Photo by JENNY FRASER
the owl and the hollow bone hunter
It was late in the afternoon, and the monsoon rains were just beginning to ease. The last of the patients had left the clinic, and we locked the gate. The nurse manager asked if I would have a tea in the office before I went home, said she needed to talk to me.
I could hear my thoughts going over the day and wondering what had I done wrong? So I sat down and sipped some tea with only the constant whir of the overhead fan breaking the silence.
The Nurse Manager sat and smiled and she started to tell me that The Centre for Remote Health in Alice Springs was sponsoring Aboriginal Health Workers to attend the International Network of Indigenous Health and Knowledge Development.
I said I would feel really honored to attend this conference as living in Yirrkala, a very remote part of North East Arnhem Land, we seldom got to attend conferences, and I had never attended an international conference.
‘Ok then well you will need to get yourself a passport because the conference is in Vancouver, Canada.’
I sat motionless as I had never been outside of Australia, and now I had the opportunity to travel to Canada and attend a Conference for Aboriginal Health Workers from all over the world.
I was nervous about travelling to the other side of the world alone, and to my surprise the Nurse Manager was excited to tell me that she knew people from the Centre for Remote Health in Alice Springs who knew of an Aboriginal woman in Canada who possibly would be attending. The Manager said, ‘My contact in Alice Springs is almost certain this lady will attend, so that will be good if you can meet her. Don’t worry, Sharon,’ she said, ‘we would exchange emails with names so you will be able to meet up with this lady.’
The Powerful Owl - Wirimal, who represented the totem for the women from the Wamba Wamba Clan, came to me in a dream one night and told me of a long journey of travelling to a land far away from the rivers I had grown up swimming in, fishing in, the rivers where her grandmother and great grandmothers had been born, the Kolety and the Mile. In the dream the Owl took me to the forest, the Werai, she told me I needed to be strong and make this journey so I would meet the one waiting to give me knowledge.
The one they would come to know as The Hollow Bone Hunter.
I thought about my ancestors, our country, and my family and also about meeting First Nations people. I was nervous but excited at the same time.
As the time grew nearer I was so busy organizing family and travel that I didn’t realize until I was on the plane that I didn’t have the lady’s name! I sat and thought about this and quietly I asked my ancestors for guidance, I asked them please give me courage to make this journey alone and watch over me, I asked my totem The Powerful Owl – Wirimal, to stay with my spirit on this journey to a land far away. I had packed a woven pandanus mat and a string bag, to take these to give as gifts, unsure of who would be the recipient I was confident I would know in my heart that I needed to gift them to.
I had chosen these gifts as I respected so much the work that had gone into weaving the mat and the bag. Collecting the pandanus, digging the different roots that would be boiled up in a big pot outside on a fire, while the ladies carefully added the pandanus to dye the pandanus different colors before they began to weave. The lovely ochre colors melting into one another and the perfect weaving that made up the mat. The string that was collected from the bush country and also dyed with the bush roots before being woven into dilly bags.
After several very long flights I finally arrived in Vancouver. At the airport there were First Nations people drumming on a great drum so big the group of men could comfortably sit around the drum and beat together in unison to welcome the visitors from all over the world to their lands. I stood for a long time, as I was totally mesmerized by the drumming. My first thoughts were that the drumming is not like any instruments my clan had in Australia. We had didgeridoo and clap sticks, but I hadn’t heard anything like the drumming and the singing that accompanied.
I found the beating drawing me into almost a meditative state and my thoughts were how this could possibly be very healing for people. I paid my respects to the people and after collecting my luggage I made my way to the hotel.
I was so tired, but my senses were in overdrive, taking in everything around me.
Vancouver was a beautiful city that took in remarkable landscape; I could see mountains as well as water, so close to our accommodation.
Everything was so different, the trees were not like any I had seen at home, the majestic red cedar trees, I felt dizzy at times with my body and mind in a sensory overload, so many new things to see, smell, taste and absorb. I knew I would have many stories to tell back home of Vancouver and how beautiful I found this place.
With weary eyes I checked in and went to my room. It was midafternoon, and as tired as I was I went back down to reception and asked if there were any messages for me. ‘No,’ they said, ‘none.’ I thought to myself, maybe the lady was so busy like me she forgot to ask my name.
I noticed a sign in the lobby with directions for conference registrations, so I went and registered and went back to my room. Finally I could sleep after more than 27 hours of flying, and I fell into a deep sleep and woke just before dawn.
I went to breakfast and searched the many faces at the tables wondering if the lady I was meant to connect with was one of them. I also wondered if she was thinking of me? I sat in wonder at the accents that were so new to me, trying not to pry into people’s conversations but at the same time unable to stop myself from drowning in the different accents, the faces, the surroundings, all so unfamiliar to me.
I went to reception and asked again if there were any messages for me. ‘No,’ the young girl said, ‘no messages.’ I decided then that the lady had also forgotten and wouldn’t be leaving messages for me.
I read the conference program, and today the opening of the conference would be held at the Long House, at the University of British Columbia. The program said there would be many buses to take us to the Long House. I had never been to a Long House, and I was overwhelmed at the thought of being privileged enough to not only share the next few days with the First Nations people of Canada, but to also experience a traditional Long House was surreal.
I went outside and saw many buses; some were already full and leaving.
I stood and watched the buses leave one by one until only two remained. Then I walked towards the second last bus and stepped on. The bus looked full, and I felt alone even though I was staring at many faces. I asked the driver if there were any seats and he said, ‘There’s two seats left.’ So I walked toward the middle of the bus and saw the two empty seats.
I didn’t know that in a land far from my country, where my feet had never walked the earth, the one they would call The Hollow Bone Hunter had also had a dream.
Joyce had also dreamt she went into a forest, she had stayed there for many days, on the last day she sat down on a large rock and she saw a great black bear walking slowly toward her. She wasn’t frightened; that Mukwa told her he was there to help her. He told her he knew she was a seeker of knowledge and that he would give her two guides to travel with on her journey, Cygnus – The Swan and Baapaase – The Woodpecker.
Mukwa told her in order to take in new knowledge she needed to empty her bones of all that she had already filled them with, so they could be filled with new knowledge. Baapaase began to peck Joyce on the head and in that moment her bones were emptied, The Hollow Bone Hunter was born.
I sat down in the seat near the window. Almost immediately a voice said, ‘Is this seat taken?’ I looked up at the lady and said, ‘No it’s not taken.’ She sat down and we looked at each other and she smiled the warmest smile I have ever seen. She said, ‘Are you from Australia?’ I smiled and said, ‘Yes I am.’ Then she put her hand on mine and said, ‘I was supposed to meet someone from Australia, is it you?’ I said, ‘If you know people from The Centre for Remote Health in Alice Springs, then yes it’s me, Sharon.’
‘Aanii,’ she exclaimed! ‘I’m Joyce!’ We were both equally overcome that we met without the email, without the messages but through the ancestors!
We arrived at the Long House and Joyce took me inside. There were so many people inside, but I was in absolute awe at the size of The Long House. The Great Hall, Sty-Wet-Tan such a massive space and very dramatic with four huge house posts and two supporting roof beams. These posts were big beyond description and had been carved by artists from the North West Coast. The Thunderbird carvings entranced me, and as I stood with Joyce I had no words to describe how I felt, but every hair on my arms was standing on end, as if electrified.
The drumming began to welcome the guests, and I showed Joyce the hairs standing on end on my arms, I had tears in my eyes as I was so overwhelmed by the sheer wonder of the Long House and also the cultural strength I felt in the drumming and singing. I didn’t know the words or the relevance of the drumbeats but I didn’t need to, I felt such a strong connection culturally. Outside I was awestruck by the beauty of the campus, and startled to see a squirrel playing in a tree.
I spent most of my time attending the conference in the company of my Anishinaabe sister Joyce. We shared stories and laughter and a connection that went beyond words. A cultural connection that spanned the earth but drew two women together as sisters in spirit and friendship.
We sat together every day at the same table, and Joyce introduced me to a friend of hers, Dr. Richard Vedan. I was enjoying meeting new people just as much as I was enjoying taking in the new knowledge from the conference, the similarities between our health workers and in their work, the disparities in health that spanned the globe.
When I heard people share the stories of residential schools in Canada, I immediately thought of the stories my grandmother had told me about her sister being removed and taken to Cootamundra Girls Home.
I no longer felt so far away from home. Joyce gave me a plate and said to me, ‘Try this, it’s Bannock.’ I smiled a huge grin and said to Joyce, ‘It’s damper with another name.’ We laughed as we shared stories and realized we eat the same thing, only it’s called a different name.
When I was alone at night, I had a few moments where I sat alone in the quiet and noticed the wetness of tears silently running down my cheeks, tears for my family and my country. I looked up at the stars, and they seemed so close, I thought if I reached enough maybe I could touch them, but in the closeness of the stars I also realized my family and everything I held precious was on the other side of the world.
On the last evening in Vancouver, Joyce suggested we go for a walk and share our last meal together. I met Joyce at her room, and I was delighted to gift her the Pandanus Mat and the Dilly Bag.
Joyce gave me many gifts, and as I sit here today holding the small bear carved from soapstone I realize the greatest gift Joyce gave me was herself.
The Hollow Bone Hunter told the Owl about the Seven Grandfather Teachings and the Owl shared stories of the Dreamtime – Yemurraki.
Yemurraki is part of an endless cycle of creation and existence and is an ultimate part of Aboriginal spirituality and strengthens the connections we have with the land. Explanations for the universe and the working of nature are discovered in the Yemurraki. After the Spirit Ancestors created the land, they revisited the land or sky where they remain today.
The Owl told the Hollow Bone Hunter, this is the story of the Wamba Wamba People.
The Owl, The Hollow Bone Hunter, Joyce, and myself spent many more hours together over the years in spirit to share knowledge of traditions and also friendship, to walk with truth, honesty, and humbleness.
This is the beginning story of The Owl and The Hollow Bone Hunter.