More than 40% of the Central Australian population are indigenous. 18 local languages are spoken here. My associations with indigenous people, as with locals in Cambodia and Timor Leste, or with the British, Americans, Spanish and French, have been positive, warm-hearted and filled with laughter and friendship. Mum always said “people are the same no matter where in the world you go” and she was dead right, as usual.
That doesn’t mean that there are not differences. Some of the strongest differences between indigenous and western culture relate to family and relationships. Death is a good example and is unfortunately a much more common event among young and middle aged people here, as in so many parts of the world, than I was ever previously familiar with. When a Western Arrernte person dies, it becomes taboo to speak their name, which is considered akin to calling their spirit back to earth. Everything associated with the deceased, which they may have touched or used, is removed. Blankets and clothes are burned. Close family cut their hair off and move out of the house where they shared a home with the deceased.
Foreign to these cultural differences, I have made my fair share of faux pas’ in this regard. The first death that ever really impacted me, was a young man in a family I am quite close to. On the morning of his death I attended the family home and commented with surprise, at the fresh hair cuts of his children and wife, who all hugged me, leaving black hair all over my white top. It was only when I thought about the context, that I realised the hair cuts were not a fashion statement, but an expression of loss. I then proceeded to speak their father’s name a number of times, before his sister in law gently touched my arm, as if to both remind and reassure me at the same time. When I asked if there was anything I could do, I was immediately asked if I could source new blankets for the family. I questioned why and was shocked and initially confused at the answer, “because we burned our blankets”. I have since become quite used to being asked to help poor families find new blankets after a death.
When my phone rang yesterday, the ensuing miscommunication was fairly predictable given the language barrier combined with my experience of being asked to help families purchase new bedding. It was an old patient with her mother and husband calling. The conversation went something like this (all names have been changed):
Hi Helen. It’s me. Naomi.
What are you doing?
What is happening?
Oh, okay. So ….. what is happening?
I’m here with Clifford and <Mum>.
How are they?
Next week funeral.
Oh. Is it someone I know?
Yeah. My father.
Oh no! I didn’t know about that!
Was he in hospital?
No. Home. Heart attack.
Oh I am so sorry.
Talk to Clifford.
<Hearty laughter, followed by> For the funeral, can you send credit?
Oh. I can’t because I am really worried about money right now, and I have nothing.
Nah! You know! Credit, like your credit from you? For the funeral?
Ummmmmm…..? What do you mean?
You know, for the funeral, send it to office and they can read it at funeral?
Oh! Yes! I would love to do that. I will do it tomorrow.
I wrote a “credit” (eulogy) and delivered it to a family member today, who said he would call me if there was anything that needed changing or deleting. He has not done so and has returned home. It is always challenging, for someone not used to name avoidance, writing about someone without actually naming them. Below is my offering, which in fact is a funny story and an example of the positive experiences I have here, with people from a culture so different to my own.
I was born in Alice Springs but I grew up in New Zealand and English is my only language. Working as a nurse, I came to Alice Springs in 1997 to work at the hospital. In 2000 I started working for <an organisation> and I started to learn a bit about Alice Springs and other communities. In maybe January 2004 another nurse and I went with two Western Arrernte patients who we were looking after, for a trip to Palm Valley. The husband used to tell us all the time that he chased wild brumbies on the run at Palm Valley. He missed this place but we had never seen it. These patients were living at <a town camp> in Alice Springs and they have both passed away. I miss them.
When we went to Palm Valley that day, it was really hot. We drove in there and two men were lying under a tree. My patient said “stop the car, they are my family”. We stopped to talk to these men, who were brothers, and they asked if we could take them back to Alice Springs. We told them to wait for us and after we visited Palm Valley, we picked them up.
These two brothers got in our car and introduced themselves. They didn’t tell us their names, they just said “I’m Number One and he’s Number Two”. They had a tape with country music and we played it all the way back to town. We didn’t stop laughing and singing the whole way. It was a really happy day for me. We took our patients home and then we dropped these brothers at <their home>. When I talk to this other nurse who is still my friend but she lives in Adelaide now, we always wonder how did those guys get to Palm Valley and what would happen to them if they didn’t see our car?
Years later Naomi became my patient and I had to meet her family to make sure everyone was okay. I came to <this community> with Naomi and Clifford and I got to know the family. Then she told me about more family at <another place> and I went there too. When I met her father, I recognised him and I told him “You are Number One”. He looked really shocked at me and we started laughing together as we remembered driving home from Palm Valley. Then I met <his brother> and I recognised him. Number Two! <Brother> walks everywhere and I told my friend in Adelaide, I think those brothers walked to Palm Valley because I see <Brother> always walking. We both think this is a really cool story and we always talk about it.
I am really sorry for the family’s loss. He was a good man with a happy nature and it is a big loss for our community but especially for his family. But I know you all must have a lot of happy memories to hold onto forever. I know that I will never forget him and the happy time that we shared.