Uluru and Kata Tjuta, the massive (and quite beautiful) rock formations that are at the heart of the famed National Park with their names, have been sacred sites for Australia's Aboriginal peoples for thousands of years. Because of this, and because the remoteness of the area, the Anangu people who live at the base of Uluru are able to lead more fully traditional lives than do Aboriginal tribes in some other parts of Australia. Interacting with them, and learning about their ways and beliefs, is one of the most fascinating aspects of visiting the National Park.
At the Ayers Rock Resort, which is owned by the Aboriginal Land Corporation, a number of activities—from didgeridoo concerts to spear throwing lessons—are held daily to introduce visitors to the local culture. At a "dot painting" workshop, I learned that Aboriginal paintings are stylized representations of events (sometimes mythic, sometimes personal) seen from high up in the air. When I asked the Aboriginal artist how her ancestors would have known what the landscape would have looked like from far above, she answered with a sharp “no”, cutting off the conversation. (Yes, you can insert your own speculations about alien beings visiting the area; we certainly did. Though the answer may have had more to do with something akin to transcendental meditation).
Off the resort, I took an informative “Bush Tucker” tour (with SEIT Outback) which focused on the tools and foods of the Anangu. It was partially led by an Indigenous 16-year-old (he gets school credit for sharing his wisdom). Most fascinating: a discussion of spinifex, a grass that could be said to have changed both geological and human history. It arrived in the area some 30,000 years ago and its roots, which create a web that stabilized the sand dunes. That, in turn, altered the soil profile, allowing new plants to take root. Slowly but surely this transformed the area from classic desert to a semi-arid region. On the human history side, the Aboriginal people of the area make a form of super glue from its seeds, which plays a vital role in their survival. They use it to coat bowls and thus make them waterproof (an important feature in a landscape where water is scarce), fix tools and attach sharp objects to the end of their spears.
Spinifex (photo by Robin Jay/flickr)
But my favorite conversation was with Waylon Boney, a senior cultural ambassador at the resort. It ranged through both his personal history and Australia’s dark past. Here, in a nutshell, is what I learned from Waylon:
-Until 1967, Australia's Aboriginal people were considered "flora and fauna" under the law (his description) and so didn't have the right to vote, or any other legal right for that matter.
-His grandmother, who was light skinned, was taken from her family at a very young age to be raised by Christians. She spent years trying to find her mother and finally succeeded just days before her mother died. Despite this, Waylon's grandmother remains a very pious Christian and feels that Waylon is a devil worshiper since he's returned to the old ways.
-Waylon only got permission from the seniors of his tribe to share tales and history with visitors three years ago. What is shared is often based on the gender of the visitor, as there is certain wisdom meant for men and some meant for women (so I may have heard more, overall, from a female guide). There are areas of Uluru and Kata Tjuta, too, that are reserved for men and women and if an outsider is climbing on the rock (strongly discouraged) and gets injured in an area related to the opposite gender, the Anangu worry not only about their physical safety, but about their spiritual safety, as well.
-Waylon's people will not speak the name of a dead person for a few years after he or she die because they don't want to accidentally call that person back. Instead, they describe him when they want to talk about him. So Waylon's grandfather would speak to him about his uncle by saying "Remember the old man with the long beard? Well he once told me...." The dead live both in the wind, and in the Milky Way. You can see their campfires in the brighter stars.
-In the drawings of the artists of his tribe, its common to draw a man without a mouth but with a line across his belly instead. That's because they feel that the belly is the seat of the soul. One's mind can be changed, and one's heart swayed, but if you follow your gut you will go the true way.