For some of us, it had been our third visit. We had been invited to witness ceremonial dances on the first two visits. This time we were invited to join the dance. We ochered our skin with lines of white outlining our bones. We did our best to learn the dance steps. We discovered that dancing involved not just learning the steps, but expanding our field of perception so that we were literally “danced” by our entrainment with the other dancers. We had felt the excitement and energy build as the lights and sounds of the truck entered the ceremonial ground. The truck bringing the boys seemed like a real living being. The boys’ bodies had been elaborately painted with ancestral stories over several days of teachings by their uncles in a sacred and secret enclave. These boys stood tall and proud, receiving the admiration of the entire community as they stepped into this ceremony of boys-becoming-men. We had watched the men accept these boys and the women wail over the loss of their boy children who would no longer be allowed to speak directly to their mothers.
The three day dance had ended in the wee hours of the morning and we had all returned to our sleeping bag “swags” for much needed sleep. The energy was high and sleep had been difficult for most of us. My experience of the night had been quite strange, especially for one who has little access to liminal information. I awoke in darkness to a feeling of being watched. I turned my head and saw what seemed like an aboriginal boy on his knees looking at me. Knowing this wasn’t a real person, but truly seeing something, I made up that there was a little bush next to my swag. Others came in for breakfast with their own similar stories. Our guide, James, had been up all night feeling as if a circus had been let out.
As we packed up that day, we got word that Rex, the Head Man, and Cookie, another elder, wanted to come talk with us. This was highly unusual behavior. No one from the community except our guide Audrey had come to our camp during our visit. We had gone to their camp instead. We told them we would be honored. They arrived with a painting of a sugar bag ant colony painted by another elder, Charlie. What ensued was a most remarkable conversation that gathered its meaning as it unfolded through our interactions energetically, through gestures and expressions, and through words these elders knew in English and the words our guide knew in their language. This is the best sense we could make of it. These elders had also felt some unusual unleashed energy during the night and were trying to understand it. They seemed to feel that there was some connection between their inviting us to dance with them and this strange energy. They were concerned. They brought out the painting to show us. They told us about someone had tried to copy this painting and done it imperfectly. Soon after he had died. They spoke of stories and pointed to our notebooks and journals. They repeated over and over, “You lawmen now. You lawmen now.” We began to understand that they had let us in on a level of experience and understanding that is beyond what they were used to sharing in their rare contacts with white people. They were now worried about how we would use what we had experienced. They wanted us to know that it was of enormous importance to them that we tell the truth about our experience and not make things up or be inaccurate. If we did, like the man who miscopied the painting, our lives would be in danger.
They began to talk about the “spirits” that were “loose” the night before. They didn’t seem to understand what this meant and wanted to know if we had experienced this energy as well. Assured that we did, they began pointing to each of us, saying, “You good dancer! You good dancer.” They then began to enact, as if on a stage, a horrific memory of an event that had happened at this station some 60 years ago. These two old men, as young boys, had hidden behind some trees in the bush and watched as bounty hunters had come and massacred their relatives. Pointing on his body to various places as if bullet holes, Rex cried, “Shoot ‘em here and shoot ‘em here, and here and here. Why you kill us? Why you kill us? Why you kill us?” We sat, listening, weeping. The Christian missionaries had saved the lives of many of the children by taking them away to mission schools where they were given new names and robbed of their aboriginal heritage by being taught English and Christian ways. A number of the women in this outpost had spent years in mission schools. Rex and Cookie and a handful of others had not been found by the bounty hunters and had stayed on the land.
“You good dancers. You dance with us. You good dancers.” We then began to understand that Rex and Cookie were thinking that the spirits of those who had been shot long ago had been “freed” by our willingness and interest in learning their dance and their culture. Perhaps what I had “seen” next to me in the night was a spirit now freed to be curious. It seemed that we had begun to redeem the past by embracing their culture rather than taking it away. We were different. We had used our power to understand and honor their culture.