Event Cancelled due to Derision and Division
By Steven Strong
A meeting was held with Elders and concerned residents who were invited to discuss the ways the Standing Stones Complex could be protected, rebuilt and resurrected to its former glory. Claimed by the resident expert of the time to be the oldest temple in the world recording the First Language ever spoken, there is depth of wisdom and spiritual insight attached to this Complex that is without equal. Twenty six people of Original and non-Original descent came to a consensus with a plan of action. After consulting with or contacting every official Governmental department and politician nothing happened, no-one could help or passed it on to an office where a recorded message answers the phone. Past the many protracted and unsuccessful attempts to scale a wall of apathy, the next step was to call a public meeting at the closest town to the actual complex, which was done and booked in at Mullumbimby Civic Hall for December 12.
Unfortunately due to a chain of events with one unexpected twist, we are forced to cancel a community event that had so much potential to both heal and prepare.
From the time in our second last meeting when one person was given the role of contacting and convincing members of many different tribes to meet in one place bearing no grudges while focused solely on the sacredness and importance of this site, I knew the volunteer assigned this task was going to have some rough times. Everywhere, all over this country, black-fella groups, tribes, lands Councils and individuals are fighting each other, and going at it real hard. It all comes about through the institutional implementation of a divide and conquer regime that was set into place from the time the first British anchor was dropped in Eora tribal territory without permission. The squabbles, blood-lines, accidental breaching of protocol, long-standing tribal hatred, greed and nepotism are tearing many Original communities apart. It was a tough gig trying to get everyone in one room, especially around here where grudges are long and many, and after weeks in transit chasing up Elders and Keepers of Lore, the gentleman brave enough to attempt the impossible told me he was utterly exhausted, and had made two mistakes.
The two omissions made in exhaustion were in not contacting the groups we all knew were the most opposed towards anything being done or said about this site beyond maintaining silence. That request for anonymity was not made in any contact with other groups, complaints about others being there was constant but none felt anything but pride and relief when talk of reviving and rebuilding, as long as it was done properly. And yes, the two most opposed should have been approached first and weren’t, but with a week out there was time to put things right.
Always working with others, another member of our group, Frank, contacted by email then personally met one of the main Elders offended. I followed up by contacting the Lands Council, apologising profusely and sending a written apology to be forwarded on. I did the same with the local tribal association in Byron and tried to find some common ground. And it was found, but when it came to either talking about or doing anything to rebuild this complex, there is no denying we were on different pages. Secrecy was the mantra and it was felt doing nothing was the only acceptable path.
Agreeing to Disagree
I remember the response one Arakwal Elder made to my invitation that someone from their group to at least come along and find out what we were saying and whether we were breaching any secret. She said she was too upset and would have to call out and interject, but knew another who was calmer and felt he was a better choice. I remember thinking at the time that it seemed there was some middle ground in this exchange where we could at least agree to disagree.
Throughout the disagreements and phone calls I could not budge from a vision of this sacred complex rebuilt. As we have a proportional map of each stone’s placement, the name of each rock in First Language, its English equivalent, the mound and Original Standing Stones and proper Old Way songs and Dances, putting together all the pieces seems to make so much sense. A place to hold ceremony, to take the young ones of all colours to, provide escorted tours and equally, power up the ley lines and Dreaming tracks in this time of rapid change. To revive and revere one of the most important sacred sites in the country, if not the world, is a vital cog in a spiritual renaissance that is desperately needed all over the place. But no matter how this vision was couched or rephrased, it all echoed back to keeping secrets.
Then the Mayor of Byron stepped into the fray and took control of proceedings through passing judgement and inflaming what was a private matter. What was an unexpected turn of events was that his response was sent through the Official Byron Shire Council release and was sent out to every rate payer in the area. He made the decision to pick sides in declaring what we were going to present was “culturally inappropriate.” Emphasising that what we were bringing to this meeting is “completely false and misleading” and that attempts “to correct the information being peddled by the organisers have been ignored,” it is clear that the content to be presented on this night is a serious insult which could only be resolved if we held our tongues, said nothing and cancel the event.
If there was just a little bit of room to manoeuvre, but the Mayor’s closing recommendation left us no option. “Whilst Council supports rights of free speech, Council stands alongside our local custodians in both not supporting the event and urging organisers to respect the opinions of local Indigenous leaders.” They want us to say nothing and maintain secrecy, so too does the Mayor, and as we are “peddling” information that “is completely false and misleading” to go further and not cancel will most assuredly lead on to a negative atmosphere. That setting does not honour Original culture and should never be part of any discussion when speaking of this complex.
The real injustice here is that what was the content of the night has been ridiculed, but none of our critics know what it is they are attacking with such venom. What has occurred is very much like censoring a book after reading the title and focusing solely on the front cover. In my many conversations when apologising I tried to explain how what was being presented did not breach protocol and was meant to be a very general introduction to a series of personal narratives. Yes they did want this complex kept secret, but the cats were out of the bag and could never be put back, my belief was as a group of equal tribal partners can negotiate as to how this place was brought back and honoured.
What was intended on the night was that Evan and I would do two twenty minute sessions. The first was a basic introduction to the archaeology of cut rocks, tonnes of exotic material and use of sophisticated technology in creating this complex. This was meant to be brief, no more than five minutes, the rest of the time was meant to examine the credentials, critiques and foresight of the supervising archaeologist, Frederic Slater (President of the Australian Archaeology and Research Society) through readings from his recently recovered letters. That was it, no opinions of deeper reflections just what the complex looked like and what the expert of the time felt this all meant.
Our second session was based around a discovery made under the supervision of local Elders thousands of kilometres away. Two skulls and associated bones have been unearthed that look nothing like any hominin found anywhere on this planet. At the present stage of research we have identified seven features that are either precedents yet to be copied or the first time ever seen. How such information, which was to be premiered that night, could be regarded as false or inappropriate is unfathomable and manifestly false.
Throughout this cancelled presentation any real depth or interpretation on the complex was not our brief, but the province of around twelve to fourteen guests of which just over half were Original. We intended to break this ensemble into three groups of four to five speakers with each person speaking for less than ten minutes in sharing one particular experience on site or something that directly related to the complex. It was meant to be a structured, segmented yet cohesive account given from different angles, our role was to provide some background fill. This was the time for others to add and expand.
The Mayor would have known of this, as I had no reason to phone or send an email as it had nothing to do with him. Surely if putting this out to the media outlets and local residents, he should know, as I learnt as a teacher time after time, when two parties or people are in dispute get both sides of the story before passing a verdict. And even if this was done, which it certainly wasn’t on this occasion, there are four paths to take and the one chosen by the Mayor was the worst possible option. Firstly keep out of this and let it run its course away from the spotlight, but if he felt compelled to orchestrate proceedings make sure you know what the content vilified is, which means contact us and get our version. However, if unwilling to extend that courtesy wouldn’t it be better to send a copy of this public condemnation and give us say twelve hours to respond, and if we agree to fold up stumps, then no public airing of dirty linen takes place and it gets fixed without any fuss.
The worst alternative and Mayor’s first port-of-call, is to throw petrol onto fire in stoking up the flames of division. The sad part of this unwise choice is that the Original people speaking, not us, are accused of giving “false” and “misleading” information about the Standing Stones Complex. The Original people in the audience, by voluntarily attending, are also party to a “culturally inappropriate” meeting.
It comes down to part of every tribal arrangement, there will be disputes and we were disputing, but between each other not in the national arena with a politician holding the reins. Until the Council media release we were still in discussion and waiting for a formal response from either the Arakwal Corporation or the Tweed Byron Lands Council to see how we would respond. We have no option now but to cancel, the division and damage created if we continued would be public, some people may believe the Mayor and protest outside the Hall, perhaps even insult those attending. There are too many negative question marks wafting in the ether to take the risk and insult the site.
It is interesting how the Mayor’s last criticism is framed, “whilst Council supports the rights of free speech,’ it could so easily be rejigged ever so slightly and still retain its original intent to, “Council supports the rights of free speech, but ….” This reminds me of very similar opening gambits heard so often that goes like this, ‘I’m not racist but …’or ‘I am not homophobic but,’ and we all know what follows past these buts.
Yes one group want the truth shared and savoured, the other silenced, and that impasse is not resolved. We respect their right to disagree and apologise for the omissions which has been rectified, as for the politician who stepped in and made it a public dispute, it was a reckless act and helps no-one.
Press Release, 2017,‘Culturally inappropriate’ meeting in Mullumbimby not supported by Byron Council, Arakwal Corporation and Tweed Byron Aboriginal Land Council’