Shamanism, Genocide, and The Land

Jordan Pond, Acadia National ParkThe slant of sunlight is Autumnal, as is the crisp air. I’ve even donned a long flannel shirt. Fair weather clouds appear barely to move across the heavens. I’m drinking my fourth cup of green tea; life is good day.

I’ve been reading Singing the Coast by Margaret Somerville and Tony Perkins. The book is an exploration of a small area of Australian coast as seen then through eyes and history of the Aboriginal people who call “No Man’s Land” home. It is a rich collaboration between Somerville and an Aboriginal man, Tony Perkins. Many other Aboriginal voices appear throughout the volume, as they tell personal and collective stories of connection to place, heartbreak and resilience.

Reading through the book one begins to unpack the violence and genocide that shaped the human and natural community. One also begins to comprehend the role of narrative and spirituality forming Aboriginal history and life. The people cannot be separated from the land, although generations of colonists have sought to do so. Language has dwindled in usage among the people, yet remains a bridge between person and landscape. The land holds myth and sustenance; fish and other wildlife remain prime food sources, although their numbers are much diminished.

In Australian Aboriginal culture, as in many Indigenous cultures, there is men’s knowledge and women’s, two differing yet mutually necessary ways of understanding. While many of the traditional ceremonies that brought cohesion to communities have been forgotten, due in large part to colonial pressure, others remain, as do the stories that give them meaning in the lived experiences of the people. Among the memories and narratives that are the wealth of the people of No Man’s Land are stories of dreadful cruelty on the part of the colonists. Yet the people remain.

At No Man’s Land the beach and hills meet the sea. In caves whose entrances lie below water at high tide women have come to give birth for many generations. Into those same caves crawled the wounded, heartbroken, terrified survivors of massacre. The caves are literally the birthplace of the post-genocide community.

The coast is home to innumerable spirits and Ancestors. They do not leave when land is stolen from the people or the people killed. They do not leave just because the colonists claim the land and deny their presence. The land, people, and the spirits are inseparable. The people sing the coast; they sing songs of joy, community, and sorrow. They sing maps into being, acknowledging the spirits and Ancestors, calling forth the Dreaming as well as more recent history.

Reading Singing one is reminded that for many Indigenous peoples shamanism, everyday life, and the landscape (and all that dwells therein) are woven into place, along with genocide and increasing environmental degradation. The land holds all of this, along with the spirits and the Ancestors. As a result, shamanism remains deeply rooted in landscape, culture, and relationship to the Creator, spirits, and Ancestors. I believe one cannot enter into the world of shamanism without embracing the reality of genocide, for historical violence is part of the very land we walk, whether in Australia, the Americas, or anywhere Indigenous peoples have faced colonialism.

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4 thoughts on “Shamanism, Genocide, and The Land

  1. Thank you Michael for bringing my attention to this book. How did you discover it?

    I mourn the loss of the ‘knowledge’, the accumulated knowing of 50,000 years of living on,in,and with this land was lost within one generation. It is a great loss, because I believe that the answers to our difficulties now and in the future lie in the past.

    The pages I read on Amazon were written respectfully and eloquently. There is always a challenge when whitefellas interpret Indigenous culture and history in whitefella ways as there was no Indigenous written language, it was oral and visual. Ego also tends to get in the way. This book acknowledges that challenge and looks to be written with humility.

    Violence is a part of many Dreaming stories. I have difficulty choosing stories to read to children due to the level of violence in them. And so it is ironic that the stories that describe the Indigenous world coming into being, also signal the end of a wholistic Indigenous culture with violence and genocide.

    I now start to see some healing happening in the communities I work with. There is pride in identifying as Aboriginal, and the stories are being told. Stories of despair, but also stories of hope and being healthier for the next generation.

    • Tree girl, this is a marvelous post! Thank you. I’m not sure where I first encountered the writing of Margaret Somerville. I believe I stumbled upon her as a result of an exhibition of contemporary Australian Aboriginal painting at Dartmouth College last Fall. How that happened exactly remains a mystery. She has long worked collaboratively with Indigenous people, placing their voices and stories above her own. I hope she becomes better known here in North America.

      Yes, the stories of our Indigenous lives may indeed be violent, yet there are many stories that re funny or joyous. Violence is part of Nature as are we. May we find the balance that allows us to be healers to the generations.

  2. “The coast is home to innumerable spirits and Ancestors. They do not leave when land is stolen from the people or the people killed.”

    Very well said, Michael. While I may be possible to pave over the land, those who imbue it with its very vitality cannot be silenced. Yet there are so very few today who can still hear – or even bother to listen to – their stories.

    Even more reason why spirit work is so important if we as Children of this Age are to leave behind us a viable legacy, a healthy planet, and our own songs on the lips – and in the hearts – of future generations…

    • Yes, Ben. Yet I imagine there will always be those who can hear the spirit voices and understand the stories. They may be few and, if so, will carry much responsibility. Yet prophesy suggests a time may yet come when the people listen as a group, and do what must be done to honor those who came before and to carry life forward.

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