Napurr dhu gurrupan yuranawuy rom wawawal
We will give our brother admission to our law.
My name is Stephen Miller Ferguson, known to most around the world as Ferg. I currently live in NE Arnhem Land, a special place in the geography of Australia: touching the sea, north of centre, near the coast of both the Gulf of Carpentaria and the Arafura Sea. It was declared an Aboriginal Reserve in 1931 and thankfully the people known as “Yolngu” (often pronounced simplistically as “Yol-Noo”) have, for the most part, succeeded in retaining and maintaining their strong, local, Aboriginal traditions.
At the time of writing I have been a teacher in this small, remote Indigenous community for three out of the last four years. I have been adopted into the Garawirrtja clan group, my skin name is Narritj and my moiety is Yirritja. (Everything in Yolngu life is separated into two moeities: “dhuwa” and “yirritja,” a bit like the idea of “yin and yang” or “masculine and feminine,” but completely different.)
First of all I would like to give official recognition to the traditional owner Paul Wunungmurra, on whose homeland this was performed and thank him for giving us permission to do so. I would also like to formally acknowledge Yolngu ownership of this ceremony.
What follows is my own account as participant observer in a Yolngu Male Initiation Ritual performed on me. It is not secret; therefore, it is safe and appropriate to share the experience with others through photograph, film and writing. Permission was granted by the local people responsible for and who have ownership of, the ceremony to document it and discuss it. They share my hopes that this will benefit many people by being shared in a positive way with peoples of other cultures.
Cicatrisation, more commonly known as “scarification” has had a multitude of meanings to many people throughout our human animal history. Widely performed across Africa, Asia and Australia for hundreds, if not thousands of years, it conveys complex messages about the wearer, including identity, social status and hierarchy, religious roles, beauty and is also worn as a rite of passage. Its cultural significance is too often undervalued by us, the Western-influenced pale skins, raised in our concrete, technological oases. We have grown accustomed to doing everything we can to cover our scars as in our worlds they have come to represent ugliness, damage, imperfection and unfairly, one’s failure to maintain a grip on life. A quick flick through a thesaurus will yield more words with negative connotations that anything else when it comes to finding synonyms for “scar.” Hypocritically, some of those who decry visible marks from deliberate scarification will themselves use cutting, not to mention facial tattooing, (lipo)sucking, injecting, lasering, chiselling and implanting to beautify their own bodies, via plastic surgery’s quick fix of various degrees.
For me, scars went hand in hand with the fearless, “throw yourself off things” attitude I eagerly exhibited as a young child: I broke my right femur (thigh bone) jumping off a fence at three years old, spilt the back of my head open at four and had two deep, prominent forehead wounds by the time I was seven. At eight years old I had my first big visible scar from being rushed into emergency surgery one evening after a particularly painful burst appendix. As the hospital told us some time later, another two hours of waiting and I would have died of blood poisoning — lucky for me, a nearby ambulance was diverted to pick me up. The life-saving operation left me with a large, thick, six-inch track on the right side of my lower abdomen. I was proud of that mark and quite glad, if the truth be told, that it was such a big one. It was an interesting talking point, my brush with death, and I enjoyed showing it to people. I was back in hospital again eighteen months later with a concussion and a broken collar bone after falling out of a tree.
From that young age, my body’s visible attempts at repair and the stories attached to each one became woven into who I was and how I related that to other people. My injuries were interesting to me, weird to the touch and in some way testament to my physical resilience, conveying a sense of risk-taking and adventure, but at the same time reminding me of my fragility.
In addition to the accidental scars that cover my body, I have also collected a substantial amount of deliberate scarification: part extreme performance art, part adornment. As noted by a wonderfully wise friend of mine, Marigold Francis, these kinds of deliberate marks only seem to underline the obvious lack of ceremony, preparation, reverence and group ritual in our Westernised cultural behaviour.
While working here in this remote community, away from my own culture, I have built up several good relationships with various families over the years, mainly through teaching their children. I also have my own personal friendships with a few of my school students. Whenever I travel to foreign lands I always send them a postcard or a poster or some memento to show that I have been there. Even at an early age some of them share my excitement with travelling the world.
In 2006, I worked with and subsequently interviewed a renowned Australian cultural anthropologist, Bentley James — you can read the interview here. The old photos in that interview eloquently show amazing horizontal chest scars on many of the young Yolngu men; these scars intrigued me greatly. Naturally wanting to know more about them, I asked two community elders who I know personally their thoughts regarding the mechanism involved in getting those marks. I was especially interested in their cultural significance and if anyone in this community still does it or has the same bold keloiding.
A common ceremonial journey is for all young boys to go through a “dhapi,” which is a circumcision ritual that marks their passage from boyhood into manhood around the ages of ten-to-thirteen years old. The chest cutting I was inquiring about is used to further mark a young man’s passage into adulthood. As is customary, a male, of age determined by his father, is initiated like this, with the community recognising his transition into manhood immediately afterwards.
According to my adoption and subsequent kinship relationships, one of the other elders — a man called Paul Garawirrtja — is an important figure. I spoke to this Paul first and he then put me onto another elder, Paul Wunungmurra, who did the actual cutting on the day. During my discussions with Paul Wunungmurra, the possibility arose for me to be allowed to participate in the ritual performed to obtain these kinds of scars.
Unfortunately, Paul Garawirrtja was called away to nurse his sick wife in a hospital in Darwin and was not able to attend. There were, however, younger members of the Garawirrtja family who did play a major role and I will be forever grateful for that strong family connection on the day.
Yolngu culture is not as pedantic or obsessive about linear time as ours is. Paul is somewhere close to fifty-five but, as with many Yolngu people, precise numbers and birth dates do not seem to be particularly significant. Knowledge and experience makes him a respected member of his family, with many children and grandchildren, of the community as a whole and as a leader on the community council. For the past twenty years he has taken groups of young local Aboriginal men touring around Europe to perform traditional dancing at various festivals and shows. He knows a lot about the value of customs, knowledge and traditions and is keen to share some of that with the non-Indigenous global population. Paul agreed that it would be OK for me to participate in this particular custom and that he would ask the relevant people around the community their thoughts.
Over the course of the following six weeks I regularly spoke with him about what was happening. Things often move at a different pace in Aboriginal culture here than in our Western societies. For many non-Indigenous people it is difficult to let things take their natural course, especially when you are a guest on their land and in their lives. Our culture is so used to dealing with set timeframes and deadlines that we miss the beauty inherent in natural time. We want everything to go faster in our linear model: speed dating where once was just dating; speed dialling for those who cannot be bothered to press a few extra buttons; fast food, the list goes on. And so it was that my own propensity for Western time began to feel frustrated as natural time ambled along. Living up here forces you to get used to different ways of doing things. You have to recognise that fact and allow yourself the luxury of going with the flow, at whatever speed the flow decides to go. Paul had things to do and people to talk to. These things take time. They are done only when they are done. Me getting stressed out or frustrated about it won’t make “time” go any faster; it may in fact just have the opposite effect.
I had originally been contacted by the History Channel about the possibility of filming an Australian Aboriginal ceremony of some description after they had read my interview with Bentley James regarding Australian Aboriginal scarification. It was a simple step, then, to marry those two ideas together. Regardless of who wanted to film and when, I would not have been allowed to have been initiated by the local people had I not been given permission by the relevant elders. That permission comes from and is based on my relationships with people forged over the last three and a half years living and working in NE Arnhem Land.
The History Channel director and cameraman were staying with me the whole weekend. They arrived on the Friday morning and left again on the Sunday afternoon. It was to be a manic sixty hours or so filming with very little sleep the whole time. But the finished product was way beyond even what I thought was possible.
Part of the reason for doing this, which I discussed in length with Paul W. and is something that I will explore further in the next article, is to involve the younger generation in something that isn’t practised at this time by the people of this community. Yolngu culture is rich and varied and much of it revolves around songs and dances. Therefore it is of the utmost importance for younger family members to come and witness ceremonial dancing and singing by their older family relatives and elders so they too can learn how to keep this aspect of their civilisation alive.
For me, the initiate, there was no special pre-ceremonial behaviour that was required at this time, as there is in other male initiation ceremonies around the world. I prepared myself mentally and physically with some early meditation, to try to get a feeling for the nature of what I was about to go through. When the sun rises, warmly and slowly wakening the animals and plants of the local environment from their cooler night-time slumber, it is peaceful and pleasurable at that time in the morning, perfect time for a strong, hot coffee and a clear head space.
Once transport had been arranged on the Saturday morning, we loaded up all the necessary equipment, food and shelter, packed as many people into the three four-wheel drives as possible and headed out to the place where the ceremony was being held. Paul W. chose to have it on his homeland, a place on the coast called Yalakun. It is one of the few outstations around the main community that people often retreat to if they want a more traditional style of living and some peace and quiet. We took the males first and then did a return trip to pick up the females. All in all, approximately forty to fifty people made the journey, ranging in age from two to sixty years of age. The men set up an area on the beach, started collecting firewood and discussed the procedure while the women helped organise the cooking and looked after all the small children who had come along.
Yalakun is right on the water and when we got there the tide was out, but fast approaching our newly set-up camp on the beach. Just before sunset some of the younger kids took me out to look for mud crabs and small sea creatures. I reminisced about my own time at that age when my grandfather used to take me down to the beach at 4 a.m. off the west coast of Scotland to dig for cockles and mussels before the sun rose.
This time, though, the sun was setting on a beautiful Saturday evening. The fresh sea air mixed well with the crackling sound of fires built along the beach. As everyone was finally getting settled, fishing nets were brought out and the boys proceeded to catch dinner for the whole group: fish cooked in embers along with baked potatoes, with a little bit of butter. The sounds of Indigenous language and random didgeridoo playing rang out over the approaching tide. Life was good.
Now it was down to the serious business.
Age plays an important role in rituals and ceremonies like these. It separates the people who have been given certain knowledge from those who have not. You will often see older men or women directing the younger ones to whom the knowledge is being passed. Throughout most of the dancing and singing, Paul W. was at the head of things, directing the generation under him, who in turn were directing the teenagers and younger boys in their roles. I played a minor if somewhat slightly significant role.
Not having been an active part in anything of this nature before, it was difficult to know how and when things happen within them. Without any of the cultural cues or access to language, I, as the foreigner, had to let myself be guided by the group and energy of the moment. I was in a fortunate position, as I personally knew most of the people around me and so felt a little more at ease.
The men sat in a crescent shape on the sand with one person chosen to play didgeridoo during the whole night. Young boys and teenagers then practised their particular dances in front of them while the women and girls watched from a short distance away. This went on for about an hour, interspersed with me being brought into the group to dance alongside them. Dancing sober is a new experience for me (and most Scotsmen, I might add) and, if I am honest, not one I am entirely comfortable with given my past ridiculous attempts. But now was not the time for timidity or shyness. I threw myself into it with the same wild abandon and thick skin I revelled in as a small child seemingly intent on breaking every bone in my young body. People laughed at my attempts the whole way through but as I soldiered on they grew to respect my determination to keep going.
A huge fire was at the centre of everything that was happening on the beach and I was glad of that as the coldness of the night began to surround us. Now it was the turn of the women and girls to do their part. They followed much the same routine as the males, and again it was inspiring to watch the younger ones eagerly participating and trying desperately to copy the older girls in their group, all the while guided by their mothers and grandmothers.
The thing that really struck me at this point was how different these people were to the ones that I have been teaching in school for the past few years. Looking around at all my previous and current students who were involved in this, with the English names given to them by missionaries and teachers of the past, many of them straight out of the religiously colonial Christian holy book, it hit home how wrong it is for anyone to try to assimilate or change a culture as deep and vibrant at this one. Young boys and girls in school wear a mask put on for the purposes of learning in English. The real people were here, energetically taking me through these important customary steps only ever previously undertaken by Aboriginal people. They were kind and open enough to allow me to be initiated and trusting enough to let me document it all properly for others to see and partially participate in vicariously. This was their reality, their story, their life, their choices, their essence, their family, their language, their culture. If we lose important Indigenous identities like this to globalised homogeneity, then the whole world will suffer as a consequence. Diversity should be continually celebrated and every effort made to support and maintain it around the world.
I was then taken away by all of the young men, farther down the beach. All the time I watched everyone around me carefully for cues to follow in what I should be doing next. They explained to me in their language (Yolngu-matha) the secret part of the ritual which was to follow. I was to do a special dance with them as they led me back up to the main group. This was secret and only for us. I nodded and followed as best I could; any time I was moving the wrong way or not chanting correctly, I was quickly pulled into place or had the right sounds explained to me by someone. The boys then led me slowly back up to the main group beside the fire that was now blazing, dancing and kicking sand all the way, in time with the clap stick rhythm, didgeridoo playing and singing. My mood shifted from one of fascinated observer to full blown participant as the seriousness of the situation began to really sink in. It was important that I concentrated fully and took in as much of this as I possibly could, as this was going to be the only time I would ever be able to go through a ceremony like this for the first time. As far as I am aware, very few (if any) other white people have ever participated in this full Yolngu ritual, so it was very important that I did everything right to the best of my ability and that I was fully lucid and attentive to what was going on around and inside of me.
The boys danced with me at the front of the group, up to the now raging seven-foot-high fire where the older men and all the women were gathered. Everyone was singing loudly and chanting with each step, animal noises according to which totem were at the front and a very definite general rhythm which felt like it was driving the energy of the whole experience. My “students” were doing an excellent job of keeping me in line. Here though, they were the teachers and I was the student.
(No one at this point was laughing at my failed attempts to mimic their fantastically fluid dances; just the fact that I was enthusiastically in there with them was enough to earn their respect. They already had my respect a long time ago.)
At the flames I was told to stand alone, but now facing the sea. The blaze swept close to my back and actually singed some hair behind my ears at one point. In front of me was an imposing figure, a strong, burly student of mine whose English name was Lukas. He has wonderfully strong facial features and an immense presence about him, even at school where he is much quieter than he was now. Even though our conversations are limited due to a lack of shared language, I feel a deep friendship with him. He is incredibly humble, warm and involved in his own customary behaviour — a true gentle warrior. Now he stood opposite me, stomping angrily in the sand and waving a thick six-foot, flaming piece of tree at me. The sounds from the group were rising and falling as Lukas thrust the flaming “spear” at my chest. I had to stand completely still as this was the part of the ceremony in which I had to exhibit bravery by not flinching while Lukas stabbed at me with the flames. Even though I knew he would not intentionally hurt me, the energy from the moment was lifting me up and carrying me along. Intense heat literally breathed down the back of my neck as I felt it simultaneously warm the front of my torso. Everyone was singing loudly and with each drive, making chanting noises that seemed to compliment the movement. Imagine the whole group letting out a raw “Ooooooo” as the spear was pushed towards me, then a more relaxed “Aaaaaa” as it retreated. I too let out a relaxed “Aaaaahhhh.”
I closed my eyes and allowed my consciousness to shift away from the present, just letting my body feel and hear the sounds, wind, smells, voices and temperatures, trying to imagine this authentic moment being performed on Paul’s homeland fifty or sixty years ago, when the last generation of Aboriginal people were still doing this. Creating a picture of the older generations of these people here with me now, with them as young children, watching a full cast of their extended family, no balandas (as white, non-Indigenous people are called in Yolngu-matha), no camera crew, just family doing family business, as it had been for thousands of years before we arrived on their land. The same singing, same dancing, same energy, same sharing of what it really means to be human beings, connecting with each other in some primeval and uncomplicated way. A reaffirmation of culture, identity and the meaning of life. For some people this manifests itself in how many houses you can own, for others it depends on whether your football team wins on the weekend or not, and for others still it is transitioning your fellow humans through their important cultural markers.
A hand grabbed my shoulder and brought me forward into the darkness. We danced around the fire like a serpent, the girls danced in front of us, dances that only women perform and the boys responded with their male-only moves. I have to say, after watching just a short piece of the film the History Channel was recording, that true to form, like most Scotsmen before me and probably all after me, I cannot dance to save myself. What was supposed to be an elegant, flowing copy of my Aboriginal guides turned into some disjointed chicken-like manoeuvre, much to the hilarity of everyone else. “You guys dance, we’ll stick to what we’re good at: keep making whisky and playing the bagpipes,” I thought to myself. And with that, it was sleep time. Tomorrow was going to be a big day in more ways than one.
A calm descended on the beach as the water lapped the sand close to where we all slept, women on one side, men on the other. Not really knowing exactly how things were going to pan out I drifted off to sleep under the stars, safe in the knowledge that whatever it was, it was likely to change me forever. I was not wrong.
The sun came up behind us in the morning. People took a while to wake but the youngest children were up first running around and playing in the water. A few dogs wandered up and down the beach. Adults slowly appeared from under their blankets. Breakfast was given out as the two History Channel guys went about setting up their equipment. I sat quietly on the sand breathing in the exquisite, salty sea air.
Paul came over and told me that we had to paint everyone first — the smaller children and main participants would get the full face painting done while most others would have some body paint on. Usually for a ceremony this big, everyone would have the whole body and face paint done, but for the purposes of time, we would just go with what we were doing now.
I lay down in the sand, a young woman softly holding back my hair while she meticulously applied red, yellow, black and white dots to my face. I also had my forehead painted white and three bands across my lower face painted white, with coloured dots placed on top. This design belongs to the “dhuwa” moiety, who were the main group guiding this ritual for me, even though I am of the “yirritja” moiety.
With the body and face painting all done, everyone was ready to go. Paul, together with the older men of the group, started off down the beach, headed west, along the water line. They were taking everyone to a patch of trees about one kilometre away where they would do the actual cutting, a place designated for men’s business. All the males under them formed the main part of the group now, with me in the middle. Behind me were the youngest males. Everyone at this stage was either wearing small branches with leaves attached to them and/or carrying the same kind of branches. The mood was one of excitement and sincerity. Behind us males were the females, youngest and smallest at the front of their group with older ladies bringing up the rear.
The boys can dance, let’s make no mistake. I tried in vain to match their speed of foot but failed miserably. Sand flies in all directions as people kick and flick it in time with the various noises going on around them. We edged slowly towards the trees, swishing the small branches in front of us as we went, then just at a small narrow passageway everyone stopped while Paul and a few of the older men went farther ahead to ready the site for us. Blistering early morning sun burned my blindingly white skin. Not wanting to spoil the mood with sun cream, I had gambled on us keeping a fairly steady pace. Now, my shoulders would probably have to pay that price later on but, to be honest, I really didn’t care. I just put it down to being part of my initiation, going through the added discomfort of sun burn, as part of my passage into real manhood. Hey, real men can handle a wee bit of sun burn. And drink whisky. Often both at the same time. (See “Scottish people abroad” for details.)
The procession continued moving forward, dancing and singing and chanting until everyone was now inside the area where the cutting would be done. It was at this point that the noise stopped quite abruptly. The women peeled off to the back area while the men surrounded me. Much Yolngu-matha was exchanged before I was grabbed on both sides, my arms extended outwards, and I was pulled down on to the sand. Lying on my back on the cool sand was welcome relief for the skin on my back. All I could now see were male faces and feet.
The singing and chanting started again but this time it was much more forceful. You could tell just from the noise that something big was about to happen. This was it. The moment of truth. Not knowing what was going on or for how long I just lay there and let my mind enter the atmosphere of the moment. As the noise reached deafening proportions it carried the energy levels higher and higher. I was being carried away with it, the sensation of cool sand on my back disappeared as I felt hands on both sides of my chest begin to hold me down.
Paul marked a line on my chest in brown earth to signify where the first cut would be. This was to be done in the traditional way with a piece of sharp stone. Now, different people have different ideas about what “sharp stone” actually translates into, so it was with some slight trepidation that I lay there waiting to be sliced open. My full trust was now with Paul and his expert hands.
As the crescendo of sound increased, I had a moment of clarity. The noise at one point began to fade away as I found myself in a kind of dreamlike state, lying alone on the sand. I had no concept of who was there, how many people, where I was, what was happening — just that bare minimum, almost meditative state of Zen-like now. I had retreated into my inner self, yet remained aware of all that was going on around me at that particular moment.
Suddenly, to bring me back with a bump (or a cut would be more appropriate) I felt that familiar burning sensation of sharp “something” through skin. Paul had begun to cut, or should I say rip, as the piece of stone he had chosen was a little serrated on the edge, so it pulled and tore as it was dragged across my scrawny chest. Ouch. I concentrated on stopping myself trying to wriggle free and breathed deeply. The noise had abated somewhat and I could sense that there was some concern as to how it was going to proceed. I glanced down at my chest and all was well — only a small score had been done, even though it was incredibly uncomfortable. But, the first ones are usually the worst, so I put my head back down on the sand and let them continue. I completely trusted that they knew what they were doing, even if this was the first time any of them had had to work with such pasty white material.
Due to the nature of the stone, two extra people were drafted in to help hold and stretch the skin on my chest to make it easier for Paul to cut horizontally. This made life much more bearable for everyone it seemed, especially me.
The singing started again and we continued. I lost track of time, of being aware of time, but was still conscious of my thin, human hide being sliced apart. It not only opened my skin but also opened up a new relationship, a lifetime friendship. While being literal, it was also symbolic. Normally we associate cutting as something destructive: self-cutters know all about this stigma society has tarred them with — something I discuss in the latter half of this interview — or of ending something (cutting your ties or cutting yourself off from something), but I viewed this as a cutting away of boundaries and of cultural exclusion, a cutting through the white-skin–dominated past to show that there is just another human being underneath, one that wanted to let in Yolngu knowledge, Yolngu ways, Yolngu friends. I genuinely hope that was encapsulated in the symbolic gesture between the two groups on the beach that day; that we have both signed up to that.
Paul did one horizontal line, then another one about an inch below. I glanced down again once he had stopped to see if there was much blood. None. Just sharp, clear incisions. I was then quickly pulled to my feet and moved to another place beneath some other nearby trees for the remaining part. All the males had gathered round to inspect the incisions and were excitedly showing the younger boys while all the time making sure I was OK. They laid me down again to rest momentarily as some of the older men collected leaves from a different kind of tree this time. A small fire was built next to me, and as the smoke wafted over my face I felt complete contentment with my world. My head was rested on someone’s leg and these new leaves, shinier and harder than the ones used previously were put in the fire to heat them up. Aboriginal knowledge tells us there is some chemical in the leaves that is good for stopping blood flow, I found out later. The hot leaves were pressed against my open wounds to stop any bleeding but, as it happened, this turned out to be more painful than the actual cutting. I shrieked in pain as the leaves burned my open chest — Let them bleed, I thought, I didn’t sign up to be branded as well. But again I laid there and took it like a man, like the new man I now was.
There were just two more things left to do for the transition to be complete. After the secret dancing, and trial by fire, after the procession to ceremonial area and stone cutting, and after the leaf cauterisation, I was now to be instructed of my new responsibilities as a man. The next part was all done in Yolngu-matha and I had it translated to me a little later on. A shell was scraped on the palms of my hands (to signify that a man should not steal), then scraped down my tongue (to signify that a man should not lie or speak ill of others). A small, leafy branch was then shaken over my stomach (to signify that a man should provide food for his family) and then down over my legs and feet (to signify that a man should walk with dignity throughout his life).
Lastly, the whole group of people, men and women, girls and boys, all formed a large circle. I was placed in the middle with the young family member who had instructed me of my new “manly” responsibilities and a final bout of loud singing and chanting formally welcomed me into the community under my new manhood status. I danced around in the middle going in the opposite direction to the main group and fell to my knees immediately when all the noise stopped. Exhausted but exhilarated. Tired but transformed.
Everyone looked after me, all the way through: guiding me, encouraging me, acknowledging me and sharing with me. My new scars tell a story of pain, endurance, identity, status, beauty and courage. They mean something to the community and something special to me. These marks are a permanent record of this day, the day our cultures met and walked hand in hand into the periphery of what it means to be a traditional, Yolngu, Australian Aboriginal person, albeit the whitest one so far in history. I graciously accepted their offer and will be forever in debt to the wonderful people who accompanied me on this part of my life journey.
Limurr ga nhina mägayamirr wangganymirr
We are together, we are one in peace.
* * *
Please consider buying a membership to BME so we can continue bringing you articles like this one.