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There's a free weekly gathering where you can engage with and learn about Aboriginal culture, history and knowledge

Matt Ravier

Welcome to the 21st guest blog post of Time Out Sydney's 52 Weeks of #SydCulture 2017 challenge! May's culture selector is Mathieu Ravier: manager of Programming at the Australian Museum, board-member of Sydney Film Festival, and founder of The Festivalists (behind Jurassic Lounge and the Possible Worlds Film Festival, among other things). Every Tuesday of May, Matt will be telling us what he loved the week before. Think of it as your recommendations for this week, from someone who sees a helluva lot of arts and culture. Over to him.

On Sunday, I sat in the Australian Museum with Aunty Gail Manderson and two Aboriginal activists (Wailwaan/Yuin man Laurance Magick Dennis and Wiradjuri/Ngemba woman Fleur Magick Dennis), and made a yarning stick.

Making a yarning stick is more than a bit of craft. A wooden stick is covered in woven fibre (I used raffia) using a simple blanket stitch; then various items collected on country are attached (I used gum nuts, as well as feathers from rosellas, emus and owls).

The stick is used in gatherings, passed along to determine which speaker has the floor, and to ensure everyone has a voice. A great metaphor for National Reconciliation Week, then. But making the stick is really an excuse to sit and listen to stories from the land, voices too rarely heard in daily Australian life.

Making a yarning stick at the Australian Museum

I heard about Aunty Gail’s reconnection to culture late in life, decades after being removed from her Aboriginal parents at just 5 days old. I learned the Wiradjuri words for some of the items I’d attached to my yarning stick. I heard about the responsibility carried by Aboriginal people who have earned from their elders the trust and permission to share Aboriginal learnings with others. I heard Laurance and Fleur’s thoughts on reconciliation, their desire for a powerful treaty, rather than the more symbolic recognition of Indigenous people in the constitution, which the government campaign lists as the next step in reconciliation.

The next day a few of us staff members at the Australian Museum met with Aunty Gail, Laurance and Fleur  again, this time to meditate. We formed a circle made up of nine blackfellas and seven whitefellas. We received a blessing with sacred ochre. We danced. We rubbed the sore parts of our bodies with a native plant extract with medicinal properties. We listened to Laurance perform the yidaki (didgeridoo is not an Indigenous word, but one likely made up by white settlers). We heard more stories about living on the land, including the benefits of birthing on country with local Aboriginal midwives. And then we went into a guided meditation.

The narrative included being picked up by a giant wedge-tailed eagle, and I let my mind drift off with imagery from the Dreaming. I emerged relaxed, moved and enriched.

These experiences shut out the cacophony of white voices in modern life for an hour or two, creating a space for Aunty Gail, Laurance and Fleur to tell their stories, and a moment of internal contemplation to let these stories sink in.

In Australia, those voices are heard too rarely. How can we hope to come to terms with our past without acknowledging and attempting to understand Aboriginal culture? White Australia has a black history, let’s talk about it. Reconciliation is no easy thing.

Garrigarrang: Sea Country within the Australian Museum's First Australians galleries
Photograph: James Morgan

I’m proud that the Australian Museum is a place where this dialogue can happen. And as the custodians of an Indigenous collection of immense spiritual significance, it’s our duty to ensure interpretation of Indigenous culture is in the hands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

This past year, our programming team has stepped up its delivery of events designed not just to share this living culture, but to create spaces for dialogue across communities. This should be a sustained effort. We can’t afford to do this just seven days a year when Reconciliation Week comes along.

Every Tuesday afternoon, gamarada is an authentic Aboriginal cultural experience which can be had in the Australian Museum, free with admission. The full calendar of upcoming events is on the museum’s website.

Check out our list of Reconciliation Week events – then read more about our 52 Weeks of #SydCulture challenge, and let us know what you're seeing/loving on Instagram via the hashtag #SydCulture.

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