One of my friends from Cambodia times, sent a message with a request. Kevin Malone is now working with a Karuk tribal man from the redwood forests of northern California; his name is Terry Supahan. Kevin tells us that Terry will travel through Melbourne with a Californian group interested in ecological restoration. Kevin has convinced Terry that he should try to meet Malcolm and me. We are of course happy to meet a friend of a friend. Malcolm sets up a shared WhatsApp a time and p[lace.
My thoughts go back to a time when, while on a delegation in New Mexico, I experienced great kindness from First Nations people. Elders of the Tiwa Tribe of Native Americans invited our group to be guests at an important spiritual ritual. We travelled through the night to the Sovereign Country of their tribe. We reached Taos Pueblo before dawn; there was no light other than the stars in the sky. We stood silently among a large group of tribal people. The desert air was bitterly cold. The first rays of morning revealed a bank of adobe dwellings, one upon the other, thirty meters or so in front of us, reaching high above us, amber coloured in the dawn light. On ledges at the threshold of each dwelling women and children of the pueblo [village] stood motionless, wrapped in fringed blankets of turquoise, red, blue and yellow. The women’s knee-high moccasins shone white and bright; their dark faces were gilded by the rising sun. Still there was no sound.
I reached into the pocket of my jacket for a pencil and paper, a few scribbled words might hold this memory. A blanket clad woman beside me put her hand on my arm. ‘Shh’ she whispered. ‘This is a sacred experience. Let it happen’. A sharp, throaty, human sound cut through the stillness. Men came towards the space between us and the pueblo, moving slowly in two lines, pounding the earth this way and that, chanting a deep harmonious sound. The strengthening light shone bright on their near-naked painted bodies and breechcloths. They came in a rain of downy feathers that stuck to their black hair, their shoulders and arms. Elders stood waiting to bless them with leafy branches from an aspen tree. We stood ‘letting it happen’ for a long time. Slowly it seeped into the spirit.
When the cold gave way to desert heat the ritual ended. A scuffle broke out at the edge of the crowd; two young tourists had entered uninvited bringing in a camera. They were detained by the police responsible for the laws of this 40,000-hectare Sovereign Nation. The camera was seized, and the film thrown to the ground.
This all happened eight years ago but I am still intrigued to know more. I have read that that many colonized countries have granted ‘patches’ of sovereign land to their First Peoples. I know that Taos Pueblo battled both the colonists and warring tribes to maintain their land and their independence. I know that in the Constitution of the USA such sovereign territories have the same independence as do the each of the States. I want to learn more.
Terry Suphan flies from Hobart to Melbourne on a Sunday morning. This day has an 80% chance of rain, so Malcolm, his son and I arrive well ahead of time hoping to find a sheltered place to meet. Coffee shops and eateries which would be great on a weekday are closed on a Sunday. As it happens Terry finds a table at Nando’s, texts us the location and we cover the distance of four city blocks at a pace I would not have managed a month ago. There is a long table sheltered from the rain. It is a large group on a long table. There is colour, laughter and excitement and ample food. It is very noisy.
Terry, a man proud of his culture, silvering hair falling straight to his shoulders, brings me to a chair near his own and we share a bowl of hot chips. He asks questions, then listens intently leaning forward. He wants me to tell him about Australia’s Sovereign Lands. I answer, thinking as I speak, that what is happening here in Australia is very different from the way I understand it to be in the USA and other places. The first Peoples here always insist that they have never surrendered their sovereignty, ‘Always was, always will be Aboriginal Land’, they say. This sovereignty is a spiritual notion: the ancestral tie with country, as mother, can never be ceded or extinguished. The country owns them. They have the obligation to care for the country on which they were born.
Terry asks of the Uluru Statement from The Heart. It amazes him that 350 nations across this vast continent could simply come together and reach a decision. I pause to consider this, to find the right words. For more than 60,000 years a patchwork of nations co-existed on this land. It is the longest surviving culture in the world. They spoke different languages while many neighboring tribes were multilingual. The country we now call Australia there has been meeting and sharing between the tribes and the nations for more than 60,000 years of history. Song lines and message sticks have carried news from nation to nation during eons of time. There is protocol for welcoming a newcomer to country. They are welcome to come and to share if they come with good will. The Uluru statement is offering a gift of welcome to all who have come since the time that colonisation began.
Terry knows that Kevin and I worked together more than three decades ago, when 300,000 Cambodian refugees were pushed back to their country while their country still battled in civil war. We shared a one-room house in Battambang with Cambodians who were seeking refuge. These women, children and men were glad to have a door that locked, a mat to sleep on and rice to eat. As more and more families came for shelter this small space had sleeping mats and mosquito nets packed so closely that when everyone settled for the night they were lined up like sardines in a can.
The gift of safe sleep is one thing, the gift of dignity and hope is another. In those difficult days Kevin stayed around hearing each person’s story and asking thoughtful questions. Somehow the one who is heard respectfully is freed to imagine that a next step is possible. Kevin did it well in those days. Terry laughs. ‘Kevin still does this while drinking a cup of coffee’.
I hope to meet Terry again. What he did for me is what Kevin did for those refugees long ago. He sat beside me sharing food, questioning, letting me say things I had not said before.
The group disperses for another meeting. We linger together, Malcolm, Hal, Terry, Karen and me. We part when we must. With respect. Tomorrow Terry will travel north across Australia. He will ask questions, will listen and hear, just as Kevin Malone would do.
A friend of a friend.