Disregard of Aboriginal prior rights to land was the ‘root of all evil’ in the colonisation of Australia.
Archbishop Polding, Sydney, Pastoral Letter, 1869
The link between Aboriginal Dreaming stories and Bible accounts are very significant and open the dialogue between Christian and Aboriginal Spirituality. The following Dreaming stories come from the Gumbaynggirr people:
The Tree of Life (Muurrbay Bundani)
Elders, both Dhanggati and Gumbaynggirr told us how the Tree of Life Muurrbay Bundani was taken up from the Earth. Two of the story places for this gigantic sacred fig were at Hat Head and at Mary’s Waterhole.
Here we follow the story which Uncle Harry Tiger Buchanan told in Gumbaynggirr language.
All the Mountain People came over to the East here, to eat the figs from this tree, and on the opposite side of it the Sea People were sitting and eating together. Then one of the coastal people had a look and called out:
“Well! These figs are big over here! This inland mob have been eating all the big ones, and they’ve left us only the small ones. Take a look around here!”
The inland people were watching and called out:
“Well! They’ve stolen our figs. They’ve all gone and taken them!” One of the people from the coast said “This tree belongs to us all!” A mountain person replied: “No, The Father left that for us, not you!”
Both groups started arguing rowing about which group owned the tree
The Father heard and saw all this and said.
“You have all become really evil and now I will take the tree away altogether!”
And that is what he did. He pulled the Tree of Life right out of the ground; pulled it out and took it. Some men then tried to tie it down with vines, so the Father took the whole lot up into the sky, men and all, and planted it up there. (From Harry ‘Tiger’ Buchanan)
Our elders tell us how this tree was taken up from its place near Hat Head by a large flock of birds. Those people who clung to this tree were taken up with it into the sky and left a large hole in the ground. One of the people who were left behind said: “You lot have been bad-mouthing each other too much! That’s why the Father took away the Tree of Life.” In one account, a tribesman hurled his boomerang and chopped small pieces off the tree as it was taken up. What fell to ground grew into the Muurrbay, the White Fig, much smaller than the original.
Aunty Ivy Smith told us about a Gumbaynggirr funeral ceremony she witnessed. Here the Ngaluunggirr (Clever Man) called out “Yuuway!”(“Coo-ee”) to the spirit of the dead man, until the spirit no longer replied. Then the Ngaluunggirr told the mourners that the spirit was now eating at Muurrbay, the Tree of Life, after which it passed on to the next world.
This picture by Sharon Smith shows the mountain people (triangles) and sea people arguing over the tree. The circle in the middle represents the waterhole left behind.
Three Trees in the Christian Story
One of the first ‘dreaming stories’ in the Bible is about the “Tree of Life.” This was placed in the Garden of Eden together with the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil,” from which Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit.
Their sin was greed for the tasty fruit and greed for a wisdom equal to God’s own wisdom.
The Muurrbay story also tells of greed and selfishness which in this case led to quarrels.
In the Bible story, when Adam and Eve disobeyed and ate, God evicted them from the Garden – not to punish them, but because he feared “lest the man put forth his hand and take also of the Tree of Life, and eat, and live for ever.” (Gen 3:22) The effect of this would have been to make sinners (and so also sin) live forever. For it is a fact that death, while being the result of sin, is also the limit that brings an end to sin. So in the Bible story God gets them away from doing something that would make sin last forever.
In the Muurrbay story we can see that same wise Father. Because the fruit of this tree has become a source of fighting between his children, He removes that tree. And even then he leaves them with a smaller version of this giant fig.
The second tree in the Christian story is the Cross of Christ. The New Testament often uses “tree” rather than “cross” (eg. Acts 10:39 “they put him to death by hanging him on a tree.”) Saint Peter explains what was involved: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live in a virtuous way.” (1 Peter 2:24) Jesus gave his whole life for you and me–so that we might be drawn by his love for us and obedience to the Father to not die but live. Through our faith in him he will give us the same life he showed when he rose from death.
This second ‘tree’ has echoes in another story: Birrugan and Gawnggan which we will outline in the next section.
John an apostle of Jesus had a vision of a third tree: the “Tree of Life”. He wrote about it in the Book of Revelation in the bible. The Tree stands for the life God will give us when we reach heaven. This Tree is so full of life that it bears fruit once every month, and “the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” (Rev 22:2) All who have “conquered” in faith (Rev 2:7) and who have “washed their robes” in baptism (Rev 22:14) may enter the heavenly city and eat from this Tree of Life.
How wonderful that the Gumbaynggirr Dreaming also saw a tree: the Muurrbay tree, as providing food when a person passes from this life to the next!
The central tree that Christians remember is the Cross.
Back in Eden, that first tree caused Adam and Eve to be forced out. Through the Tree of the Cross people are brought together again: sin is forgiven, death is defeated, and life is restored. Through that tree we are all winners! For us, the Cross is the Tree of Life, the very source of life itself.
Part of the Story of Birrugan and Gawnggan
(The full story is available at Muurrbay)
The hero-ancestor Birrugan fashioned several Special Places for his people. After he fought his father he was challenged to a battle at Arakoon. Until he came, his people were being wiped out by the enemy.
He crushed these enemies until a clever man who knew the one spot on the shoulder where Birrugan could be wounded, speared him there. Birrugan fell and so did the dilly-bag of red clay he had left with his mother Gawnggan. So she flew to the battle-ground (She was a brolga-woman). Birrugan was reviving but then devilish evil beings, not his human enemies, killed him. On arriving, his mother Gawnggan turned all the enemies into tea-trees. Birrugan was later revived by one of his wives and became the Southern Cross.
When talking English the old people spoke about Birrugan as Jesus. Like Jesus he stood up for his people; like Jesus he was speared and like Jesus he stood against devilish forces.
Similarly Birrugan’s mother Gawnggan was referred to as Mary in English (so we have Mary’s Waterhole). Yuludarla was both a name for the Father (Baabaga) and the word for the Dreaming!
How beautifully the stories of ‘The Tree of life’ and of ‘Birrugan and Gawnggan’ tied in with the revelation of Jesus, and of Our Father in Heaven as well as with the story of Mary, Jesus’ mother, who stood at the cross with him!
The Story of the Different Languages
This story shortened here was told by Harry Tiger Buchanan in Gumbaynggirr. It is similar to dreaming stories around Australia where the hero-ancestors shaped the land and gave each country its language.
A Goori on a hill once saw a stranger coming. He said: ‘Well! I’ve never seen anyone like that. He’s shining like the sun!’
That Goori skirted around, ran to the camp and told the others: ‘I’ve seen this awesome Goori – he looked like the rising sun.’
Several people asked ‘Where was he?’
‘Near the sea’, the man replied. The people all went after him.
‘Let’s chase and catch him, the man like the sun!’ they cried.
But when they got near he formed a new river and made a canoe to cross it.
Some swam across to catch him but they couldn’t.
The man like the rising sun was the Father. He said:
‘Because they want to catch me I’ll mix up all their languages.
Those who have crossed the Richmond; you will talk in Bundjalung! ‘
But some of the people still followed him South.
‘Let’s chase and catch him, the man like the Sun!’
Again the Father formed a river and made a canoe to cross it.
Some swam across to catch him but they couldn’t. He said
‘Those who have crossed the Clarence, you will talk in Yaygirr!’
Some of the people still followed him south. That is why he made them all different. When he formed a new river, the mob that crossed over had to speak a new language.
So he gave the Gambalamam language to the upper Bellinger, Gumbaynggirr to the Nambucca and the Ngambaa language to those who crossed Warrell Creek. Finally he gave the Dhanggati language to the Macleay and those who crossed the river there.
That’s how the Father formed all our rivers and gave each country its language.
Tiger Buchanan who shared this dreaming story reminded us this was parallel to the story told in the first book of the Old Testament of the ‘Tower of Babel’
Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As people moved eastward,[they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
5 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. 6 The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
8 So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
The Gumbaynggirr and the Bible stories both teach us to be humble. We must neither try to control God nor think we can be equal to Him. Tiger saw no difference between his dreaming story and the one he had read in the Bible.
There are other Dreaming stories that point to what we have from our revealed Christian message. Please contact Muurrbay Language Centre if you want more.
One small part of the ‘Women who Made the Sea’ story is an example. Here the Here the two sisters who have been mistreated make water gush out of the ground till the rest of the tribe is cut off from the mainland and so the sisters make clear they have rights.
This reminds us of the Christian message:
28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus: Galatians 3:28
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