Together On Country: A Darug Culture Camp

*I acknowledge Darug Country and the old people, as well as the elders and traditional custodians past, present and future, as co-authors of this blog post. I would also like to acknowledge and thank Uncle Lex, Auntie Corina, Uncle Daniel, Uncle Paul, Uncle Chris, and Uncle Lester as important co-authors in their generous roles as creators, story-tellers, sharers, and hosts. I would also like to acknowledge Sandie Suchet-Pearson, Kerstin Siegmund, Rebecca Scott, Alexandria Pinto, Nicola Fuller, and Brooke Kelly for their contributions.*

As though Country had anticipated the days ahead, an overcast sky rolled away for another time, leaving the endless blue and the deeply warming golden beams of sunshine that enveloped us for the next three days. The week leading up to the Darug Culture Camp had been wet and cold, but now, the weather felt welcoming. In my mind, it was not difficult to consider that Country itself was looking forward to the camp.

Photo by Kerstin Siegmund

The culture camp was something exciting that held a lot of meaning for many people, but particularly for our hosts, senior Darug people Uncle Lex and Auntie Corina. The Country that we would be sharing on and with held ancestral bonds of kinship for them, and they had put much of themselves into caring for it. This would be the first Darug culture camp held here, on Country, in a long, long time, and for Uncle Lex, Auntie Corina and the many Darug men and women who came to share, that was something meaningful.

Held at Yarramundi in Sydney’s West, this was also a meaningful place for me personally. Although not an indigenous Australian, I had been born on Darug Country, and lived much of my life here. All through school, I had been left with the distinct impression that Sydney had no Aboriginal culture – everything we knew about indigenous Australia presumably came from over-generalised ‘outback’ communities, and even then was based on narrow scripts often written from the perspectives of settlers alone, rather than indigenous peoples themselves. I didn’t know the specific indigenous history, culture, or people of the place I called home.

This is an all too common story in Australia, one that was shared by most of the camp attendees – students, staff, family and friends from Macquarie University. We had all had these narrow narratives of indigenous Australia challenged via our education and experiences in different ways. But for many of us, these challenges still came from elsewhere. Despite Darug Country being my home, I can’t help but feel horribly disconnected from the Darug soul of this place. For me, and for many of the attendees, culture camp would be a time of responsibility, a chance to get to know something of that soul and be connected to the heritage of where our lives take place.

Photos by Sandie Suchet-Pearson & Kerstin Siegmund

For Uncle Lex and Auntie Corina, it meant even more, and throughout the weekend it was impossible not to be moved by their emotion, and the heart and soul that they put into sharing with us. I emphasise ‘sharing’, because there was an overwhelming sense of generosity emanating from all of our Darug hosts, and from Country itself. Time and again, Uncle Lex reminded us:

“This is your home too, you’re part of Country.”

Those words were immediately connecting – to Country, and to a sense of care and responsibility that comes with belonging to it. This is not MY home, but rather OUR home: the home of many lives from the past, present and future. We share our belonging to Country in ways that connect us to stories that reach far beyond ourselves and our current time. That sharing was felt strongly throughout the camp.

Photos by SandieSuchet-Pearson & Kerstin Siegmund

On the first night of camp, we gathered around a special fire for a smoking ceremony. The smoke cleanses and welcomes, ensuring that we come to Country free of the rubbish we tend to carry with us. You can feel it. The smoke gets in your eyes, clears your view so that you see only the flickering glow of the fire and the bluish clouds that move over your skin, sweeping you clean as the smoke gets to know you. The smell of the burning leaves in the fire awakens your senses, attuning you to Country. The sound of the clap-sticks seems to speak with voices from the earth, and the beautiful singing of Uncle Lex and Auntie Corina in their language echoes with the voices of their ancestors, who are with us too. We spend the night talking, listening, sharing, and then sleep beneath the stars, where a diligent, honoured Emu ancestor from the Dreaming watches over us.

The next day is all about clap sticks! Uncle Lex shows us how he makes them, and it is incredible to see these humble little instruments emerge from a tree. It is a purposeful undertaking, one of ritual and care. Uncle Lex tells us:

“The more time you put into the clap-sticks, the better they will sound.”

Photos by Kerstin Siegmund

He encourages us to think about where they are coming from, to consider their lives so far as we work on them now. In my spirituality, trees are sacred beings and I imagined the long-life of the tree that had provided the material for these clap-sticks. I imagined what stories it held in its wood, the hundreds-of-thousands of lives it had nurtured as home and food, the days and nights and seasons it had experienced. I wondered if these stories would be heard in the voice of the clap-sticks, destined to be part of every song that they would now play in? What was my responsibility to these clap-sticks, and to the tree that had given them life? Uncle Lex suggested that responsibility began with the making of the clap-sticks:

“Think about how long that tree took to grow, the patience it put into growing the wood you’re working with now. You’re only being asked to put a small portion of that patience back into making your clap sticks, it’s not much to give back to the tree when you really think about that.”

Later, Uncle Lex and Auntie Corina took us to a sacred family site and explained its significance. The patience, knowledge and purpose of the old people as they carved two kangaroo figures into the rock contributed to the importance of the story the figures themselves told. In modern times, people had come to the site and tried to re-carve the kangaroos to be more visible, but they had done so without understanding the story or the process of carving the lines. Uncle Lex pointed out the changes, saying:

“These lines have sharp edges, but the old people used rounded edges. They’re changing the story”.

Photos by Kerstin Siegmund

That afternoon, we found out just how hard it was to carve into rock! After collecting suitable stones, some of us had a go at trying to grind them into axe-heads! It was a very time-consuming process involving wetting the rock and stone, and grinding away. The patience and effort that goes into carving and grinding becomes part of the story of what is being made, whether it is an image, a tool, or a clap stick. So much care goes into everything, nothing is taken for granted, everything has something to share and to tell. Kerstin Siegmund kindly gives her insights into the lengthy process of grinding axe-heads, a task she undertook with great diligence and commitment:

After a short demonstration from Uncle Daniel, I perched myself on one of the rocks. “Get comfortable, this could take a while”, Uncle Daniel declared. The muddy water splattered over the rock as I set to work. One minute, five minutes, ten minutes of grinding and I could not see any difference…I realized axe grinding requires a lot of patienceIntently I kept grinding my rock against the sandstone, sprinkling water every few minutes and swapping hands to relieve the cramps building up. 

Then suddenly my heart started pounding as I could see a shallow groove starting to form in the sandstone below my rock…The grinding took nearly two hours, but the patience paid off. When I saw the sharpened rock in my hands and the deepened groove in the sandstone I felt happy and proud that I had the endurance to pursue.

Uncle Lex told me that this axe grinding groove is now connected to the story of the place. For Aboriginal peoples, axe grinding grooves are an important link with ancestors and their past and this experience has allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of that connection. I would feel saddened if anyone said it is just a rock. The rock has a story. Just like every rock, every place, every water has a story that go beyond our comprehension. There is no better way to learn about Country and the connections with Country, than being on Country.”

Photos by Kerstin Siegmund & Sandie Suchet-Pearson

Music and dance played an powerful role in the culture camp, too. The sound of newborn clap sticks filled the air, and was accompanied by Uncle Lex on the ukele, and Uncle Lester and Cohen on the yidiki (didgeridoo).

Photos by Sandie Suchet-Pearson & Kerstin Siegmund

But perhaps most intensely for myself, and for many of the women at culture camp, was the evening dance with Auntie Corina. No event during the camp received as much deep feedback as this powerful moment when Auntie Corina shared the story of the dove and waratah, and taught us the accompanying dance. Smearing ourselves in ochre and assembling on the cool earth of Country, we danced this story together in the ethereal glow of torch and firelight, moved by the music and deep emotion of Auntie Corina’s singing. Even Uncle Lex was moved, saying after the dance:

“You ladies have done something so special here tonight, this might be the first time our stories have been danced on Country like that for a very long time. I feel very proud to be a Darug man tonight.”

Indeed, the bonds between the women, and Country, at camp that night became palpable. It highlighted the sacredness and importance of establishing a permanent dance circle here, on Country, a long-term plan for Uncle Lex and Auntie Corina. It was a bond further solidified by weaving together.

Photos by Sandie Suchet-Pearson

It has been a privilege and honour to have been part of this first culture camp, one that I believe has been felt and shared amongst all who attended. The experience left many deeply and profoundly changed:

“Being given the opportunity to share stories between ourselves was the most powerful mode of communication. There were a handful of stories that Uncle Lex shared with us that really stuck with me. The “coffee” analogy he used to explain Indigenous identity was insightful. Uncle Lex explained how you start off with a black coffee, over time milk may be added to the mixture; a milky coffee is still a form of coffee. This was used to illustrate how inter-racial marriage between Indigenous and non-Indigenous does not equate to a loss of Aboriginality. He talked about how impossible it was to achieve his one ambition: to be able to live on Country…

The wisdom and inclusivity of Uncle Lex and his family on Culture Camp began the shift in my ways of thinking. This sudden, unexpected transformation was challenging and enlightening. It was something I had never experienced before and allowed me to appreciate the cultural milieus and microcosms within which I had operated, and the cultural stigmas that Indigenous people face.”

– Alexandria Pinto –

“Uncle Lex was explaining how Father Sky, Mother Earth and all people, both past and present, are connected through the land. Indeed, as Uncle Lex stood bare-foot on the land, he was connected to his ancestors, to his Aunties and Uncles, and to Country. Initially, my perception of the situation was that I stood on some dirt with a bit of scattered grass, but as the camp continued, I could imagine that I was connecting to Country. In order to understand Uncle Lex’s way of seeing the world, I had to listen to his view and have a flexible mind that embraced a concept that was completely alien to me.”

– Brooke Kelly –

Most significantly, I feel both humbly and meaningfully connected to Darug Country, the land I call ‘home’, having been part of this experience. I find myself feeling a deep responsibility towards not only following, but participating in the creation and sharing of future Darug culture camps, and Caring for/as Country. It is a difficult feeling to describe – words like ‘meaningful’, ‘powerful’, ‘permeating’, and ‘compelling’ come to mind. But I think perhaps most prominent is ‘love’ – the sense of Country as a nurturing entity with intentions and moods that grow me as a person alongside countless lives, stories, and times that all become entangled as kin. I find myself very much wanting to care for Country. Such a feeling of love and care for Country was a common experience emerging from the culture camp:

“Though I myself have had a relatively urban upbringing, I have always had a very close tie with nature. The relationship between indigenous Australians and nature, one of mutual respect, is one I truly resonate with. Having Uncle Lex share the story that it was believed everyone was once from here and just slowly finding their way back, and that we are all in fact Indigenous, is something that will stick with me.”

– Nicola Fuller –

On behalf of all participants from, and associated with, Macquarie University – our sincerest gratitude and thanks to Uncle Lex, Auntie Corina, the Darug community, and Darug Country for welcoming and sharing so powerfully with us.

Photos, and featured photo, by Sara Judge.

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