The God in Oz

The God in Oz

Fragment of an article from Tygodnik Powszechny, December 2021

Beneath the surface of white Australia there is this unwanted, black one. To explore it, you would have to live for many years somewhere in the wilderness among the First Nations. Or at least wander around the Outback. Marek Tomalik lives in the Beskid Mały Mountains, and outside the windows of his house there is a space: hunched, monotonous, a bit like in the Australian Alps. Aboriginal paintings on the walls. I want to find out from Mark, who has traveled through the Australian desert 16 times, written several books about the Outback and considers himself an ambassador of Australia, what it's like to sit next to an Indigenous person. And what does this common silence mean?

– They don't want contacts with white people – says Marek. – During my trips, the ice only broke a few times: when we got a flat tire and were saved by a silent Native family passing by. I did some shopping for them at the gas station and only then did the guy tell me where he was from. The second time was when we were looking for Góra Strzelecki and asked the Natives for directions. When we used the magic word "Ancestor", they started to listen to us and drew a detailed map with a stick in the sand, because walking in the footsteps of the Ancestor is a very important mission for them. The third time I met an Indigenous artist on the Todd River, we baked kangaroo tails together. For the fourth time, don't ask me how, I managed to participate in a ceremony led by a Native elder.

– So what do you understand what Dreaming is for First Nations? Is it religion?

– For a very long time, the British deprecated everything that was Aboriginal. It was decided that since it was not the religion of the Book, but only some shamanic superstitions, it needed to be eradicated. It was only in the 1940s that systematic religious studies began to be conducted on Dreaming, or the Time of Creation. At that time, groups fascinated by these beliefs appeared in the West. Aborigines do not call it Dreaming or Dreamtime, these concepts were introduced by European invaders. They have nothing to do with sleep, sleeping or dreams. The more appropriate name Jukurrpa comes from one of the languages ​​of the desert people and is currently respected by most Aboriginal communities. To put it very simply, it is the Time of Creation, the equivalent of our afterlife, where Guardian Angels and other creative spirits live. It comes from feeling rather than intellect. Yes, in our understanding it is religion.

– Does the strength of these beliefs come from the fact that the whole of Australia is dotted with holy places, and the faith is so strongly connected with nature, cosmology and totemic ancestors? And that the Dreaming lasts forever?

– Our time is divided into the present, past and future, with them there is only one: the present. The Ancestors who created the world a long, long time ago, according to Indigenous Australians, continue to create it, and through ceremony, music and dance trance, you can return to the time of the Ancestors, the Time of Creation. And their holy places are invisible to us – profane people – they are part of the landscape.

– In your latest book, 9 Bonfires, you write: “I don't think it would be an abuse if I compare the Totemic Ancestor to the more familiar Guardian Angel, who does not take animal form, but appears, according to our tradition, in a winged human form.” Is comparison to the Christian faith your way of understanding?

– In order to lead a peaceful life, an indigenous Australian must obey the laws given by the Ancestors and perform rituals and ceremonies in their honor, which is also known in Catholicism. A Sunday walk to church, or even better, a pilgrimage to a sacred place, can be compared to the Aboriginal journey to sacred places called the walkabout and to ritual dances. Their painting of images on bodies, rocks, tree bark, and even the most modern ones on canvas is a ritual activity, a rite, and as such is subject to many rigors. Some analogies can be drawn to the writing of Orthodox and Greek Catholic icons born in prayer and asceticism.

– One of the characters in your book, a Native Elder, said: “You read the surface quite nicely, but – at your current state of initiation – you won't go deeper. And that's how it should be. It is a secured system for protecting our cultural, religious and ethnic, i.e. national, identity. That's one of the reasons we've been here for 80,000 years." Is a white man able to go deeper into this faith? 

– It's better not to dream about it. Because it is inaccessible, bordering on impossible. The trust of Indigenous Australians has to be earned over the years, and I respect that. Let's leave them alone, but let's learn from what they want to tell us and show us.

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