Connecting to People, Connecting to Country
By Ben-Zion Weiss (Arjuna)
“The country don’t need us, but we need the country.”
My first contact with Aboriginal people was at La Perouse where I sometimes went for picnics with friends or family or to see the Snake Man. There I saw Aboriginal people selling boomerangs and other artefacts. At primary school we learnt about Dreamtime stories and their practice of walkabout. While from Australian popular culture I heard stories about their abuse of alcohol and their unwillingness to do hard work, which was given as the reason that the Kanakas were brought over from Pacific Islands to work the cane fields.
Then one day on the street in the Cross I met a young Koori from Dubbo and we had a nice chat. He said he didn’t understand why the police kept arresting him because he hadn’t done anything, as he said to me. Yet he’d been here 3 weeks and been arrested 3 times. I found the experience confusing and disturbing. This was back in the 60s when police would arrest Aboriginal people for no good reason except that they were Aboriginal.
Around the same time in the late 60s I started applying for jobs with the ABC as a cameraman, as I’d heard that was a good way to get into the film and TV industry. While waiting to be interviewed one time in an ABC building somewhere in East Sydney, I met another Koori man who told me about the Black Theatre that he worked with, which was in Sussex Street. While I never got involved with them, I did think about them from time to time, again wondering who these people were. When researching my PhD on anti-racism through drama education in social ecology, I realised that for all my 17 years of education, which included a tertiary degree in engineering from one of the top universities and attending a top NSW selective high school, I knew nothing about who these people really were. Except that they were here when Captain Cook arrived in 1770.
In 1971, I began my studies in Film and TV Production at Swinburne Institute of Education in Melbourne. In the first semester I was given the task to make a short film. I was inspired to make that film about Aboriginal people living at La Perouse. I wanted to find out who these people were and why they were there. So when I was in Sydney on a break, I took my 35mm Minolta down to La Perouse, as a first step in that process. I was deeply shocked by the living conditions that were like a third world country at the edge of the first world city I grew up in. There were bits of old cars lying around at the bottom of this hill, surrounded by rubbish. Half way up the hill there was a group of people sitting around playing cards with a few flagons of wine around them. At the top of the hill were some broken down old fibro houses. The people playing cards saw me and greeted me in a friendly manner. Then a group of kids, who saw that I was holding a camera, came down to where I was at the bottom of the hill and began to perform for my camera. I began to shoot some film and they became more animated and playful. They expressed great joy in their behaviour. So I shot more photos and then asked the people if they minded if I photographed them. They were fine about that, so I was able to document the experience in some detail in a series of still Black and White 35mm photos.
I felt very accepted by the people in general, both the adults and the kids. Eventually I thanked them and left, feeling both excited and disturbed by the experience. I was particularly struck by the spontaneity and friendliness of the kids. It felt so different to the children I knew in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney. These kids felt so alive, so connected to spirit.
A few years ago, at an exhibition at the Museum of Sydney, I discovered that this area of La Perouse had been the last remnants of what was known as “Happy Valley” in the 30s during the Depression. Many poor people had gathered there in shelters Made out of cardboard or corrugated iron. By the early 70s the only people that were still living there in those ‘depression’ conditions were Aboriginal people. What a statement this is for how these First Nations people have been treated by the wider Australian community!
Back at Swinburne I made a 16mm Black and White film out of the 35mm still photos and set them to music. I wrote and recorded a protest folk song, accompanied by my guitar, about the injustice of the original people of this land living in such conditions and how we needed to give them land back so they could live a reasonable life, as I felt other Australians were able to. The film was not well received by my film lecturer, who was rather right wing in his views and very influenced by the Hollywood school of filmmaking. His negative response was a strong influence on my feeling that this was not a place for me with my strong views on social justice and filmmaking. However there was another film lecturer who really liked my work and even offered me some colour footage to go and make another film rather than leaving the school, which later that year I did.
After leaving Swinburne, Karen and I decided to make a film of a sunrise and some quirky dwellings at a place called Metung, in the area around Lakes Entrance in Eastern Victoria. In the process we met the couple, who had set up an original Victorian cottage, as a museum and built the quirky English houses. We wanted to interview them for the film, which they declined to do, but even so the woman told us how much she was giving legal support to the Aboriginal people at Lake Tyres, the site of an Aboriginal Mission since 1861. According to an ABC news report in 2013 people from 3 other missions were later sent there. Karen and I had driven through the town and we’d noticed a lot of Aboriginal people on the street, so it was good to hear some of the stories about them. Karen remembered being driven through there by her father in one of their family excursions around Victoria and noticing lots of Aboriginal people sitting on benches on the street, something that she hadn’t seen in Melbourne, where she had grown up.
On another trip to country Victoria, we came across a country fair and as part of that there were a group of Aboriginal dancers. It was the first time I saw Aboriginal dance. Each dance was short, very dynamic and accompanied by clap sticks and didgeridoo. I liked them, but didn’t really know what to make of it. Then some years later, I was working as a lighting technician at the Sydney Opera House around the mid 70s, I was assigned to do the lighting for an Aboriginal theatre group that came to perform in what was known as the Recording Hall. On reflection, it’s interesting that I was the person chosen to look after their lighting needs, which involved lighting design as well as setting up their lights for their show. By then I had travelled to Europe and the Middle East and had seen a variety of theatre performances that included folk theatres as well as more classical forms. I’d worked in theatre in London and had a much wider experience than when I was living in Melbourne.
The experience of working with this Aboriginal theatre group was literally life changing for me. I was struck by the use of real gum trees for the set and the very simple staging. As well I began to understand the story telling nature of this form of theatre. It was very powerful! I later began to think about it as a sort of Zen theatre. This was theatre pared down to its essential nature. Each dance theatre piece they performed tended to be short and to the point. A story that still stays with me many years later is about their first encounter with the European bees. Some men were out in the bush and they came upon a beehive. They showed their excitement in their dance moves and proceeded to mime chopping the tree down. Once on the ground they stuck their hands in to get some honey, and got the shock of their lives. Native bees don’t sting, but these did and they acted out the pain of being stung by the European bees. It was both comic and tragic, watching them shake their hands to reduce their pain and cry out loudly. But underneath the comedy was the tragedy of colonisation and the introduction of the European bee. It was years later when reflecting on the colonisation process as part of my doctorate, that I saw how this very short and powerful piece of Aboriginal theatre so poignantly revealed the depth of the tragedy of destruction of their traditional lifestyle.
Since that experience of Aboriginal people and culture, I’ve deepened in my relationship to both the First Nations people of Australia and the country itself. There have been a number of major turning points in that process of deepening and developing my understanding of the pre-colonial and post-colonial processes. One of these was my inspiration to be at Uluru for my 42nd birthday. It was just 13 months after my daughter was born. Karen and I organised a camping trip to the Centre. We hired a 4-wheel drive ute with camping gear and went for an explore of Uluru, Kata Juta, Palm Valley, Kings Canyon, Hermannsburg and of course Alice Springs itself.
Other moments that come to mind, is when I was doing some workshops with the Spirit of Learning Forum. There was a gathering of some 40 educators, from primary school, to university, to industry trainers and workshop facilitators in the Centre in Randwick. We used to have these weekend retreats meditating, dialoguing and reflecting on ways to bring a non-denominational spirituality in education at all levels, but especially in state schools. On this occasion we were gathering after lunch on a Sunday afternoon when suddenly, the Aboriginal elder Burnam Burnam entered and sat down to address the group.
He began his address: “I’ve just driven up from the south coast, and I wanted to give you all a belated welcome to Australia. I hear you’re all doing great work in education.” For me personally it was a very special moment. I’d been in Australia for some 50 years at that stage and it was the first time an indigenous elder had welcomed me here. I really felt welcomed by him! He was from Walaga Lake, NSW as was another elder, Gubbo Ted Thomas who I met when Joanna Macy was in Sydney to lead workshops in Despair and Empowerment in the Nuclear Age in the 80s. I met both these elders on a number of occasions, and later had the privilege of having Wirrima Anne Thomas standing next to me one time at the Sydney Dances of Universal Peace meeting, in the Quaker Hall in Surry Hills. On that occasion I was launching one of my own dances dedicated to Aboriginal Dreaming and the Beauty Way of the Navaho. Unbeknownst to me The Beauty Way dance in our repertoire was a favourite dance of Wirrima Anne Thomas, who used to lead dreaming camps for women on the south coast of NSW. Some of these camps were at Lake Meroo, where Uncle Noel took a group of us dancers as part of the first long DOUPA weekend retreat we did 3 years ago on his land, Jamanee Gunya.
Before meeting Uncle Noel I’d met his cousin, Uncle Max Dulumunmun Harrison, who had been involved in the social ecology faculty at UWS where I teach. It was within this faculty that I researched my PhD on anti-racism through drama education for youth, educators and youth workers. This research project also involved my time teaching at Cleveland Street High School (now Alexandria Park Community School). At the time 1999 – 2002 it had from 60 t0 80% Aboriginal students. As part of my teaching there I was involved in a number of projects like The Anti Racism Radio Show, the stage production ‘Stand Your Ground’ at Pact Youth Theatre and in cultural camps to the Central Coast and to Gunnedah. These camps were hosted and facilitated by Aboriginal elders at the school, like the Koori Youth Worker, Rob Welsh, who was later to become a leader of the Metropolitan Aboriginal Land Council. This teaching experience and research and especially these cultural camps had a profound effect on my connection to the people and the country. They built on the welcome from Burnam Burnam, the work I did with the Adult Migrant English (AMES) youth programs on Aboriginal studies with artists, dancers, story-tellers and elders in the mid 90s that led to the production of the teaching English resource Wanyaari, that won a reconciliation award. This experience later resulted in a chapter in the book Radical Human Ecology, edited by Lewis Williams, Rose Roberts and Alastair McIntosh (2012) on ‘Migration, Aboriginality and Acculturation’, which demonstrated the power of connecting to Aboriginal people, their art and culture and to their experience of Country for migrant and refugee youth learning English in Australia.
Overall my own experience mirrored that of these youth migrants and refugees, who were part of the Circuit Breaker program for AMES. The more I connected to the bush as a young person, the more connected to Australian native animals and plants, the more I learnt about, connected to and worked with Aboriginal people – the more I felt part of this Country.
In 1996 I organised a day called ‘Dancing the Land’, with Sean Choolburra and Taryn Drummond and Sean’s mentor Amelda from north Queensland. It was a cultural exchange between the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and the Dances of Universal Peace culture, which has a number of indigenous inspired dances in its repertoire, especially Native American, Native Hawaiian and more recently Maori inspired dances. Thanks to Uncle Noel and his nephews, we now also have some Aboriginal dances in our repertoire. This was all art of my work in theatre anthropology. So while I was born in Romania and came to Australia as a refugee in 1951, I was reborn at Uluru for my 42nd birthday, our astrological mid life point. This has given me a sense of place. Since that time I’ve ‘grown up’ again in this country, which I now feel is my country, physically, psychologically, socially, ecologically and spiritually.
 Quoted by a Yiddingi elder on Ernie Dingo’s show on NITV 4/12/2016