Burbang is the Wiradjuri word for ceremony. In a ceremony, rituals repeat, unchanged, but the participant arrives each time with greater wisdom and hierarchical standing, and can 'peel back' the significance of the ceremony's embedded knowledge. Independent choreographer and dancer Joel Bray shares his research into traditional Indigenous ceremonial practices and how this informs his new project, Burbang, a work of immersive dance theatre.
Joel Bray is a choreographer, performer with Chunky Move, Next Gen creator with BlakDance and a proud Wiradjuri man, whose work and performances have been seen nationally and internationally.
He is the 2019 National Library Creative Arts Fellow, supported by the Friends of the National Library of Australia.
Image: Joel Bray in Chunky Move: photo by Pia Johnson
2019 Creative Arts Fellowship Presentation- Burbang by Joel Bray
*Speakers: Rebecca Bateman (R), Joel Bray (J)
*Location: National Library of Australia
R: Welcome to the National Library. I’m Rebecca Bateman and I am the Indigenous Curator here at the Library.
I’d like to start by acknowledging the traditional owners on whose land we are meeting and listening and learning and sharing today, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people. I’d like to acknowledge their elders past, present and future.
Thank you for coming to this afternoon’s presentation by the Library’s 2019 Creative Arts Fellow. Throughout the last 10 months we’ve enjoyed having a total of 18 fellows and scholars in residence, not all at the same time, of course. Their interest areas have been incredibly diverse which has made for fabulous program presentations. For this we extend our gratitude to the donors who generally allow us to open our collections to the curiosity of researchers and scholars.
The annual Creative Arts Fellowship is supported by the Friends of the National Library of Australia. The Library is very grateful to the Friends for their ongoing sponsorship of this much sought after fellowship which allow artists the opportunity to immerse themselves in research and to develop new work that creatively uses the Library’s collections. This is the fifth year of the Friends’ Creative Arts Fellowship and the Fellowships Committee have recently selected the 2020 Creative Arts Fellow with the successful applicant to be announced later this month so watch this space.
Today we welcome Joel Bray, our 2019 Creative Arts Fellow. Joel is a choreographer, a performer with Chunky Move, a next gen creator with black dance and a proud Wiradjuri man. Joel’s performances have been seen nationally and internationally. During his fellowship Joel has been researching a wide range of materials which document traditional indigenous ceremonial practices in the southeast of the continent, in particular the R H Mathews material and Charles H Kerry collections. This research will form the basis for a new work of immersive dance theatre for largescale presentation in 2021 entitled, ’Burbang’. Burbang is the Wiradjuri word for ceremony. In a ceremony rituals repeat, unchanged but the participant arrives each time with a greater wisdom and hierarchical standing and can peel back the significance of ceremonies and better knowledge.
Today Joel will share with us his research into the traditional indigenous ceremonial practices and how this has inspired him in the creation of his new work of dance theatre. Please join me in welcoming Joel.
J: Thanks Rebecca. Hello, I’d like to join Rebecca in acknowledging the traditional owners of this place. I want to thank them for allowing me to be here to speak and also for being here with me over the last few months as I’ve done my research here in the Library.
So my name is Joel Bray, I’m a Wiradjuri man and that’s not far from here, central New South Wales and that’s through my father, Christopher [Cuth] 3:22 Bray so I’d also like to take a moment to acknowledge my elders and ancestors.
When I was born I came out looking like this so my father gave me the name [Dulladayuran] 3:35 which means hair of snow and I have spent the last 37 years explaining to everyone that I’m Aboriginal.
In fact for many years I didn’t really publicly identify – I mean I knew I was Aboriginal but I didn’t publicly identify, it was just kind of too complicated to explain, I guess. Then one day not that long ago an auntie said to me – she kind of like tutted and shook her head at me and she said, if you don’t publicly identify as black then your successors don’t get counted as our successors. I hadn’t really thought of it like that before.
Since then I’ve been on a journey for the last few years, a period of intense exploration of my cultural identity – sorry, it’s weird, I can do like an hour-and-a-half performance fine but give me a lecture and I’m liking shaking with nerves so I apologise. I’ve been on a journey of my family history of my kin connections and my Wiradjuri roots. This has been both a personal and an artistic journey. Those audiences who have seen my last three choreographic works have born witness to this journey, an odyssey that I’ve only really just begun and which in equal parts thrills and terrifies me, inspires and sometimes paralyses me.
Exactly 10 days ago today this journey took me up for the first time to my ancestral country. I drove from Dubbo to the Macquarie Marshes up past Coonamble. Dad was in the passenger seat. Our conversation petered out as we approached Quambone, the bone dryness of the drought gripping the parched country as we sped through in the blank white hire car.
Dad has spoken of this place and of his grandfather, Christopher Horace Riley, the third youngest of the Riley brothers, the patriarchs of the massive Riley clan. The eldest brother, Patrick, had been the oldest and the designated lawman of the clan and somewhere in the middle was Alec, the now famous, Tracker Riley. If anyone has seen the film, Blood on the Wattle, it talks about my great-great-uncle Alec and of course my great-grandfather, Christopher.
Population 197 the sign read as we rolled into Quambone. Dad and I were silent with the significance of this moment. This was the first time either of us had been to Great-Grandfather Christopher’s birthplace. The fuel light flashed red. Shit, I spat. There was no service station and I couldn’t get any phone reception. I discovered the downside of having Optus out on the country. I panicked but Dad just giggled at my panic and jumped out of the car, wandered into the pub and waltzed out a moment later with the publican in tow. He took us to a fuel pump and then we wandered into the pub to pay him. I decided to order a couple of beers.
We're here ‘cause this is where my son’s great-grandfather was born, Dad said, and we’re looking for the sacred Bora ground we think is close by. Barely a flicker of interest registered on the barman’s face. I tried a different tack, any blackfellas in town? The barman scowled, no real blackfellas, he said. Look, I’m not racist or anything but – I’m not even joking – they live over the mission. He flicked his thumb over his shoulder, they’re all drunk and they’re on drugs but they know not to come here and cause problems. One corner of his scowling mouth curled up into a sniggering smile. Dad and I decided to take our beers outside.
Time seemed to have stopped still in Quambone. It’s a grid of about four streets of red dust, broken chicken wire fencing and an eerie silence. The mission turned out to be four derelict houses in a row, broken windows, the carcasses of prams, play equipment and rusted car bodies littered around. The only signs of life were the skeletal dogs barking and chasing us as we drove past. We’re related to them, for sure, Dad said quietly to me.
We took the turnoff towards the Macquarie Marshes. The road got steadily worse. I knew I should have booked a four-wheel drive. I’d seen photos and videos of the Macquarie Marshes, there were supposed to be lush wetlands brimming with reeds, shrubs and crowded trees. There were supposed to be flocks of birds and brolgas and cranes and finches and every other type imaginable. Instead we rumbled past country fast becoming desert. Dry, dead trees, the exposed bones of kangaroos, of fencing and farming equipment and pumps and the occasional emu scratching in the dust.
Silence descended heavily upon us again. I could feel an ache creep in around my heart. The bleakness, the death of this place was more than just seasonal drought. We could see before us the results of 200 years of rapacious theft of water in the name of irrigation, of deforestation for grazing and of other farming techniques simply out of sync with this beautiful country.
We'd been travelling for two weeks and seeing plenty of such sites, empty, sandy creek beds, bleached tree skeletons and parched earth but this time I felt the sting more keenly. This was the country where my ancestors were born and lived. This is where my great-grandfather and his brothers would have played as children. I imagined them splashing through the streams and marshes and somersaulting into waterholes. I imagined them stalking prey, learning to hunt, climbing trees to steal eggs from nests and spearing fish and diving for food. Taught by their fathers and their mother’s brothers who had been taught by their elders before them stretching back to time immemorial. Now all gone. At one point I pulled aside and we got out of the car. We stood in silent despondence and debated turning around. Thankfully it was Dad who urged us to push on.
When you looked closely you could see that the country is sick but she’s not dead. Trees cling to their greenery with fierce determination and small birds flit between them. There were plenty of ravens, [wagan] 10:29, in our language, and magpies and parrots in every colour of the rainbow and the beautiful blue flash of the azure kingfisher flying by.
When we paused and lifted our ears we could hear the birdsong and the breeze in the trees. The country, sick as she is, is not yet dead. We drove on. In my mind’s eye I pulled up the hand-drawn maps R H Mathews has scrawled of the ceremonial ground we were seeking. I must have pored over those rough sketches hundreds of times over the past year and then I saw it, the sign for the Bulgaraga Creek. Mathews’ words flashed back to me. The general encampment was on the left or west bank of the Bulgaraga Creek, about a quarter mile easterly from portion number 11 of the parish of [Wilangenbone] 111:14, County of Gregory. Mathews had been a mapmaker so he was really specific.
We pulled to the side of the road, I got out and peered over the barbed wire fence and there it was. At least I think it was. In the crook of the creek exactly as he had sketched it a patch of ground unusually free of shrubs. With a strange certainty I knew this place to be the Burbang ground I had been looking for. Over my shoulder I heard Dad whisper, you can see it has been trampled with many dancing feet. Without thinking I broke into a run. I raced towards the Bora ring, heart racing. Stop, Dad called out from behind me. The urgency in his voice brought me to a halt. We can’t just go charging in there, he said to me.
I remembered Mathews had marked a smoking place on the map on the eastern shore of the now dry creek bed. I led us to where I thought it might have been, roughly. Dad knelt down and started a fire, burning the dropping wattle he had brought with him. We let the smoke flow over us and into us. As we finished the smoking ceremony I looked across the creek bed and wondered to myself how can I know if this is the place and if it is how can we know if it’s okay to go in? The thought had barely drifted across my consciousness when an enormous wedge-tailed eagle swooped down and landed on a branch not 20m from us right on the edge of the Burbang ground.
[Mulyan] 13:01, I cried out, eagle, and Dad looked up. There the eagle perched, majestic and magnificent and beneath him two dark wallabies. All three sat dead still gazing at us for an endless moment and then in unison bounded off. It was in that moment that I knew we had found it.
Look, I can’t be certain yet that I found the exact spot. The next step is we’re going to consult with some of the local mob who live in the area and with the National Parks and Wildlife Service to see if someone has registered this place as a sacred site. Dad and I are already starting to talk about getting a LiDAR camera to survey the site. I don’t understand how it works, it’s like a kind of a scanning camera that you can put on a drone and check the archaeology of a site. So this is definitely still a work in progress but I felt something there, something real.
The Burbang is the men’s initiation ceremony for us Wiradjuri people. It’s also the words of a ceremonial ground itself. For some reason the Gamiliroy word, Bora, has come into common usage so you’ll often hear people speak of Bora grounds or Bora rings but I’m going to use the Wiradjuri word, Burbang
I first came upon this word two years ago. I live with type 2 bipolar disorder and I was stuck at home during a particularly nasty bout of depression and anxiety. I overdosed on Netflix and shredded my lungs with too many cigarettes and drowned my sorrows in red wine and then on a whim I decided to Google the term, Wiradjuri ceremony. In retrospect I can see the connection between my struggles with mental illness and my desire to connect with ceremony.
I read a book this year called Lost Connections, uncovering the real causes of depression by Johann Hari. In it the author debunks the pharmaceutical companies’ mythologies that depression and anxiety are a result of a chemical imbalance in the brain that can simply be fixed with drugs. Instead, Hari argues, mental illness is a very logical stress response to a contemporary world in which we have lost authentic connections with each other and with our own bodies, with nature, with meaningful work and so on.
I am a choreographer so I’m interested in the body and how we as bodies engage with other bodies which is one way to say that I’m interested in ritual or as we say in contemporary Aboriginal English, I’m interested in ceremony. Ceremony strikes me as a form of collective medicine, a time and a place in which we can come together as a community to build, restore and strengthen the connections between us as kin with other people in our community, with the country and the other sentient beings we share this country with, the birds and the animals around us and with the cosmos more generally.
So I was, I believe, subconsciously seeking out something I knew I was missing and I think ceremony is something we are missing in our contemporary lives. Pre-capitalist society was rich with shared ritual life. The ancient Celtic and early Christian European calendars were full of holidays and feasts and celebrations which brought people together, rituals that served to reinforce collective solidarity, to continue oral traditions and to transfer ancient knowledge of everything from food and medicine to geography and social governance. The same can be said for literally every corner of the globe.
I think we’ve lost that. Rituals under late stage capitalism seem to have been stripped down to something desultory, brief and semantic and the result is, I think, an epidemic of disconnection and loneliness.
In my case I’ve been hungering for greater knowledge of, and connection with, the ceremonial practices of my Wiradjuri ancestors so I guess this is what triggered me to Google Wiradjuri ceremony that day and what I found was an obscure old article entitled The Burbang of the Wiradjuri Tribes published in the Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland in 1896 by a man named Robert Hamilton Mathews. This launched me onto a journey of discovery that brought me here to the National Library of Australia and found me 10 days ago standing on the edge of that Burbang ground looking into the eyes of that evil.
R H Mathews was a surveyor with the New South Wales Colonial Government so this meant he spent much of his time out on the frontiers of the colony where many Aboriginal people were still living semi-traditionally. By this point towards the end of the 19th century most Aboriginal people were living on stations or missions but were sometimes still being given leave to congregate and undertake corrobboree and ceremony. R H Mathews came to anthropology quite late but he became one of the most prolific writers on Aboriginal culture in the southeast of the continent and published over 170 articles. He was principally interested in the kinship and marriage systems and in the male initiation ceremonies. He also wrote language lists that have been used in the various projects to reclaim language, including Wiradjuri, and he did a pretty decent job of recording and sketching rock paintings and various sacred objects including widows’ caps and mortuary stones.
So I came here to the Library to delve into the Mathews collection. I didn’t really know what I was getting into but it has been an absolute treasure trove. There are 14 archival boxes of his papers, articles, drafts, offprints, letters and field notes and it’s been an absolute pleasure and privilege to immerse myself in them.
It's strange, I have developed a kind of a weird relationship with this man over that time. On the one hand he is very clearly a coloniser, his language is often dismissive and discrediting and he was clearly sure of himself as a member of a higher civilisation and didn’t doubt the right of whitefellas to rule over blackfellas but I don’t know, I get a sense from him that he had a genuine reverence for our culture. Yes, he seemed resigned to the fact that Aboriginal people and our culture would disappear but he doesn’t seem to want that to happen. In fact there’s a kind of urgency to his writing, he wants to record as much as possible before it’s lost. ‘Course he was wrong, it wasn’t lost and we’re in the middle of a renaissance of Aboriginal culture down here in the southeast of the continent.
It seems certain that he engendered trust with the blackfellas he spoke with. I kept on finding myself surprised by what and how much the lawmen chose to share with him. This says to me that he spent the time to develop genuine relationships with mob back then and that he had proven himself to be trustworthy. They trusted him and so as I read I found myself trusting him.
Mathews eventually published two separate articles about the Burbang that occurred in 1893 on the Bulgaraga Creek near Quambone, one in 1896 and a second in 1897. In 1900 he published a further short article on another ceremony that happened a little further south from there in 1898. He also published articles detailing a further three ceremonies, one on the upper Lachlan River, a second down on the Murrumbidgee River at a place called Darling Point and a third out west on the Conoble run near Cobar.
Excitingly I discovered in his field notes a pretty full description of a sixth ceremony that he appears to have never published, a ceremony that occurred near Gundagai. What’s so useful about having six different examples detailed by the same writer is that it gives us the ability to compare and contrast. He orders each of his descriptions in more or less the same manner and so it’s possible to identify what were the common shared characteristics across all of Wiradjuri country. Conversely it’s possible to identify which elements were local variations or even where there was scope for personal interpretation by the people present at the ceremony.
So what actually happened in the ceremony? It’s at this point that I should probably yarn a little bit about the process I have been using in choosing what to reveal and what not to reveal about how I’m navigating the tricky shoals of permission, sacred and secret, and the difference between men’s and women’s businesses.
First of all we have to acknowledge that the whole account is completely biased towards men’s business. Mathews was a bloke so he spoke with men and it would have been considered culturally inappropriate for women to speak with him let alone share women’s business with him. So from his writings we get a sense that the Burbang was all about men’s business but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. In fact men and women congregated together for many of the rituals before they would then separate off. Then Mathews would detail the stories, the dances and rituals that would have constituted secret men’s business.
I presume that the women were also doing their own business, it’s just that from Mathew’s accounts we don’t know what that was. Further, I was really conscious myself as I did the research not to follow many lines of research that would have gone down into women’s business since that’s not my job. Suffice to say though that if the colonial culture hadn’t been quite so patriarchal there would have been many more women out in the field and we might have been able to know a little bit more about women’s business as a result.
My visit up to the Bulgaraga Creek site was the culmination of a two-week process of travelling around on country conferring and consulting with elders. Dad and I also visited Darling Point. We had a quick look around but we need to do some more research to find the actual site. This eldership consultation was a rich process that allowed me to share what I found in the archives with my elders and to confirm the findings’ veracity. Through this whole process I have tried to remind myself that this is the voice of one white man and everything I read needs to be checked.
The other element is that as far as I can tell the information shared by the old men with Mathews wasn’t covered. They chose to share the information with him knowing that he would publish it in some form. As we read through one gets a sense that they were editing what they were telling him. We can safely assume that they didn’t share the very sacred knowledge with him so in a way I’m choosing to trust the old people back then that they knew what they were doing in sharing this information with Mathews.
In fact sometimes I had this strong feeling that they knew exactly what they were doing. Wiradjuri cosmology thinks over the long term. We think in terms of generations and in thousands of years. Sometimes I had this strong impression that these wise people had shared this information with Mathews knowing that some time down the track we would come along and pick up the clues that they laid down for us. I don’t know if that’s just me getting too spooky but that’s what I felt.
A final issue I need to engage with is exactly whose country each ceremony happened on. Only two of the six ceremonies happened unambiguously in Wiradjuri territory as we understand it today. For instance the Bulgaraga Creek Burbang that I’ve spoken about involved five clans, three from the Macquarie River – sorry six clans, it’s my mistake – three from the Castlereagh River, the [Mole] 25:56 country of the lower Macquarie River and the clan from the Barwon River all spoke Wailwan and in fact this area of the Macquarie Marshes is considered Wailwan country. The Bogan River clan and the clan that came from Cobar spoke Wangaibon and there was one more clan that came from the upper Macquarie, so further south, who spoke Wiradjuri. Interestingly Mathews refers to all of them as being part of the great Wiradjuri community.
Likewise in the southeast Yuin people from the Shoalhaven participated in Burbang on the Tumut River and Wiradjuri mob from Yass participated in ceremony around here in Queanbeyan. There could be two reasons the extant ceremonies seem to happen all in the border countries so one thing I noticed was that there were no ceremonies, that he talks about anyway, in say like Orange or Bathurst, those areas that are really in the middle of Wiradjuri country. So there might be two reasons for that and they’re something I want to continue exploring. It might have always been like that so perhaps the Burbang, the ceremony was strategically held on the borders of country so that they became a meeting point for different mobs where they could meet, talk, share, trade and intermarry. An alternative explanation might be that by this point in the history of colonisation the central fertile and goldrush areas of Wiradjuri country had already been so heavily colonised that they no longer had access to the Burbang sites.
As I read Mathews he seems to define the social groupings a little differently from the language groupings we’re familiar with today. I wonder if this says something about the power linguists have had in shaping our knowledge of precolonial Australia. As a dancer and a choreographer I am always interested in challenging the primacy of text and language as the most important thing.
Either way he says in reference to the Burbang up in Quambone, he refers that all three languages, Wangaibon, Wailwan and Wiradjuri were all mutually intelligible. He seems to group people according to the nature of their shared ceremonial practices. At the very least I think it’s clear that the reductionist European kind of nation system that we infer from the maps we currently use is insufficient. Aboriginal peoples have always been connected by a sophisticated interlinking and varied web of languages, ceremonial practices, spiritual beliefs and trade networks that defy simple definitions and mapping.
The ceremonial ground itself was actually a series of interconnected spaces we used for different purposes. So the ceremonial ground, it was enormous, actually and it was a series of different spaces in the forest usually right beside a creek so that there would be water. The central area was the actual Burbang ground. It was a rough circle about 20 to 25m in diameter. In the Macquarie Marshes ceremony the circle was demarcated by digging a groove in the earth and clearing the area in the centre of loose soil and leaf litter.
In the Conoble and Murrumbidgee River ceremonies the rubble was used to form a kind of a low wall. In all the versions there was a single entry and exit point and every time you came in and out of the ground you had to go through the entry point.
A second smaller ceremonial circle was formed some distance off and this was called the [Gumbo] 29:55 and was reserved for the men’s business. Connecting the two was a winding path that was either called [Garambil] 30:01 or [Muru] 30:01 and along this path there were various sacred decorations carved into the earth and trees which were called [Yamun Yamun] 30:12. Then there was a third space called [Nangmooloobool] 30:16 which was where the old men like the wise men would sit and have counsel and every day they would have like a meeting about basically what was going to happen the next day and who was going to do what and what point of the ceremony we’re up to.
The hosting clans would spend months preparing the ground. In the Bulgaraga Creek ceremony Mathews counted over 150 different designs and objects. As I read, the sheer volume and sophistication of the space took my breath away. I think we have a simplistic idea of what Aboriginal culture was before the colonies arrived. I don’t know if anyone’s read Dark Emu but it kind of blows open a lot of these myths about us being really uncivilised and not being civilised.
I’ve been reading about the Burbang ground and it reminds me more of Notredame or Angkor Wat or the ancient ziggurats in terms of their complexity and sophistication of the design. I can’t really tell you what it is ‘cause a lot of it is secret but it’s incredible and I think when we talk about Bora rings we tend to think of an empty dusty circle but it wasn’t. I think these spaces were more like temples. I think temple is the right word.
One central image that recurs in all of the sites is that of [Bayami] 32:00. [Bayami] is our creator being and great father. In fact early missionaries used him as a kind of translation for God. Belief in [Bayami] is shared amongst many mobs in the southeast including Wiradjuri, Gamilaroi, Eora, Darkinjung and Wonnarua. At the Burbang sites that I’ve been looking at he’s represented as a massive figure built by mounding up earth and then next to him is an enormous handprint and the handprint is like a few metres wide and long. A recurring story attached to these images is that one day [Bayami] was waiting silently in a tree hunting emu. When he saw the emu he raced out and threw his spear and as he threw his spear he tripped and the handprint was where he caught his fall.
As a theatre-maker I thought that was like a really brilliant strategy, actually. If you wanted to like give people the sense of the scale and power of this gigantic being you don’t have to make the whole thing, all you have to do is just put a huge handprint that you can then step into. Actually this is a common theme and I’ll come back to it but as I’ve gone through and looked at this ceremony I have kept on being impressed at the level of sophistication of the dramaturgy, the theatre-making, the performance-making that was demonstrated consistently.
Another recurring image is that of the serpent. One of these out of the Conoble site was 40m long. In the north and east this serpent is called the [waawee] 33:34 and in the west he’s called the [corea] 33:37. Another [Yamun Yamun] or decorations include images of kangaroos, emu eggs, dingoes, wombats, burrows, nests of various birds like bower birds, the mallee hen. There is always a nest of the [Mulyan], the wedge-tailed eagle, various weapons, spears, boomerangs, axes and woomeras, canoes and paddles and they’re everywhere, they’re just everywhere. A big part of the ceremony is actually taking the boys who are being initiated through and explaining what each of those stories or symbols means. Then there were also abstract designs carved into the earth and stripped into the bark of the trees.
Mathews details some of the stories behind these images but I’m hesitant to tell them here since I’m not sure what’s secret and sacred and what’s for general consumption. But it strikes me how clever it was that the physical space itself was coded in such detail with so many different stories representing all different timeframes. So in the one space you could have stories that were being told of the mythical dreamtime and all the way up to something that happened last week and everything in between.
The [Gumbo] or the men’s site which was the smaller ceremonial ground was shielded by a fence made from tree limbs and bushes and was called the [gureal] 35:04 or [gerung] 35:06. Inside the [Gumbo] there were these raised platforms that made a kind of a square and they were about a metre high and made out of logs and earth and sometimes they would make chairs by inverting a stump on top of the platforms. Then there was a certain ritual where they would stain the platforms with blood from their own gums and it appears that these were used almost like an altar where the old men, the wise men, the medicine men would stand up and direct what was happening in the ceremony.
Also occurring at each site was an effigy of [Dooroomoolan] 35:48. [Dooroomoolan] is [Bayami’s] brother-in-law and he’s recognisable right across the south-east of Australia since he always has a club foot or is drawn as only having one leg. How he’s made differs from ceremonial site to ceremonial site. Sometimes he was made out of clay and sticks and propped up against a tree and sometimes he was actually made out of saplings already growing in the ground.
[Dooroomoolan] is an important figure in the Burbang. At the Bulgaraga Creek ceremony an old man who Mathews refers to as a [wooringimbah] 36:22 or a medicine man tells a story. The story has two parts, there’s the public part that men, women and children knew and then there was the secret part that only the men knew. Mathews published the whole story. I’m not sure if he was supposed to do that so I’m going to err on the side of caution and share with you only the public part of the story. In it it’s [Dooroomoolan’s] job to take the boys away for the initiation process. He burns them down to ashes and then remakes them as new men out of the ashes and returns them to the camp with an incisor tooth missing as a sign that the boy had been initiated. The significance of that story will come back in a moment.
So we’ve spoken about the ceremonial ground itself and now the actual ceremony. So the first thing that happened is the mustering process so this was where a local mob would decide we’re going to host initiation ceremony here, we’ve got a good place, there’s lots of food around, there’s fresh water and then what they would do is they would send messengers out to the other mob in different camps. They would send message sticks, [juru] 37:39, that would have certain symbols marked on them that were basically to the effect that we’ve got a really good place to have this ceremony, why don’t you come?
Then there was this really complex toing and froing between – let’s call them the initiating group and the other group. There would be this kind of sending of messengers backwards and forwards and each time one arrived there would be like a little mini corroboree, a party like each time they would come. There would be this process of negotiating and that was happening with multiple other groups. So the actual process of mustering would take about three months.
Then each time a new group would arrive at the campsite they would have a specific ceremony. I don’t think it would be particularly interesting for me to like detail it like he does but what’s extraordinary is the amount of detail that he writes. He writes exactly the routes that the people would take, exactly how the boys to be initiated and their mothers stood, exactly the formations that they make, exactly how the designs that are painted on their body, what colours, what the different colours mean, the animals that they’re representing, the exact calls they make. He has written the ceremony in such incredible detail that if we wanted to we could reconstruct it which would be amazing.
We could basically do what we’ve been doing with language which is bringing back language from the dead, we could literally do the same thing. That’s how detailed his descriptions are.
So yeah so then there would be a particular ceremony for each time a new mob arrived into the camp and then before the proper full ceremony happened they would have basically a corrobboree every night so they would go hunting during the day and then they would have a corrobboree at night. Each mob would take turns in hosting it and I think that’s a really interesting – this is a guess but they would spend like a month, like 30 days rotating the role of like the host clan. I think what that might have been trying to do was to break down the power that comes from like the host guest power. Sorry, I’m not being very articulate with this but like if this was your home country and someone comes to you you’re in a position of authority because you know it, it’s your place, and it’s like playing on your own home ground. So then they would have this long process of sharing the hosting duties to break down that power hierarchy.
Then on the final night, the final corrobboree before they’re going to have the proper central ceremony he writes this very intriguing line. He writes, on the evening preceding the main ceremony a corroboree is held and then afterwards there is considerable sexual licence allowed between men and women, whether married or single and then he goes on to explain that the only rule is that you’re only allowed to have sex with someone who you would be allowed to marry if that makes sense ‘cause there are very strict rules about how you can marry or not. This is intriguing.
First of all it was hilarious ‘cause the way he writes it you can just tell he’s like 19th century gentleman’s like discomfort at having to talk about something and in fact I want to make a work called Considerable Sexual Licence, I think that would be amazing. But that’s something I’d like to explore a little bit more, it was one of those moments where I went oh, that’s interesting, that’s something I hadn’t heard of before, that actually there might have been a liberality to sex that got lost when the coloniser came.
Anyway so then we get to the real ceremony. So there’s this ceremony where the boys are taken away from the families and this is where the story of [Dooroomoolan] comes in. So everyone comes into the Burbang ground, everyone is painted in patterns of white ochre except for the boys themselves who are painted completely in red ochre and their mothers are marked with lines and dots in red. So that’s something I want to explore a little bit more, is this like what’s the significance of those different colours? ‘Cause he’s very specific about like who gets which colour. Then they spend kind of a whole day preparing. He goes into detail about the regalia, the way the armbands are made, the way the feathers were put into the hair, the way the kind of girdles are made with these tails made from possum skin hanging down which again if we wanted to reconstruct a ceremony we could do.
Then there’s this ceremony where everyone comes into the Burbang ground, all the women and uninitiated boys lie on the ground and then they’re covered with rugs, branches and by this point blankets from the missions and then this extraordinary thing happens where all of the initiated men re-enact that ancient story of [Dooroomoolan] kidnapping the boys to be burnt and remade. So they run through with burning firesticks and they stamp on the ground around the women and they pick up the women’s coolamons and dilly bags and throw them around and they’ll even pick up little kids and put them up in the tree. They use the bullroarer, the [mudgigung] 44:13 which I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it but it’s a kind of a piece of a wood on a core that when you swing sounds like a bull and that’s [Dooroomoolan’s] voice.
What got me excited about it as a performance-maker is that this is like brilliant theatre, actually. It makes me giggle every time like I hear whitefellas talk about oh we found this amazing new thing, it’s called immersive theatre. Or site-specific performance or durational performance. I’m like no, we’ve been doing that for like tens of thousands of years.
Then what happens is they take the boys away – the boys are still covered but they take the boys away and then the initiated men take the covers off the women and in one of his descriptions he said you could see the awe in the women’s faces ‘cause they had just experienced a kind of a sensorial experience of the story and then when the blankets are removed the boys are gone and yeah, that’s it. That’s something I want to explore, that kind of how you could use not just site but how you can use texture and sound and immersive – you probably could have felt like the brushing of the bodies. They even had some young men going around and erasing all of the footprints so when the women came up there was this mess everywhere but no footprints as if spirits had been there. Yeah, that’s kind of cool.
So that’s the point where the boys are taken out into the bush. He also describes in detail what they do there, I’m not going to obviously talk about that because that is secret men’s business but just to give you a kind of a general gloss of it it goes for about four or five days. Some of the stuff really surprised me, there was stuff that was almost acrobatic. There were descriptions of dances that I hadn’t seen from traditional Aboriginal dancing say from the north and the west of the country and as someone who’s from down here that’s really exciting and I think it’s something that I would love to explore more, is to see if we can get some of those dances back.
There was a ceremony to remove the incisor tooth. He writes that by this point that had - I think the colonial authorities weren’t letting them do that anymore but there was a whole ceremony about removing the tooth. There’s a whole series of dances about important animals and ancient stories about [biami] 47:18 and [droomulan] 47:18.
So they’re out in the bush for four or five days and they keep moving around as they do that and then there’s a ceremony where they return back to the Burbang ground with the women. They come about halfway back and then the men wash themselves – not the boys who are being initiated but the men wash themselves and then the boys who up until this point have been completely covered in red then have white ochre dots covering them. Then they return back to the Burbang and they are re-presented back to their mothers and their sisters.
I was really fortunate last year to witness a version of this ceremony happening up on [Yaro] 48:09 country up in Broome and first of all it was extraordinary how similar it was, the blankets covering and the way the smoke was being used, everything was really similar to how I’d read about it down here. The other thing was just it was really beautiful because the ceremony is not just for the boys being initiated, the ceremony is also for the families to help them adjust to the change of their babies growing up, basically. So there’s this whole ceremony, there’s a few different versions of it. The one up in the north is that the boys get onto their guardians’ shoulder and come forward and the women, the mothers and the sisters, chew white ochre in their mouth and then spray the ochre onto the faces of the boys.
The version down south was that the women have held this entire time, have been holding in their hands for days a tail made from possum skin that had been hanging from the boys’ belts and they’d been holding onto this. Then there’s a ceremony where they tie it to the top of a spear and then they go to the boys sitting on top of the guardians’ shoulders and give them this. Sorry, I’m not explaining that very well. I can see it in my head, it’s amazing. Basically the point of it is this is the moment where the boys get to come back for a moment, reconnect with the women in their family and then they get taken again and from that point on they don’t camp with their mothers anymore, they don’t live with their mothers. In fact there’s a restrictive period of time where they’re not even allowed to talk with the women in their family.
Then it’s all over, basically. He writes that everyone’s keen to get back to their country because they’ve probably been there for like six weeks. Yeah so that’s been the main focus of what I’ve been reading about. I’ve got so much material there, I can probably make about like six works out of it. So there’s a couple of things that are going to happen from this point, I think there’s a fork in the road. One is I am going to make this work, it’s going to be a work of contemporary dance, basically, an immersive work on a large scale where I want to draw on all these kind of elements, the designs that were painted on the body, the designs that are carved into the ground and on the trees, the particular descriptions of the movements, the formations of the dances, the interactions between audiences and performances that are described. So that’s one.
That’s probably – take me quite a long time ‘cause it’s going to be a really big work but I’m really inspired and I have lots of ideas for that so watch this space. The other thing is I would love to be a part of a project of bringing this ceremony back to life. I don’t think I’m the right person for that, I have done some traditional dancing, I'm not a very good traditional dancer but there are people who are bringing ceremony back and so I would love to share everything I found with those people and so I’ve started a process of like reaching out and talking with some people. Yeah, that would be amazing. Imagine if this ceremony that hasn’t been done for over 100 years, imagine if it came back. That’d be cool.
While I was going through all of this stuff I was also grabbing anything that was of interest to me. I haven’t really processed any of it but I found some dreaming stories that I’d never heard before and might very possibly have not been heard of for a long time. In particular there was a great one that explains why the owl has wider eyes. I also found some interesting notes on [Bayami]. I also looked at the Charles Kerry photographs. Charles Kerry was a photographer and Mathews got Kerry in to take some photos of this ceremony which – they’re really beautiful, they’re really incredible. Again secret men’s business, sorry, I can’t show them. Lots of information on the totemic structure and the marriage laws. He even wrote some music. He could score music so I’m super-excited to give to my composer some traditional Wiradjuri melodies. In particular there’s a war chant that is amazing that was sung as the war party was going, yeah, on the war path. I think that’s it, yeah.
I do want to take a moment just to thank the staff here at the Library. I am not a scholar so I had to be showed like really showed the ropes and constantly forgot how to do anything and people were so patient and genuinely curious with me and genuinely excited about the research I’ve been doing and absolutely committed to trying to do things culturally correctly. Yeah, I just want to thank the staff at the Library here ‘cause you’ve been amazing and thank you very much.
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