Divide and Conquer: The Fate of Karta (Kangaroo Island)
By Steven & Evan Strong with Vivienne Greenshields
(WARNING: To Peoples of Australia Original and Torres Strait Islander decent- this article quotes, mentions and contains images of an deceased Australian Original person)
We have spent some time trying to find a way of telling this story without it becoming a negative tale of injustice and betrayal, simply because the Original Elder to whom this article is dedicated deserves so much more. This report on the current state of affairs on Ramindjeri land came about as a result of an approach made by representatives of the Ramindjeri nation, who were understandably very upset by the politics and insult to culture that had taken place since Karno passed on. They have every right to feel outraged and suspicious, and I chose the word betrayal simply because the gravity of offence is that deep. That can’t be put aside, but equally, it can wait in line. To begin with, there are some positive developments that many may regard as miracles we were honoured to witness, that will both provide a general introduction to the impasse of today and a personal invitation to each reader.
I have been involved in Original culture, history and people for nigh on thirty years, during that time I have met many Elders, Custodians, pretenders and apprentices. Some know a lot, most know a bit and every now and then someone special stands out. Not many speak totally connected to the Old Ways, they are rare, and Karno is one of the very few and has always occupied first place in our estimation. That opinion has never wavered, when he is talking, singing and dancing culture or in ceremony, he stands alone. Then there is that deep penetrating stare I warned others about, no other human has ever looked so deeply inside. Nothing is secret, indiscretions and hidden thoughts are exposed on first eye contact. No-one looks so deeply inside each head like Karno, that much is agreed by all who have been subjected to that ‘gaze, ’ but how that came about is still a mystery.
To fully appreciate how this dreadful situation came to pass, to begin with there has to be a rudimentary understanding of the central character in all of this conflict. Make no mistake, Karno may be recently departed, but his spirit will never leave this sacred island, known to the Ramindjeri as Gateway to the Heavens, Blessed Those who Listen (Karta-Kangaroo Island, S. A.) until all of this uncertainty and strife is resolved. It is his story, past and present, and the legacy he resurrected that sits at the heart of this disagreement.
Spirit Knows no Colour
Close to six years ago, after reading some of our books and articles, Karno and Elders of the Ramindjeri Nation invited me on to country to see what would eventuate, with no promises made outside an assurance that we would talk. I came away after close to a week in their company with three events that have never been forgotten.
The first two lessons lost on so many relate to a genuine sense of equality, that quite a few non-Original and Original people have a real problem appreciating. During our time together Karno was entrusted with repositioning a set of ancient buried bodies. A massive bridge was built and unfortunately disturbed some interred Original corpses, and there was only one person fully conversant with ancient protocol and able to reposition the bodies by offering the correct ceremonies and songs. There was no surprise in seeing Karno conducting these venerable rituals steeped in the Old Ways, but what did catch me more than a little unawares was that his non-Original wife was orchestrating all other dealings, and how everyone was comfortable with this arrangement.
No less impressive was an animated discussion on the way a new Ramindjeri word should be pronounced and structured. After considerable weighing up of options within a group of five Elders Christine’s suggestion did prevail, and again no-one, except me, noticed that she was white. The same rules applied when I was given a very important ceremony by the men. The songs, language, dance and sacred objects given by them and accepted by me have seen a life-long commitment to this tribe that cannot be broken. If I am called, as has been the case now, I must respond. The reason I will willingly defend anything associated with the Karno and Ramindjeri is simple. While on country and in company there was no racism running against the tide either way, plenty of culture and heaps of sharing. What more could I ask for?
“Come from Both Ways”
If I ever needed more convincing, and if there were any residual doubts deposited deep within, they literally disappeared in front of my eyes, and those of nearly a dozen others, the next time I returned to Karno’s country with special guests Graham and Santha Hancock. They had already spent one week in the bush looking at some of the archaeology we are researching. We were more than happy to share with people we have nothing but good things to say, but even so we made it clear we could only take them on to sacred country and sites as long as our time together concluded with two days and one night with Karno at the Culture Centre he and others were slowing piecing together.
It was about seven o’clock and the sun had set some time ago. We were all sitting around the camp fire, which was burning well and provided ample warmth when all around the temperature was plummeting. Positioned so close to Antarctica, we knew it got cold here, but even so living in a sub-tropical location does not adequately prepare for the bite and chill of the southerly winds on Karta, and that certainly drew everyone closer to the open fire. Our attention was so locked in on the flames, no-one saw him coming, or as it turned out later on, going.
It may have been cold, but that obviously meant nothing to Karno. He just appeared, no-one saw or heard him coming, there he was, fully painted up Old Way, with just some body ochre and a red loin cloth to shield him from the elements. There was no introduction or explanation in English or any language, he spoke and sang in language, occasionally breaking into English to give a brief up-date and then sang that magnificent whispering song/chant that leaves everyone speechless. What was said and barely understood belongs to that night, but what was done when Karno exited belongs everywhere in between. Upon completion of the proceedings Karno halted then walked back one step. We were all watching silently and had been since he began, then he took a second step in reverse and turned everything upside down.
He vanished, it was that simple and clear cut, he was, then wasn’t. I remember momentarily glancing in Graham’s direction and still haven’t forgotten how far apart his mouth was and how I was unable to assemble a thought or solitary word in response. He did reappear, about a second after leaving we saw him standing behind Christine no less than twenty metres from where he stood before moving elsewhere. I still can’t remember who sought out both Christine and Karno for something we could hang on to, but I do recall Christine remarking that it was a shock for her. All Karno would cryptically offer was a mischievous smile and that he comes “from both ways.”
The First Language via Australia Post
About three years ago Karno sent me a diagram through the post that he drew years before. It was sent partially in response to our up-coming two-day investigation of the Standing Stones site and in particular, Frederic Slater’s claim that there was a global First Language that began in Australia. The President of the Australian Archaeological Society was confident that he had access to the authentic translation and could read the assortment of symbols, angles and lines that made up the first tongue spoken.
Karno had never seen Slater’s hand written notes, but that made no difference. He drew three rings of symbols, which he sourced as Githubal. There on page 2 of Slater’s personal insights and rules of grammar are quite a few symbols that he felt were the principle elements upon which a host of suffixes and prefixes are added. Even more importantly, all of the sixteen icons Karno nominated as Githubal were all on Slater’s second page. Identical in form and marking, Slater compiled his document in 1939 while Karno sent his one page over seventy years later, nevertheless, there is not one stroke, inflection or slope that differs.
All that is needed to conclude this chapter is the knowledge that the Standing Stones mounds borders Githubal country and Elders from that tribe were on site as the hawks came when summoned.
The Standing Stones Site, Eight Hawks and Two Rainbows
As much as some people will find the following account impossible to accept, and to this day we can put together no rational explanation to explain how all of this came about, it comes down to the birds did fly or we are lying. There is nothing else on the table, and if it did happen, then that changes everything before and after.
It all began with Karno standing on the larger mound at the Standing Stones site. He, myself and the Original Elders and Custodians, went ahead of the party and it was agreed that once the appropriate sign was given by the spirits, the rest of the group could join us. If no sign was acknowledged it was all off and we could not go any further.
Karno called for a hawk, it was a totem he was familiar with and the appropriate messenger and confidant for such a holy site. The hunting bird came as requested, but Karno was far from finished as he needed many more in number and one shape. Three came as he kept calling, then six were circling directly above. With the exception of Karno, all standing with him had enough trouble understanding how and why there were six hawks above, let alone explain how solitary hunters would assemble and perform on command. It was only when two more hawks joined and then broke off into two interconnected circles forming a figure eight, was the mission complete. The eight hawks were at the beckon call of Karno and the Guardian Spirits and everything was good. We could now enter.
Karno was on-site for two days, but although he returned home, he never left. About six months later Christine rang, it was always the same, she rang to inform me Karno had something important to say. We would hang up, then I would ring and Karno would speak his piece, leave me bewildered with another gem of wisdom presented in his customary cryptic delivery, then hang up. It could be good news, an insight or perhaps another rebuke for a clumsy error made or lapse in protocol, whatever the reason, it was always best to reply immediately or sooner.
But I couldn’t ring back straight away this time, Evan refused to help. Karno was on his mobile, and due to an incredibly useless telephone deal we made ringing from our landline for more than five minutes would need me negotiating a loan on our house, I had to use Evan’s mobile as I have never owned one. And nor can I turn it on and ring, and nor would Evan agree to do so. Instead he insisted that I first look at a photograph Iris had taken yesterday (Wednesday) at around midday. Reluctantly, being a Luddite lacking in every electronic skill, what could I do but obey? Yes it was quite odd, at twelve o’clock Iris saw the double rainbow pouring out of the Standing Stones mound. There was no sign of the sun and full grey cloud, yet here is a double rainbow positioned on the mound. It must have been a freak combination of an unusual angle, slither of light breaking through and lay of the land, but even so it was odd.
Yes it was intriguing, but meant what? A fascinating diversion, now after doing as ordered, Evan did make the machine ring Karno’s mobile and Karno began by opening with another riddle. It is very rare for me to remember any conversation with him, more so, when I inevitably feel like a pre-kindergarten student under Karno’s tutelage, but this was different, it’s still there.
“Did you feel it?”
“Feel? Feel what?”
“Yesterday, middle of the day, the Standing Stones site gave out a huge charge of energy. I felt it here.”
I was gone, at best half a word was flying around in the back of my head, and given another second something inane may have snuck out. But the next thing he said got real weird and very real in a brand new sense.
“Why I am telling you? You already have proof of the Spirit’s work.”
That I could answer. I told him of the photograph Iris took which I viewed minutes earlier. Then it dawned on me, he already knew that. It would have been nice to ask him that question, but yet again he hung up once his task was finished. What was absolutely apparent was that I still have a long way to go to get where Karno stands. We live within 30 kilometres of the mounds and stone arrangements and felt nothing, not a slight tremble, he lives over 3,000 kilometres from this sacred site, and felt the earth move.
This has Nothing to do With Karno …
Not long after, we were back on country near Kariong (Central Coast, N. S. W.) with an unexpected reversal in roles to deal with. When approaching a new site which we expect to be significant or sacred, Aunty Bev gives ceremony and seeks permission for us to enter. Her leg was not good and not up to any walk in the bush, so I chose a replacement ceremony Uncle Gerry gave me when entering sites up our way. Granted it was for locations six hundred kilometres north of Kariong, but it was better than nothing, just, only just.
That night after returning from the site and filming a rather impressive display of orbs in inside the cave, I received a phone call from Karno direct. Once I heard his voice I knew something wasn’t right and I was sure something had gone wrong and the chances were very high I was responsible.
He began by asking if I had been on country today. I certainly had but did not mention this expedition to Karno, and nor did anyone else as we weren’t on his country but Aunty Bev’s. He then asked why I didn’t smoke the group before entering the site. It was a rhetorical question and my attempts to offer as an excuse the alternative ceremony were cut short by Karno. He told me that a huge red kangaroo was facing him as we spoke and he was passing on all of our day-time activities. Yes, he said, the kangaroo told him of what we did as a replacement, but it wasn’t acceptable. He made the point I am still alive, so the ceremony was tolerated, just, but never again. The message Karno passed on was deliberate and left no room for negotiation, if I ever went on to country unsmoked again, I would die. Protocol was stretched and the band nearly broke, and another indiscretion of that magnitude would be fatal.
Not only was Karno talking to animals, we know which bird set this long distance communication trail in motion, the brown owl. As Evan neared the cave’s entrance a brown owl flew and left behind one piece of correspondence, a solitary feather. From the time the bird left the cave it guarded until the phone call seven hours had passed. The distance this message travelled is over 3,000 kilometres, which means the means this ‘parcel’ was moving at a pace of over 400 kilometres per hour. Not even a peregrine falcon when in steep descent can match that pace. Nevertheless, Karno is adamant animals alone passed this news on to him and the numbers are correct. This postal system is not only unequalled in speed and efficiency, but is dirt cheap.
Hidden Under the Table
In the months before our next visit to Adelaide Karno kept reminding us that there was something very important he needed to show us. Nothing unusual there, but what threw a sizeable spanner in the works was the location Karno nominated. What could be that sacred and culturally important if stored in a room or box in the South Australian Museum? Knowing the healthy and justifiable mistrust Karno had for all official channels, nothing at all came to mind and he had no intentions of clarifying.
We met outside the Museum and not long after were led upstairs to a display room. Once entering the room Karno said nothing, he merely pointed under the table that acted as a display cabinet for an assortment of precious artefacts. I couldn’t believe what I saw, outside one picture in Josephine Flood’s book, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, there had been no other picture or information of the legendary engraving of a saltwater crocodile found at Panaramitee. According to both Flood and C. J. Mountford (the archaeologist who found and stole the engraving) this magnificent engraving was created when salt-water crocodiles were living within their tribal boundaries. The endemic problem has always been the last time these aquatic reptiles were part of the local landscape was over 75,000 years ago.
That minimum date positioned so far away from the supposed northern point of entry when African mariners and fishermen and women first set foot on Australian shores some 60,000 years ago, is a very inconvenient relic that asks so many questions. And this was the compromise the museum had come up with. Underneath the table, without a label, printed notes on loose leaf paper laying on the carpet was a plastic cast of what Mountford claimed to be the best selection from the most magnificent assemblage of Original rock art he had ever seen. Without doubt there is nothing close to the intricacy and delicacy of construction of this age anywhere on the planet.
When they pried the rock away when excavating the crocodile without speaking to any original person, the intention was to put the rock platform on permanent display and send plaster-cast copies to every museum in the world. Nowhere was it suggested nothing would be sent anywhere and the original would be hidden with an inferior plastic copy thrown underneath a table without a syllable left behind to give the public any idea why, what, where, when or who.
Karno was rightly offended and wanted this travesty made public. The article we wrote soon after certainly came to the Museum’s attention, and they made it clear they were not impressed. To this day the original still sits hidden in the bowels of the storeroom never to see the light of day. If justice was served it should be put back on country, after all the Museum obviously think it is worthless and of no interest.
The Culture Gathering
That day at the Museum was the last time I saw Karno face to face. We had a presentation on the same time as the Culture Gathering Karno orchestrated at Kangaroo Island, and reluctantly could not attend. By every account it was the best so far and there was every reason to expect next year would be better. That was before Karno died, everything has run off the rails since then, but it can still be righted.
So, as brief, personal, biased and anecdotal as our account has been, it does give a few clues as to who Karno was and some real potential for everyone else to seriously consider. What we witnessed was a human being made of flesh and bone disappear, communicate with animals, sense the opening of a Dreaming portal from a distance of three thousand kilometres, summon and direct the appearance and flight paths of eight hawks within two minutes of first call and have an intimate knowledge of the First Language ever spoken. And here is the best part of what he did, we can do all of that and more. The potential lies within, the only difference was Karno had earnt the right to hold the key and when the time was right, peek inside.
That was Then
By rights the Culture Centre should be formally named after Karno, that should be blatantly obvious. Christine, Vivienne and the others who are part of this revival and reconnection should continue giving ceremony, song and nurturing the sacred sites on this very special island. The spirits of this land are mightily pleased with the current state of play and cast on site, nothing should change whenever culture and the Old Ways are in control.
Unfortunately, administrative errors were detected and paperwork was found to be unsatisfactory by the supervising authority and Christine has been told to leave and the Centre will be vacated and closed. They have failed to reach the bar and have to be punished. If only they had behaved and ticked all the boxes, it could have been so different.
They should have done as the Githubal (Far North Coast, N.S.W.) did when their only sacred men’s site and teaching grounds was under threat of decimation through a massive open-cut quarry, by seeing and contacting every relevant government authority. Meetings with politicians, legal authorities, government bodies and even more phone calls all came to an agreed verdict. They were right and the council and developers must immediately stop forthwith and begin negotiation.
That easy, if only they made contact with the Githubal, this dreadful insult to Karno’s legacy could have been averted. So successful was the Githubal case and strength of arguments, they were sent an official letter dated June 19, 2013 validating their claims. They had won the game, jumped through all the hoops and played by all the white-fella rules, well that is what we thought.
After all the meetings, all talk of the quarry vanished and nothing happened, we all assumed the landholder and developer had conceded defeat and departed to more lucrative pastures. Until early May, 2016 we received news that a huge four-lane concrete road was now plastered across the slope leading on to the proposed quarry site. Approval had been given and last week we saw seven trucks working non-stop. The Elders were flabbergasted, no-one saw this coming and they immediately chased up legal channels. Only then did the official letter with instructions reach Githubal hands, the council were directed to contact them nearly three years earlier, but also never received this letter. It just sat there, neglected, hidden and no-one showed the courtesy or sense of fair play, so the road was built and blades have been sharpened.
Wait up! These Original people did everything according to their rules and the quarry is about to begin, their sacred site will be murdered and it is all legal, but oh so very underhand. It makes no difference either way, a minor error in paperwork and misplaced official letter, there are so many tricks up their sleeves and no respect left over for Original Culture and practitioners of the Old Ways. As things stand, both Original groups are utterly morally right, but legally without a hope.
As bad as this seems, it gets worse. The clever strategy in the arsenal of those who specialise in dividing, is that they find the weakest link in the Original chain and either a brother, sister or compliant organisation does their bidding and is rewarded handsomely for the deceit. This standard practise has, and continues to, divide Original communities throughout all of Australia and it is both deliberate and part of daily life. In the case of Kangaroo Island, the punishment meted out by the Indigenous Lands Council seems incredibly disproportionate to the minor misdemeanour committed by the Ramindjeri volunteers.
What only adds to the severity of this punitive reaction, is what happens to be standard administrative practice whenever a council in N.S.W. is deemed incompetent. An administrator is appointed to set the ship right and balance the books. Once his or her task is complete they step away and let the candidates stand again unless found guilty of a serious financial breach, which of course does not apply here as no-one has been accused of anything untoward. The government official does not evict or close down businesses, but the Lands Council seems to be allowed to be more vindictive for a far less pressing mistake and insignificant oversight.
Back on Karta (Gateway to the Heavens)
Up our way, the frackers were sure they would split the seams near Bentley, thousands came and refused to move until the gas-miners walked away. They have left and will never return, the people won that day and set a precedent. The more peaceful protestors on site the greater the likelihood the media will come and more will hear this story, if the injustice is great so too are the chances people will join in the struggle. Same rules apply at Kangaroo Island and Cedar Point. If people will come in large numbers they will listen, Bentley proves that. If no-one comes more culture falls out the back-door, lost for an eternity.
What we have here is the keepers of culture and protocol are on country at Kangaroo Island and have been instructed to leave, at Cedar Point there are Original keepers of Lore off country and legally can never get back on country. Both sites are extremely sacred and that is not in dispute, one is being revered and cared for while the other plundered and destroyed, but in both cases the politicians, lawyers and assorted bureaucrats have done everything they can to deny the truth in deference to the only sacred icon left in this crumbling society: money. Both fights are over money, everything else is an afterthought.
What should be the only priority is maintaining the inheritance Karno was so instrumental in building, the Cultural Centre has gone so far and has to continue in its present form with the current personnel. If that does not happen we have to walk away and break the two commitments made in good faith.
Unless Things Change, the Deal is off
We entered into two formal agreements with Karno and other members of the Ramindjeri nation. Specifically Karno, Christine, Vivienne, Darren McElroy, Ros, Evan and myself is the sum total of names on these two documents. To begin with we signed an agreement with Karno handing over custodianship of the mother rock: Ros’ Rock 1. Since Karno’s passing, we have entered into another agreement with the aforementioned Ramindjeri people to set up a display and provide adequate security at the most appropriate location, Kangaroo Island Culture Centre, for the entire collection of “Star Rocks” and all other sacred rocks.
Once the centre is closed and Christine leaves the island those contracts are no longer legally binding, and the rocks will be stored at another culturally sensitive site. We already have an alternative site in reserve, but have held back changing posts on the remote chance that sanity and respect will prevail. The only reason we have paused in proceedings and not formally suspended these agreements, is that there still exists a remote chance something positive could eventuate.
First and foremost Vivienne, Christine and others have called a meeting at the Culture Centre on June 13. It is Vivienne’s intention that “this gathering is to gain strength and knowledge to move forward to remain on our land at Murray Lagoon in the name of the L. G. Walker Association, not just for the Ramindjeri people, but for all people.
This is already a Culture Centre because of the sharing of cultural knowledge, ceremony and healing and spirit presence that has already taken place. The erection of a Keeping Place to keep safe cultural artefacts that must come back to this place, and other displays, is the ultimate goal of the Association, not only to keep these items, but also to share them with others who would come to see what we have there to share with them.
This was Karno’s dream and he spent many years preparing this property alone and through gatherings to make this property a cultural safe-place, a place where very few people can visit and not feel touched by the experience of just being there. We have, up to this point, not obtained any funding to build this teaching, sharing keeping-place, as the property is owned by the ILC and we were never guaranteed divestment to the Association and did not want to erect our physical centre until we could be sure the land would be returned to us, the Traditional Owners.
On reflection, that was a good idea given now that the ILC are planning to take the land back from us.”
As a follow-up activity, we will fly down to Adelaide and present Karno’s story from our perspective. It will be a combination of archaeology, science and history that Karno either directed or assisted, plus personal anecdotal accounts like those raised earlier in this article. We also intend to bring a selection of the best rocks from the collection as a way of saying farewell, or just perhaps, an introduction to country that will be its power-base and permanent residence. The choice of tribal estate is no longer ours to make and is solely in the hands of the Indigenous Lands Council, or just maybe people will come and defend this place of culture and harmony.
The tragic twist in this tale is that the decision we, along with Ros, made for all the very best reasons, that the Culture centre is the best place in Australia to store this national treasure, is no longer under our control. Relegated to the role of spectators, we are now totally beholding to bureaucrats we have never met who are loyal to rules and regulations, or the power of people rallying to defend such an indefensible action.
In the meantime, all we can do is put pen to paper, ignore the abysmal track record, carry on and hope for the best.