Photo: Jason De Santolo
Essay: Jason De Santoloon water

Sun Showers and White Ochre

I vividly remember moments of laughter, cool sprinkles of a sun shower, muddy skin and slippery grasses.

Like so many Aboriginal kids, I was taken as a baby from my family and lands, a forced adoption from Darwin in the Northern Territory during the so-called free love era of the 1970s. In that way I was birthed from my mothers’ sacred waters, yet never grew up in her arms or in the embrace of my homelands. For over twenty years of my life, something was missing. A turbulent sea of water would take me away but on a calm day it could take me home safely. Something was missing.

Inside an old army barracks a long line of black babies cry from white sterile cots. A sun shower hovers overhead, rattling the tin roof with shadows, hissing in the heat raindrops leap back into the sky. At the end of the row, a window allows light to pour in directly onto the only fair skin baby. Sensing a storm, the baby cries harder into a pool of sweat and tears, watching, listening, waiting for a mother’s embrace.

What does water signify? For me it has represented hope in a lifelong journey of belonging. I encounter memories when water’s healing force cleanses the body, mind and spirit, fueling resolve in the quest to reconnect with family, culture and homelands. The beauty of this painful journey home is reflected in the shifting of my sensory experiences and in my children today. They also love water, but unlike me, they are growing up within their mother’s embrace, held in my clan, known to relate within our tribal world. The kids know family, they know their lands, they have felt the earth that their ancestors walked through over thousands of years, they have drunk water from deep down in the aquifers, they have felt markirra, white ochre dry caking their skin.

As I watch our kids play in our local park, far from our NT homelands, a wondrous sun shower travels over us. My body tingles in the light rain, slippery bark sparkles, I close my eyes.  My senses mingle with my memories, thoughts from deep down in my body, in my guts.  Once again I find myself pondering water, sensing its sacredness, its shifting state. How have my senses transformed though a deeper understanding of water? Has the cycle of rebirth found its home — from colonised to decolonising, to just being present. I reflect on the notion that the rebirthing of senses is deeply tied to the inner spring, to our waters within. There’s a more personal meaning too. I look through the lens of Ngadararnar Jarnjar and Markirra — sun  showers and white ochre. Sun showers, a natural shared sensory experience that transcends the shackles of city as system; white ochre, an expressions of collective identity, an ancient lineage stretching back to ancestral homelands.

In all the unintentional privilege of reflection, I fall into a deeper emotional meditation on water, as a living memory of my late mother and the ancestral ties that her waters gifted me. This wandering essay searches for a deeper understanding of the Indigenous sensorium, as manifest in the resonating power of water in a time dominated by narratives of environmental chaos. How do we map and situate this textual journey? I could say as a baseline, I was once a stolen baby when nothing used to make sense. To know water as memory is potential enough to dance, to declare war on the colonial narrative of defeat.  For there is meaning making to be had amid the crisis of contamination and loss.

~ the dance of water

My one-year-old scoops water puddles, sipping, splashing, playing with the dirt, connecting into a new and foreign cityscape. Water mingles with dirt, forms muddy hand prints on skin, blending to form a slippery mask of earth. I sneak a photo as light refracts into our eyes and for a moment there are rainbows hovering above us.

It was a beautiful shared experience. Looking round the park, the energy had shifted, there was a refreshed meditative glow, a  gathering had formed. I finally break the spell: This is not our Country, son. We show respect here. This is Wangal lands in Sydney city. But can you still hear the Elder’s songs — dancing, travelling on our homelands far away from this place? Can you still feel the grit of markirra on your skin, the white ochre?

My son catches my thoughts, glances at me — plays on. The sun shower passes, as they always do. Yet the moment dances in my mind, curiously traversing this textualised space. There is always hope in a story that will always be told. Why is this kid is so fascinated with water? Is it the way it constantly dances around his hands? The unfolding fluid ripples, that form and reform? To sense it, to crave it, to sweat it, to be completely immersed in it. He breathes in this magical nature of water, as if in sparkling supplication to a living relation.

Blackfoot Elder and scholar Leroy Littlebear inspires us to see dynamic water ecologies as deeper pathways towards sustainability of life itself:

The renewal process is important for maintaining and sustaining those conditions that make for continual existence and all we need to do is to ask the fish, they were here long before dinosaurs were here, they are still here.

Do the fish really still care about us as human or post-human? As the oceans fall to our pollution, as the rivers dry up contaminated, will they answer our plea for knowledge? A sun shower evokes a shared moment of renewal, it offers communion and connects us to water as bathed in light, on skin. In seeking greater understanding of renewal in life systems we are also reconnecting relationships in the journey of seeking life. Indigenous culture and knowledge is a key to sensing our part in the interrelational cosmology, the multiverse, the inner and outer worlds of perception and action.

What does this mean in reality? Can this shape our everyday practices when living on someone else’s homelands or Country?  Michael Yellowbird sees neuro-decolonisation as one way to break down those false divisions of matter, of mediation. He writes of an ancient logic:

The spatial reasoning is gone, I become the tree, I become the fragrance, I become the bark, the roots, the tree becomes me.

Regardless of your heritage, I believe the sacred nature of water is best experienced through a respectful consciousness of ancient Indigenous ways of being in Country. In this way, Indigenous sensing is a way of understanding shared experiences of water and a dynamic synaesthetic starting point for understanding what relational connections to Country feels like. Indigenous sensing is a decolonial project that allows us to feel and create relational meaning within and across our senses, rather than our intellect. For those thinkers, scholars, readers it offers us a free pass to our emotional childlike selves. In a methodological framing it is fluid and organic, combining local Indigenous storywork principles with transformational imperatives that challenge neoliberal systems and the extractive industries. To feel water with all our senses allows us to transcend the limited perceptions of water. Our feelings allow us to move into realms of Indigenous cosmologies, to evoke spirit and breathe life into the decaying colonial narratives. To listen deeply, to be in the moment, in flux, a deep listener would know dadirri, in the manner offered by Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr. In her reflection, which ‘taps into the deep spring within us’, the ‘contemplative way of dadirri spreads over our whole life. It renews us and brings us peace. It makes us feel whole again.’

Like all parents, I want to ensure my children and family have access to clean drinking water. But I also want my kids to know their dance of water — to know how they relate culturally to the essence of water through their songs and dances. Mixing water with ochre is a special thing, to feel and live the experience in your hands and to enact the responsibility of being part of an ancient custodial connection to place, to homelands. This wellbeing rubric of our descendants is tied to the health of water, which is turn is bound to the global politics of Indigenous self -determination. What are we searching for in writing about nature?  Narratives that are self-determining and grassroots? That are transdisciplinary, that are transformative? How can the dance with water manifest into ‘wise action’ and spark humbler collaborative conversations around virtue, knowledge and meaning making? For our family Indigenous storywork offers a transformational theory of liberation that is both relational and culturally responsive to the challenges of a contaminated society.

Staying connected to Country can be everyday challenge for those of us who are living off homelands. City living draws us into the consumption paradigm. It exposes families to the raw structures of an industrial complex, a system that commodifies experiences into situated doses of sustenance. There are days in the city where I do not touch the soil, where I only feel the heavy weight of concrete under my feet. Yet the glorified story of modern civilisation is slowly fracturing, more and more basic life sustaining services are becoming exposed as corrupted or contaminated.

Jane Randerson resists the temptation to glorify, instead poses a meteorological art as reorientation, as a knowing where an: ‘Indigenous ethic of care is signalled in dadirri, a deep and attentive listening to the earth’s biota, air, and winds and inward to ourselves’. Water is a key protagonist in story, in art, in life, in weathered patterns of nature where new ‘ecocritical conversations’ and dynamic relational ethics rise as  ‘expressions of resistance to colonization’.

So what happens when the key element, water, becomes tainted and poisoned? Our Elders tell us we must go back to our core, to the practices that keep us connected and alive. Just as before invasion, story culture unites us to face the violence of the state, invites us to stand up, offers us strategies and pathways forward. Cultural practices constantly reorientate us back to the source of life through the relational practices of renewal, practices like the marking of bodies with ochre, the honouring of water as entity, as living memory. How is it that culture remains stronger than contamination?

~  culture transcends contamination

At this moment in time, on the other side of the continent our Garrwa clan/tribe, who are living in Borroloola town camps in the Northern Territory, are suffering from lead contaminated water. Families received water contamination notices in early 2018. They want to know whether they can trust the water that once sustained us. Life changes forever when something that we rely on for daily sustenance is suddenly poisoned. It affects the growth of our babies, the development of our children. Yet our children do not worry about this yet. Water’s ability to diminish life is not what they are conscious of. The Elders are deeply concerned that children will stop playing with water. For the families it is important to understand and story the experience of contamination. What is it that makes water such a powerful resonant force for the community? How can Indigenous sensing as methodology assist in remembering and how do our daily practices of renewal reconnect us to that regenerative nature of water as a source of life?

My clan brother Gadrian Hoosan is a Garrwa cultural leader from Borroloola in Gulf country NT. He maintains a focus of his energy on song and dance as powerful practices of renewal that carry ancestral knowledge, laws, memories and relational ties that mediate the living world:

Them kids pick up in singing. Even our traditional songs if our Elders sing it to us we pick it up by listening to them, because we never had a book and pen to keep all our stories. Everything was made by the song and the song connect to the land and the story connect to the land. All this came from the dreamtime we call Yigan, Yigan was our creator for Garrwa and Yanyuwa, for whole lot of us our language came from the Yigan you know. We came from the Yigan.

Song traditions hold similar intent that sit behind this writing, and other ‘knowledge making’ traditions that landscape relational meaning in the living world, to borrow Smith and Steffensen’s terms. For people like Tony Abbott an assimilation paradigm demands that English language proficiency be the most important educational outcome. But deficit models like Closing the Gap rarely inspire change. Indigenous people must always be climbing up into Western ways of knowing towards the pinnacle that is civilisation.

We know that the story of fire cannot be understood without the story of water. Today Garrwa and Yanyuwa are enacting song tradition renewal as part of an emerging music ecology and compositional collaboration between Elders and younger musicians. These creative knowledge strategies intentionally revitalise relationships and practices that sustain living world ecologies and in doing so spark profound new extensions and experiences of an ancient songline logic for upcoming generations. The use and representation of markirra is prominent in these knowledge making strategies.

But many of us mob find ourselves in urban contexts — we live in cities, far away from our homeland-based renewal practices and our Country, our place of ancestral connection. It takes me a 4-hour flight, an overnight stop and then a 12-hour drive to get back to our outstations and homelands. This self-imposed exile brings light to why water and markirra are two key elements of song and dance which have personally transcended time and space and energised my wellbeing into alignment with the emotional resonance of Garrwa Country.

Water remembers our ancestral associations, of our birth, of growth. Water as a ritual helps me make sense of the everyday, of the everyday rebirth, of sunrise and sunset. I am sure my son feels an inkling of this. My nephew Scott McDinny  carries the culture strongly for our family, he believes: ‘Our teachings survive in our land, in our laws, in our songs. Culture is stronger than contamination’. With this in mind, water is revealed as an interrelational connector uniting experiences of wellbeing across body, place and identity. As an element of nature, water is experienced in so many ways and as sustenance for all generations it will continue to forge community resilience around experiences of contamination.

~ re-orientating sensory experiences

As Indigenous peoples we need water for more than just sustenance and life’s daily rituals. My brother Gadrian talks about water with reverence, it is also needed for our ceremonial activities. What water does, in all of its power, is reorientate us back to the source so life, back to the yigan our creation story, our dreaming. For Garrwa a key for remembering lies in Yarnbar Jarngkurr, the everyday ceremony of talking ~ storying. A story journey within itself, Yarnbar Jarngkurr – talk~story is not just an everyday practice. For our family it has emerged through my doctoral project as part of our families‘ storytelling response to the ongoing impacts of Australia as a colonial project. Talk~story manifests as Indigenous creative methodology and relational practice of knowledge renewal for visioning and enacting Garrwa self determination. Garrwa Yarnbar Jarngkurr are the voices and stories that shape renewal of the relational world through song, dance, ceremony and ancient practices of the land. To talk, to sing, to story Country is to not just live but to feel free and connected to the world around us.

In re-orientating sensory experience, we must get personal. It is our own family stories of the land that centre our feelings and harmonise a mindful bodily connection to place. To decolonise our emotions we look deep within our bodies, in our guts — and not just in our hearts. Everyday practices that connect us to water can become a profound manifestation of this inner spring, of an emotional resonance in contemporary contexts. This can be expressed colourfully in the places like the academy through Indigenous storywork and storytelling methodologies  – the practices that invoke a return to relational meaning making ecologies. For some of us it also lights a pathway within, a decolonising journey.

There is a reflexive luxury in ‘writing’ and the privilege I experience as a researcher and creative who lives away from my Country. It is more than just this romantic exilic consciousness that worries me. At times it is the physical wrenching consciousness of the ongoing pain and suffering that Indigenous peoples experience on Country at the frontline.  As someone who was taken away from family and Country I still feel the trauma of loss and disconnection.  From memory water has always represented a connecting element in my life, energetic and playful, nurturing and soothing. Water has always been the connector across the shores towards our ‘homelands’. It has been water that has offered a constant sensory connection to my mindful self. Now, later in life, combined with markirra, it binds me to place, through my body. I see it in the coming generations, as they dance and sing our creation songs, our songs of resurgence. I see it in my kids and I celebrate this mindfully and gratefully because I know it is precious and timeless. This relationship celebrates the unconditional love and compassion for Country as expressed through the generations as talk, story, song and dance.

Telling this story experience is not just about presenting a narrative that is understood in the context of Western framings of environment, of crisis, of responsibility. It evokes a deeper, more sensory way of becoming active in movements that generate deeper understandings of everyday practices and lived experiences. Emotional resonance is one of the lens through which we can reveal and identify our own indicators of wellbeing. They are not just cultural indicators but much more sophisticated articulations of relational connection and sustainment as contained within our stories and songs. They are able to strategise the weaving together of complex impacts and responses that are empowering of community understandings of power and decision making.

The Garrwa Indigenous sensing project emerged in response to the contamination of our waters in town camps. It is a strategic research collaboration to shield families and overcome contamination experiences on Country. It is informed by the profound nature of Indigenous perception of Country and driven by the transformative potential of Indigenous sensing projects. We will story our experience of colonisation, contamination (water/Country) and training our own people to use scientific tools for monitoring levels of toxicity. The methodology generates evidentiary data, powerful baselines that are critical to keeping governments and multinationals accountable for damage done. As the world of contamination enters our homelands, and our bodies we enact this as one of the Yarnbar Jarngkurr self-determining strategies moving forward for Garrwa peoples. In this way I know the story of contamination is framed by our own experiences and with the guidance of Elders as professors of the land and sky.

~ decolonising perceptions of contamination

All too often we have witnessed the recontextualisation of our knowledge systems and worldviews into storied myths or legends, often by racist Eurocentric modalities. Yet according to these renewal processes our ancient cultural practices will always survive the trends of the West. Yarnbar Jarngkurr is also an storywork visioning pathway for enacting self-determination through our own worldmaking prowess that is grounded and sourced in the creation stories and laws of the land. It is our storytelling practices which unite our shared experiences in new ways and within newly emerging knowledge realms. Culture is stronger than contamination because of our ability to maintain connection to water and to story our own shared journey together towards a healthier environment. Our ancient practices of sustainability resonate with the energy and power to guide us though a decontamination of experience. This hints at how storyworld understandings are a key part of the pedagogy of song renewal and how, as Linda Tuhiwai Smith states, meaning is made in community, not within the four walls of the academy.

Gathering up my intentions, I breathe out knowing that my kids already hold shared memories of water, of our homelands, of the embrace of family. Yet here in Sydney, the state government has just passed irrational ‘forced adoption’ laws similar to the regime that took me away from my family so many years ago. This regime allows for adoption of our kids without consent of the parents and family. The latest systemic manifestation of an ongoing genocidal intent – the ‘stolen generations’. My son does not yet know of the pain of my stolen past and I will do everything in my power to make sure none of our kids experience what I went through. The trauma of colonisation is profoundly intergenerational and just like the water that sustains us, we hold those living memories within our body, our inner spring. If we are to experience and heal from trauma we must understand the impact that these experiences have had on the land as well as the ancestral body, mind and spirit.  My body still aches knowing that other Aboriginal families continue to experience child removal at alarming rates, in this city and across this continent. This feeling is a stark reminder that memories live within us and it is our collective task to destroy these colonial narratives that constantly seek to define us. It is our collective task to challenge these policies of cultural genocide, racist policies that target our children, that seek to destroy families.

As I dwell more on the microscopic touches to life I realise my son, like all kids, is feeling these sun shower moments with absolute freedom. It brings me joy and drives me to strive for an uncontaminated world for all our children. Let us be festive, let us talk, sing, story Country for them so that one day future generations live free, sustainably and connected to the world around us. Surely stories of Country will grow the culture of community into a strong unified resurgence, so that together we will transform perceptions of water in deep connected synergistic ways. What gives childhood experiences of water such sensory lingering power? Perhaps we should all ask the fish while we still can.

Photo: Jason De Santolo
Photo: Jason De Santolo

Works Cited

Archibald, Lee-Morgan, De Santolo. (forthcoming 2019). Decolonizing Research: Indigenous Storywork as Methodology, ZED Books, London.

De Santolo, J. (2018). Towards understanding the renewal of ancient song traditions through Garrwa video: an Indigenous story research project, Doctorate of Creative Arts, UTS.

— (forthcoming 2019). Warburdar Bununu, Director, ½ hour documentary, Screen Australia, Screen Victoria, A Brown Cabs Production.

Gibbs, P. (2018) Philosophical Reflections: A Coda in: Fam, D., Neuhauser L, & Gibbs, P, P. The art of Collaborative Research and Collective Learning: Transdisciplinary theory, practice & education, Springer, London.

Hoosan, G. (2014) The land is the most important thing, Guardian Australia, 10 October 2014.

Littlebear, L. (2015). Indigenous Knowledge and Western Science, Dr. Leroy Little Bear Talk, Banff Events.

Pihama, L. (2018). Convenor Presentation, 8th Biennial International Indigenous Research Conference, Nga Pae o Te Maramatanga, University of Auckland.

Smith, L. (2019 forthcoming). Introduction, In Archibald, Lee-Morgan, De Santolo, Decolonizing Methodologies: Indigenous storywork as methodology, Zed Books, London.

Steffensen, V. (2019). Introduction, In Archibald, Lee-Morgan, De Santolo, Decolonizing Methodologies: Indigenous storywork as methodology, Zed Books, London.

Ungunmerr, M. (1988) Dadirri, Inner Deep Listening and Quiet Still Awareness.

Van Leuuwen, T. (2016). A Social Semiotic Theory of Synesthesia? – A Discussion Paper, Hermes – Journal of Language and Communication in Business, no 55, pp105-119.

Yellowbird, M. (2018). Decolonizing the Mind, Portland State University.

Published March 4, 2019
Part of New Nature: What does it mean to write about nature in 21st century Australia? A new wave of Australian nature writers write about Country, landscape, ecology, and biosphere.   All New Nature essays →
Jason De Santolo

Dr Jason De Santolo (Garrwa and Barunggam) is a researcher, creative producer & father...

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