by Meelee Soorkia
Despite the vast distances that might separate them, indigenous cultures are facing common struggles in the midst of 21st century change. This was instantly evident in this engrossing UWRF discussion on what it means to be a custodian of ancient culture.
The panellists – Nyoman Sadra from Tenganan in Bali and Clarrie Cameron from the Nhanhagardi tribe in Western Australia – hail from very different lands and traditions, but both have been fighting fiercely to protect and perpetuate their ancient cultures for future generations.
Nyoman Sadra was a social worker and served as the head of Tenganan Pegringsingan, the oldest village in Bali, before being elected to Karangasem Legislative Council. Clarrie served as a court officer for the Aboriginal Legal Affairs Office in the Pilbara for several years. He is Chairman of the Yamatji Language Centre and a committee member for the Yamatji Land and Sea Council.
Chair Emma Masters, an Australian journalist and filmmaker, asked the men to elaborate on how they have been leading their communities through the murky and complex challenges presented by globalisation, and their concerns around erosion of their cultures.
Snippets from the conversation are below. Clarrie’s and Nyoman’s impressive responses contain valuable insights into how communities in Bali, Indonesia, and the rest of the world, might be able to retain their ancient traditions and rituals, despite burgeoning tourism and rapid modernisation.
On why they are custodians and what it means…
- Students and scholars would come to his village to learn about his culture, and would ask deep and probing questions that surprised Nyoman. ‘I had to learn more about my village to answer those questions. In my search for knowledge, I realised there was not much in the written knowledge. I couldn’t find all the answers in books. Old people in my village also didn’t know all the answers. I had to think about what is behind all the knowledge passed down in my village. There is meaning behind it and I had to find it.’
- He started his quest to explore and understanding these ideas with a dictionary on Hinduism. ‘It took 25 years to really get it … I have to spread this knowledge.’
- ‘When we talk about old culture, I get really worried because I realise that young people have no idea.’
- ‘[At school], I realised that every book about Aborigines was written by a whitefella’. Aboriginals were referred to as ‘nomads’, suggesting wanderers who roamed the entire country. ‘It took a while to realise that this word was written by white people. Our lounge-room was a 100-mile square. We’re not nomads. Anywhere within that 100-mile square and you’re at home.’
- In these texts, it became clear that ‘the English thought that we were ignorant, but we have a very intricate law system and our language system is as sophisticated as Latin.’
- While working for the Aboriginal Legal Affairs Office, he realised it was his responsibility to speak up for Aboriginal people that can’t speak English. ‘The more responsibility you get … the more you are a servant of the unfortunate; you are a service of the people.’
On preserving languages and rituals …
- Before settlement, there were hundreds of Indigenous languages that had existed for thousands of years, but now there are very few. ‘My aunty will be buried next week, and I’m the last custodian of that particular language … As you get older, you learn more about your language and that’s what you pass on.’
- ‘I tell people “Don’t teach kids Aboriginal languages on a chalkboard. Take them out in the bush and talk the lingo … it’s a living language”. When you’re in the bush, an Aboriginal kids becomes proud of his language.’
- ‘It’s my responsibility to pass on knowledge about language, people, plants and fruit.’
- When they understand the rituals of their culture, ‘bigger kids don’t bully little kids, they pass their knowledge on.’
- ‘I’m worried about the Balinese language. Young people speak Balinese mixed with English and Indonesian.’
- ‘I’m concerned that young people don’t know about the soul of their rituals. There is meaning behind everything but young people are losing that knowledge.’
On place, land and country…
- Adam didn’t have a navel. A navel is the remnant of an umbilical cord, and Adam didn’t have a mother. ‘He came from the dirt. We come out of the dirt, so the land is sacred.’
- ‘The holy symbol of Bali is the swastika, a symmetrical cross. [It means] keep nature in balance so life continues. It’s the concept of sustainable life.’
- ‘In my village, the laws are very strict. If you cut down a tree, you will be punished. If you do it three times, you will be kicked out of the village.’
- Gandhi said, ‘The earth produces enough for everybody’s need, but never enough for everybody’s greed.’
On tourism in Bali …
- ‘I’m worried about the tourism industry in Bali.’ Traditional laws are being ignored. ‘In my village, the law says no facilities can be built near a temple if it has nothing to do with the temple.’ This is being disregarded elsewhere.
- ‘People come to my village but the travel agent is making all the money, not the villagers’.
- ‘Young people in the village want to offer trekking to tourists. I say, ‘That’s a good idea but what else are you going to offer? What is [going to be] special for the tourists? Youngsters have no idea about what they can convey.’
- ‘There is no special tourist attraction [in my village], but guides can take tourists to weavers and witness traditional ceremonies when they’re on.’