Today an artist named Charlie shared the stories of his people with me. I waited years to hear these stories and somehow, on this sunny afternoon on the banks of the Brisbane River in Queensland, this Australian trek came to rest for a moment and gifts were exchanged. These moments, I believe, can turn what appears as a meandering journey into a fruitful hunt. And even further, if the hunters approach their quarry with gratitude and straight eyes, a hunt transforms into a feast where all are revived.When I first landed in Australia ten years ago, an eager American with a scattering of knowledge sifted from Australian literature, I craved to experience the traditional stories of the Aboriginal Australian people. I imagined myself sitting on the ground by a fire, listening to some of the oldest voices of humanity resonating from this red earth, seeing through the veil of story into the deeper meaning of things. But it didn’t happen that way. What happened instead pushed me further, and taught me to trust the shifting currents of the journey, even when I’m not sure I’m moving at all. I realize now that when I first arrived on this Pacific shore, I announced to the spirits that I was on a hunt and the spirits answered, “Right-o, girlie. Take off your shoes and let this land crack those soft heels of yours.”
Today, the first story Charlie told me was not from the Dreamtime-where the traditional stories were born to the Aboriginal people. It was not about the lone, pale pelican of the bush who glances out from his paintings. First he gave me a context in which to listen. “At the start of hunting and gathering,” he said in a seasoned storyteller’s voice, pausing in all the right places, “the men and women let the spirits know they’re going hunting,” he smiled, “and ask for help.”
A great big man, Charlie was tattooed with mysteries and wore a brown Aussie Akubra hat crowned by a leather braid. In his hand, he held a wet brush, pausing in the middle of his painting to share the stories with me. But first, he started with his grandmother. Charlie told me how, through the quick thinking of the family, she avoided becoming one of Australia”s Stolen Generation. “The family rubbed her skin with ashes. They darkened her lighter color,” he said. “She was “half-caste” and the government was taking all those children away so they could live in the white world and forget all about the ways of the people.”
Coated in ash and hidden among her family, Charlie’s grandmother slipped past the officials taking children of mixed European and Aboriginal descent called half-caste or mixed race for placement in reconditioning centers. Between 1910 and 1970, over 100,000 children were forcibly removed from their communities in an effort to assimilate them into the dominant culture. “Didn’t get my grandmother though,” Charlie smiled.
Charlie talked about his family and his Cherbourg, Queensland upbringing while I, surrounded by his paintings of the traditional stories, broke a sweat. I was surprised by his warmth and said little, wondering where this part of the journey would take me. I stood listening under the canopy of his market tent, surrounded by the gazes of carpet python, pelican, kangaroo and emu, brought to life again by his hand and witnesses to a town Charlie described as an “Aboriginal dumping ground.” Cherbourg, he said, is where many different native people “were all dumped together and expected to get along, without even speaking the same language.” Many people he knew were devoured by this place, swallowed by the violence and aimlessness of it.
“But I learned from the old people,” Charlie said, “and I became an artist and a storyteller. I come to the markets to connect people with the stories. Everyone loves the stories.”
For seven years, I stalked about this land, wanting to hear the stories from the people themselves and not just read them in books. I asked a few Australians of European descent I met along the way just how I could hear the traditional stories and where I could connect with the Aboriginal people who knew them. The reaction among several people was strangely similar and I felt put in my place: They won’t tell you. They don’ talk to white people.
Reminded I was a stranger wandering these places, I placed caution over desire. I suppose now that I sang out and put my journey into the hands of the spirits. Over time, through listening, attending talks and reading, I learned that Australia’ relationship with its Aboriginal people is red-raw. Other stories needed to come first, stories to bring alive the present astride the past, to make me ready to place my ear to this great red heart. The traditional stories had to be hunted in a sense, and I had to be led by their tracks which shift and disappear in this rust, silken soil. I had to trust them and I understand now that they knew where they were taking me.
One of the first clearings on this journey was in 2000, when the tangled embrace of the gum trees broke open and the great red heart thumped, teaching me the first of its lessons. I met a woman who spoke to a small group at a Brisbane university about her experience as a member of the Stolen Generation. Thirty of us sat in a circle in a tiny chapel, and she was the only person who wasn’ white. She sat with her hands folded on her lap and her glasses hanging from a chain around her neck. I remember the feeling of impending doom, that what she was about to say would rake across our ribs from the inside. It did.
Deliberately, she told her story. She was taken from her family as a toddler and “reprogrammed in the late sixties and seventies.” She spoke of the “lost years” of bouncing between institutions and foster homes and enduring all kinds of abuse, her memories of her family were torn away from her in a fire of forgetting. Through determination and speaking publicly, she sought to reclaim these parts of herself. The response to her story was physical, tears and noses ran. No one breathed a word, but sat instead in the confines of a grief that watermarked the walls.
When she asked for questions, several people said thank you instead. One person, with both hands over her heart, apologized. Another person asked how it helped to speak out and she answered, “I keep telling my story to white people and black people so we don’t forget what we’re capable of-indifference, the bad and the good. There were many blessings along the way. There were many people of all different colors who held out their hand when I needed it. They are just as much a part of this story. I keep telling my story to help me put the pieces together. For all of us and for me personally. By working up the courage to speak, I have been reunited with members of my family.”
I left that chapel with leveling thoughts. I remember feeling dismembered, but now I know that some portions of the sacred hunt are about gathering missing parts back together and seeing things as whole.
In 2004, another clearing opened up and the great red heart thumped again at a book launch for a Queensland Government publication called Connections: A Journey along Central Australian Aboriginal Trading Routes. A collaborative book pieced together by Aboriginal and European Australians writing about the history of their land, the contributions allow readers to journey upon ancient trade routes across the blazing red sands of the outback. I treaded lightly at the launch, shook hands with writers and noticed the tentative yet proud glances about the room. And I met a tribal elder, a fireball of a woman with a tangle of salt and pepper hair gathered into an explosive knot.
“American, right?” She didn’t wait for my answer. “I just flew in this morning. Long day but glad I made the trip. This is just the beginning,” she took a breath and blinked her dry, crackling eyes. “So much work to do. I fly up and down the coast yarning with the white mob, the black mob, this fella, that fella. I’m everyone”s Auntie. My phone rings night and day, people trying to make a bridge of my body. What can I do? They chose me. It’s time.”
At the book launch, I didn’t find the traditional stories I thought I was seeking. Instead, I found ancient, still traceable pathways, linked with breathing bridges-pathways etched in concentric rings around the great red heart.
Along the way there have been other moments as well, disproving what some people told me about imposed silence in Australia, but meeting Charlie today brought this journey to a moment of rest. I was led to a place where I could see further than I had previously, where past, present and future merged and I understood that I’d been changed by what I’d seen along the way. Moments like this on a journey seem rare.
Today, among market tents, I saw Charlie from a distance, painting on a large canvass in black and white. I slid beside him, looking over his shoulder and counting in my head, One, two, three; one, two, three, in time with his brushstroke sets. Tiny white lines were made along a narrow black stripe, shaping a man’s long belly. I was mesmerized as he then pointed tiny white dots |||o|||o||| between the sets.
He squirted white paint from a mustard bottle onto a piece of cardboard and looked up, holding out his brush, “You gonna finish it for me?”
Startled, I laughed, “Oh no.” Hands up, I surrendered.
“This is a hunting trip,” with his first few words, he took me straight into the story behind the painting. “A man and a woman. The woman has a basket to collect fish. The man will hunt goanna.” At the woman’s feet a large perch gasped, while a monitor lizard curled before the man. He told me that the man and the woman prepared their bodies with this pattern, “Before the sacred hunt, the people paint themselves to tell the spirits they are going hunting. They ask for help.” The man and the woman, dotted and banded with white paint, were mid-step, leaping from one world into another.
Charlie stood with his paintbrush, “This painting’s in black and white, but these,” he looked to his other paintings of a pelican, an emu, a platypus, a carpet python wound around her clutch of eggs, “these are in the traditional colors. Red, yellow, black, white.”
Just like the Native American colors, I thought, colors of the native compass points, the spectrum of human colors. Then he told me of his grandmother eluding government officials and his Cherbourg upbringing, he spoke of the elders and storytellers, the artists who taught him so well. He looked back to his paintings, “Even the brush strokes speak. The dots are for my grandmother and her people. The stripes are for my grandfather.”
He picked up his paintings one at a time and told me their stories, the traditional stories of his people, and by then the sweat of my restrained excitement and gratitude was rolling down my back. I was turning into water, my shoes filling, my thoughts running awash with spirals and rings. Charlie was sharing so much with me and I hadn’t even asked.
He held up the long, sullen profile of the lone, white pelican in the bush, “While his brothers by the sea flock in groups of twenty or thirty, this pelican is cursed for tricking the people and trying steal a young girl away from her family.” Listening to how the girl’s family outsmarted the pelican, I thought of Charlie’s grandmother.
“Looking at these paintings,” Charlie said, “is like looking at an x-ray. This line of dots in the kangaroos ears are the nervous system. If you watch a kangaroo, even when he’s lying down, his ears are moving, always listening.” He showed me the emu, long-necked and full-bellied in a swirling world, “This striped shape,” he pointed to a large mass in the emu’s body, “this shows where to find the fat that the old people rub on their tired joints.”
He held up his paintings and told me more stories, as they were told to him by his elders. He said, “The old man who told me the pelican story died a few weeks after. The story would have gone with him. But I know it and I pass it on. Everybody likes these stories,” he smiled. “The white kids and the Aboriginal kids like them, too. So many Aboriginal kids here in the city don’t know the stories. No one told them. But I tell them and they always like them. It reminds them who they are.”
That’s when my hands were guided to the necklace around my neck. He was healing the world through his own sacred hunt.
For some reason that day, I’d worn something special, something that was given to me ten years ago, before I left the US and in that moment, I began to take it off. “I want to give you this,” I unhooked the clasp.
The necklace was made for me by someone named Patrick. Strung on fishing wire, the tiny turquoise and black beads were arranged in what Patrick called, “A real warrior pattern.” Patrick was Pawnee and Blackfoot, and when I knew him, he was homeless. He was 20, maybe younger. It’s hard to gauge a person’s years when he’s dealing with the street.
It was a cold winter when I worked in the art room of a Boston shelter and Patrick would come around to warm up and talk. He didn’t draw often or use much of the free art supplies, but he’d watch and compliment the work of those who did. He wasn’t mean. He was kind, and in a place where meanness and snarls were rife, I noticed it.
The very last time I saw Patrick, he made the necklace, the only thing I ever saw him make. There were always boxes of beads and little meal clasps and spools of wire in the art room and that day, Patrick gathered everything with purpose and chose a spot to work on a battered wooden table. I watched him stockpile the tiny turquoise and black beads by pressing a trembling fingertip against them. He spoke to me as he worked, winding the end of the wire around a clasp and sliding one tiny bead at a time down toward the end. “I’m going to LA,” he said. “Hitching. I’ve got friends there.”
I listened while he talked and I watched how careful he was, since the holes in the beads were the diameter of a pin prick. But Patrick persisted without swearing. Another rare trait among the guests at the shelter, where a woman was often called the c-bomb before nine in the morning.
When he secured the second clasp, he held it up slightly. I figured he was making it for someone, since a lot of people did that. They made gifts, sometimes said thanks and left. Then I thought he made it for himself, since it would have suited him.
“This is a real warrior pattern,” he said quietly so no one else would want it. The beads were formed into bands of black and turquoise and hung snugly. “You’re a warrior in here. You have it. Here.” I was still putting it on with shaking hands when he was gone.
You get so steeled working in a shelter, so used to all sorts of psychosis and violence erupting that when something like this happens, it rattles your core. It’s like someone handing you a piece of his beating heart. Here. You have it. Take this with you on your sacred hunt.
And I have treasured it since. A connection to a period in my life when I was falling in love, preparing to move to Australia, finishing a degree and learning to listen. And it connected me to Patrick and his people. Pawnee. Blackfoot. I would say their names when I was alone and touch the necklace that stayed on my neck for years.
Rattled again to the core today, I sweated, liquefied. My hands shook and my heart pounded so loud I could hardly hear anything else. I only knew that I could not walk away from Charlie without giving him a gift that reflected the essence of the gift he had just given me. “This was made for me a few years ago by someone special,” I told him. “This is a real warrior’s pattern. You are a warrior.”
That’s when Charlie’s expression shifted. Everything about him softened. I continued, “It is Pawnee and Blackfoot. You have it. Here.”
He held the warrior pattern in his great palm and said, “I will treasure it.”
With his word treasure, my eyes filled. I never saw Patrick again. It was a hard thing to release. My heart pounded, the water began to pour. Was it my heart or was it the great red heart thumping the ground instead? Maybe the great red heart sounds just like my own.
Charlie held the necklace and I saw Patrick standing beside him, healing the world, one story, one person, one gift at a time.
As I walked away, I listened as the heart began to slow and I began to understand my journey. I asked to be led and I was led. I asked to be shown and I saw. I asked if I could listen and I heard. And through this journey, I was taught so eloquently that we are all connected. This is where the tracks lead, this is the sacred hunt.