It was early in 1998, in the glare and heat of a summer afternoon that I was summoned into the living room of Nana Kelly’s small cottage in Balranald. Nana Kelly was a much respected elder of the Mutthi Mutthi people; I crossed the dusty road and entered the darkened interior of this small house with a sense of anticipation. My friend Joan Hamilton is friend to all of Nana Kelly’s family and so this gracious elder extended her trust to me, sight unseen.
Nana Kelly, a woman of substance, sat as upright on her straight chair, both hands around her walking stick planted perpendicular on the lino floor in front of her. I saw the confident poise of royalty. All day she had held interviews here and we were the last to come.
Just before our arrival an archaeologist, now world-renowned because of Mungo had visited.
I sat on a couch as Nana Kelly reminisced about this matter. In 1974 Jim Bowler discovered, in the sands of Lake Mungo the complete skeleton of a man, known as Mungo Man. This confirmed the spiritual and cultural significance that the traditional owners had always given to this place. Soon after this discovery the bones of a woman were found. She was named as Lady Mungo.
The bones were taken to Canberra for analysis without the permission of the local Indigenous people. It was scientifically established that both had lived more than forty thousand years ago.. When examined in laboratory the man’s bones were found to have traces of red ochre, which must have been brought from a distance, and traces of smoke suggesting ritual. A man buried with such ceremony must have been an honoured elder. The smoke and the ochre indicate ritual of a civilized people in a ceremonial ritual that has continued for 40,000 years.
This was awe inspiring from my viewpoint, but Nana Kelly’s energy was focused on the return and proper burial of her ancestor. We listened to the stories long into the evening, then space was made for us to sleep that night in the living room.
All I recall of the rest of the visit is my sleeplessness. My own ancestor’s time on this land is so recent… nothing compared with the eons of time of civilization that has gone before.
With my face pressed into the cushion I began to readjust my notion of what it means to be Australian.
The bones have been returned to lake Mungo now, and buried with respectful ceremony.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart has made a generous offer to all of Australia.
Many Australians are beginning to understand the profound suffering caused by colonization. In Victoria steps have been taken towards forging Treaties. The Assembly of First Nations has developed a process. Nana Kelly’s grandson, Jason Kelly was a signatory to Statement from the Heart. He is urging that the Victoria journey to Treaty in Victoria should begin with truth telling. Some truth will be difficult to hear; some will be welcomed.
Victoria’s State Government has recognised the long tradition of Indigenous land management to prevent violent bushfires. It is funding projects of cultural burning.