Aboriginal Culture and Grief:
An Interview with Ray Minniecon

By: Brenda Paik Sunoo

Interview conducted with Ray Minniecon of World Vision, Australia
New South Wales Museum
Sydney, Australia

December 2001

My name is Ray Minniecon. I come from the Kabi Kabi people in Queensland And I'm head of Indigenous Programs for World Vision, Australia. You've asked: What are some Aboriginal beliefs/customs of death, dying, grief and the afterlife?

It varies place to place. But some of the essential elements of our beliefs is that everything in our culture is connected. From birth, right through. In our Aboriginal belief system, when a woman first feels the pangs of childbirth, in our custom, it is the spirit of that place. Like totems, in English words. What we call the Dreaming, the cultural heroes of that place who have participated in the birth of that child. So that child is a Spirit Being or a Spirit Child.

From that particular moment on, the moment the mother has that child, she will take the afterbirth and she'll bury it in the land, bury it in the soil. When the person grows older and older, in a sense, that's the only piece of land ownership that the Aboriginal person has. As an old fella would say, "That's where my Mother laid me down." That becomes Mother Earth. That's the whole notion of what we understand as "The land is my Mother."

Then, you go through the cycle of initiations in order to grasp hold of the incredible knowledge and wisdom of the Aboriginal culture. We're talking some 50,000 years of wisdom that people have to understand and know. And that's all given orally from our elders.

Our elders are like the voice of God. They are the ones who speak God on earth. In a sense, they represent the God of that particular area because they've been given the law. They know the law, and they're actually passing on the law. We call the law Dreaming. Dreaming isn't only about laws, how society is run. Dreaming is like what the Bible is to Christianity or what the Koran is to Islam. It's everything. This is where all of our authority comes from. This is where all of our ceremony comes from. This is where our law comes from. All of it comes from the Dreaming.

So when a person is born, they have to go through these initiations, right through until they die. What happens at death, there is a huge mourning. The women will cut themselves to express their sorrow and anguish at the loss of someone so important to the community. There will be bloodshed, and a whole range of incredibly deep emotions are expressed.

That blood is being shed not only because of the personal depths of sorrow, but to express to the family that has lost a loved one. This is their way of saying 'sorry' with them. Because it is a very painful thing to lose someone so close. If the person who dies is of high esteem, it becomes a very big community affair. That person then goes back into the Spirit World again, and they become what we would call a part of our ancestors who are always with us. We don't worship our ancestors. We don't have ancestral worship, but we do "ancestral listening." They're there as your spiritual guide. They're there as people to look over you, help you when you need that support. They're there all the time in terms of your journey through life.

We do speak to them as if they are real people. Only they don't have body form anymore. We speak to our ancestors in that way. But they're there. Within that whole period, that name of the person (who died) is cut off from the community. The name that that person's been given...if anyone else in the community has that same name, that name is finished. We cannot speak that name anymore, from that day forward. So if I come into a community, and I have the same name of that (deceased) person, I would have to change my name to show my respect for the family that lost the loved one. It's not trying to forget that person. It's more the memory of the pain and suffering and showing respect. In a nutshell, that's the way in which people are born into their lives. They go through a process of initiation ceremonies to get the knowledge and laws of Dreaming. And then they die and pass into the other life, becoming ancestral beings in spirit form.

There are burials. I'm not too familiar with people who've been cremated. But lots of our people have been put in trees or at burial places where they're laid to rest. It depends on which nation you're talking about. All have different ways of disposing of the body. I haven't heard of the ways in which Westerners do it—in terms of digging a grave and placing them in the soil that way. It's more likely that the Aboriginal people offer the body to the elements, knowing that they're still part of the natural environment.

Bodies aren't necessarily returned to the place of their birth, although the person would be dying within their Mother Country. If they are deceased in another area, they must come back. In some cases I've heard, they've brought a body back to their country. In modern times, it's becoming much more the practice to be returned to one's own country.

Another part of the dying process is that when there's a death in the community, all the knowledge, all the remains—the physical things—are destroyed. In modern times, when someone died in a house, all the people just left. They don't stay there. They move on to another part of the country or homeland. Our people are very spiritual and believe the Spirit Beings are always there. They're always a part of you, a part of your understanding of yourself and the universe.

These are some of the major elements of life, death, birth and the afterlife of Aboriginal beliefs. The other thing to note is that for us, from a theological point of view, God doesn't live hidden behind the blue skies and stars. Our understanding of God is that he is here. He is metamorphosed in those places that the Creation heroes created—e.g. Uluru. Or in a waterfall, a couple of trees, a river, a lake. This is where God lives. That's his home. That's his address.That's where he has, within himself, all the Spirit Children—from creation time forward.

In some communities, especially on the coastal sides, when Aboriginals saw white people coming, they thought they were their long lost relatives or brothers, cousins or sons coming back to them from across the sea. This belief originated from the notion that a person who dies goes across the sea to another place.

In terms of Aboriginals' mourning process, it varies across the board. In some cases, depending on the stature of the person, it could be a season (up to a month or six months), there is a mourning period that people have to go through. It's intensified at the beginning and goes on for some time. It also depends on the type of death. With a natural death, it's different from a situation in which a person has been murdered. Then you have a completely different set of circumstances. And the memory may linger for quite some time because of the whole notion of payback and getting revenge for that particular death. So it does depend on those kinds of elements as well.

This is mainly to do with Aboriginal people. It's different from the Torres Strait Islands. They have different kinds of mechanisms. There's the mourning process they go through, but also all the clothes, names destroyed. There's also a memorial service, or a wake, somewhere on the track, where they'll have a stone erected with that person's name on it to remember that person. It's different in various communities and nation groups.

Among the Aboriginal people, though, there are distinguishable common elements. But when you localize it, the practices can change slightly.

In terms of my own grief experience, I don't think grief was ever dismissed. It's just that we don't have any mechanisms, culturally, to deal with it. Especially when forcibly removed from your Heart Country or whether you're forcibly removed from your families. So there is no mechanism, culturally, to help you cope with that stuff. You have to develop, invent, create ways in which you deal with it. Those who can cope with that, with a bit of strength, are very rare. Many of us who've felt that loss have usually dealt with it through alcohol or some other kind of abuse. Because the systems and structures aren't there to help us grieve or help give us any hope of getting some kind of restoration of the things we've lost so dearly. We haven't had any mechanisms to deal with [the grief]. It's sitting there all the time, unresolved.

The problem we have is that if there is any cultural practices we can retrieve, we can probably bring these to the fore and practice them and put in place. But after you've gone through that ceremony and that process...at the end of that, there's the stark realization that [the pain and dispossession] is still there. And so, if you have got a mechanism that gives hope, we'd use it gladly. Every Aboriginal person in the country would start that ceremony tomorrow if they felt that at the end of that process, the healing could be completed by a restoration of land.

But at the moment, no, it's not there because we just know that if we get through this process, there's nothing at the end of it. You're still dispossessed. You wake up dispossessed.

Now, the whole notion of an apology, of the government saying "Sorry," has much more to do with history and politics, as well as the spirit of who we are. Because in this country, here, when the white fellas came here and invaded our country, they settled here under the notion of terra nullius, which means "no man's land." Now, that particular doctrine was a part of the political landscape right up until 1993, after the Mabo decision said there is such a thing as Native Title within British common law systems. The moment that decision was handed down, it removed the whole notion of terra nullius and gave people the opportunity of acknowledging there were people here in the first place.That's one level of apology.

The second level, which hasn't taken place in terms of the Native Title process, is to recognize the people who actually live here. They recognized that people were here. But who were these people? This is British law for you! It's so inconsistent in so many different ways.

So the reason the apology is so important is that it would be the first time that this government actually recognizes the people who belong to this land. And says "Sorry for dispossessing you, taking your children away, doing horrible things to you, and now we can recognize you as people." That's why it's important to us.

We're not just Australians. We didn't come from England. We weren't part of the criminal people who came into our country. This is our country. We were here first. We are the First Nation's peoples. By the government actually saying, "Sorry," they're actually acknowledging us as humans. It's only a human being who can say 'Sorry' to another human being. It would be a true process of mutual respect.

Because the Prime Minister cannot say this word 'Sorry' to us from a governmental level, it's says to us—very clearly—that he has not recognized us as a distinct unique people who were here first. There's all these political connotations wrapped up in this, very very clearly. And the moment he does say 'Sorry,' you can see that it will bring in the common law principle of recompense. So the apology is all tied up with compensation terms as well. It just continues that cycle of dispossession. That's why, for me and others, particularly, the whole word 'Sorry' for us is so important because it begins to recognize me as a human being, as a person.

In terms of forgiveness, there's a little saying I picked up. It says, "Forgiveness is the giving up of all hope for a better past." I like that. It resonates with something. And I think that's the principle I'd like to see. "Forgiveness is giving up of all hope for a better past." We can't change the past. But we can acknowledge it; we can acknowledge the bad things that have been done in it to a group of people. That would satisfy us. We can then say, "We can't change the past. But we can work together so it never happens again." And our kids will never have to experience those kinds of fears by anybody, by any invader or by any other communities. We can build a better community or nation together. Forgiveness is, for us, a part of a process of rebuilding and restoring the things taken away from us, in order to give our kids a better hope for the future.

Put it this way: Our people are not going to move. We're not going anywhere. This is our country. We're going to live here forever and ever. Amen. Our kids are going to live here forever and ever. We're not going anywhere. So it behooves us to say, "Yeah, we accept your apology. Please accept our apology because we're going to have to live here together. Let's get over this, so we can get on with the business of living together.

I don't think it's a radical change or anything of that nature. The only element we'd be looking for in the process of forgiveness is this element of "restorative justice." We can then start to work on the way to rebuild ourselves, rebuild our identity, dignity and integrity. Culturally, socially, we can be the people that we believe God has meant us to be. That's what we say, from a theological viewpoint, that God has never dispossessed us. So we can appeal to that higher court in terms of those kinds of issues.

Anger, on the other hand, is the only emotion that demands a physical manifestation, strangely enough. It demands that something has to be done physically. If I am so angry that I hit a wall or something, the anger dissipates very quickly. Aboriginals already are expressing anger, physically, through the abuses we're self-inflicting upon ourselves. We've done enough physically to express our anger and frustration with things. Another way in which we can express our anger is through symbols or memorials that say, "Look, we've come to this point." This memorial here says, "We've gone through this history. We've come to this. Here's a physical representation of all that we've gone through, all of our emotions and spirit." Now we can look at this particular memorial and say, "We've done it. This is all of our anger, love and emotions. We can move on."

There aren't memorials like this at this particular stage. In Canberra, they're trying to develop a reconciliation place, but there's some protest from their people. But I'm planning to go there to protest against this. It has to represent the anguish that we've gone through. I don't think one monument is enough for us. There has to be a whole range of monuments. For example, look here at this country. If we want to look at the ways we express our sorrow, anger and anguish over the ways in which our people have been treated or lost in world wars, we go to the memorials. It's there. We celebrate all week. We have memorials for that. For our people, that's what we need. Look at the Israelis. They go to the Wailing Wall. We need those kinds of monuments also. We need to go to such places year after year and express our anguish and sorrow, as well as our hopes for the future. It would give us a physical identification with our past and future.

The connection you have to your country, that's your heart country. That's your spirit. That's where you come from. You can never get rid of your heart country. And hopefully, when you die, that's where you want to be buried as well. It's unthinkable to disconnect from that.