I’m home. And I’m a long way from where I’ve been and not just geographically. I’m a long way from a tiny community I was privileged to visit on Tuesday. Because it’s my work, and because it’s a small Indigenous community that granted us permission to visit, I can’t name where I went or much of what went on there in terms of Government work, but I can talk about some wonderful stuff I saw and experienced.
We flew early Tuesday across almost the entire landscape of the Northern Territory, across Kakadu National Park and lots of desert. We flew in a twin engine plane which wasn’t as small as the plane I expected we’d fly on. I was glad. From the air, those amazing rivers look like snakes across the landscape.
I was transfixed by the snaking rivers. I’d never seen anything like it. The way the forests run out from the spine of the river like spindly arms is amazing.
We landed on a red stained air strip in scorching heat.
And we were greeted by the Welcome Buffalo.
Apparently he usually hangs from a branch but some local boys were playing with him last week and he fell. See the piece of paper sticking out of his nose on the lower right? I’m such a dork. I said to our hosts ‘oh look someone’s left a note here!’ and I pulled it out. Turns out that’s where the pilots leave notes for each other. It’s their mailbox. I blushed and stuck it back in the hole hoping that wasn’t the thing people would remember about me there.
After a short ride in a truck, we arrived in the community. Before going to this remote community, I hadn’t seen a photo. I imagined something like a very, very small town. A tiny village. It was nothing like that. It’s in the middle of vast acres of bushland and it’s really just a clearing in the middle of that landscape. It’s near some freshwater and these people have lived there for longer than we can imagine. Now they have houses there – simple constructions. But before that, it would have been traditional housing. This is what I saw from the air. It’s really, really small. Approx 90 people live here.
We were there to see a school, which is such a successful school that children from nearby (and I use the term ‘nearby’ loosely!) communities are coming in droves to participate. They sit on grass mats and read stories about hunting and fishing and all manner of things relevant to their lives as members of traditional Indigenous community. The children were wonderful. They asked us questions about where we came from and sang us songs. Some boys climbed a mango tree and asked me to watch them. Boy could they climb!
We had been promised a buffalo stew for lunch but sadly the men had not been able to catch a buffalo in time.
We had only a few short hours there but in that time, the highlight for me personally was the weaving. The community is known for its weaving of Pandanus Grass. Three of the older women had once been invited to Canberra to speak about their lives as weavers and as I’d outed myself as a knitter on the flight, our guides knew to give me time to go and sit with the weaving women.
I was lead to a tent behind the main community area and invited to sit on a grass mat. People stood and watched as one of the women sat with me and taught me to weave a basket. Well, she showed me how she did it and guided my hands as I clumsily copied her work. She was gentle in her guidance and ripped it out and let me start it again. Twice.
I was fascinated by the way it came together. Intricate and yet simple and so very ancient. Lest she should think me entirely clumsy, I pulled a sock in progress out of my backpack and showed it to her. She had little English and so smiled and cheered as I compared my self striping sock (in quite similar colours to her basket!) to her work – we pointed at the tiny stitches and I showed her how the sock went over my foot. I knitted a few stitches and she wove as I did so and cameras clicked capturing the demonstration of two different but similar forms of making.
One of the older women who spoke English said I should come back. In three days they would have me dyeing Pandanus grass and weaving properly. I only wish I could.
We parted with hugs and more invitations to visit again, up over the forest and ocean and back to Darwin and I felt lucky to have seen a community that only a handful of white people get to visit. We see so much press that shows the problems with small Indigenous communities, but this homeland is dry (no alcohol) and successful. They have needs and we have provided for some, but not all of their needs.
The next day, when I was at the Darwin museum, I took extra special notice of the Pandanus grass weaving in the Indigenous art display. I read the words of an elderly woman who described what she feels when she makes mats, baskets and woven fabric that serves as a modesty garment during menstruation and pregnancy. She spoke of how practical, every day items are magical, of how the very act of making something connects her to women who have lived before and I thought, you know, we are all the same, we who make things.
We are all the same.