Aboriginal spirituality and its intense connection with the land holds powerful healing lessons for us all. Rosamund Burton speaks with elder Max Dulumunmun Harrison.
Max Dulumunmun Harrison is likely to be the last Aboriginal man to go through the extensive traditional initiation of the Yuin tribe, which involves many years learning on country. The Yuin tribe’s land on Australia’s east coast extends from the Snowy River in the south to the escarpment of Wollongong in the north and west out to the Southern Highlands. Max recently wrote a book called, My People’s Dreaming (Finch Publishing 2009), “to raise awareness of Aboriginal spirituality and to explain how we connect to the land,” he explains.
When I speak to Rex Finch at the publishing house I am delighted to hear that when I interview Max Dulumunmun Harrison, known as Uncle Max, he’ll probably suggest we sit out in the bush. I have visions of sitting under a tree maybe watching a willy wagtail hopping from branch to branch, and perhaps feeling the Koorah Koo-rie wind spirit as it gently rustles the leaves.
But it has been raining heavily and instead we end up at a cafe in Woronora in South Sydney where Max lives, and sitting on the terrace we have to raise our voices to be heard above the constant stream of traffic crossing a high bridge over the river and the frequent arrival of local buses beside the café, the loud diesel engines of which the drivers keep running for ten minutes at a time. This cacophony, occasionally capped by the piercing screech of a white cockatoo, is a painful reminder of just how little regard we really have for the earth in today’s world.
“People are saying what are we going to do about climate change, what are we going to do about the ozone layer? All the great minds in the world won’t fix it,” Max says. “All they have to do is stop the wants, of all the things that are advertised on television and radio. When people see them things they want a bit of them, and where does that come from? It comes from the land. It comes from the Mother. People just can’t understand that. They are looking up there at the ozone layer. It is not up there that’s the problem, it’s down here. And this is what I am trying to show people and teach them.”
We have to watch what the land is telling us, Uncle Max continues.
“The three principles of learning are watching, listening and seeing. If we don’t follow these principles then we don’t learn anything.” He believes the more people he can teach about caring for the land, the greater his legacy. So for the last 30 or more years, Uncle Max has been taking groups of people of all backgrounds, beliefs and nationalities onto his traditional country, showing them the rocks and sacred places and teaching them about reconnecting with the land.
Several times a year, he performs a ceremony on the beach to send the whales on their way when they are heading north and again when they are coming back south. Many of the whales used to be elders on land, Max explains, but they were so involved in fishing and the ocean that the rest of the elders told them they needed to go out into the sea to protect the fish and look after the food and medicines there.
He describes when he was three years old watching his father and uncles “slapping the water” to bring in the dolphins. The dolphins then pushed the fish into the channel so the men were able to catch them with their small hand nets.
“These old men were masters of communicating and getting in touch with the spirit of the dolphins.”
Sometimes, he says, when he tells people that the land is sacred they want proof, and look for engravings on trees or rock art. They all document “where we were and what we’ve done,” he explains, but a sacred area is where the land has been sung. For many years that particular spot has been sung by the Yuin people, and that has created a significant energy.
My People’s Dreaming recounts that a year after the sacred mountain Gulaga, also known as Mount Dromedary, was handed back to the Yuin people, the forestry commission went in and cut down the trees at the base of the mountain. While the commission claimed they were not disturbing the sacred sites at the top of the mountain, they did actually seriously disrupt the sacred songlines, the lines of connectedness.
I ask him how non-Aboriginal Australians, who do not have a history of traditional country here, or the same strong connection to this continent as the Aboriginals, can develop that feeling of belonging and connection to the land.
“The more they open their minds up and listen to what we are trying to say, the better it can be. Then they’ll become connected and feel they have an ownership. The only way they are connected now is with the dollar. So remove the dollar, put in the spirit and take out a withdrawal slip. It’s all about understanding and connecting.”
He says some people do feel connected to the land, but are often not aware of it. It is only when he asks them to talk about their favourite water or mountain and they start to think, that they realized they are connected to that particular part of the land.
Max is not currently living in Yuin country, but says he goes back there as often as he can, particularly if he is agitated or out of sorts.
“Then I’ll go back down home, and I’ll sit in any part of my country and communicate with some of the old people who are not here now.” He points to his mobile phone and says, “Any messages that I get don’t come from that, but they come from the spirits, what I call spiritual emails.”
He talks openly about his communication with spirits and says he still talks to and learns from his mother, who lived to the age of 99 and his grandfather, who lived to 104. He says with a grin that he is telling his grandfather that he is going to pass him and live to 105. This means that aged 76 and looking at least ten years younger, he is still in the prime of his life. I suggest that he must have looked after himself, but he tells me that for 25 years he knocked himself about with alcohol. The turnaround came, he recounts, when he dropped a bottle of wine and as it was spilling out onto the ground he started to cry. Then he saw a spirit of an old man standing beside him.
“The old fella just stood there, and I looked and him and I said, ‘It’s okay for you old fella you’ve never had alcohol and drugs and that.’ And he just looked at me, and he waved his hand up and down, and doing that was describing the contour of the land and all the bush, you see. And I went ‘Oh, my God.’ Yes, all in that bush is deadly drugs. I’d never reveal them to anyone, but they’re there. There was a law for those, but we never had a law against alcohol because it wasn’t part of the bush.”
More spirits came to him including the five elders who taught him law when he was a boy. “They pulled me out of those 25 years of hell and degradation and self-destruction. That’s a quarter of a century,” he adds, “and I want to live to be 105.”
Having escaped from the clutches of alcohol he spent years helping others with drug and alcohol problems, until the spirits intervened again and told him to get out because the work was too traumatic for him. They advised him instead to be an example to others.
“You just walk around and teach about spirituality. You teach about spiritual connectedness,” was the message he describes receiving - so that was what he started to do.
Max talks about the many years he was taught about his country by five elders. Max only spent a couple of years in the school system when he was in his teens, but he says his five teachers taught him far more than a classroom ever could. He recalls his sense of honour in being picked out by five masters and taken through law.
“They taught me how to communicate without voice. For 10 days at a time, six of us all together, not one of us speaking, but each of us knew what was required. And those 10 days were some of the most beautiful days.”
Max is wearing a red t-shirt on which is written in large white letters on the front of it, and in smaller back letters through the patterns on it, the word, “respect”.
Respect is of huge significance in Max’s life. Not only is he greatly respected now by younger Aboriginals, but he explains, respect was integral to his learning, It was because as a boy he respected his parents, grandparents and his uncles and aunties, and did not question their authority when they told him not to go near a particular tree or rock, that he was taught so much and now hold this exceptional legacy of learning. Inside, he admits, he would be longing to ask why and question their authority. But he says he knew that if they said not to go there, then he had no reason to. And it could be as long as 15 years later before he was told why.
Another spirit who comes to Max is his oldest son, Tony, who hanged himself in 2000. Max has dedicated My People’s Dreaming to his son and in it he describes receiving a telephone call from his sister-in-law with the news. As she sobbed on the other end of the line, he said, “Son, I forgive you,” and explains that he forgave him for all the pain he was causing to his family and friends.
He goes on to talk about Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Aboriginal people in 2008. This really emphasized the stolen generations, he explains, “but I had already forgiven all of those things”.
“I try not to get involved in those events of Sorry Days,” he admits, “because I don’t want to be stuck in that energy of being sorry and not moving on.” When I hear these words I realize that this is a man who is truly standing in his own power. Instead of languishing in what life has thrown at him, he is waking up every morning and greeting Grandfather Sun and welcoming the first day of the rest of his life.
Max Dulumunmun Harrison’s wisdom and connection with the land is truly inspiring and it makes me realise how vitally important it is for people at this time to really listen and connect to the earth, and the enormous benefits to be gained on so many levels if we do.