As unrest continues in the United States, once again we are reminded of the similar issue of Aboriginal deaths whilst in custody in Australia. Sadly, Indigenous Australians are more likely to be jailed than the non-Indigenous population particularly when it comes to youths. Yet this is only the start of the list of disadvantages, unfortunately it goes on….

Over the past few days, messages have circulated on social media and news outlets about how we can support the Aboriginal Lives Matter campaign. If you are keen to help, it’s suggested that you donate or get involved by joining various groups, some of which are outlined in this ABC article. Yet the other way is to educate yourself.

For me today that meant not googling all the heartbreaking stories that exist, but re-reading about all the incredible learnings I gained three years ago from my time working in Kununurra at the Waringarri Aboriginal Arts Centre. Although this is a slightly different topic for me than usual, it feels right to share this now given what’s happening in our world at present.

Ted Hall welcoming me to his country and asking his elders to look after me during my stay

Prior to arriving in the East Kimberley, I hand on heart admitted (rather ashamedly) that I had very little understanding of Aboriginal culture. Like anywhere around the World, understanding a community’s culture is critical when engaging with the locals. So whilst in Kununurra, I asked lots of questions of the residents, who were more than happy to answer them.

I will try and cover what I learnt about Aboriginal culture below (keeping in mind that these insights have mostly come from the Miriwoong Gajerrong mob so it may differ from other groups)…

Community

  • Aboriginal people have a very strong link to their community and connection to their families (beyond blood). The key to their survival over so many years was due a close knit community, where everyone cared about the wellbeing of one another, and everyone contributed to the survival of their community.

Respect

  • Respect is of upmost importance – “I will respect you, you will respect me”. Over 600 tribal groups lived side by side for thousands of years with little violence between them “because you don’t touch someone else’s land”. You also need to be invited to enter another group’s land, which usually involves a welcoming ceremony performed by an Elder.

Skin System

  • A Miriwoong person has both biological and cultural relatives, and there are behavioural rules attached to each of the 14 skin names. What you may find is that a 60 year old man calls a 23 year old woman his ‘aunty’, and he must listen and do as she says. Used to keep social order, this system determines marriage partners and sets behaviour expectations between members of your extended family group.
Ted explaining the complex Skin System

Communication Taboos

  • This is interesting – mothers and fathers in law aren’t able to talk, look at or be in the same vicinity as their daughters and sons in law! This is the way MIL and FIL show their DIL and SIL the utmost respect!

Eye Contact

  • No offense should be taken if an Aboriginal person doesn’t look at you directly in the eye, they are showing you respect. To look someone in the eye for a long period can mean confrontation.

Sorry Business

  • Refers to the bereavement and funeral process for someone, who has passed away, and involves the whole community (and I mean everyone), who get together to share their sorrow. The mourning period can last days or even weeks, and revolves around a good feed (the cooking can take days!).
Learning some of life’s lessons (including how to fish) from Des Hill

Women’s / Men’s business

  • The secret and sacred business that men and women do separately. During these ceremonies, important cultural knowledge and sacred practices are shared and the agreement is that you don’t talk about the particulars of the ceremonies with those, who have not participated in them before.

Names

  • Generally an Aboriginal person will have an English name and a skin name. You may find from time to time that an Aboriginal person will refer to another person indirectly; it’s not because they have forgotten that person’s name but it’s deliberate as to not cause offence. For example, if someone passes away, no one will use that person’s name for a period of time – and this could be years.

You’re probably thinking, like me, that Aboriginal culture is pretty profound and beautiful isn’t it?! It’s a shame that upon colonisation, this was not realised by our ancestors, as sadly we can only imagine what our society might look like today if they had…

Hopefully this post has provided you with some more insights on a topic that you may not have known much about before, and helped make you more proud of our Indigenous people. We all need to educate ourselves further, and I think we should look at all the stories to help us learn.

For more information about the key issues facing Aboriginal people in the East Kimberley and other areas, you can watch this excellent five minute clip. As well as looking at the other resources listed here or by having a read of this anti-racism for beginners resource list.

And you can read more about my time in the Kimberley via this blog.