time. I left praying to learn thru the mystery of it all, asking for songlines to continue, to be our guide and bring us whatever was needed.
Just after dark we met where we had begun the walk and returned to the parking lot. W. couldn’t find the car keys – he couldn’t find the words to explain what had come down and what now was not possible with his dream, his pilgrimage, his art, his heart. We were supposed to leave the grounds before dark as just a day before, maybe weeks (it’s hard for me to remember the sequence of things) the Park had been officially closed to camping overnight. There would be no more tourists walking all over it the way they had been, sleeping around at night, dreaming, not really knowing or respecting the power of the place. Here, we were in what was now being land rightfully reclaimed, and the only thing to do was to pull out our swags. With no way to leave, something truly unplanned occurred – the day ended with such a gift – to sleep, to dream alone and together at Uluru.
In the morning a Ranger showed up, concerned for sure, asking what we were doing there and why. W. explained sincerely our truthful loss of the car keys. Together we all went and searched the trail again, now for the third time. In the morning light, we soon found the keys. Leaving that place, I knew I would never return. We could only go forward to the Olgas, another amazing rock out cropping – a place where the feminine energy was identifiable in a way I had never felt, known or experienced before. At last W. and I could speak. We found each other again and I had a better glimpse of what was unfolding. It was clear there was no choice but to be with what was happening…. to let go of our story, the journey W. had dreamed with his tribe, as well as our journey together.
We parted as we had begun with respect, love, recognition, acceptance. It was not the time for us, for a walk, together, for the journey with whites and blacks, for going beyond boundaries. This was a time for separation, for reclaiming, for naming, for recognizing the agreements broken, the ones never made, the insanity of abuse and genocide centuries old. No going forward until that happened.
- returned to the tribe carrying on I imagined with the art – bringing paints and supplies along with opportunities of outreach. Sometime later, he married an aboriginal woman and had a son. Many years later, in a small beach town on Australia’s East Coast, I met him again. We had had no contact; we had no idea we would be there at the same time together – songlines, I guess, crossing. His story was amongst the many sad ones I knew, filled with trauma, illness, tragedies within Indigenous communities. His wife had gone into an alcoholic rage and set fire to their house, full of W.s photographs, stories, and art; all had burned to the ground. He had left with his son who he was now raising on his own. What to say? What to do? How to listen? Hold? Be? How to love on that day? I knew it was not for me to do more then to leave a gift behind, a small contribution for the two of them as they were starting a new life.
Sometimes it is truly only listening that serves… asking for what is needed? sometimes not doing anything…. sometimes a touch, a hug, …..sometimes money …sometimes hands-on work…… sometimes partnership – all or any…. love to be expressed in so many ways. I shared a bit of it all with W. during a short intense time, not ever really knowing the outcome–except what I’d learned inside myself, and for that, I was and am grateful. The power of place ..the timing of dreams and so much more. Where we are, where we are speaking, acting, dreaming has a lot if not everything to do with what happens, what is possible. What I touched there in that journey is what I knew I had to come home to be with in “my own” stolen lands, to learn to be with the difficult stories that were not so different here on Turtle Island.
Now years later, as I write this today, I learn of the powerful song singer from “down under,” whom I was blessed to meet, to be able to support in a small way –died today. Archie Roach. What a gift to the world – the world we want to share, the world we want to live in. “Rabbit Proof Fence,” “The Tracker” Listen to the soundtracks of these films if you have not. His famous song “Took the Children Away “ so relevant here all of these years later now, as people finally in Canada and the US and even the Pope – wake up to the horror of residential boarding “schools” with Native children. Archie sang of the pain, naming the crimes of whites on blacks, non-indigenous on Indigenous. He sang it in a way that reached the soul of anyone listening, the souls of place and people. We thank him and so many who have been saying and singing the truth for so long. May songlines inform us and singing to these places continue.
Unimaginable how such actions could be forgiven, such drastically different worldviews could ever be reconciled. Here I am all of these years later still walking with the same questions and prayer. Can we awaken to a different dream than the trance that “we” seemingly are in – at least the one so many are in around this globe – the one of expansion, productivity, extraction, greed. How does that happen? How do world views change or align around care for our shared home?
More than one has said, if it’s not unimaginable, if it’s not a lost cause, seemingly at the start – then it’s hardly worth more time and attention.
The wars continue, the genocide, the passing on of the wounds from one migration, if not invasion of peoples on another people – seeking place, safety, sanctuary, searching for home, for belonging as well as too often, for resources, wealth, precious metals. I know, as my ancestors came from Ireland, and I know that war of world views, continues there as well as most everywhere. Such seeking, in the way that it has too often been – has led to stolen lands, stolen children and culture. And now, even more migrations are underway, more extraction industries, more refugees of human and climate injustice will come. That seems unlikely to change soon, if ever? So, what might?
Being a white woman — it seems almost impossible to not continue to be part of the problem. How to be part of the healing, own ancestral shame and our current complicity in systems of racism. How to work, to live with and love ourselves, our people, to be willing to do anything, to know our activism will go nowhere unless the wounds in our own personal lives can be healed, unless the past and present wounds on the planet can be recognized, unless people of culture, color, any with differences from what is considered main- stream ….have more of a voice in our future. As indigenous people’s well-being, wisdom, and world view is recognized and respected, yes, even centered at the core of the dream to be…there is possibility in the best of the old story continuing as a new one emerges.
We changed course it seemed as a country so many years ago when I was protesting on the streets. We got out of Vietnam, marched for civil rights but not that much of American consciousness really seemed to shift. When economic reasons primarily motivate the change, the behaviors of injustice simply shift to somewhere else. Stopping fossil fuels, oil drilling, coal mines even if we are totally successful – the extraction behavior continues – it already is continuing. Mining for copper, lithium, gold is on the rise, emerging so fast people barely know what is happening- to the land, the waters, the people that live most closely by; the indigenous tribes, once again, their sacred sites – the rape of our earth goes on.
Change in awareness, in consciousness, in the dream, yes, the dream that we have been living- is what I pray for. As I listen to my dreams, as I follow my heart, I am in the change, in the current – as I, and others prepare for what is coming. There is no way I can or will ever understand the complexities of aboriginal law, the pain of having my children stolen, the mysteries of the dreamtime. And still, there are some love agreements I do understand. Thru listening I may support and hopefully do the “right thing” in any given situation, no matter the outcome.
At the Water Summit many were eager to come together, form alliances, work collaboratively. We now get to see what is possible in these lands, in these times. I was asked to speak on indigenous and non- indigenous relations on a panel with three other Numu/Paiute leaders. I have no idea really what I said after listening to their stories. I only asked in silence before I spoke somehow that it might serve the healing. It is a long walk home, alone and together. May we “Remember the Gift”.. the world view we all are born into… the circle of life, out of the womb, the feminine, the water….
This story took place in 1980’s ..around 40 years ago. Today I looked up W’s name on the internet and found this article below. The story is still unfolding, and I am still learning somehow, in the dream.
Lost for 40 Years, a Historic Group of Works by Groundbreaking Australian Aboriginal Artists Is Finally Getting a Museum Show
The paintings, which turned up in a shipping crate in 2019, now have their audience. Sarah Cascone, February 4, 2022
Local mission cook Warwick Nieass took this photo when he taught painting workshops in Balgo in 1982. Photo courtesy of the South Australian Museum, Adelaide.
It took nearly 40 years, but an exhibition of groundbreaking Balgo paintings, which helped give birth to the contemporary Aboriginal Australian art movement, is finally on view.
Lost for decades, the paintings turned up in a shipping crate in 2019, and, after being cleaned and restored, are on display in “Balgo Beginnings” at the South Australian Museum in Adelaide.
In the early 1980s, the tiny Indigenous community of Balgo learned of the burgeoning desert painting movement of Papunya, near Alice Springs, some 400 miles away. Inspired by the example, they created their own board paintings. Years ago, these early works were put into storage ahead of a planned exhibition, but something went wrong, and the art went missing. The artists who made them became fixtures of Australia’s Indigenous art community, but for decades, the first works were lost.
John Carty, the South Australian Museum’s head of humanities, first came to learn of the paintings some 20 years ago, when he was studying anthropology at the University of Melbourne and happened upon some photos of them.
Balgo artists and John Carty at “Balgo Beginnings” at the South Australian Museum. Photo by Brad Griffin, courtesy of the South Australian Museum, Adelaide.
Intrigued, he wrote to the Balgo community, and ending up spending three years living there. Soon, Carty came to realize an important chapter of Balgo art history was missing.
“The story was always unsatisfying, vague,” Carty told the Guardian. “We knew those paintings were out there somewhere… I searched for them, and I never gave up hope, I felt like they were out there somewhere.”
All that was left of the community’s artistic beginnings was a faded 1982 photograph of a painting camp in the desert. But that image allowed Carty to recognize the lost works when they finally turned up in the nation’s remote northern Kimberley region.
The shipping container where they were stashed flooded back in 2011, and the unidentified owner had finally gone to check on the contents. He didn’t know where the paintings had come from, but a local health worker recognized the names in the signatures put him in touch with Carty.
When Carty opened the email and saw the paintings, he couldn’t believe his eyes.
Sunfly Tjamptitjin, Untitled (1982). Courtesy of the South Australian Museum, Adelaide.
“A few people at the right moment looked at these things before they were going to be thrown out,” Carty told ABC Kimberley. “I opened this email, and it was all of those paintings… I cried. It was just an amazing thing to see.”
The works were muddy and moldy, and Carty worried they were beyond saving. But experts in Adelaide spent two years working “dot by dot, conserving the water damage, removing the mold, and restoring them to their former glory that’s nobody’s ever seen,” he said.
Alan Winderoo painting in 1982. Photo by Warwick Nieass, courtesy of the South Australian Museum, Adelaide.
The rediscovered paintings are on view along with new art by members of today’s Balgo community—the children and grandchildren of the original artists: Pauline Sunfly and her father, Sunfly Tjamptitjin, Jimmy Tchooga and his grandfather, Alan Winderoo, are represented side by side.
“[People] don’t know that story, they only know the new paintings. Our beginnings got lost,” Tchooga told the Guardian. “Now everyone can see where the Balgo story started.
Balgo artist Jimmy Tchoog. Photo by Brad Griffin, courtesy of the South Australian Museum, Adelaide.
Gary Njamme, one of the only surviving original Balgo artists. Photo by Brad Griffin, courtesy of the South Australian Museum, Adelaide.
Works by Balgo artists Bai Bai Napangarti, Kathleen Padoon, and Elizabeth Nyumi. Collection of Warlayirti Artists – Balgo. Photo courtesy of the South Australian Museum, Adelaide.
Eva Nagomarra, Kukatja Ngurra (2020). Collection of Warlayirti Arts – Balgo. Courtesy of the South Australian Museum, Adelaide.