On the 26th of January 1992 my husband and I dropped anchor at Monkey Beach, at Great Keppel Island. We always flew the Aboriginal flag on our old wooden sailing boat. A small dingy with a load of people motored into the bay, also flying the flag. I jumped off the boat and swam ashore.
Bob Muir and two other men had come to reclaim Great Keppel Island on behalf of Woppaburra peoples. Bob was a Woppaburra man. He asked what we were doing on the boat. I said returning to Cape York to hopefully do a PhD study. I told him what I wanted to study. Bob said: ‘stay here. Your dad was born here in Rockhampton.’
Later, we held a community meeting with 23 people, 22 local Aboriginal people and one non-Aboriginal; my PhD supervisor. We worked for the day to outline suggestions and two overall themes for the PhD. The two primary themes were: (i) the phenomena of violence and consequent experiences of trauma; and (ii) the cultural and individual processes of recovery (or healing) from violence related trauma. These details are outlined in the appendix of the PhD. The group became my advisory group for the period of the PhD.
On that day we envisioned what we needed to think about and do. 22 had a vision of a tree holding the stories – a baby is born, mothers and children, young people growing up walking together, Elders teaching, Country heals, birds, animals, trees, water, people, earth. My sister Bindi Waugh painted this painting as a result of the meeting. The sun coming up in the morning through the Keppels was a powerful image of what we talking about – visioned.
Bob Muir, a Woppaburra man, was part of that group. I was looking for a name for the organisation which would hold the work. Bob said I should use Woppaburra words. We looked for words and he suggested We, meaning fire, and Al-li meaning water in Woppaburra language. At that time we would watch the sun – ‘fire’ rising over the Keppels in the morning, across the waters of Keppel Bay. Later I understood more deeply why the name had been given to us. Moving through fire-anger – to water-grief. Both are essential for Healing. We Al-li.
Aboriginal people used fire to cleanse the earth, to make way for new spring growth, it was an act of caring upon country. Looking after country was a sacred responsibility, as was looking after its people. Fire was used in ceremonies to ensure the procreation and regeneration of all life forms. Some Aboriginal groups have fire ceremonies where the sparks fall in great clusters and cleanse all participants. Fire also provides warmth and light where the people can sit and share, resolve conflict and restore harmony.
Certain people were chosen to be the fire keepers, they were responsible to all others for keeping the fire alight that provided the space for sharing and the continued regeneration of community. This person was also often the healer and people would come to consult the healer in times of ill health. The healing knowledge and the responsibility to keep the fire alight were part of the whole.
Aboriginal people can easily create fire by rubbing two sticks together, but more often, when moving to a new camp, one person was responsible for carrying the embers which, when applied to dry tinder, would provide the evening campfire. We need to keep alive the healing way of fire, the way of coming together in a good way, sorting through conflict and sharing stories that make us stronger. ‘We’ signifies fire, the spirit of cleansing that is essential to healing, re-creation and regeneration. It also symbolises the spiritual and cultural strength of the Aboriginal life forms that have been kept alive since the beginning of time, and in particular over the last two centuries.
Traditionally once a place has been burnt by fire (cleansed), the rains come and green shoots thrive to give evidence of new life. The rain enters the ground, cleansing, creating new growth, sustaining all life forms. Some water runs into small streams which then move across the landscape, creating paths that become waterways, interconnections. A small stream becomes a bigger stream, and finally a river, which eventually runs into the sea. The cycle of life continues in this way as it always has.
‘Al-li’ signifies the essential life giving force of water. It acknowledges the nurturing that takes place in and with water. It acknowledges the waters that are a source of food and nourishment to us and our lands. This country is crisscrossed by water tracks that show the journeying of Moonda Nghadda, the rainbow serpent. This journey has been celebrated by song, sacred ritual and dance for millennia, it is what renews and replenishes life for the country and its people.
We Al-li workshops embrace concepts and principles which complement Indigenous understanding and learning that are understood to be a life-long process.
The word education comes from the latin educare – to draw out from – to lead – to show the way. We Al-li draws from the philosophy of educaring. A person who educares is a person who has walked the path of learning, and through the application of knowledge in wise action, draws out from others their own ability to learn.
In this way we are all teachers and we are all learners. In this way we can empower communities from the inside out.