About us



Vol 37 No 3



John Leary

John Wilcken SJ

Tony Paganoni CS

Andrew Murray SM

Michael Trainor


Kevin Mark


Fifty years with traditional Aboriginies


THIS REFLECTION is my contribution to the celebration of the life of Bishop James Cuskelly, MSC. I am privileged to make such a contribution. He was, for twelve years, the highly respected and effective General of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart. On a personal level, Jim and I were together at Douglas Park, as school boys, doing our Leaving Certificate and the following year our Novitiate. After two years of Philosophy at Croydon, Victoria, Jim was chosen to complete his studies in Rome, and later became General of our Society.

My Background

I was ordained in 1949. After teaching for three years, I was appointed to the Aboriginal Apostolate in the Northern Territory. I went North intending to work for Aborigines; I believe I quickly ended up working with them. In other words, more by accident than intention, I first became a learner and afterwards a contributor of some sorts. I am now firmly convinced that no one, in my field at least, can be an effective giver unless he or she first becomes a learner.

From the beginning I want to make it clear that what follows comes from my personal experience over the last fifty years. The opinions and judgements expressed are mine. I am far from laying claim to infallibility. Whatever the outcome, I hope it provides, for outsiders, a further understanding and appreciation of all Aboriginal people and promotes their advancement.

Maybe it was a good thing I had no or very little foreknowledge of Aborigines. To be honest, I do not recall ever having previously seen one. Perhaps this was a good thing. I believe the study of anthropology in this regard can be an impersonal exercise and even become a prejudicial one. I have become convinced that nothing can replace personal contact, genuine friendship and an honest mutual sharing.

One unforseen, remote and unlikely preparation for my future apostolate was becoming a dedicated walker. At Croydon, Jim Cuskelly devised what he called a ‘Sandwich Stunt’. You prepared your personal sandwich the night before the walk and then, through group consensus, the distant destination. Next day you ventured forth, allowing half the daylight hours to reach your destination and the other half to return. You fitted in the sandwich whenever possible. This love of walking not only developed in me a certain stubbornness, but proved a helpful introduction to my future with Traditional Aborigines.

Garden Point – The Link

My first intended appointment was to Port Keats, Wadeye. However, at the critical moment, the resident priest at Garden Point, Melville Island, took ill. Garden Point was a Catholic Church establishment for mixed race children. I was sent to Garden Point to be there while the priest recuperated. He did not recuperate sufficiently. I remained at Garden Point for two and a half years. This ‘stay’ proved most fortunate. I will be forever grateful to the young people of Aboriginal descent of Garden Point. From the day of my arrival they shared their homes and their friendship with me. Our friendship has grown over the years. I am especially indebted to them also for helping me, in their own unique way, to be at home with Traditional Aborigines. They were the link.

I recently heard Mr John Ah Kit, MLA for Arnhem, NT remark that he was proud of both his Aboriginal and Chinese ancestry. So John knows who he is. It is this, I believe, that inspires his security and confidence. Importantly, I believe, along with such as the Garden Point people, it gives such people a special understanding, compassion and ability to help all fellow Aborigines.

Daly River

In early 1955 I arrived at Daly River to help establish a Health Clinic and a School. However, circumstances changed quickly. Aboriginal stockmen and their families were being removed from surrounding stations. The horse was being replaced by helicopter and motor bike. The place became residential, a Mission.

Over the years, other Traditional Aborigines, south of the Daly, had left their neighbouring ‘countries’ and had come to live on farms or in camps along the river. There were seven language groups among them. The local landowners were the Malak Malak and Matngala people. All these traditional people retained their languages and ceremonies, but as well the system of ‘payback’.


Payback was pervasive and matters came to a head not long after my arrival.

Eight o’clock one morning I was doing the regular radio ‘sked’ with the Bishop of Darwin when three men interrupted the session by carrying to my door a middle-aged man with a long shovel-spear through his back and protruding through his chest. It turned out to be a case of ‘payback’. It was evident to me, and to other Aborigines I had consulted, that something had to be done to attempt break the payback cycle.

I persuaded some of the Elders to call as many as possible to a meeting. They did this with great success. There was a hundred percent turn up. At their invitation, I initiated the meeting by drawing attention to the School, well under construction. In the previous year, the local Aborigines had sent a delegation to the Bishop asking for a school ‘like the one at Port Keats’. A long discussion followed, on why they wanted their children educated. I then, through an interpreter, told them that if the payback system continued some of their ‘educated children’ were later destined to die.

After continued discussion on how to control shovel spears they eventually arrived at a solid consensus against payback. They have kept their word. Over the past forty-eight years there has not been one incident of payback.

Marriage Problems

The school was responsible for another unexpected outcome. Late one evening I had just closed the little store when three old men arrived to see me. Before I knew what they were on about, a twelve year old girl, Ngarmuk by name, suddenly appeared. She threw herself in the dust and called out in her best English, ‘Me no more marry that old bugger!’ No one was more embarrassed than I. I felt in some way it was an appeal to me. Yet I had no authority in the matter. It called for a local tribal decision. A false step here and the future of the Mission could be severely damaged. In my predicament I stalled and asked the three old men whether they might come to see me in the morning.

They were promptly on my doorstep at six thirty next morning. Still completely baffled, as I looked at the old men I caught sight of the near completed school in the background. Inspiration hit me. ‘What that place?’ I asked. ‘Schoolouse’ came the reply. ‘Who got to go there?’ was my next question. ‘All the kids’ they replied. ‘How about Ngarmuk? Might she be one of those kids?’ I hopefully suggested. ‘That right’, the old men agreed. ‘She got to go to school’.

As things turned out, the intended bridegroom died several weeks after the school opened. At eighteen years, Ngarmuk went through a ‘straight’ Aboriginal marriage to a lad about her own age.

Wadeye, Port Keats

In 1958 I moved on to Port Keats. When speaking of Traditional Aborigines, I especially want to use Port Keats as an example. I lived there for fifteen years and have been well acquainted with the place till now. I followed Fr Richard Docherty, MSC, who founded the Mission in 1935. I lived with him at Port Keats during his last year there.

I inherited a definite policy and, I am convinced, a very wise one for Port Keats, namely to ‘hasten slowly’, at their pace and their style. The people were still very traditional. They used their own language, rather languages—three of them predominating because of greater number. The ‘country’ where the Mission developed belonged to one section of the Murinbata people. There were eleven more Murinbata ‘countries’ round the coast. The people practised their age-old ceremonies. They were hunters and gatherers. They had no money at all. The men wore loin-cloths and the women simple traditional coverings.

Because of the shortage of money and little administration I had time to work alongside the men on various jobs, such as the large and very productive vegetable garden. There was also the making of a new airstrip with sixty men involved. All work was done with pick, shovel and axe and in a spirit of light-hearted togetherness. It proved an excellent way for me to get to know them and they me.


As the place grew, definite living areas were chosen by the different language groups with reference to their respective ‘countries’. They proudly said they had their backs to their countries. Discipline was exercised by the recognised Elders of each group. I recall one act of discipline that seemed out of the ordinary. The particular young man concerned was finally sent south to Timber Creek on the Victoria River, dressed in his loincloth and armed with his shovel spear for food on the way. He was told for his troubles to stay away for one year, which he conscientiously did.

Traditional Authority Ignored

There were occasional disagreements among the groups of men that ended in a spear fight with often as many as forty men a side, armed with their shovel spears. I gradually got the impression that these fights were no more than a piece of play-acting, like a Saturday afternoon football match. In tribal matters, it was the only occasion when I was expected to have some sort of authority, but that authority was related to the town. I was expected to intervene and tell the combatants to retire to their chosen tribal areas. Eventually, I played my hunch. I accepted the challenge and told them that in future in such troubles, I would not intervene. If they started a fight, they would have to fight it out to the end. There were no more group fights.

It is interesting to note that so long as the Elders in each group exercised authority over their own, the place remained in peace. However, when the Government later asked this unusual, unnatural community (seven languages) to form a Community Council and run its affairs in the cause of self-management, discipline failed to function. The reason, of course, was clear: it was not founded on traditional authority, but on the ideas of the outsider.

Entertainment was of their own making. Most nights in the various camps, there were ‘playabout’ (jag jag) corroborees or young people gathered intently round a story teller. The didjeridoo, clapsticks or both were common sounds on the night air. I had, by invitation, the privilege of often attending the men’s ceremonies.

A Good Walker A Good Introduction

Being a keen walker, as mentioned earlier, I joined in several long walks with some of the men. One of these walks was from Port Keats to Daly River with three of the men, done in the Dry Season. I had estimated it would be about ninety miles as the crow flies. It ended up more that one hundred and twenty miles, mainly because the men had to divert to follow the water holes, or the food areas.

We went with nothing except for what we stood up in. We slept on the ground beside the fire—often too close to the fire, in order to allow the smoke ward off the mosquitoes.

The Bush Classroom

As we walked or camped I heard so many stories of the various Aboriginal ‘countries’ and their people. I have come to regret the loss of so much oral history. I was especially amazed at the tracking and survival skills of the group. I would excitedly point to many scratches on the bark of a tree and suggest the presence of a possum. Often with a simple glance, one of the men would declare, ‘No possum. He’s out visiting or hunting.’ Wasn’t it so obvious—the last tracks were downward! It was the same with goanna tracks and burrows. They could tell at a glance whether goanna was home or not. It saves a lot of digging time if you know the goanna is out. If he is in, it means, of course, a delicacy for dinner.

Experience of Helplessness

The third night out I woke up in a nightmare thinking the men had walked away. To my relief they were snoring their heads off. The incident did, however, impress on me how completely dependent I was on them. Without them I would have been not only completely lost, but as well would have died of hunger or thirst. Next morning I spontaneously told them of my complete dependence on them and how good I felt about it.

Some months later I had to take a jeep to Darwin. The three men had never seen Darwin so, at their request, I took them with me. Surprisingly in Darwin, our roles became reversed—they were completely dependent on me.

The Expert Trackers

In regard to bush skills, at Port Keats we had a visit from Major General Dunstan, then head of the combined Australian Forces, later the Governor of South Australia. He brought with him three Colonels who were jungle war experts. They were anxious to see how these Aborigines tracked and survived.

For the tracking exercise, the Colonels deliberately selected a very barren and rocky countryside. Two of the Colonels went ahead an hour, making sure they covered their tracks. One stayed with the six men. When the hour was up the Colonel with the men told them to find the two Colonels ahead. This they did. It took them an hour and twenty minutes.

The Colonel with the men was amazed at the skills. He actually admitted that the trackers had wasted some time explaining to him how they could see the tracks under the concealment efforts of the Colonels.

Expert Survivors

Next day I accompanied the Major General with a small group of Aboriginal men for a short survival exercise. In very ordinary, scrubby country, the Aborigines pointed out various kinds of food above and below the ground and in addition what could be used as medicine for various maladies.

The Major General remarked that with his commando groups there came a time when certain articles of food and medicine had to be air-dropped. Then he added, with growing realisation, that these Aboriginal people could go on indefinitely—no need for parachutes! I remarked, perhaps with a certain cynicism, ‘That’s right. Over so many thousands of years no one ever dropped them anything.’

Challenge to the Traditional

I have spent the first section of this paper endeavouring to show how this group of people at Port Keats (Wadeye) functioned before the advent of money. In so many ways, these Traditional people naturally, proudly, retained their independence and the capacity to live much the same as their ancestors had done over the centuries, with a unique independence.

Pope John Paul II in his address at Alice Springs said:

You lived your life in spiritual closeness to the land, with its animals, birds, fish, water-holes, rivers, hills and mountains. Through your closeness to the land, you touched the sacredness of man’s relationship with God, for the land was a proof of the power in life greater than yourselves…You did not spoil the land, use it up, exhaust it, and then walk away from it. You realised that your land was related to the source of life. (John Paul II, 1986, par. 4.)

A Dramatic Turning Point

I now found myself witnessing a dramatic turning point in their long history. It was a most uneven confrontation between the dominant culture and the traditional. This confrontation, of course, began at the time of colonisation with the killing of Aboriginal people and the taking of their land, the foundation of their physical and spiritual strength. However, there was an even more fatal and lasting blow, lasting as it does till now—the very co-existence of the two cultures, the traditional and the dominant.

Geoffrey Blayney speaks of the great gap between the cultures of the Colonisers and the traditional Aborigines. The Colonisers brought with them items of advanced technology and among these items the recently invented steam engine. On the other hand, the Aborigines had no pottery and so did not boil water. In conclusion, Blaney remarks that the gap between the two cultures was so great that it was almost too difficult to contemplate. I believe, with present traditional people though disguised by all sorts of sophistications, the gap is still there.

Maybe an old man from Wadeye, Port Keats, called Muta, summed it all up when speaking to anthropologist, Dr Stanner, who was with me a year at Port Keats. He was fascinated with old Muta’s poetical observation:

White man got no Dreaming
Him go ’nother way.
White man, him go different,
Him got road belong himself.

Dr Stanner often said he thought Aboriginal religion was the least materialistic and the most life-minded of any religion he knew. ‘You know, John’, he once said to me, ‘the things they think most about, are the things they speak least about’.

He frequently spoke of the all-powerful and pervading influence of Aboriginal Law, and the vital religious dimension of their lives—materially poor, spiritually rich. He often spoke of the sameness of their lives, the absence of change over thousands of years, the regularity—call it what you will—as the main dimension of their lives and thought.

Pastor Paul Albrecht,speaking of the Law, has this to say:

The blueprint of Aboriginal social organisation, and all social action and interaction was laid down by the spiritual beings at the beginning of time. The Arranta see this blueprint for life as contained in their Tjurrunga. And so, in a very real sense, the Tjurrunga can be referred to as their ‘constitutional documents’ (other linguistic groups have their own names for what the Arranta call Tjurrunga). Since they were given by ancestral beings, they cannot be altered by humans. Consensus among Aborigines can only be possible on the basis of these ‘constitutional documents’. Decisions relating to artifacts and activities not covered by the Tjurrunga do not have the force of ‘law’ in Aboriginal societies. Hence, Aboriginal groups find it hard, for example, to deal with matters such as the use of alcohol, since alcohol is not covered by the Tjurrunga, and therefore is not covered by their ‘law’. (Albrecht, GE, 2000, 6.)

The Enormous Gap

Because of the absence of change over thousands of years, especially the absence of any challenge from other invading cultures, these traditional Aboriginal people had no race-experience of adaptation. With colonisation, so recently and so suddenly, these people were faced with an urgent need to adapt and, at the same time, maintain their cultural integrity. Here was the ‘gap’ Blayney spoke about. So it happened that for a culture that had survived so many thousands of years, that had proved so enduring, now its very strength became its weakness.

Different Foundations: Modern Economy, Aboriginal Ritual

Pastor Paul GE Albrecht AM, speaks of this ‘weakness’ by contrasting the Aborigines with the many migrants who have come to Australia and have become part of Australian society; whereas the traditional Aborigines have remained on the fringes of mainstream Australian society. He writes,

It is my contention that the fundamental reason why Australia has managed to assimilate, or absorb, millions of people from many different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, is because these people were able to plug in to the Australian economy, even when they could not speak English. It may have been at an unconscious level, but they knew how a modern economy works, and how to be part of it. And so, through joining in and becoming a part of the Australian economy, they also became part of mainstream Australian society.

Pastor Albrecht continues,

It is at the economic level that the Settlers who came to Australia, and the indigenous people never understood each other, and still don’t understand each other. The indigenous people’s understanding of economy, rooted as it is in their Weltanschauung, is at the extreme of a traditional modern continuum. (Albrecht 2000, 5.)

For the indigenous people the economy was based on the spiritual, on ceremony and ritual. They saw correct ritual as the means by which their needs were provided. So they hunted and collected what was produced through ritual. Also, through these life-increase ceremonies they had fauna and flora and humans themselves.

Oppressed People

Because of this situation of Aboriginal people, Paulo Freire, in his book, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, would class these traditional Aboriginal people as among the most oppressed in the universe. He speaks of the ultimate outcome of such a state of oppression, how people become disempowered to such an extent that they do nothing. They see themselves as hopeless and must wait for the clever outsiders to come and help them.

I find it extremely sad to think of these people on whom I was so truly utterly dependent, now reduced to a state of undignified dependency—and all in the cause of ‘progress’ and ‘self-management’. Even sadder, they seem to be lulled into a lethargy by this dependency. Results do show up in their behaviour.


I find myself in agreement with what Richard Trudgen has to say of the Arnhemland people among whom he worked. In his book, Why Warriors Lie Down and Die, he has this to say:

It is important to try to understand what dependency really is and how it destroys people.

He continues,

As we have seen, dependency is a product of ‘learned helplessness’. ‘Learned helplessness’ occurs when people lose their economic independence and become dependent on welfare programs. Through these programs they experience loss of roles, loss of mastery and helplessness. These in turn translate into destructive social behaviour, including neglect of responsibility, drug use, family violence, self-abuse, homicide, incest, suicide. (Trudgen, 2000, 169.)

Pastor Albrecht speaking of Traditional Aboriginal people continues,

These are the people who continue to figure so prominently in the printed and electronic media, with their shocking health statistics, shorter life span, inadequate housing, poorer educational qualifications, high unemployment, etc. (Albrecht 2000, 1.)

Miriam Rose Ungunmeer, a very gifted traditional woman from Daly River, describes this situation as being like a whirlpool. Her people get sucked into it. The sad part of it all, she continues, is that they feel safer in the confusion of the whirlpool, rather than attempt to get out of it. She admits there are times when she struggles to keep out of it.

The Clash of Cultures

So I now found myself witnessing at Port Keats a dramatic turning point in their long history. People of the ritual had to deal with money and all the consequences of a life-style dependent on money—a meeting of the traditional and the dominant cultures at the very foundation of both cultures. Importantly to note, they the traditional people had to do it in haste against a background demanding skills and values that were completely foreign to them.

Bishop O’Loughlin always maintained that changes had to take place ‘at their pace and their style’, a policy of ‘hasten…slowly’. He actually called a meeting of the priests working on the mission stations to have their opinion on this matter. They agreed that Government subsidies should be accepted. In fact, Catholic Missions, in justice, had no right to refuse acceptance of Government subsidies. Unfortunately, such acceptance precipitated sudden change—the reverse of ‘at their pace and their style’.

Destruction of Authority

As I saw it, the first casualty from the confrontation was the dramatic destruction of Aboriginal authority, authority that was embodied fixed and firm and forever abiding in their ancient Law, that Law which was the abiding force responsible for the age-old endurance of their society.

With the breakdown of authority came the decline of discipline generally through the entire group. Particularly noticeable was the decline of discipline among the young males where traditional authority began to be ignored and in a short space of time, blatantly flouted. Parents admitted to me they were frightened of their teenage sons. Sadly, too, this lack of authority and loss of discipline became evident in a large section of the younger children. Role models for these children were no longer significant adults, but the disaffected, irresponsible young men.

The Young-man Ceremony

In my early days at Port Keats, discipline for young men was left mainly to the time of initiation (puberty). Till then, the lad was in the company of his mother and the uninitiated. There was an early ceremony called ‘Javan’ which took place at about the age of seven for both girls and boys. It was a brief and gentle introduction to the Law. In the hands of his mother and the uninitiated, childish tantrums were tolerated.

In more recent times some mothers have had their male babies circumcised while in hospital after birth. So they avoid the later initiation ceremony. Nevertheless, the baby is looked on as a ‘young man’ and later is free to marry. It demonstrated the extent of the loss of Aboriginal authority.

Coming back to earlier times—when the ‘Young Man’ ceremony was due, the youth was removed from the company of his mother and the uninitiated and taken bush by the authority men. This sudden separation was the first blow for discipline. What followed prepared the lad for manhood’s responsibilities.

In these present times, with the ceremony modified or completely missing due to an earlier hospital operation, the tantrums of pre-initiation continue in exaggerated form, through early manhood and beyond. This, of course, explains the dramatic increase in incarcerations of young men. Some of them, I believe, even look on going to gaol as a rite of passage.

Authority from Outside Replaces Traditional Authority

This situation tended to become self-perpetuating—aggravated by the fact that some sixty per cent of the large and growing population of Port Keats (now 2,500) was under the age of twenty-five years. Destructive behaviour became widespread.

Prior to the breakdown of authority, there were no police at Port Keats—no need for police. Now the presence of police and their activity is very evident. There are three police permanently there. Occasionally the ‘riot squad’ has to be called in. Magistrates fly in regularly to conduct court sessions. Young people are sent off to Berrimah Gaol or to the Don Dale Juvenile Centre.

Recently, the absurdity of the situation became evident when a policeman’s wife took breakfast to two young men held in the local cell for stealing a contractor’s motor car, only to discover a third fellow had broken into the gaol to be with his mates.

Destruction of a Life-style

So, I truly witnessed a life-style subverted almost overnight. The hunting, tracking and other cultural skills that made the group so independent were no longer needed, nor tragically was the need to pass these skills on to their children. The Toyota replaced the legs. Welfare handouts replaced the skills.

They became dependent on money and the things that money can buy and, as well, on the one who gave the ‘handout’. There was a sudden transfer from nature-dependence to money-dependence, from traditional values to values that were, for them, artificial, not truly their own.

And I must stress the fact that it all happened so quickly—far, far too quickly.

No Traditional Authority

At Port Keats there are seven language groups. This means there are traditional people in a non-traditional situation in relation to ‘country’ and authority. For all of them, it is an unnatural situation, an unnatural amalgamation. It has no basis for traditional authority. Because of this, it is my opinion, the place is set up for chaos.

There are some ten Murinbata ‘countries’ along the coast. One of these countries is where the township is now and forever growing—Wadeye. The traditional land owners are a small group. Only recently one of the older members of the group, no doubt worried by all the upheavals, complained to me, ‘I can’t do anything for my country with all these other people treading on it.’

Pastor Albrecht, by the way, advocates a return to and recognition of ‘clan ownership’. He maintains it would restore pride in the owners and stimulate the growth of traditional local authority. I agree with him. Unfortunately, the bigger Port Keats becomes, the more impossible it is for this to take place. All the attractive ‘goodies’ are centred there.

The More Sophistication the Less Participation

As I watched it, the more Port Keat’s Settlement grew from mixed tribal groupings, and the more sophisticated it became under the impetus of Government money, the more was the tendency to need and have professional white operators and ‘helpers’ in ever increasing numbers. It became a far cry from ‘hasten slowly! At their pace and their style’.

As a result, Aboriginal participation in the genuine running of the place was greatly diminished. Self-management became well nigh an impossibility. In fact, to me the place became a piece of window-dressing for the outside benefactor.

Traditional People Anchored in the Past

Despite the breakdown of authority and the consequent upheavals, I am convinced that the traditional people, because their ancient system worked so effectively and for so long, are convinced that all will be well—somehow! The conviction is in their bones. Life and the deeper things of life will and must continue as they always have.

They admit to all the changes that money and benevolence have brought: Supermarket, Council Chambers, the bitumen airstrip automatically lit, recreational facilities, take-away shops, an aircraft company, motor cars, TV, videos, travel, alcohol, drugs, Berrima Gaol, etc, etc. They admit all these changes have affected very much and for the worse, their personal and community lives. Despite all this, somehow these traditional people remain anchored in their traditional past, unable to see a way out of their present misfortunes. Unfortunately, when such a mind-set exists, it tends to reinforce the inevitability of the future. This proved yet another cultural blockage to entering the white economic system.

I have become convinced, regretfully, that the old order of discipline is no longer possible. Certainly, respect for the ceremonial elders must be upheld. They are, along with other adults, possessors of the culture and, as such, an important part of the group. But it seems to me that authority must be transferred to the family, to mother and father and the extended family. Discipline must begin from babyhood onwards. This means that traditional people must develop an additional Aboriginal way of bringing up their children. It is of utmost importance that the method and the bringing up of children must be theirs.

Two Aboriginal Prophets

While all these devastating changes were occurring there were discerning and outspoken members in the community. I recall Pallarda, a middle aged man calling an urgent meeting of his Murinbata countrymen. There were about two hundred present. Pallarda had his first ‘Training Allowance’ wage packet. He was waving it about in one hand. ‘This is something new,’ he addressed the group. ‘It is a new way to live. It is not my way. My way is living in the bush, teaching and supporting my children to live there. What if I leave my old way and try to live this new way. I know what will happen to me. I will end up ‘ma kadu’—literally a non-person, a nobody.

Unfortunately, Pallarda died shortly afterwards. The community needs such leaders. I do have confidence in the Port Keats people. There is a Pallarda-type wisdom among many of them. I am sure, given time and opportunity and some support from their friends this wisdom will prevail and lead the people to sanity and health independence.

The Second Prophet

Some months after the above incident, there was an urgent knock on my door about two in the morning. An eighteen-year-old lad wanted to talk with me. I suggested next morning. He insisted it was urgent. So we sat down and over several hours he poured out his worries. He reminded me of the importance of the Murinbata word, ‘Thawait’. It is one Murinbata word with a double English meaning, namely ‘carefully-slowly’.

The young man recalled many instances where things were going neither carefully nor slowly. He was extremely worried. ‘It is killing my people’, he kept repeating.

This young man could see the whole community being badly disaffected—‘even the Elders’—he whispered with some fear. Young men were losing their respect for the old. Aboriginal Law violations which formerly would have brought severe punishment were being overlooked. Ceremonies were being cut short. The deeper, cultural things were not being passed on.

A group of Elders from Port Keats that I gathered at the Daly River Leadership Centre to discuss the Port Keats abuses, reluctantly admitted after a week of blaming the young men that they themselves were the cause of much of the breakup, mainly because they were drinking too much and so earning the disrespect of the young.

Adult Education: Suggested Remedies

Miriam Rose Ungunmeer often spoke of the great influence her immediate and extended family had on her early education and how practical that education was. She learned by doing and she was motivated to do because she could see how important it was for her Elders. Motivation came naturally. They were all together in the education process. Education was for living and she stressed the need for the group to be involved.

Disturbed Community: Disturbed Children

I have come to realise that no matter how brilliantly and earnestly you may attempt to educate the Aboriginal child, that same child is living in an adult community. If that community is disturbed and struggling for whatever cause, the child invariably becomes immersed in the problems and the confusion of the adult. I have illustrated this in my treatment of Port Keats.

Up until now, I believe, we have laboured under the conviction that if we educate the Aboriginal child we will eventually have an educated community. This has not happened. Rather, I believe things have gone backwards. I am convinced the educational process must be concentrated on the adult and the adult community. However, it is a particular form of education, along the lines proposed by Paulo Freire in his penetrating little book, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. His basic principles are:

• Oppressed people must come to achieve a basic trust in their own resources.
• It is only the oppressed who can liberate themselves.
• It is only the oppressed who can liberate the oppressor.

So it is a matter of achieving pride especially in the most important of your resources—yourself, and then in all your cultural resources. As told, I have come to experience and admire these resources, and in fact, been completely dependent on them.

Education From Below

I do believe, when it comes to traditional people, we have got education all wrong. Education has been clamped from on top, instead of growing out from below. True education means that we draw out from the existing potential of a person—what the person has. In this way, personal confidence and natural motivation are encouraged. The person lays the foundation for future knowledge. What is known leads to what needs to be known. So growth in knowledge becomes authentic. As a consequence, the person becomes discriminating, choosing what will promote authentic growth and rejecting what threatens to destroy it.

For Aboriginal people, this process, called conscientisation, is best done, as Aboriginal people do it best, in a group. The group then owns its decisions. The group supports the individual and the individual supports the group.

The Daly River Centre

Aboriginal adults are possessors of the culture. Once they liberate themselves from what is oppressing them, they become pathfinders for the children, guiding them through the labyrinth and the confusion.

I participated in the establishment of the Daly River Leadership Training Centre, where Aboriginal people could come, particularly traditional people, live in for several weeks, be relaxed and be at home there. As a group they would identify and discuss their problems and work out ways of overcoming these problems. I suppose it was based on Paulo Freire’s principle that ‘only the oppressed can liberate themselves’.

Afterwards, on returning to their respective communities they would instigate widespread discussions there, by presenting what they had thought out at the Daly. The idea was to produce a thinking-acting-reflecting community.

In the beginning at the Daly there was stress on the natural, encouraging people to pull themselves up by their own efforts. As things turned out, the people themselves gave right direction. They pointed to where their strength was, their spirituality.

So the first session of the day was to sit in silence on a mat on the river bank for one hour and experience God, not as perhaps they had been taught from a catechism, but as traditional Aboriginal people.

Miriam Rose Ungunmeer probably suggested something like this when she mentioned that her people are not threatened by silence, but are completely at home in it. They have lived for thousands of years with nature’s quietness. In her paper called ‘Dadirri’ she informs us that Dadirri is not only a local word but it also describes a recognised experience among her people. It means, she tells us:

Tapping into the deep spring within us. It is an inner, deep listening; a quiet, still awareness. This quiet listening and stillness renews us and makes us whole. There is no need to reflect too much. It is simply a matter of being aware. When I experience Dadirri I am made whole again. I can sit on the river bank or walk among the trees; even if someone has passed away I can find peace in that silent awareness. There is no need for words. An important part of Dadirri is listening—listening to the sounds of God. (Ungunmeer-Baumann, 1980, 9-11.)

As I distractedly watched the people experience Dadirri—all of them so undistracted and completely immersed in silence, I was convinced of the truth of what Miriam had said. After an hour on the river bank they were free to speak of their experience. They spent the next hour, each revealing, separately, their experience in a symbolic drawing. Each then pinned his or her drawing on the felt board and spoke to it. Questions were asked, explanations given and group discussions followed.

Originally I had expected the success of the Leadership Centre to come from their discussion and their solutions of problems. This they did, but they saw the basic solution of all their problems was in establishing and perhaps regaining their spirituality.

It was for me, inspiring to say the least, to listen to them explaining their experience through their symbolic drawings. Sometimes, even though they sat on the Daly River bank, they described their experience as taking place back in their own country, eg. on the Tiwi Islands. Let me give you an example.

This particular drawing was done by a young Tiwi man, not noted, by the way, for his piety. He produced two symbolic drawings. The first came after his second day on the river bank. It represented a very prominent figure of himself, surrounded by a tight circle. He explained that the figure was himself. God was the circle. As he sat on the river bank he was aware of so much life about him: the grass under his mat, the trees, the many birds, the fish and creatures in the river, the distant laughter of school children. Life surrounded him like a circle and the circle suddenly became for him the Author of all life.

His second drawing, he had only two, came two weeks later, the day before he went home. It was a drawing similar to the first and yet very much different. There was a figure in the circle, but it was so small you could scarcely distinguish it. The circle was extremely large taking up the whole page. He simply pointed to the tiny figure and said: ‘That’s me!’ Then to the circle: ‘That’s God’. To me that said so very much about the young man and what the experience had done to and for him. He had so diminished, God had so increased. Indeed I am convinced for him it was a gifted awareness born out of silence. It was his Dadirri.

Faith Inculturation

For faith inculturation the important person is the receiver, the person of the culture. Such a person is the only one who can ultimately effect the inculturation process. Then the process is best continued in a group of same cultured individuals. Aboriginal people are group oriented people in thinking and acting. They are strong on the need for consensus. The group is needed to share the faith-story and the inculturation process. I realise this will mean a slow, determined, often painful process. ‘Thawait! Thawait!’—‘Carefully, Slowly’ as said the wise young man from Port Keats.

Faith Expression

I am convinced it is only when you have an inculturated faith that you can have an inculturated faith expression. I believe Miriam Rose was searching for an inculturated faith expression when she spoke of her Aboriginal ceremonies. They were ceremonies that were communal in language and song and dance and action that was full of meaning for all. She looked forward to the day when her Christian celebration would be truly hers. I believe Miriam would take satisfaction from Pope Paul V1’s Evangelii Nuntiandi.

What matters is to evangelise human culture and cultures, not in a purely decorative way as it were by applying a thin veneer, but in a vital way, in depth and right to their very roots. (Par. 20.)

Faith is not a culture, but is intended to penetrate every culture. It has a divine ability to do so: ‘Teach all nations. I am with you always.’ The message of Christ, His Gospel, is not meant to destroy but to fulfil. It is meant to challenge, strengthen and support the culture, to promote authentic growth and true human development.

Fr John Leary MSC has been awarded the Order of Australia for service to the spiritual and health needs of the Aboriginal people of the Northern Territory as a priest and missionary of the Catholic Church.





Albrecht, Paul GE (2000) ‘Some thoughts on why Australian Aborigines have remained on the fringes of mainstream Australian society.’ Paper presented at the ‘Aboriginal Policy’ Failure, Reappraisal Reform Workshop, Fairfield, Vic., 1—2 December, 2000.

John Paul II (1986), The Pope in Australia. Collected Homilies and Talks. St Paul Publications, Homebush. NSW.

Trudgen, R. (2000), ‘Why warriers lie down and die’, Aboriginal Resource and Development Services, Darwin, NT.

Ungunmeer-Baumann, Miram Rose (1988), ‘Dadirri’. Compass vol. 22, pp. 9-11.