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Lay Down The Stone Axe

Jared M. Field

‘Lay down the stone axe,
Take up the steel,
And work like a nigger,
For a white man meal.’

— Oodgeroo Noonuccal,
No more boomerang

***

I am not religious. Which is to say I do not subscribe to a particular religion. And yet, sometimes I wonder what our old gods would think of all this: trees bound by bitumen, stars lost in electric light, skyscrapers on bora sites.

Would Baiame even care? He gave us mountains and carved riverbeds but perhaps he would like this new set-up; there’s beauty in the black-snake roads shining in the night. Or maybe, like the new god Money, he is completely indifferent.  Then again, perhaps he and Birrahngooloo aren’t even here anymore. She gave us rain and life and the going was good. But if she’s closed up shop and headed for drier pastures I wouldn’t blame her. After all, millennia is a pretty good run.

Every now and then, though, I suspect they are still here. Not gone, just sleeping and Dreaming. I feel this most when the cicadas are in full swing and the heat is most oppressive. It’s in that moment when the rain comes through on her promise. It’s in the relief provided.

But this is all a hunch. As I said, I am not religious – I try to reserve blind faith for myself. Right or wrong though, of one thing I am certain: if they are still here, then they too are now foreigners in this place.

***

I do not mean foreign in the sense of strange or different – although that we most definitely are. I mean foreign in the sense of being unwelcome.  But even that is not quite right.  For us, the question isn’t so much ‘why are you here?’ but instead  ‘why are you still here?’

It’s funny how the addition of five letters –  s t i l l –  can inject so much poison into an idea.  In England, my foreignness is easy to wear. Sure, sometimes it comes with the nasty prick of racism. But even so, over here it feels rather simple. It is stock standard. It lacks specificity. In part, I think this is because my face has a certain vagueness. In me, for better or worse, the black features of my Ma and white features of my Pa seem to have melted, mingled and made someone that doesn’t quite look like either. But mostly, I think, it is because the English are not taught to hate First Nations Australians. They see my honey-coloured skin, yes, but they lack the knee-jerk reactions of Australians.

My foreignness in Australia, however, is not so comfortable. There’s a particular tightness afforded by those five letters: s t i l l . In them, there is a recognition that we once did belong. But then there is also the understanding that we do not belong now. Unlike in England, there is no place to go back to. This changes the racism. It has a certain potency that can only come from guilt. In Australia, it is the guilt of unspeakable atrocities – genocide after genocide – committed so that people can live in the suburbs, free to worry about the milk running low.

***

In traditional Gomeroi culture you are born under a certain tree. Then, when you die, you are buried under that tree. In this way, in the truest of senses, my family has for centuries grown forests. The bodies that have nourished me have nourished these trees. So when I say there is no place to go back to that isn’t quite right. There are lands where my body feels electric, where my muscles feel better and my movements more sure. What I mean to say is that there is no nation to return to.

The land that Australia now occupies is my land, but that nation is not my nation.

***

When I look to other countries and try to see what has made foreign life more bearable the answer seems mostly to be assimilation. Perhaps if, like others, we stripped ourselves of our differences, acceptance may follow. But there is a certain betrayal in that act: our differences are what make us rich. Unlike other foreigners there is no Motherland elsewhere that can guard our uniqueness. Perhaps instead the solution is to up and leave en masse and form diasporic communities, free from the tyranny of ‘still’.  But who will protect our Ancestor-forests and other secret things?  Deep in my marrow I know this move is not possible.

***

If Birrahngooloo and Baiame are sleeping perhaps their son the shape-shifter is not. Perhaps Daramulum has picked up the steel, but put the stone away for safekeeping. Maybe he is even learning the funny ways of money and not just magic. Getting to know both lore and law.

A modern foreigner, yes, but also an old sovereign.

Perhaps, as Daramulum, we need to shape-shift; allow ourselves to be both. Rework the poison of those five letters into something we can use. Not a question but a statement: we are still here.

But this is just a hunch. I am not religious.

***

Softly at first her wail begins,
One by one as they wake and hear
Join in the cry, and the whole camp
Wails for the dead, the poor dead
Gone from here to the Dark Place:
They are remembered.
Then it is over, life now,
Fires lit, laughter now,
And a new day calling’

Oodgeroo Noonuccal,
Dawn Wail For The Dead

 

Jared M. Field is reading for a DPhil in Mathematical Biology at Balliol College.