Learning Practice Wisdom from Elders

Wisdom Moments and How to Recognise Them

In: Practice Wisdom
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Ngiyeempaa Woman
I’m a Ngiyeempaa Woman
Fighting all the way
For my people’s needs are many
And I’m growing older each day
The struggle seems to build up
No matter how hard we fight on
It’s our young people we care about
When to them what we do seems all wrong
We are rejected and cursed from morning ‘til night
But we must fight on regardless and try to make things alright
For I’m a Ngiyeempaa Woman standing steadfast and sure
True to my ancestors Eagle Hawk’s and Crow’s very strong law.
Aunty Beryl Yungha-Dhu Philip-Carmichael (2019)


Most of the great battles are fought in the creases of topographic maps.

Michael Ondaatje (2018)

We are all volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truths, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains.

Ursula K. Le Guin (1997)

Aunty Beryl is 83 years old – a mother of 10 with five children still living. She is a grandmother and great-grandmother, and Aunty to many people from all cultures and walks of life. She is one of the last Ngiyeempaa-speaking Elders left in her community. She has fought for her Country all her life and she still does. She has always fought for education. She has fought for space in curriculum and she has fought for space in the topographic creases of our University maps. She is a tireless fighter for her people and for reconciliation between cultures. She is one of the Traditional Owners and Knowledge holders who has the cultural authority to speak for Ngiyeempaa Country.

What we can know about wisdom is that it has a geography. It is located in time –however we define it – and it is located in our connection and relationship to each other and to our connection to Mother Earth – to the places where we have learned to grow. This map – this chapter – is a story woven by the three of us: a meditation if you like on what we feel wisdom is; how we get it, how we recognise it and how we keep it alive. It is about wisdom moments and it is about reaching out for wisdom. It is about everyday wisdom practice that has been developed through our work as teachers and leaders and by our personal experience as human beings. It is a mix of many things and so is multi-layered, fluid, unfixed and both simple and complex. Every decision we make is influenced by the practice wisdom which is formed by our life experience and extends into everything we do in all our various identities: in Aunt’s case as a knowledge holder, but for us all – as friends, parents, teachers, scholars and poets. Poetry and stories – indeed all narrative – is a way of inter-weaving ideas and thoughts and it is the love of poetry that brought us together.

At least 65,000 years of continuous Aboriginal culture in this country mean our shared stories also shape and change as we learn more about Australia’s ancient past. Before western archaeologists, there were ancient ones who could read the land like a map – and read the creases of those topographical maps – to tell the story not only of what was/is there but of what was/is not. Billy Griffiths, in Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia (2018), suggests that the revelation of deep time has indeed meant a profound shift in how [non–Indigenous] Australians relate to their country. Reviewing Griffiths’ book, Rebe Taylor (2018) suggests Archaeology has made deep time dreamers of us all. Griffiths quotes Indigenous activist Charlie Perkins from Peter Read’s Charles Perkins: A Biography (1990):

My expectation of a good Australia is when White people would be proud … when they realise that Aboriginal culture … is all there waiting for us all. White people can inherit … 60,000 years of culture, and all have they to do is reach out and ask for it. (p. 315)

As Taylor (2018) suggests, the powerful thing about Charlie Perkins’ offer is not only the generosity but the obligations it carries. Similarly, Mark McKenna (2018), in his essay Moment of Truth: History and Australia’s Future, acknowledges all that has been forgotten and lost in the past 200 years since colonisation.

Where Taylor suggests the deep past has “bequeathed a living, complex Indigenous culture” that “requires a collective recognition and respect to ensure its endurance into the future” (p. 1), historian Mark McKenna (2018) writes of what Mick Dodson calls “the Australian psyche” and its fear of facing truth, as well as W.E. H. Stanner’s (1968) idea of an “Australian Consciousness” that is resistant to confronting a profound historical truth: the recognition that the material successes of Australian society, with its inherent power structures, are built upon the dispossession of Indigenous Australians – and that this still “causes so many to avert their eyes” (pp. 15-16).

Aunty Beryl’s Story – How Wisdom Relates to Country, Spirituality; How Wisdom Relates to Knowledge and Learning and Teaching

Guthi Guthi mookamigdar ngalia! Sacred Ancestral Being watch over us all

We must have great respect for our Ancestral spiritual beings who created the land for us along with all life forms to live in peace and harmony. Grandmothers/grandfathers have and maintain all decision-making power inside their Nations. Everything that our Spiritual beings created is very sacred, and our guidance and directions are shaped by this sacred powerful force.

It is this sacredness linked to our Spiritual self which watches over and around us at all times in today’s ever-changing society. The Ancestral spiritual beings made sure all other Spiritual beings through all lifeforms kept true to their obligations to the Universe and fulfilled their Dreams. These were the keepers of water, vegetation, sun and moon, stars, animals, birds and reptiles. Special objects of stone along with the lore that was created to govern their lives for evermore were shown to Grandmothers and Grandfathers as well as law men and women to be used only for special ceremonies, about how to look after the land – our Mother – for this is where we came from and return to after death.

We should always be on alert for signs from birds, animals, ants and all life forms for these signs are imparting to us how and when we must act to protect ourselves against rough weather, floods and drought. All laws passed onto us were very strict and to break them meant banishment form the tribe.

Young people were very important and they were taught only what was right and just when very young. When old enough they would be instructed in the lore/law of their tribal lands that would govern their lives for evermore, in being good hunters and gatherers, fathers, mothers and teachers. So too men and women had various stages of the law to go through to enable them to be good hunters and gatherers, and good respectful parents to all their children, nieces and nephews.

We must teach our children from an early age to be good and kind to their family, pets, parents and grandparents and to listen carefully to sound advice whilst out walking, hunting and gathering. They are told – this will keep you from getting lost. Listen carefully whilst out gathering food and all resources that will help you survive by identifying it all. If you are thirsty a little bird called the Zebra Finch will lead you to water; he cannot survive without sucking up water. How the wind blows will also be imparting messages to you, sometimes good, sometimes sad, and likewise the whirly wind.

Grandmothers are full of knowledge and must be respected at all times. Listen to the sound advice they impart to you as it will give you great guidance, great respect for different cultural values and it will equip you for a holistic lifestyle wherever you wander. It is like a shield to you from within her Spiritual self. Guide all and advise them well.

Life on the River

The Elders I have walked with are Granny Nancy Biggs and Granny Rosie Johnston. Granny Nancy Biggs taught all us girls on Menindee Mission how to identify raw material for the manufacturing of string for making and weaving of string bags or dilly bags for carrying, as well as identifying basket grass and reeds for mats. Granny Rosie Johnston taught us how to find witchetty grubs in the ground for fishing as well as Bardi grubs from the tree trunks as bait for fishing. She also taught us where were the right places to go and fish so we would get a good feed.

Ancestral beings who created the river, waterholes and tributaries of the Murray/Darling Basin need the water to enable lifeblood to flow freely throughout the Basin. Aboriginal people who still remember the stories are saddened to know how much destruction has occurred and is still continuing along our natural waterways by blockages to stop the natural flow, for self-usage. Water is vital to our survival as a nation, and overpopulation is putting a huge strain on our water resources. This is not only the impact of people on the land and the water supply, but we must take into account the introduced species of animal and plant (cotton) life; with all of this extra strain our water supply is diminishing at an alarming rate. If we don’t do anything about conservation now, we will be increasingly competing with cotton fields and animals to survive in our country. We need to look further down the track to condensing our water out of the sea. On Yam Island, people are already doing just this very thing by mixing sea water with dam water so it can be made drinkable and usable for domestic purposes. Sewerage water can be recycled back over the land and used for gardens instead of being wasted in the ocean, thereby adding nutrients back into the soil. As a nation of concerned people, we must work together now to manage our waterways so our children’s children and future generations can enjoy the benefits water can provide for their lives. Only through genuine education can we hope to correct mistakes made during the past 200 years.

My Identity revolves around and within me
It makes me aware of who I am
It ties me to my country
It links me to my spiritual self
It guides me in my daily existence
It teaches me to respect different values
It teaches me to heed warning
It tells me who I am and where I fit in my family line
It teaches me to hold my head high when others persecute me
It strengthens me when I am weak
It is a powerful force linked to my spiritual self
It says Hey black girl don’t worry about colour,
which is only skin deep
Your identity is yours to keep
No-one can change you, if you have everything intact
You have nothing to hide or lose
You have nothing to hide or lose
Because you have nothing to lack
You are who you are, not fitting anyone else’s mould
But being my own being, through my Spiritual Self.
Kungi Giranapola norta norta – House of learning and teaching – achieving knowledge. Birth of Eaglehawk – Ngooringah
IMG220001Sturt Desert Pea or Ngooringah (Permission given by Aunty Beryl Yungha-Dhu Philip-Carmichael, 2013, Menindee NSW Australia).

A long time ago there were two sisters who used to live at Mount Manara Mountain on their own. Early evening they would go for a walk around the mountain ranges until late. Following a good season the land and country were covered with lots of pretty flowers. The youngest sister saw the most beautiful flower and picked it off, she broke the top off it and to her it looked like a lovely baby’s face, she decided to look after it so she gathered a couple of sheets of bark, put the flower in it and left it not saying anything to her sister about her secret find. When they went out for their walk, the youngest sister went over to check on her flower in the bark and it looked more like a kid. She kept coming back and checking on it and it seemed like it was growing into a baby. One day it grew into a real baby so she took the baby in her arms and she would suckle it.

The other sister noticed how strange she was acting and also noticed her breasts had swollen, she said, “What’s wrong with you, you look like you have a baby hidden?” She showed her sister who was very happy so they took it home and reared it up. It was good company for them. He was Eaglehawk and very clever, and that is the story of his birth. The flower was Nooringah, a very beautiful bell-shaped flower which is also nourishment, providing food and juice.

Barbara’s Story – “Still So Much Work to Do”

Aunty Beryl and I met as fellow poets in 1998. Since then we have seen each other once or twice a year, and we speak on the telephone every week and sometimes every day. We discuss our families, our friendship, the politics of the day, which bushes have fruited, which flowers have appeared or not appeared, and when the fish and yabbies are running. We discuss issues of water, cultural care, the Ancestor spirits, dreams and hopes and sometimes our deep despairs. We always finish these conversations laughing and Aunty Beryl says, “We still have a lot of work to do!”

IMG220002Aunty Beryl Yungha-Dhu Philip-Carmichael (l) and Barbara Hill (r) at Kinchega Station National Park homestead (2000, Menindee NSW Australia).

What I have learned since I met Aunty Beryl is that you can’t strain for wisdom. It comes when you are in another kind of state – walking the dogs, doing the dishes, cooking, washing and cleaning – but what you can do is acknowledge your wisdom moments and work into them. Long ago my mum used to say to me, “just get into the posture like you do when you are trying to go to sleep and you will get there”. Maybe practising wisdom has an “other-worldly” feeling too – just like you are trying to spy something from the corner of your eye so you don’t scare it off by your full gaze on it. I have always been struck by Director Bentley Dean’s statement in the Press Kit for First Footprints (2013) where he quotes Wong-Goo-Tt-Oo Elder Wilfred Hicks who says:

There’s a lot of spiritual issues on this land and they are alive. (p. 15)

The resonance of this over the time I have spent with Aunty Beryl in her Country is very powerful. Bentley Dean goes on to tell a story about one evening around the campfire when they were filming and Wiradjuri archaeologist Wayne Brennan explained the meaning of an ancient idea – Birrung Burrung – literally the moment when ripples in a pond cease, allowing one to see deep into it. I have felt similarly in Aunt’s Country. Bentley says later that, “I still feel like I’m looking at ripples, but I now know the pond is deep indeed” (p. 16).

I have travelled in and through Aunt’s Country for many years now. Before that I was a visitor with my family – those who also sprang from the same region, but from its surfaces rather than its depths like Aunt. I have seen two ways (and sometimes more) of looking at place; two or more sets of geography and topography –those I can be in and those that I can sometimes only sense. The latter can come to me in dreams and visions, and when it comes to teaching I draw on all this feeling of the “spiritually alive” things and the “deep ponds” because learning and teaching can have this same resonance. Aunty Beryl’s generosity and that of the Elders I also work with in Wiradjuri Country have also taught me about how the still waters reflect another Universe – in a highway river and bowl lake of the stars. On quiet nights – if I look carefully enough to not see directly – you can’t tell which way is up or down, Heaven or Earth, or whether it is past or present or future, now, then or before.

A Poem for Yungha-dhu
Following Auntie Beryl through
the old Menindee Mission
someone came across an old tin button.
“You can keep it,” she said,
“But any 1930 pennies are mine.”
The tin button belonged to one
of the kids who drank warm
milk and cocoa, heated in the
old kerosene tin, on that winter
morning years ago.
The same child puts a smile
on Auntie Beryl’s face as
she tells us about the school
in a place that smells of eucalypt and sun.
Careful little fingers, soft at the ends,
had handled that button, practised
doing it up and undoing it
marvelling how good it was that
the two parts of the shirt
could meet in the middle
because of that button.
Past summer, it was also good to
have that shirt because on the cocoa
early mornings, the sun only came through
in the gaps of the moving leaves.
Months before the soft fingers
that did the button up
had carefully peeled the sticky gum
from the lolly tree, halved it
and halved it again and given
some to each child there while they
sat on the warm clay, away
from the adults, to chew.
“Better ‘an sugar,” the littlest one said,
although the sugar sweet tea
was good too.
As they chewed they pressed their toes
into the fine white clay, always
doing more than one thing at a time.
Later the clever man would be able to tell
the children had been there,
near the lolly tree and he would smile,
remembering his own childhood
different to the mission kind but
a childhood nonetheless,
one with a lolly tree,
before he was chosen for the
important business.
Down the track, past the schoolroom
that hovers in the mind’s eye,
are the campfires of blackened clay
now rock like and exposed
like coral at low tide.
A lot of thinking went on
around campfires.
What to do about the welfare
and how to hide the kids better
especially after they took
all those little ones from
Grandmother – now mother is crazy
with sadness and dad is likely
to do harm (more likely
to ‘imself says Auntie).
“What will we do?
“Beat ‘em at their own honourless game”.
That’s when sister says she was
digging a hole under the bed so when
the welfare came she could
hide the baby and encourage
the old dog in there too to keep
the little one warm.
“No welfare gunna take my kids,” she says.
Dad says later, “When I say run
You kids, I mean it.”
There are wide eyes and shifting shapes
beyond the flickering flame.
Beyond the fire is the icy
coldness of fear.
There have been children running
in this country for over 200 years.
Running into the Pilliga,
Running into the scrub, jumping into rivers,
Running, running, running
Running away from white people
with intentions, running with sister,
Brother, Auntie, Uncle or cus.
Sometimes running alone, scared,
with the heartbeats of Waratah.
On the nights the half-moon hangs
in the sky as a broad smile surrounded
by dimpled stars, the sound of feet
kissing hard clay and then soft sand
comes on something other than wind.
Run little fella run!
There’s a scream (it is not clear from whose lips)
maybe even the sky cracked open
and the sun cried suddenly
sick of this witness, while the blood
sunk down into the soil around the
old River Gum, that later
the ants would drink.
Soft little pink fingers do up that button again.
The cotton cheap and not enough,
comes loose and the tin button
falls to the school house floor,
rolls languidly in an arc like the moon
and quietly disappears down the crack
between the floorboards.
It rests in white clay soil.
I’ll need a new one he thinks as he
follows the button with his eyes until
it disappears.
The warm milk has reached his stomach,
filled him, made him sleepy and he sits
to watch the sun through the leaves,
thinking of the lolly tree and a spring
when he will be bigger,
when he will run faster, the dust
flying from his heels.
IMG220003Barbara Hill (l) and Aunty Beryl Yungha-Dhu Philip-Carmichael (r) at Old Menindee Mission (2010, Menindee NSW Australia).

Ruth’s Story – Practice Wisdom

I have learned many things from Aunty Beryl, most of all from watching, listening and trying to absorb what I can only call her way of being. I have tried to take something of this way of being – as far as it is possible for a non-Aboriginal woman (and I acknowledge the force of arguments that it is not at all possible) – into my own life and teaching.

Learning and teaching around issues of social inequality and social justice present some of the most rewarding and also most challenging aspects of our work. There are difficulties associated with challenging white privilege while occupying it, challenging racism without simply suppressing its expression and, most importantly, making classrooms safe for all learners. Students may find it difficult to confront issues such as class, gender and race especially when it may mean acknowledging that these structures may confer privilege upon them. It is challenging for men to acknowledge the benefits conferred on men in the past and present by patriarchy. It is challenging for middle-class students to see that their advantages may come at the cost of others’ disadvantages, and that poverty may not be simply a result of fecklessness on the part of the poor. But, as events and discourses in Australian politics and media would also suggest, “race” is perhaps the most confronting issue Australians face. Many school-leaver students have grown up in the shadow of John Howard’s view: that colonisation was a form of “settlement” that happened long ago, that present generations of non-Indigenous Australians are not responsible for the policies and practices of past generations, and that any kind of national apology for dispossession and massacres on a scale amounting to genocide, and for the kidnapping of the many Indigenous children now known as the Stolen Generations, is unnecessary. So we continue to reap the benefits of invasion, to work, live, prosper and travel on Aboriginal country, to do so at the cost of the dispossession of the Aboriginal owners, and to dislike being reminded of it. As Aileen Moreton-Robinson (2003) puts it, “our [Indigenous] relation to land, what I call an ontological belonging, is omnipresent, and continues to unsettle non-Indigenous belonging based on illegal dispossession” (p. 24). A form of practice wisdom is needed here, to help students to acknowledge such things without, as many put it, “making me feel personally guilty”.

Over the years I have asked others about the problems of racism in the classroom, and about what to do with my frustration and even anger at the comments made by students, often based upon (unreflective expressions of) their personal experiences growing up in country towns. The great Biripai educator, Associate Professor Wendy Nolan, advised me to allow students to express racist thoughts and feelings, as it was often those students who would gain the most from the subject.

And I have found this to be true: the students who were most confronting in their racism were perhaps so because they were most confronted by the material – and this was perhaps because they were most on the cusp of change. The students who had expressed racism had very often, by the end of the session, expressed a complete reversal in their thoughts and feelings, and often declared their intention of working in a remote school or community.

But there are problems with this: the most significant one arises in a space in which I’ve felt the most need of practice wisdom, and most lacking in it. This is a class in which at least one student might identify as Aboriginal or Indigenous, although they might be fair-skinned and thus not easily identifiable to other students. Here, any responsibility to allow one learner to “work through” their racist thinking, partly by verbalising it, is far outweighed by the responsibility to protect an Aboriginal student from such verbalisations and the damage and hurt they cause. Even if protecting those learners means shutting down the “contributions” of others, which may lead them to feel that they cannot “say what they think”, that their views are not valued, and even if this plays into a discourse about so-called “political correctness” that is so lamentably prevalent in Australian politics at the moment. It is vital that Aboriginal students feel safe from both overt and covert racism in the classroom – especially given some failures of the education system which mean not as many as we might wish make it to university, and that it is all too easy to damage the resilient few who do. It is also vital that an Aboriginal learner not be asked to offer an opinion or expertise based on their Aboriginality. Something I’ve found to work is to begin the class by saying: “I want us to assume that there is at least one student in the room who identifies as Aboriginal or Indigenous and be sensitive to that”. And I think about Aunty Beryl before I go to class and try to take a bit of her spirit with me. Aunty Beryl laughs often and loudly. She loves children and older people, and everyone between. She writes poetry and stories, and letters of protest, and telephones politicians when she feels something is not right. She knows where to find food in a landscape that looks little like a larder. She never complains. She adores her family. She has always showed the same kind of generosity as that extended by the Elders who wrote the Uluru Statement from the Heart – a willingness to reach out again and again to mainstream Australia. She belongs completely and utterly to her Country.

Tony Birch (2018) writes that a part of the invaluable cultural education he gained from long conversations with the actor and activist Jack Charles was an appreciation of “true sovereignty as an idea and practice embedded in culture, history, character and a commitment to others” (p. 8), “a psychological, metaphysical and ethical way of being” (p. 9). Aunty Beryl embodies this kind of sovereignty – sovereignty conceptualised not just in legal terms, as an imposed Western concept, but in terms of responsibility and generosity to anyone who comes to her or comes to her Country.

Aunty Beryl is a deeply committed Christian, and has an equally deep faith in the spirits of her ancestors. These spirits, both human and those ancestral beings that “created animals, plants, humans, and the physiographic features of the country associated with them” (Moreton-Robinson, 2003, p. 31), established the laws and codes by which people would live and often took the form of “elements or natural species” (ibid, p. 32). As Aunty Beryl’s poem suggests, for her these were, in particular, Eaglehawk and Crow. For Aunty, there are two creation stories, two sets of Law. I’m fascinated, and in awe of, the way she can hold what may seem, in terms of Western epistemologies, to be incommensurate belief systems. And that for her, there is no tension between them.

Aunty Beryl respects all beliefs, all cultures and all peoples and asks only that this be reciprocated though, even in 2018, it may not be. She commands tremendous personal respect, among Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities. Because of her belonging to her Country, damage to the land, to the river, is felt by her as personal disrespect, as such a violation I think it may be as if it happens to her own body. Along with many others, I share her concerns, but also know I cannot share in Aunty Beryl’s “ontological belonging” to Country, to Law, no matter how much I might wish or how much I might try. As Moreton-Robinson (2003) argues, “our ontological relationship to land marks a radical … difference between us and the non-Indigenous … [and] constitutes a subject position we do not share, and which cannot be shared” (p. 31) with non-Indigenous people.

Judith Wright’s (1973/1994) poem, Two Dreamtimes, written for and to her friend Oodgeroo Noonuccal, celebrates the two women’s ties of friendship, of sisterhood, of shared loss and grief. And, it shows that the possibility of such ties, like those we have with Aunty Beryl, are a product of the generosity of the Indigenous woman who says: “you brought me to you some of the way/and came the rest to meet me”. But the poem also acknowledges the limits of this sharing, this bond; these limits lie largely, but not only, in history. Wright knows that “there is a knife between us … the weapon made from your country’s bones” and says “I turn it round/the handle to your side … I have no right to take it”. This expresses an important part of my relationship to Aunty Beryl and other Aboriginal people, including the Wiradjuri Elders of the Bathurst area. This relationship involves my listening, learning, being receptive to forms of knowledge I may never really understand and, most importantly, knowing that it is for Aunty and the Wiradjuri Elders and others to decide what this relationship will be and whether or how they wish to enter into it.

It is amazing to me that Aunty Beryl, and the Wiradjuri Elders of the Bathurst area, and so many others, continue to be willing to engage with non-Aboriginal Australians, to attempt to share their knowledge, to help us understand, to welcome us into their homes and lives, and to accept invitations to come to the houses we have built on their land. I can only be very grateful that they do.

IMG220004Ruth Bacchus (l), Aunty Beryl Yungha-Dhu Philip-Carmichael (centre) and photographer Jade Yanhadarrambal Flynn (r) at Kinchega Station National Park homestead (2013, Menindee NSW Australia).

Thanks to the Bathurst Wiradjuri and Community Elders and to our Biripi sister Associate Professor Wendy Nolan (retired) for your continued support in this work.


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Barbara Hill PhD (ORCID: HTTPS://orcid.org//0000-0003-4878-3879)

Learning Academy, Division of Learning and Teaching

Charles Sturt University, Australia

Aunty Beryl Yungha-Dhu Philip-Carmichael PhD Honoris Causa (University of Sydney)

Ngiyeempaa Elder

Menindee, Australia

Ruth Bacchus PhD (ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-5388-0123)

School of Humanities

Charles Sturt University, Australia