by Meme McDonald (with Boori Monty Pryor)
We sat in a Melbourne café sipping coffee with the rattle of trams metres away. We had sat like this on many occasions swapping ideas in the sixteen years collaborating on the writing of books in the hustle and bustle of urban living. Boori Monty Pryor is an Aboriginal storyteller. He regularly visits Melbourne, as he does Sydney and Canberra, Perth, Darwin, and many small communities throughout regional Australia. Boori travels regularly to these places telling stories mainly to schoolchildren. Although for twenty years he has travelled like this, Boori has a firm sense of where he belongs. He is a saltwater man of Kunggandji and Birri-gubba descent from the coastal area of Far North Queensland. His ancestors have walked their land for tens of thousands of years. ‘You’d enjoy a cappuccino too if you’d been waiting 40,000 years for one,’ he jokes.
Laughter is never far away in any conversation with Boori. ‘In the old days, those healers, they grew up with the trees,’ Boori said as if reading my mind. I was thinking about how to ask for his help in writing this article. The article began itself.
There is much about healing in Aboriginal tradition that is secret knowledge passed down from one generation to the next through chosen members of family or clan groups. Healing and spiritual matters are rarely spoken about beyond their immediate context, reserved for sharing in moments between those who carry knowledge or who are being taught or healed. Knowledge is generally not given to those who cannot discern when it is appropriate for this knowledge to be spoken or how to hold knowledge in silence. The repercussions of speaking about ‘secret business’, as it is often called, can be severe, excluding that person from returning to their homeland and from receiving further teachings.
It is often thought that much of Aboriginal tradition has been lost. As much as this may be true, what remains is often unseen or unspoken to outsiders. Elders may feign a lack of knowing, appearing not to understand or even hear a question, rather than be drawn into discussion with those whose attitude makes them unreceptive or personally draining to those with knowledge. Many elders have preferred to die with their knowledge rather than pass it to those who might let it fall through their fingers as chatter, weakening the power of the tradition. Writing about healing in itself is a conundrum in a culture that traditionally passes knowledge orally from teacher to student as it is needed and as it holds truth in that moment. This kind of knowledge has too many layers and variables to be contained in written word. For similar reasons, storytellers like Boori rarely write down the traditional stories they carry.
There are instances where elders have chosen to give knowledge to those other than their own relatives. Many elders seem to ignore the colour of skin and the culture of the seeker, more naturally reading the language of the heart, the languages of intention. Time spent with elders with respect and readiness to learn can be rewarded with teachings and spiritual understandings regardless of race and, at times, gender.
Time and timing is all important. Aboriginal culture gives significance to people’s ability to be ‘in’ time rather than what other cultures often regard as the priority of being ‘on’ time. In terms of teachings, elders wait for the right time.
‘I think of it as if you are a peach,’ Boori says. ‘At first you are too crunchy to eat. Then there comes a time when you are ripe and juicy, ready for receiving knowledge. The elders see this moment in you and give what it is that is needed at that time. What you can hold. It might be that you are facing some challenge or you have arrived at the next stage of your learning. It could be for healing or it could be for other reasons, reasons not known to you at the time. I can remember being given a story that kept me awake for a week it was so strong.’
‘In those old days,’ Boori continued, ‘you grew up beside the healing tree to learn about its leaves and roots and trunk and branches and fruit. As a healer, you needed to know how those leaves grew, their veins and all about the earth they grew from before you could use the plant effectively as medicine.’
‘To heal someone, that someone needs to be searching to be healed,’ Boori continued. ‘If you were to tell of the secret healing ways of our old people, most people wouldn’t believe you now. When people have no belief, you can’t even give this knowledge away.’ Rather than stay in the sadness of this, Boori laughed.
‘Believing is necessary for healing to take place. Each time I go home to Yarrabah and see the rainforest by the sea I grow more and more amazed. The rainforest is full of medicine. For my Uncles and Aunties and cousins, it is hard to give this knowledge to others because often others don’t know how to ask or they don’t have the time to even begin to understand. They only want to take the bits that they can see and hear immediately.
‘My Uncle would walk to that special place beside the waterhole – we call it Bana Yelimuka, Sacred Medicine Water - ‘bana’ meaning water and ‘yelimaka’ meaning healing spirit. My Uncle would hit the ground three times with a branch and speak in language to the spirits there and the water would begin to bubble. When the waters bubbled, he would tell you to swim in that waterhole and be healed. I have been there with my Uncle twice - as a child and as a young man – and heard him speak and have seen the water bubble and swum there. My culture has much to give. The trouble is there are so few who can hear, so many are binna gurri, deaf to the culture of this land.
‘Our country is sick at the moment. When you put one culture with another and they don’t mix, the wall between them becomes impenetrable. When there is no doorway through which to listen to each other, then we both become sick. We need leaders who are healers.’
There are many levels to healing and well-being in Aboriginal cultures – the individual level but also the community level and as a nation. There are over 250 different Aboriginal nations across Australia speaking more than double that number of languages with cultures that are countries apart. In Boori’s Kunggandji and Birri-gubba cultures, the life of the individual is woven within the context of family and community - one within the other with responsibilities to both.
To be strong in yourself you need to know who you are and where you come from, where you belong, your ‘country’ or homeland. Meditation is a familiar technique for Boori from his own culture and also from aspects of yoga he has experienced.
‘As you know, meditation will save your life,’ he continued. ‘But with our fast and furious lifestyle how do we find the space to meditate? And even when you find the space, you may not feel you belong in that space, on many levels – either physically or mentally or in your heart or in the nature around you. When it’s dying time, you are lost if you haven’t made the journey to belong. To know who you are and where you belong you need to know the land you walk.
‘Our paintings, stories, dances and songs are all ways to express our belonging. If we grow up beside that healing tree, we create a story about that tree. We sing and dance the spirit of that tree and that way we prepare ourselves to be able to receive the medicine of that tree. You hear some researchers say, “Aboriginal people used this leaf to cure this disease.” Well, that is probably about five percent of the ‘medicine’ that the tree offers. Where does a comment like that get you, anyway? There is no healing in that kind of information. The stories are in the roots and the bark and in the seasons and you need to know these to know how to heal using this leaf. Otherwise the leaf will just be another bitter pill.
‘Healing that comes from the land carries the power of that land. It is the land then that is the healer. Land not only provides medicine, it is the medicine. In our culture, unless you know the land you live in, the land you walk on each day, you can’t be strong in yourself. If you listen to the mountains, they talk to you and tell you how to survive in them. If you don’t listen to the desert, you will die in the desert. And so it is that you can understand why many Aboriginal people become sick when they no longer have a connection to their land. We don’t own that land, it owns us. Land is our mother. You become separated from the land and you become lost. If you become lost, then you become sick. The same with all of us and with our nation, Australia.’
‘In our way, medicine is most often given to us through story, song, dance, painting and so on, along with the medicine from the plants, from the earth, from the nature where we live.’
Each person is given a totem through which to learn of themselves and their relationship to each other and the world around them. Totems can be plants or animals or natural phenomenon or elements. The story that goes with each totem is sung and painted and danced. It is often through the story of the totem that each person learns to face challenges, or gains powers of observation, or increases their spiritual understanding.
For example, Boori’s name means fire. His younger brother was Njunjul, the Sun. It is the tiny firebird, Binjarrabi, that brought Fire to Earth on the back of its tail to warm humans. Binjarrabi is Boori’s cousin. The story that tells how the firebird brought Fire to Earth links these three people in a particular relationship. Each of these people also has the story of their own totem and stories that link them with other members in the family or clan as well as gives them teachings to contemplate through life. This interconnected system of stories is for teachings on all levels – spiritual, philosophical, practical, in relationships with others and nature, and to do with healing and well-being.
There is also a totem for the tribal group that is protector and guide for the community as a whole. Boori’s group totem on his mother’s side is the scrub hen, Djarragun. The story of the scrub hen is reflected in the landscape and it is the landscape that makes the story. Traditionally, land was mapped by stories and songs as a means of navigating, sometimes for huge distances, from one side of the continent to the other. These maps are known in English as songlines. This connection to land and to each other is an interweaving network of stories reaching far across the country and within the veins and spirit of each person. If one part of this intricate, complex, expansive and detailed system of interconnection becomes sick or damaged, then this has an effect on the whole - for one and for all.
‘I look at myself as a healer through story - as a “story doctor” if you like,’ Boori says. ‘The medicine is what happens between the story and those than can listen. There is a chemistry between the story and the person who is listening that makes the healing happen. It is in the breathing, the rhythm of the breath as you tell the story that draws people along with you. Once you understand the story and it is part of you, then it is carried in the breath. People will then follow you to the heart of that story, to what it is they need to hear to heal themselves. In this way, it is the story that is the healer.’
I asked Boori how he became a healer? ‘I was a scared little boy,’ he said. ‘Where my parents lived on Palm Island and on Yarrabah - the Aboriginal reserves that many of us refer to as concentration camps - we weren’t allowed to sing our songs or do our dances or speak our language. There were severe punishments if you were caught doing ceremonies. One time, I remember my father hiding me in a sugar bag and slinging me over his shoulder, pretending he was hunting when the bulleymen, the policemen found him and others gathering for ceremony. He walked out into the sea and around the point and I had to be silent or we’d be found out.’
Boori was beaten by police as young as eleven years old and had been too afraid to tell his parents for fear that their anger would cause more trouble with the authorities. Boori did not have an easy childhood even though he remembers much joy and laughter. From an early age he was told stories from Aunties and Uncles and parents. At the time, he didn’t know that his Aunty had chosen him to be a storykeeper. He listened to her stories and he could retell them with ease. At first he was amazed when people listened, amazed by the power of their listening. Gradually, he learned how to work with that deep listening.
‘Stories were the medicine that healed me. Without those stories, I may not be here today. And so I work with stories as a story doctor. What healed me is what I know.’
‘Becoming an elder is not so much about age as it is about how you live with the knowledge you have been given and how you work with it in your life, how you grow in wisdom across time.
‘There are lots of tests that you go through along the way,’ Boori says. ‘Can you talk through a wall? How can you find the cracks in that wall? How can you dissolve the mortar so the bricks fall out and then you have a hole, a doorway through to the other to communicate? If you’re not patient you can blow the wall up and create more damage, more suffering.
‘Healing others and yourself is to do with the heart, and it is for the mind. It is the way you purify your thoughts and your emotions so that you can think and feel beautiful things, instead of the pain and the negatives. How you can be free so when you speak people can listen with their eyes and their ears and their heart to the story, not to your pain. A healer is someone who has healed themselves enough so they don’t bleed on others. They are able to clear themselves out of the way of the story so the medicine can flow through them.
‘Laughter is a medicine that can melt mortar. When people laugh they become vulnerable for a moment or two and in that moment you can place a seed there in the heart, or simply create space that will help to change, to transform thoughts and actions.
‘When you are a storyteller, it is the audience that dictates what they want to hear. You have to listen to them for them to listen to you, to know what is needed in the moment. The teachers in the schools I visit always want me to have a plan days or weeks before I come to their school. I do this for them. But when I walk into the classroom on the day, I have to listen for what the children need that day, in that moment. The teacher looks up at the plan on the board and then looks at me but by then we have begun. The teachers can be fearful, ‘What about the plan?’ This is about fear. This is not about teaching and healing.
‘Healing works both ways. It is the children’s laughter, the joy in their eyes, their open hearts that makes me strong. We heal each other and we grow strong.’
Boori took out his mobile, dialled a number and passed me the phone. I recognized the voice. It was Sean, Boori’s cousin, a comedian who travels as much as Boori year round, only Sean works mostly with adult audiences. The two keep each other company by phone and on Facebook. Sean’s totem is Gunjoi, the storm. He is keeper of the storm. Where the storm sleeps is his story-place. I asked Sean about healing in his family tradition.
‘Harry Potter is really close to our ways,’ Sean says seriously. ‘Our medicines and our healing ways are universal techniques. They are very similar ways to all spiritual cultures with knowledge passed down through the generations. To learn you need to be ready, and you need to believe, that’s all. You sit with a healer, that’s how you become a healer. When you study, you spend time around the old people for a very long time, maybe seven or eight hours in each sitting. But you’ve got to want to become a part of that world because you will live by it, and you will die by it. That is a big responsibility.’
As I handed the phone back, Boori said that laughter was the medicine Sean knew best. ‘He’s a doctor of laughter. Through laughter he heals the pain for blackfellas and whitefellas and all us fellas together. Healers, like Sean, never know how much they heal.’
‘Healer’ is a title those who receive the benefits of healing bestow on another. Rarely is it a label claimed by ones with healing powers. Although Boori often speaks of ‘healing’, and I asked him how he became a healer, he does not claim this title for himself. Perhaps this comes from being part of a spiritual tradition with the understanding that the healer, too, must walk their own story-path to healing. The more one knows, the more there is to know, the more infinite the interconnection of story-paths becomes.
Among the great traditions of the world, Australian Aboriginal culture – often regarded as the oldest continuous living culture – continues to weave pathways, largely unseen, within this land. Like all cultures, Aboriginal culture adapts and moves and changes shape as it goes. The powerful teachings continue to run deep within the earth, but also within cafes and along city streets. This culture, like the sap within the trees, keeps many people strong and able to wave at passing clouds; to glisten in sunshine and in darkness; ready to receive the healing rains whenever they gently fall like the gift of laughter.
Meme McDonald is an award winning author. She is also an artistic director of outdoor arts events and a yoga teacher. The arts events Meme directs are connected to the geographic, cultural and community environments in which they are staged and are most often informed by Aboriginal traditions specific to these places. Meme has realized numerous art events across Australia, as well as in Aotearoa/New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Japan. She has written ten books, six of them with Aboriginal storyteller Boori Monty Pryor. For more information visit www.mememcdonald.com