Australasian Dramaturgy and First Nation Cultural Dramaturgy: Looking Back Before We Go Forward

Colleen Wall*

Abstract

Colleen Wall is a Cultural Mentor to emerging First Nation playwrights, artistic directors, arts managers and actors, who write, develop and present First Nation Truth Telling stories of real-life issues that may evoke associated traumas, but softened with Murri Humour. Weaving ancient practices and modern influences that influence old lifeways her current work ensures safe, culturally sound environments that honour stories and writers, and protect casts and crews. As actors portray in-your-face, real-life performances, that may activate negative memories in audiences, Colleen’s Truth Telling process focuses on intergenerational trauma reactivated during rehearsals by personal, cultural and/or relived experiences. Some works draw place ancestors, who pop into rehearsals to see who’s causing trouble.

First Nation Cultural Interventionist Dramaturgy: Looking Back before we go Forward
Person

I am a Senior Woman of the Dauwa (Stringy Bark) Clan of the Kabior Kau’bvai (Bee) Nation from the Mary River watershed in Southeast Queensland. My ninety-six-year-old Mother is matriarch of our large family, the oldest of five living generations. I’ve worked under her guidance in the First Nations Arts and Cultural Sector since I was born, learning massage and soothing techniques when my youngest brother was born and to draw with pencil while we were droving in the bush, as it was easy to carry.

Image of Mary River. Photo: Mattinbgn – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

I started painting when I lived at Konka, an isolated Cattle Station, north of Doomadgee Aboriginal Community in the Gulf of Carpentaria. My partner was contracted to shoot out the wild cattle to stop the spread of Tuberculosis (TB). My sister owned the Station next door and both stations joined Doomadgee’s boundary line. We were friends with many of the old women and they often dropped into our camp at Konka as they passed through to take their grandchildren to stay at the old Doomadgee Camp on the Island. The kids missed school on pension days and the few days after as there was always too much alcohol violence at home. They taught Yenan Djuka / Grandmothers Lawat that time and I learned that being connected to your place is an important process in Aboriginal Culture as it grounds you, connects you to Yau’ar-Kuan / Song-lines—gives you purpose.

Looking after Country is a three-generational thing, you must know three generations before you, and after you, to properly know Yenan Djuka / Grandmothers Law and your Place and Responsibilities in looking after Family and Land for future generations. Knowing three generations before and after you, puts you in a circular Cultural Practice that loops forward and back, keeping an eye on all generations. An old Doomadgee/Afghan man shared our camp, teaching the boys local knowledge of Living on Country, tracking and hunting skills which set my son up for his Caring for Country, horticultural and ecological interest in obtaining an Archaeology Degree. When the TB (Tuberculosis) Eradication Program ended, we got a job managing the Caravan Park in Burketown. I sold lots of small luggage-size paintings to overseas tourists. We moved to Mt Isa so the kids could go to High School and we opened an arts and craft shop called Local Talent that showcased works from local artists and crafts people, but it was a ”free cuppa” stop for local Elders walking from the courthouse to the post office.

In 1989, I coordinated the Mt Isa visit for the Queensland Art Gallery’s Balance team and billeted them with artists, so they got to know us. They flew all over Australia looking for artists to give a balanced showcase of contemporary and traditional arts. Then I coordinated our artists to consult with the Government who were undertaking a review on the Office of the Arts and Cultural Development (OACD) programs, to enable access to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and then I was put on the first Aboriginal Assessment Panel. After my husband died, I moved to Brisbane in 1992 to work in OACD and I have been in the arts and cultural sector ever since. 

Now I am a grandmother as my daughter has four children; she was the first trainee, Office Manager of Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts (ACPA); my son is Manager of Repatriation of Human Remains, Queensland Museum. He knows and respects the Mai’ban Djuka /Grandfathers Law process for working with senior men who visit their ancestors; I help with Women’s business. Mum came to the Balance 1990 Exhibition celebrations at Queensland Art Gallery. They bought my painting, A Foot in Both Camps. I base all my teachings on Yenan Djuka /Grandmother’s Law—influenced by Mum’s way of life and beliefs and the many First Nation Cultural Grandmothers I met nationally while working across the First Nation sector—I respectfully acknowledging their collective wisdom.

My current Cultural Advisor and/or Cultural Dramaturg work, aims to help older ones within the Playlab Sparks and Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC) Seedlings Programs ensuring their new works are developed, produced and presented in a way that is Culturally Grounded.

First Nation people often change their practices to fit the market, creating works to suit a funding guideline. I have altered my practice to suit the needs of writers, actors and developmental staff, to create an audience experience that tells the true story whether modern or ancient, and ensures the work isn’t dishonored but aims to inform, and share, a unique First Nation history experience.

The Sparks program (Playlab Theatre) and Seedling program (QPAC) work together to support First Nations writers taking their first steps into playwriting. Playlab Theatre’s Sparks Program is the first step that focuses on the creative development process; enabling artists and creatives the space to explore, seed new ideas and challenge forms of expression. Experienced artists guide emerging First Nations playwrights through a range of activities and workshops designed to spark ideas, introduce elements of craft, and provide strategies for activating brand new script ideas. First Nations industry practitioners provide professional and artistic insights, stimulating conceptualisation and development of new work. Sparks concludes with a public reading of an extract from each of the developing new works, featuring professional actors and directors. The public reading gives an opportunity for a range of theatres to choose an extract that they feel has potential to take forward to presentation on stage. Then it goes into rehearsal and is presented on Stage.

QPAC’s First Nations Seedling program provides creative development opportunities to First Nation artists and creatives. It consists of four strands, Sparks (writing), Footprints (dance), Blakbeats (Music) and New Works. There have been over 105 artists brought together to explore, seed new ideas and challenge forms of expression. QPAC provides space and professionals to assist in taking the script through the development phase to be presented to an audience of interested directors, producers, funding bodies and publicity personnel to sell to potential audiences.

My work ensures there are safe and culturally sound environments, to honour stories and writers, and protect casts and crews. Actors often portray in-your-face, real-life performances, that activate negative memories in audiences; my work aims to have a reformative Truth Telling process, focusing on addressing intergenerational trauma that is often reactivated during rehearsals by personal, cultural and/or relived experiences. Some works draw place-based ancestors, who pop into rehearsals to see what the noise is about or who’s causing trouble. Rachael Swain of Marrugeku confirms this during the forum— “Dramaturgies: the artist as agent provocateur and cultural interventionist” on the second day of the 2003 Rising Melbourne Festival as part of the Australian Indigenous Choreographers Project (Australia) with her comment about combining notions of dreaming with contemporary consciousness.

My current Cultural Mentor work assists emerging First Nation playwrights, artistic directors, arts managers and actors, who write, develop and present First Nation Truth Telling stories. The process manages the associated traumas, evoked by the real-life issues highlighted in the new scrips, being rehearsed and revised, to fit into a suitable performance timeframe for a season run. These stressors are often hard to manage on a continual basis so it’s always good to see them softened by the addition of Murri Humour that sneaks into the script adaptions when actors are playing with drafts. Sometimes they are just mucking around, and the Artistic Director likes what they see as it brings the real-life element to the work. While some stories depict real life tragedies others weave bits of ancient practice and modern influences that explain changes in our old-world lifeways.

Place

Knowing your Dha’gun / Country); and Dha (place in it) and where and how you fit into your cultural knowing is very important. The Doomadgee women placed their Grandchildren in the winter camp on the Island where the cold southerly winds are blocked. It’s a large sand dune that is often isolated by king tides that flow around it and covers the salt flats. This dune runs in an east-west direction, along the coast from Point Parker to Cliffdale Creek. Between us, my partner and I had five children and we were accepted by the women as a cultural family and became Carers for Country while we were there. Even after I left, I remained connected to one Aunty whose Grandson I met only ten years ago. I got to fulfill my cultural obligation to this Aunty when she gave me that Grandson for my adopted son, just before she passed—but that’s another long Cultural Responsibility story that involves three adopted sons.

On Konka, our three young ones looked after a group of grass tufts, giving the old ones a year-round supply of weaving material. We were taught to make string and which plant to dye it with. Our camp was on a large swamp area which, in the wet season, fed into the Great Artesian Basin through a sinkhole, into underground caverns that refilled the Great Artesian Basin. It is connected to a spring in the middle of the Gulf of Carpentaria were birds and fishermen often access fresh water. Scientists proved it’s the same water as in the springs in Torres Strait and New Guinea. Little did I know, that living north of Doomadgee on that unassuming freshwater swamp would link me strongly to Nga’bvang-Dha’gun/Mother Earth; Dha’gun Djuka /Land Law; and Yenan Djuka /Grandmothers Law within my Kabi Homelands and our Kgung-Nga’bvang’s Yau’ar-Kuan (Water Mother’s Songline) the Freshwater Dreaming that travels all over Australia; through that sink-hole swamp that joined Bundilla (meeting of waters) Waterhole on Old Doomadgee; where those old women camped when the salt flats were too wet to cross. It runs along the continental shelf too.

When we started our Native Title Claim around 2003, we did many family gatherings where we collected much historical information, like the Freshwater Dreaming Story and its Songline, that had been passed down through our family’s female line for over eight generations. My mother’s uncle clarified our Kabi/Kau’bvai lineage through our language and a story that his Yenan /Grandmother had told him. It is a female story and there were no bloodline women there at the time for her to pass it onto, so she gave it to him. My knowledge on Yenan Djuka was heightened while working with all the old Aunties over the years, and slowly my knowledge began merging—sometimes you don’t know you’re being taught until later when that bit, links with this bit and joins with that other bit, given to you by yet another Aunty. Then an Ancestor taps you on your shoulder to say, ‘” You’re doing a good job!and laughs when they frighten the crap out of you! Good Murri Humour!

People

The Place background above explains the cultural pillar of work, that got me to where I am today. I realised that I needed to hand some of the learnings onto our older ones who are working beside the young ones now entering into the arts field as playwrights, actors, directors and dramaturgs Especially the ones who write, develop, produce and rehearse their story plays off country for public viewing, that may not fit into place or may sing up old people in the telling of it.

It is my responsibility to hand on knowledges to our younger people, just as it is their right to have that knowledge available to them to maintain their connection to story, people and place. In the old days it would have been taught this by their grandmothers in the camp. Here I must acknowledge that on 13 September 2007, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly.

I worked with many of our old ones who worked to add our First Nation wisdom into this Declaration. Three of its articles, being Article 11 (1&2), Article 15 (1&2) and Article 31 (1&2) give us the rights to:

practise and revitalize….cultural traditions and customs, and to maintain, protect and develop the past, present and future manifestations of their cultures, such as….performing arts and literature; the dignity and diversity of….cultures, traditions, histories and aspirations….appropriately reflected in….public information; promote tolerance, understanding and good relations among indigenous peoples and all other segments of society; maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions, as well as the manifestations of their….cultures, knowledge of the properties o ….oral traditions, literatures, designs,….visual and performing arts; maintain, control, protect and develop their intellectual property over such cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, and traditional cultural expressions. In conjunction with indigenous peoples, States shall take effective measures to recognize and protect the exercise of these rights.

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As this is the People’s stage of the process, so it is based on an adult version, of Yenan Djuka, for when First Nation people are telling stories, from their homeland or heartland, and maybe telling them on another’s Country. Before, if they were coming here, they would have been welcomed into the Story Circle by Traditional Owners. Now we have an Acknowledge of Country as well as a Welcome practice. Government has a process of which should be done when but when we start with the first readings, I do the Acknowledgement which includes Placing them in a new Country.

The issue of bringing traditional ceremony to Meanjin/Brisbane theatre company La Boite from an author’s homeland, was first addressed in Tiddas by the author, Anita Heiss, myself and a local female Elder who has a full-bloodline history of their ownership of this Country where we now work. I also raise an issue here about how we see and understand Government requirements that oppose Cultural needs. To explain this, I note the governance process of Queensland’s four major organisations (Queensland Art Gallery, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Queensland Museum and Queensland Theatre) in the Cultural Precinct. In their official planning documents, they all have the same objective requiring them to contribute to the cultural, social and intellectual development of all Queenslanders and the sameguiding principle to achieve this objectone meagre line that says: respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures should be affirmed. What does that really mean? What does the word respect’ mean? And what are they affirming? Is it just a show that might have some First Nation Content? Is it to bring more First Nation patrons into the building? Is it employment? Or just giving us space to utilise the building for things other than our plays? Access and equity, like the word respect, has many connotations within the mainstream arts but has a clear land-based process within First Nation Arts!

In my cultural purview, the most important thing that needs to be respected every day, by the many theatres in Brisbane, is our MAP—Major Ancient Pathways— that almost all of them are situated on or nearby. These pathways or trails facilitate the energy movement of a Yau’ar-Kuan/Songline or Dreaming Storyline. They are alive with energy flowing from every group’s Country. Like the Freshwater Dreaming Songline, a women’s story, that runs through my Ka’bvai to my sister homelands here at Gutha (Mt Coot’tha) connects all major ancient waterholes. This is the one I tell the young ones to use, to calm them down, to regenerate their positive energies, to go and sit there on that spot and let that positive energy flow through them. Just like sitting in a flowing stream of water, it washes out the negativity and replaces it with positive flow from your ancestors, your Country. In reality these modern storytelling places are situated on ancient performance spaces of First Nations peoples who sang and danced their stories in that place for over seventy thousand years. This is important knowledge for our First Nation people who are telling stories, many of which hold the memory of heartland or removal stories and relate to Truth Telling.

Truth Telling stories have been inadvertently activated through a government “funding cycle” that gives theatres the ability to access funding from places like the Healing Foundation or Closing the Gap process to employ First Nation arts sector people. They report this in their funding outcomes and their Reconciliation Action Planning process. So how do we define which is more important to the process—the funding or the stories it facilitates and how will it be reported against in the Annual Report of the theatre. We need to look deeper into this process, we need to ask how the theatre organisations will utilise the funding to create processes to: – pay respect” (which they usually don’t know how to do respectively) or employ First Nation people”’ under a Reconciliation Action Plan (which they don’t know how to use in a cultural appropriate way) and to develop and present plays that are of a Truth Telling nature (which they aren’t usually equipped to deliver in a mutually safe way). All this uncertainty in a government-created process, activates a spiral of intergenerational, cultural and personal trauma, that literally spins down to wake the dead.

By showcasing new stories which are skillfully and passionately dramatised by very talented directors, actors and other crew, who are employed for their ability to give the audience a real life immersion that not only jolts personal memories or experiences but may also “call the ancestors” who literally pop into the rehearsal studios—uninvited I might add—to check out who’s in trouble.

To compound this issue many of the theatres in Meanjin / Brisbane are built on old Pathways along which our Ancestors still travel. Ironically, they are all near old camp sites where our old ones “still hang out”. We encountered this first at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre when working with Playlab in the script development phase of some new works. Many of our young ones are culturally and spiritually attuned to old people and feel when they’re around. Some freak out when they turn up to watch, sometimes getting involved in the storytelling or angry and in ya face as the young ones say which relates to Rachael Swain’s …. dealing with multilayered intercultural meanings.

We must ask—are these old people acting as agent provocateur or cultural interventionists?

Process

To deal with the issues raised above in the People context, I now work as a Cultural Aunty supporting young First Nation actors, playwrights, producers, and directors from the first day of script reading, through development and onto rehearsals etc. I look at appropriate wording, vocalising and presentation of stories; making sure they are culturally safe in the telling; and that the writer’s cultural knowledge, and responsibilities relating to their stories, are protected and the presenters and audience are equally safe in the telling. I am employed as a First Nation Cultural Advisor and Cultural Dramaturg in theatre organisations that have had firsthand experience with visitations and are willing to ensure the space is a safe one from the develop the script stage to the next step of producing and presenting the shows. I ensure that First Nation Elders, artists and artworkers and their stories are respected; that all the appropriate safeguards are set in place for the artistic team and audiences; most especially where Truth Telling stories may reactivate intergenerational trauma of audience members. As there is just one of me, I am passing on my skills to those who I know can handle these situations if need be. Most times I work on Zoom and while doing this I am training up the older actors and arts workers to be vigilant in what is happening and how people are behaving as this is often a clue that there is spiritual interferences happening.

My Cultural Interventions Base

I have worked on a national scale, within the Cultural and Legal Framework mentioned above, for the past thirty years. The network of colleagues I made over this time, who I’m still in contact with, has served to sanction my skills to undertake the Cultural Interventions I now adopt as a Cultural Advisor, Dramaturg and Mentor within the First Nation Performing Arts Space. I feel this process is not only necessary, but vital in facilitating a safe space within Story Telling in Theatre.

Colleen Wall at Laboite Theatre for NAIDOC Week 11 July 2023. Photo: Markus Ravik. Courtesy of LaBoite Theatre

According to white google, I have to be competent in the five components of cultural competence: cultural awareness, cultural knowledge, cultural skill, cultural desire, and cultural encounters. It says my skills have to include cultural competence, to adapt culturally sensitive interventions that involve adapting existing processes and programs for the wider audience to understand and enjoy First Nation Theatre works. So why is culturally sensitive, responsive intervention important to this process?

Well, white google says that responsiveness is also one of the most effective ways to build trust among your peers, develop a rapport within a team, and create better professional relationships all the way around. So, are we saying that theatres have to go beyond their ethical conscience or perceptual awareness of contemporary obligations as opposed to Cultural Respect of Country and People in acknowledging the traditional owners of the land. Do we take a tentative step into the black unknown? To begin with, the black unknown is based on respect, responsible, resilient and resourcefulness—words with an outward doing focus on how we behave in a collective or communal life. In the First Nation world, trust is an unknown because it is based on faith, hope, belief, and confidence—words based on the being of an individual.

According to black google, non-Indigenous people also need to be competent in being aware; have knowledge and skills, and a desire to have encounters with First Nation Workswhen going to the theatreor does it require that all our shows act as a teaching and learning experience?

Cultural Influencers and Change Makers

One of the Cultural Influencers I still work and have contact with is Michael Leslie. This connection has fused my many practices, both on a professional as well as a cultural level, into a program framework. Working with Michael Leslie, a Winston Churchill Fellowship recipient (1981) gave me an opportunity to learn new skills—fortitude, durability and acceptance. As a young female Senior Policy Officer from Arts Queensland, I was sent to Perth by the Premier to convince an energetic forthright and confident Aboriginal man, to relocate his successful but challenging artistic life, to Brisbane to establish the Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts (ACPA). I bribed him with Mrs Fields Cookie!

Michael earned his position at the Alvin Ailey Dance Centre in New Yor City (1981 to 1983), with determination and hard work. He worked while he studied and graduated from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. and in early 1988 Michael was in Western Australia (WA) teaching at the Aboriginal Dance Development Unit in the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association (AAPA). Jimmy Chai, a self-taught Aboriginal musician and composer from Broome, approached Michael to choregraph the original production of Broome-based Bran Nue Dae. The first public viewing was in 1986 a work in progress—held at an Aboriginal Writers’ Oral Literature and Dramatists’ Association workshop in Perth.

In the initial development process, Michael saw a need for a training program to facilitate the production of the Bran Nue Dae and build the professional capacity of the cast and crew. Michael and others established the first Aboriginal Musical Theatre training program in Western Australia (WA) and this three-month Aboriginal Performance program delivered skills in theatre, singing, acting and dancing over three months of rehearsals. It became the Aboriginal Performance course within Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA).

Bran Nue Dae premiered at the University of Western Australia’s Octagon Theatre during the 1990 Festival of Perth and toured nationally as Australia’s first Aboriginal musical during 1990-91. Bran Nue Dae development process highlighted a need for an organisation to continue developing Aboriginal works and in 1991 WA’s Black Swan Theatre Company with Michael as a founder, Associate Director and resident Choreographer was created.In 1993, Black Swan Theatre reproduced the original Bran Nue Dae for a second tour in Melbourne and Perth. It broke all box office records for sales as a theatre musical. It holds the distinction of being not only Australia’s first Aboriginal musical, but also the first hit Australian musical to be made into a major feature film. Bran Nue Dae initiated the first training program, developed specifically for Aboriginal people, creating a new platform for telling Aboriginal stories through musical theatre. It was the seeding program that eventually became the Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts (ACPA).

Mimi was an original concept of Michael’s as he saw the stilt dancers in Africa and soon developed in collaboration with Stalker Theatre. Michael explained that Mimi was not afly-by-night, short-term idea or project. It was a long-term vision for our people: having a hybrid physical theatre company that was multidisciplinary, cross-cultural and site-specific. Michael explains that physical and site-specific meant physically interconnected with the landscape of our stories, not always on stilts; more about connection to Country and why all performances have to be elevated to professional theatre. It was co-devised by Kunwinjku storytellers, musicians and dancers, the West Australian Aboriginal dancers that he brought to the project and the physical theatre performers from Stalker Theatre—known worldwide for acrobatic dancing on stilts. Commissioned by the Festival of Perth to premiere in 1996, the production, based on the stories of Kunwinjku painter and storyman Thompson Yulidjirri and the Karrparra song cycle of Kunwinjku songman Bruce Nabegeyo, came from Gunbalanya, Western Arnhem Land. Stalker Theatre had to work within a different culture; with specific protocols that protected their sacred values; with issues that had to be addressed before we could produce a story like Mimi for presentation to the wider community. Drawn from someone else’s story—it took a lot of work. It involved specific process to undertake this type of work on country as well as respecting the sacredness of the story. Marrugeku was born out of that multidisciplinary, cross-cultural and site-specific process that created the Mimi “story” and co-founded in 1994 by Michael and a group of artists from diverse backgrounds. The name is a language word, given by Kunwinjku traditional owner Jacob Nayinggul, the first works were created on his country. It changed to Marrkidjbu Clever Men’ to reflect its correct origin.

It’s grown and changed, creating long-term intercultural projects in remote and small-town Aboriginal communities. In 2003 Marrugeku moved home to Broome, where several founding company members live. Marrugeku and the making of Mimi pioneered a contemporary, process-driven, intercultural performance practice.Mimi’s exposure in national and international arts festivals had a significant impact on raising awareness of Aboriginal culture. This process enabled Michael to move from dancing to storytelling. He says they tell him he now does creative choreography. All his collective work created a new platform which he has passed on.Now he’s doing performance art. His process taught me—if there’s a need—create the change.

Working with Elders

Older First Nation people have a totally different way of working than those who have been through university. Everything takes time. They have to be comfortable with working in an area. If they ask to work outside, it is because they don’t like the feel of the building. Like I said before you have to know three generations before you and after you. They come with a mindset that is thousands of years old. You must always offer a cuppa. They judge you on what you do more than what you know. They have to be interested in what you are doing to work with you. If they have a good idea, they will normally have figured out how they want it to work and failure isn’t an option. If they seem to lose interest it’s because they don’t like how you are working to achieve their outcome—not yours. The work we do is in the business of human behaviour. They are the observer and sometimes, a not so silent critic. You might practice originality and flair; be out there, over the top; talk too much or too loudly. They will sit quiet and not participate if they think you are too much.

Remember while you are talking – you’re not listening! And not collaborating. If you show understanding and give them a chance to think and talk together, they will participate. You must remember they are of an ancient collective who blends in; they may nod and smile at your point but that doesn’t mean they agree with you. They will not openly disagree as it is your point of view not theirs; and they don’t trust people who talk “at them”—you have to remember to take with them not over them. Always bring more food than necessary and containers so they can take some home. Even if you offer the left-over tea bags or sugar and coffee. It will be in your favour.

Verifying Yenan Djuka 

I have worked with many individual women and women’s groups where I delivered my Yenan Djuka /Grandmothers Law processes for free to keep their grandchildren from being place in other areas by the Department. Some used Yenan Djuka to have grandchildren returned to Perth from Rockhampton after the Qld Dept flew over and took her from the school without telling the grandmother. Some used it to stop grandchildren from being taken from their families in Queensland. A Grandfather claim compensation for trauma caused to an unborn child by its mother as he as the carer after the mother imprisoned. I have also run free workshops for Aboriginal Centres across Queensland who have sanctioned my skills and knowledge in culture, because I, and their families live the culture and have been recognized by both the cultural teachers and leaders of those communities. Many who practice Yenan Djuka are born with the Spirit to lead or facilitate a certain cultural activity which currently, in my case, is protecting the telling of our Truth Stories. I have had offers from universities to publish my work—but Grandmother’s Law is not for sale. It cannot be contained in a book as it is born of Land not people. It belongs to First Nation Grandmothers.

Yenan Djuka /Grandmother’s Law, a Traditional Cultural Practice undertaken by First Nation Grandmothers across the breadth of Australia has now been officially recognised, within the Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s voices): Securing our Rights, Securing our Future Report 2020. The Report was research and written by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, June Oscar AO, who is a Bunuba woman of Fitzroy Crossing, in Western Australia and published by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC):

Throughout 2018, the Commissioner and her team travelled to 50 locations in urban, regional and remote areas across every state and territory. They conducted 106 engagements and met with 2,294 women of all ages. Over 100 submissions and 300 survey responses were also received.

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Acknowledgement of Country

I always start my process with by respectfully acknowledging the ancient lands on which we are working as it is the old people from that country that will be listening in. I pay respects to the peoples whose many hundreds of generations have maintained that land as the pristine place it was, when the British came and took it without permission. My process of respectfully acknowledging the First Nation peoples shows respect for the first story keepers and tellers of this ancient land and their many generations who have handed down, and still hand down the ancient stories that are still told today.

Many First Nation peoples want to inform, and then share, their unique stories and histories with others. Many of these stories teach the importance of Looking after Country through First Nation Lore, where story or Lore telling has taught First Nation Law for many thousands of years. For the past 5 years I have worked as Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s Elder in Residence and in that position, I had the privilege of researching the ancient and not so recent First Nation history of the area on which QPAC was built. I found campsites, pathways and significant places that are still here in parks, under bitumen and the stories are still in the land.

One of the things I have added to Acknowledging Country is from my experience and knowledge that many of the old streets were built over ancient pathways and the energies from the past still run within the land. I have taught the young ones coming through that they can tap into these energies to rejuvenate, relax, reconnect to their own homelands as one of the story lines that runs through here is Kgung-Nga’bvang’s Yau’ar-Kuan /Water Mother’s Songline, the Freshwater Dreaming that travels all over Australia. It travels to every major water hole or spring in Australia through the Great Artesian Basin which is the Heart of Mother Earth. The rivers are her veins, and the rain is her tears that she cries with joy to rejuvenate her peoples on this landmass. I have passed on the knowledge to our young ones on how to keep themselves and fellow workers safe when working in this process. In doing and Acknowledgement you are not just talking to the people in the room. It’s essential that you talking to the ancestors who still inhabit the land and Mother Earth herself. She and they are always listening and watching and waiting to tap you on the shoulder.


Bibliography

Oscar, June. “Wiyi Yani U Thangani Report (2020) 9 December 2020.” Australian Human Rights Commission. Accessed 12 December 2023.

Swain, Rachael. “A Meeting of Nations: Trans-Indigenous and Intercultural Interventions in Contemporary Indigenous Dance.” Theatre Journal, vol. 67, no. 3, 2015, pp. 503–21. JSTOR. Accessed 10 Dec. 2023.

Swain, Rachael. “Australian Indigenous Choreographers Project.” Melbourne Festival Rising 2003. Accessed 10 December 2023.

Wall, Colleen. “Interview with Michael Leslie.” 


Photo: Courtesy of the Author

*Colleen Wall, a Dauwa (Stringy-Bark) woman, of the Kau’bvai (Bee) Nation from the Mary River watershed worked thirty years in First Nation Arts, establishing First Nation organisations and developing and delivering programs for artists, is now Cultural Advisor, Dramaturg and Mentor to theatres, developing, producing and presenting First Nation Truth Telling works incubated within Playlab’s Sparks and the Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s Seedlings Programs.

Copyright © 2023 Colleen Wall
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN:2409-7411

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