The New Kanyini Music Video featuring Uncle Bob
My name is Bob Randall. I am Anangu, a tjilpi (elder) from the Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara Nations. I am one of the listed traditional keepers of Uluru, the great red rock that lies at the very heart of Australia in the central Western Desert region. As an Aboriginal man, I am a member of probably the oldest culture in the world.
When Caesar was walking the earth, we were living here, living in the moment. When Cleopatra was ruling on her throne, we were living here, living in the moment. For thousands of years, these things you think ancient, we were living here, living in the moment.1
I’d like to tell you the story of a little boy who was taken away from everything he belonged to at the age of six—away from all that he knew and all that he loved, away from what bound him to this ancient culture and all his ancestors. You see, he was one of the thousands of Aboriginal children later known as the Stolen Generation.2
He was born some seventy-five years ago at a place called Middleton Ponds near Angus Downs Station, 300 kilometres northeast of Uluru. His mothers walked there in the twenties’ drought period, when all the waters and waterholes were drying up at Kata Tjuta and Uluru. They walked on the banks of Lake Amadeus towards Kings Canyon, then followed the canyon, because there was permanent water there, and ended up at a cattle station run by a Scotsman, Bill Liddle. Bill Liddle became this little fella’s biological father. He was a kind man and treated the Aboriginals on his station with respect. The little boy’s mothers looked after the sheep and goats; his fathers looked after the cattle, camels, and horses. It was into that environment this boy was born and lived by the traditional Aboriginal ways.
To understand what it was like to be taken from all to which one belongs, you have to understand the system of connection that has supported my people for over sixty-thousand years. Belonging to all things was and is our way of life. And it was how the little boy was raised, living with his mothers and fathers, aunties and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers at Angus Downs station.
A Yankunytjatjara child has many parents, not just two. Every sister of his birth mother is his mother. Every brother of his birth father is also his father. This is one of the lines—called the biological- or blood-line—of my people’s family relationship system. There are, in fact, many more lines of relationship.
Another line of relationship is our kinship, or ‘skin’ system. This system relates people who share a particular language, and governs social behaviour, especially with regards to marriage, but also with other social protocols.
Then we have the ceremonial line. Ceremonial rights determine family relations. For example, let’s say my mother went through her ceremony with six to 20 other girls. Through the ceremony they become sisters; so they then become mothers to me in the same sense my mother is a mother to me.
As an Aboriginal person, you belong to much more than just your human family. Another relationship line is the totemic connection to country based on the song lines, or stories, from the Tjukurrpa (Dreaming) period. A totem is the link between the spiritual and physical through land. Wherever a child is conceived or born determines the totem of that person. Tjukurrpa is the time of Creation, including the past, present, and future. It is fixed; it cannot be changed from that time of Creation; it was, it is, and it always will be.
These Dreaming trails, the song lines, the story tracks, criss-cross Australia in every direction. The Dreaming creatures moved across country, creating the topography of the landscape we see today. The knowledge of that relationship is passed down through ceremonies and family members to their children. This is what forms the biggest relationship connection system throughout this continent, because it relates every single Aboriginal nation. Even though some 500 – 700 Aboriginal nations once existed,3 each with their own systems of government, languages, cultural practices, religions and traditions, these Dreaming story lines connected everyone into one family.
My people’s totem is the ancestral being Kuniya, the carpet snake, who created that part of the land on which we reside. She travelled from the east, from the direction of the sunrise right to Uluru. You can just imagine her moving across the country, shaping it with her curves and bends like the rivers across the continent. As an Aboriginal person, you belong to every other living thing on that totemic line, which is 50 to 100 miles or more wide, and many hundreds of miles long. Now some people may be from outside of that line, but they’ve married in, or their family married in, which has connected them into that family.
Through this system, this little boy was related to every plant, every reptile, every bird, every insect, every grain of sand, every rock, every waterway, from the tiniest to the largest organism, even the mountains, and everything that was on his totemic line. They belonged to each other.
There is also the relationship line of Country. We say ‘Countrymen’. This includes what nation one belongs to. This line connects us to another few hundred people as family members. This is what we refer to as the extended family system. And remember, we are related to every other living thing that is in our country as well, not just humans!
Shared experiences also create a relationship line. Say for example all those who are a part of the Stolen Generation, they have a now a family line created from this shared experience. And within that line have emerged certain governing principles and protocols, just like any other family line.
So you can see this relationship system is just absolutely huge! But there is even more. As an Aboriginal person, you also belong to every spiritual entity that lives with you in your country. Actually, you belong to anything that’s living. And it belongs to you. It’s the livingness—the beingness—that connects us. That livingness is what we share and what is the same in all of us.
In my culture, this understanding of oneness is expressed through the story of the Rainbow Serpent. The rainbow comes from water, which keeps all things alive. We all are made of water, regardless of its form—fluid matter, cloud matter, solid matter, ice, boiling, as steam, as crystal, even as the diamond in your ring. The Rainbow Serpent represents these rainbow water particles from which we are all made.
So this is what makes us all family. We are one—from that most minute tiny grain of sand to the largest mountain. Just as a crystal reflects the colours of the rainbow, if we were held up to a superior light, more powerful than any light, we too would reflect the light as a rainbow. It’s as simple as that. Every one of us carries that energy, and the beauty of the rainbow within us. And that’s the innermost perfection of the uniqueness each of us carry. There’s not another being like you in the whole of creation. You have that beauty of rainbow in you.
If only people could just see this and show it by living right and living a life of service, not only to other people but to other living things. And it is our responsibility—not just Aboriginals’ but everyone’s—to live by what my people call the Kanyini principle. Kanyini is the principle of connectedness through caring and responsibility that underpins Aboriginal life, linking four main areas of responsibility: Tjurkurrpa (philosophy, law and religion), Ngura (home and country), Waltyja (family and kinship) and Kurunpa (spirit, soul and psyche).
There’s such a huge family you’re responsible for, and who you belong to, because they see you as belonging to them as well. And when I say family, I mean all beings, not just human beings.
Kanyini means to love and care for your family and things around you as mother earth loves you.
Look at the damage we’ve done to mother earth, and yet still she loves us and cares for us unconditionally. This love is given to us by whatever term we apply to a god or a superior being, or superior consciousness beyond human understanding. That unconditional love has no borders, no boundaries. We should practice that unconditional love with our partners, our husbands, our wives, our brothers and sisters, with the land we live in, with every living thing. To every tree that’s on that place where you live, every creature that lives there with you, every reptile, every bird, every insect—learn to apply Kanyini.
Water—what you and I are made of, as symbolised by the Rainbow Serpent—is important for the survival of every plant, every creature, that’s why the oneness is a reality, not just an idea. We are all living as one big family united by the Rainbow Serpent. Kanyini is founded on that principle—that reality—of oneness.
And the more you apply Kanyini in your life, the easier it gets. It’s so easy to love. Because in that loving—one unique precious rainbow being loving another unique precious rainbow being—you begin to see there’s only one of that precious being that was ever created in the whole of the universe. So make sure you love and care for without condition. Each one of us needs to do this with our selves, our family, extend it to our community, the suburbs and the city we live in, and the country we live in, and then the world. And we will see a time come when we’re not creating bombs to kill people, and we start feeding each other instead. Let’s hope one day we will reach that level of living that way with each other for the sake of our children, and our children’s children, ‘cause if we don’t we’re all finished.
Some people don’t understand the sense of belonging. They don’t know how to feel it or recognise it. To them I say, start with feeling the living things around you that know they belong to you. Those of you who’ve got animal friends like cats, dogs, or horses, or even cows, those animals will show belonging to you. You can feel it when they recognise you and come to you with that recognition in their eyes. They know they belong to you, and in that reflection you can feel how you also belong to them. Now extend that feeling to every other thing, including the trees. They may not show the same response as an animal, because they’re in one spot. But they’ve got it too. They have the same feeling of belonging to you, because they are living entities. Move out from there—the earth has it, the rocks, the water has it too.
Modern culture is so disconnected from this relationship of belonging. We’ve redirected our sense of belonging to man-created objects. But we’ve always belonged to the earth and been part of everything. When we started creating and valuing man-made, material things, we walked away, turned our backs on our family, on the natural world. And we stopped being responsible toward others. We moved away from a life of ‘oursness’ and we started to live in ‘mineness’. We valued things like gold and diamonds, and parents started to pass that non-belonging on to the future generations. There’s no life, no livingness, in man-made things. But in addition—and this is important—belonging is earned through responsibility towards all living things. Responsibility is a key to belonging most people today do not understand.
When I look at a rock, it is not just a rock; it is my connection to Tjukurrpa and all the stories of creation that exist in that rock. Within a grain of sand, I see me and the universe. It’s only our thinking that lessens our belonging, our being part of what is, what has been, and what will always be. The thought that we are not an essential part of the universe makes us weak.
And all those beings—rocks, trees, animals—miss us. You know, the land and nature, if we accept them as being equal to us, as being living intelligent entities like us, miss us as much as we miss them. But you can re-establish relationship with other living things at any time. And the moment you connect with them and know you are responsible for them, that living thing you’re connecting with connects with you.
So back to this little fella—he understood these things. He understood he belonged to all things and that all things belonged to him, in that natural state, because he was taught about his responsibility towards these things through the kanyini principle. It is not just that a child is born with a sense of belonging—he must be taught this understanding throughout his life. As soon as he can listen and understand, belonging is continually reinforced and supported by the entire community and culture. Every objective, the only objective, of an Aboriginal child’s education is to teach about connectedness, responsibility and care within a whole system of unconditional love. Today’s children often don’t receive such teachings. Where are their teachings about connection? Instead they learn to conform to social etiquettes in order to be accepted and feel loved. And seldom do they learn about responsibility towards others.
The teachings are taught in the story form as I’m talking on this tape machine, and then taught through song. Every part of a teaching is sung as well as spoken. And from the singing then comes the dance, the same story is danced. And then the same story is painted. In the old days it was painted on a huge area on the ground, and the ceremonies would then be performed on this place. Afterwards the painting would disappear back to nature in its own time. These are the stories that are today on canvasses. You can hold it, you can have it in your own house, but they still carry the same energy of belonging to a certain place, a certain country, and to many different living beings that live where those stories have come from.
Love and connection taught to Aboriginal children was a discipline of respect, integrity, morality and responsibility. There used to be strict protocols around custodianship of country. In belonging to a place, we had to also look after it. For example, no Aboriginal person can paint another man’s country, another man’s story, without getting permission from the people who are said to ‘own’ it (are the traditional carers).
Allow me to give you an idea of how profoundly this understanding of responsibility, care and custodianship was woven into our daily lives. Many times this little boy’s family members left their country to do ceremonies in other places, so young boys or young girls could learn about the responsibilities, ceremonies and stories for each different tjukurrpa, or story places of the ancestral creation beings. Such ceremony would be specially arranged years in advance. When time came for ceremony—determined by the moon, how many moon rises, how many moon settings—they’d gather up and would start heading off. Other peoples would be coming in from other nations as well to attend the same ceremony.
If someone had to go out of their nation to attend ceremony, upon approaching the next nation’s borderline, they would light signal fires to the people of the next nation by burning bushes, spinifex grass, and green bushes that would create thick black smoke. They would light the fire when there was no wind blowing, so the smoke would go straight up. And usually three of those fires would be lit half a mile from each other so people knew from which direction, and guess from which nation you were coming.
The old men used to tell the little boy what had to be done as protocol when moving from nation to nation. They taught him how these protocols protected lands and people. For example, as you approached the boundary, you’d have to put gifts down in a specific place. It could be freshly killed kangaroo, tools you have made like boomerangs, spears, woomeras, stone axes or knives. Those gifts would be placed at a certain spot. If they were accepted, that was the indication for you to come back in two days time, and young men would be there to escort you to meet the elders and be welcomed to country. You would then state your business. Usually the business was that you wanted escort through their country, because you’ve got no idea of the spirits that live in their country, only they know that. They know the shortest route, and where the most foods are on their country, so they can take you through a safe route. If the gifts were not accepted, it means they are doing their business (ceremony), and they may not have time to give you. So you’ve got to go around their nation, which makes your trip longer!
These protocols that were followed were so important. You practiced these so that you followed the right way of doing them each time. Often you had to go through many nations to perform ceremony. So you might have gone from Yankunytjatjara country, through Luritja, Aranda, Anmatyerre, until you arrived at Kaititja country, where the ceremonial gathering would be. At each boundary, you had to repeat the same protocol and the same process again.
Everyone within each country is familiar with each other, and they also know their country’s spiritual entities. So they feel good and safe in each other’s company. The spirits know them, and everything is there to look after them, because they too have their responsibility to look after each and every being in that country. Everything works in that order of belonging to country, place and people.
But when a group leaves their own country to go to the next, they start wondering, ‘Will this new mob accept me? Will they be good to me, or will they be bad to me?’ An insecurity arises. ‘Will all those spirits supply me with water or guide me to where the foods are, where the waters are, because I don’t know this country. Will the birds show me where the water is?’ So being shown through by the escorts of the next country ensures your people’s safety as they travel. As escorts, they become responsible for your wellbeing.
So, you see, this was my people’s way to look after each other, even if they were strangers from other nations. Growing up as an Aboriginal child, you learn to trust that you are always looked after. You learn that belonging is both something that is your birthright, and something you are responsible for maintaining.
It was that continuing system which was in place through the belonging to so many things—the land, the trees, the water, the animals, the stories, the responsibilities, even people you’ve never met—which created this beautiful bond of belonging. This little boy was born and raised in that period when that living bond was still taking place. He was taught this was the way it was. The entire culture, everything about living as an Aboriginal person, supported the knowing that you belonged to everything.But it was all to change.
Within this solid base of connection, an outsider came in on his camel one day. It was the 25th of November, 1938. He was a policeman named Constable Bill McKinnon—known by some as ‘Hanging McKinnon’. It was said he was more cold and cruel than most of his fellow officers, and never hesitated to whip or shoot at people. Of course the white people never told this side of the story, instead making them heroes because they controlled the blacks. Most of these men in those days killed a lot of blackfellas.
There’s one story near Utju, in central Australia, south of Hermansburg, where they say my people were made to dig a well. Little did they know they were digging their own grave. When they had finished digging, they were shot. But one person dropped underneath the others without being hit and hid under the bodies. When the evening came, he crawled out and escaped to tell the story. These white men did so much killing. For them it wasn’t wrong because they thought we were no different than an animal. They always had the gun. Our mob never did. So a lot of these stories about killing and cruelty were shared amongst our people. And we learned to be very afraid of white men. This allowed them to come in to our camps and do as they liked.
Along with constable McKinnon were two trackers, ‘Bigfoot Harry’ and ‘Carbine’. The police would always bring trackers with them so they were never alone. The trackers could be Aboriginal family members who had gone really mad—rama rama (insane). The trackers knew that if they didn’t follow the policemen’s instructions they would be shot. So out of fear and insanity these trackers worked for the police, tracking down our people, knowing our knowledge and speaking our language, helping them enforce the Federal policy.
McKinnon came looking to arrest those who had killed and eaten a bullock. He came into this little boy’s camp asking who had done this crime. The boy’s mob just told the truth about who killed the bullock and who ate it. Our people never learned to lie; there was no need; they just told it how it was. When you live in a system of love and connection, you don’t fear to tell the truth. It’s just that simple.
Indeed they had killed the bullock, and in telling the truth about it doomed themselves to prison. So McKinnon placed the little boy’s uncles, aunties, mothers and grandfathers in heavy chains locked around their necks.
Then he looked at the boy. The boy was a half-caste child and, as was the policy at the time, was to be taken away from his family to be raised by the mission system.4 His aunties usually covered him with mud to hide his light skin from officials. But this particular day, the little boy had swum in a nearby water hole washing the mud clean.
McKinnon placed the boy on his camel. At first the little fella thought he was just going on a camel ride, so he wasn’t so afraid. They began to ride away from the camp, away from everything he had ever known, with his captive family members—in heavy chains around their necks—walking behind him. The aunties in their chains began to sing their travelling songs—songs that guided their way out of Country. Each song belonged and related to each site as they passed. But then the boy began to hear his aunties’ songs—as they travelled farther and farther away from their country—become softer, sadder, and more unsure. He grew sad, and afraid.
Imagine how scared they must have felt going from nation to nation without the proper protocols. All the trees and plants, the creeks and the hills were looking at their people being taken away—they too began to feel sorry. The boy could feel their sadness, and he didn’t know if he’d ever see his biological mother again.
They travelled towards Alice Springs, some 300 miles away, each day walking between 15 and 25 miles, having to keep pace with McKinnon’s camels. Sometimes the boy would walk and when he was tired, his aunties, in chains, would carry him on their hips. For almost three weeks, in the scorching heat and unbearable sadness, they walked. Until they reached Alice Springs where the little boy was handed over to another policeman who delivered him to the half-caste institution called The Bungalow.
His first days there were so traumatic. As a bush child, he had never worn clothes, nor slept on a bed. Mother earth had been his bed and he always slept against the skin of another. But at the institution, he was made to sleep alone in itchy pyjamas, on a mattress that reeked of urine from the children before.
He just hated the smell and couldn’t bear the feel of clothes and sheets. So he kicked his clothes and bedding off and huddled on the floor, near the corrugated iron wall. There, with so much strangeness everywhere, he heard a familiar sound. It was a little cricket singing. It soothed him to hear its song. So placing his ear near the wall, he would finally go to sleep each night.
But if a missionary came through with a torch and found him lying there on the floor, they’d wake him up, beat him, and then throw him back in bed again with all those clothes. Oh and the beatings—he was beat for speaking his own language, beat for not understanding, beat for singing his songs, beat for everything. Beating by beating, eventually he learned they were going to change the way he lived forever.
Being slapped and knocked around like this was really shocking for him. In Aboriginal culture no one can hit a child. Biological parents never disciplined, never even taught their own children. The parent’s role was just to love their children unconditionally, because it was understood that biological parents were too emotionally entwined to be able to discipline without it leading to impatience, hard tone of voice, and angry eyes. If, while showing a child something, a biological parent noticed there was even a risk of raising their voice, they would send them to an auntie or uncle. So, it was the uncles, aunties and grandparents who taught a child how to fit in to society and remember society’s laws and how one should behave.
You know how today’s parents can stare at a child real hard, using those hard critical eyes? Our people’s parents weren’t allowed to look at children with those eyes, because we knew how painful it was to experience eyes like that. Just try using those hard eyes with your dog or horse, and you’ll see how they respond. So we respected those energies and knew they had an impact. And parents definitely were not allowed to yell at children.
To spank a child was totally out of the question. Anybody caught striking a child would get into terrible trouble by all the other members of the family. Sometimes the other mothers of that child would come over with a big stick and beat the daylights out of a parent who hit!
To be taken from that system of protection, loving support and gentle guidance, and enter into one of violence and cruel authority was very difficult for this little fella. From those first days at the institution he was forever looking back towards the direction of Angus Downs station, not far from Uluru. It took him years of pining, hoping and wishing to finally find his home again, to find the family to which he belonged, the country to which he belonged, to hear the words of his language, to meet the spirits that were his, and hear the songs that belonged to him.
There were so many like this little fella, taken away from everything they knew, so many mothers crying for their children day after day, not knowing where their children were.
That’s my story of one little boy, who lost his belonging so long ago.
That little boy was me.
Without belonging you can’t be whole. You’re lacking and you’ll try and fill the emptiness with any kind of substitute. Some of our mob tried connecting through the grog. But it became their master, and it controlled them and eventually killed them. Some take drugs and other things like petrol sniffing to run away from the hurt and longing. The loss is enormous. It’s sad, and so unnecessary because there is always our family calling us home. The trees, the land, the ancestors call us home.
But my story has a different ending, unlike so many like me who have lost their way. I remembered my belonging and let it pull me home. I never fully believed the system of disconnection that was put upon me. Always, my heart drew me back to my origins. It took time to develop levels of connectedness again. I had to work to strengthen the ties to family and country by continually coming together with them. Over the years, to remain close to my people, my culture, and my spirituality, I returned home frequently so my children could visit their grandparents.
I remember when my two sisters, Bessie Liddle and June Forester, took me back to Angus Downs for the first time in their car. As we were driving near to the old station, I could feel what the trees—these huge ancient desert oak trees, the same trees that had seen me being taken away so many years ago—were saying to each other, ‘That young fella’s back! But look at him now, he’s a man! He’s come home!’ It felt so emotional because the hills were saying the same; the land around and everything was rejoicing. I was so glad to be welcomed home by all these beautiful beings and to hear the old ancient trees saying, ‘It’s good to see you home, my son.’
It was more than just connecting to my own people and country. I always knew that all of us, all people, all living things, are connected. So I worked on my connection with all people and places. And that connection to all things kept bringing me home to what was true. This is why I did not get lost.
A sense of belonging is the right of every one of us. All living things, human and non-human—deserve this right. No one has the right to take us away from our belonging. And in our full right to belong, we should all feel its fullness in our physical, mental, spiritual, and psychic life. And we should act with loving responsibility to care for country and all living things, ensuring their belonging as well as our own. You can do it, right now, with the tree that is in front of you. It’s as simple as that. Belonging there for each and every one of us, if we could open our hearts to feel it.
1. Kanyini, a film by Melanie Hogan, released by Hopscotch Entertainment Pty Ltd, kanyini.com
2. The term ‘Stolen Generation’ refers to the tens thousands of Aboriginal children who were, under decades of government policy, forcibly taken from their families to be brought up in government orphanages or church missions, under laws that controlled the lives of Aboriginal people and sought to eradicate their culture. Over 50,000 Aboriginal children were taken away from their families between 1869 and 1970.
3. Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
4. Aborigines of “mixed descent” were a serious concern for the Federal government when it began administering the Northern Territory in 1911. With their numbers increasing, it was believed this posed a threat to white Australia. A policy of ‘assimilation’ was instated, leading to the practise of separating part-Aboriginal children from Aboriginal society and culture. It was believed that the more ‘white blood’ in a child, the greater their potential for absorption into a white world.