PHOTO EXCLUSIVE: Ancient traditions alive and well in remote communities

Remote Aboriginal communities are alive and well and continue to proudly practice their ancient culture, despite what some politicians may say. NIT was recently invited to witness a rarely-seen ceremony in the Kimberley.

Under Muludja’s main water tower, which leans over ceremonial grounds a stone’s throw from Margaret River near Fitzroy Crossing, about 50 men, women and children sit under humpy and tarp.

They seem exhausted because they are. They have been there for more than a week, in the hottest and often wettest month in the Kimberley. They are covered in ochre, have not seen a shower for a week and wear tired smiles and yellow headbands.

They are the relatives of the 13 boys who are at the nearby bush camp, which takes in a shed you can see about 700m across a flat, overgrown paddock. The relatives are not allowed to leave until the boys – who have now become young men after a week of secret business – are presented back to those who normally love and care for them.

The idea that remote communities such as Muludja, about 40km out of Fitzroy Crossing, a four-hour drive east of Broome, are somehow withering on the vine quickly vanishes when you witness how strong law and culture is in such a remote area.

Wonga differs across the Kimberley, taking in the nuances of various tribal connections, sacred sites and animals, stories, songs and dances, but it fundamentally announces the transition from boyhood to manhood.

Community elder Mervyn Street, who flew to Melbourne at the height of the remote communities battle last year to plead for white Australia’s support, invited NIT to watch the ceremony. He explained how important it was for Aboriginal people to practice their traditions, particularly in communities such as Muludja, where connection to land was everything.

“We want outside people to see how important these traditions are to our way of life,” he told the NIT.

“People in the cities need to understand that we continue to practise our customs, our traditions are strong in communities such as Muludja.

“This is so important to who we are as a people and as a community.”

The waiting relatives sit in mostly silence, and can’t leave the community, or even the grounds, until they have their sons back. They lounge around on mattresses killing time, talk quietly among themselves, pass cigarettes and occasionally snooze in the shade of the blistering sun.

Across at camp, as the boys go through their secret initiations, the parents, sisters, brother, uncles, aunts and grandparents often take part in dancing and singing, mostly after dark. Sometimes they will dance all night, to the point of exhaustion. Everyone is encouraged to take part, especially in the dancing, but if you don’t want to you don’t have to.

Those young ones who don’t are tasked with preparing food for the elders and making sure the camp is clean and being run properly.

Finally, after a week of 40 plus degree-days, word comes that the boys are being painted up at their bush camp and being prepared for their return to their parents. To didgeridoo and clap sticks, the ceremony begins. The young men make their way to the grounds and shuffle in in cover of foliage. From the shuffling bushes they emerge one by one, guided and placed sitting in front of their mothers. Some wailing begins, but mostly its quiet and sombre.

Some walk to their families tall and proud, with shoulders back, while some, mainly the smaller ones look upset and anxious to see their loved ones.

Then after more dancing by some who have travelled from Kununurra more than 600 km away, the young men are then led out onto the grounds in front of the gathering. The air is heavy with smoking eucalypt as they begin the last part of the ceremony that signifies a breaking of their childhood links to their parents.

Firstly, they pick up a stick and break it, then take it to a log, where they use a tomahawk to again splinter it. A few yards away, they are watered down by a senior lawman, and finally they must step over a smoking bush, which finishes the process of separation.

Fathers and mothers are then invited to go through the same process, which they readily do in silence. There is an overwhelming sense of occasion and seriousness, but once the ceremony is over, proud parents and relatives – and relieved young men – embrace and chat and laugh, like a normal white high school graduation in suburban Australia. Some take photos on their Ipads and Iphones.

They are the class of 2016. They have chosen to continue the traditions that go back thousands of years, and although some of them now must return to their homes to prepare for school – from Fitzroy Crossing to the best private schools in the country – they burst with pride and achievement.

Boys have become men and begin the journey and responsibilities of custodians of their tradition.

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