15 December 2008

Iitaohkanaikokotoyi Niitahtaistsi

llll ) llllllllllllll Iitaohkanaikokotoyi Niitahtaistsi

Our first real blizzard of the season unfolds just as we fly back to mohkinsstsis after a week-long summer sojourn in Melbourne, Australia. We went down under – piipiiaakii, ohkomaakii ki niisto - for the World Indigenous People’s Conference on Education (WIPCe), an intensification ritual hosted by a different community once every couple years. It was the first time our family had an opportunity to attend. Luckily, piipiiaakii and I were both giving presentations there, so we were able to pull funding from our respective projects. Although we were able to catch most of the keynote talks, we didn’t bother sitting too many of the other sessions. To me, the excitement of our visit was in observing ki photographing birds ki other local animals. For piipiiaakii ki ohkomaakii, it was in shopping ki meeting new people.

We had three particularly enjoyable experiences. The second day there, after attending registration ki opening speeches hosted by the Koori ki Boonwurrung tribes at their recreation centre in one of Melbourne’s suburbs, we returned to the city ki split off to address our separate interests. Piipiiaakii ki ohkomaakii shopped the busy metropolis for hours, picking up souvenirs for folks back home, ki a few wardrobe items for themselves. I decided to take a hike through Melbourne’s green strip, which included the Royal Botanic Gardens. My planned destination was Albert Park ki its wetlands, touted in the visitor brochures from our hotel to be something like a nature reserve, with a variety of waterfowl ki a colony of rare skinks. As I wound my way through other parks toward it, occasionally stopping to ask a local for precise directions, it became clear that many of the city’s residents either didn’t know about the wonders of Albert Park or couldn’t quite understand why a tourist would be attracted to the place. Most suggested strongly that I should visit the botanic gardens instead, ki those inside the garden itself assured me that there were no larger nature parks in the vicinity. All were, of course, correct. But as a stubborn tourist I had to learn this for myself. When I finally reached Albert Park, all I found was a golf course ki an over-developed lake, surrounded by busy streets. There were a few black swans there, but no skinks I encountered. Thoroughly disappointed, I returned to the botanic gardens ki there passed the remainder of the day photographing the many birds that enjoy this magnificently lush ki sculpted park.

While walking, I also made note of some of Melbourne’s quirks. For instance, one of the things we learned very quickly was that most of the coffee available in the shops there is made from freeze-dried crystals. A black coffee is called a long black, an espresso a short black, ki a mocha is a flat white. Their large cups are not even equivalent in volume to our medium, ki nothing tastes the same. This goes for food as well. Small portions, all of which seemed missing key ingredients. Nearly every city block includes the Subway ki 7-11 chains, but the latter do not have Big Gulps or corndogs. Burger Kings are called Hungry Jacks, ki have the same menu as we do at home, but the fries taste funny. Ketchup is labelled tomato sauce (we never learned what tomato sauce for pasta was called). When people talk racist, they use the term “feller” – as in “you’re a white feller, eh?” or “me being a black feller...” etc. The understanding of at least some people there is that the First Nations of Canada used to be referred to “Red Indians” but that now we prefer to be called Aboriginal. Their paper currency has windows in it. Their coins are not sized as per denomination. In fact, the smallest coin is two-dollars. And there were no pennies (a good thing).

So our exploration day was the first good experience we had. The second came later in the week, when we hopped on with a tour to Phillip Island, just southeast of Melbourne along the coast. For me, this visit was particularly enjoyable because it took us to several ancient Boonwurrung sites, as well as a number of wetlands, a koala reserve, and places where the State of Victoria had engaged in successful environmental restoration projects. Overall, I was very impressed with the ecological consciousness of Australians. They were doing far more, even in the metropolitan areas, to conserve water, recycle, ki ensure that waste was managed. On Phillip Island, the government had gone so far as to buy-back large housing tracts from the public in areas where the sharp-winged plovers nest, so that the land could be rehabilitated. If only Alberta could see this as a model to combat the popular perception that a reintroduction of bison is unrealistic. On our tour, I was able to observe ki photograph several bird species (all new to me), colourful insects, amazing foliage, a wallaby, ki the precious koalas. I got to enjoy the company of piipiiaakii ki ohkomaakii. Ki the tour was capped off with a visit to the beach where little penguins return each evening at sundown, riding in on the waves ki hiking up to their nests in the dunes.

Our final day at WIPCe was another treat. In the conference’s exhibition hall, the Maori had set-up a nice display. They were very welcoming of all the other visiting nations, so much so that at times it felt as if they were more host to us than the Australians. We were lucky enough to be invited to a Maori dinner party a few evenings prior, but piipiiaakii had been trying to arrange to receive a traditional tattoo, ki on the last day of the conference she got her wish. Two or three of their artists had flown in from New Zealand with their equipment ki were ready to get to work. We learned that each of them had been specially selected to apprentice with elders while in primary school, ki had undergone extensive training before they were ever allowed to work on human skin. We waited on the sidelines for several hours past the appointment piipiiaakii had made before they called her to be drawn-up. One of the men took her outside with a set of ink pens. The way these tattoos work, the recipient is to tell the artist about themselves, ki from that narrative the artist hand-draws a design that will incorporate elements both reflecting ki assisting the assistant in his or her life. While piipiiaakii was outside sharing her story, I was still at the booth where another artist (the youngest among them) was told that he would be giving her the tattoo. He immediately asked where she was, ki when he learned that she was already outside being drawn he jumped up ki ran to intercede. It was apparent that he didn’t have the greatest confidence in the man who was supposed to do the drawing. As it turned out though, part way through piipiiaakii’s narrative the man had stopped her himself, telling her that he didn’t believe he was qualified to draw her tattoo. He said that their best artist was also their youngest, ki that he should work with her. The two artists met half-way, each having gone in search for the other, ki the young man Damion Scarlett took over.

Damion was amazing. He brought piipiiaakii inside, sat her down, listened to her story, ki proceeded very quickly ki skilfully to draw on her shoulder the most intricate ki beautiful tattoo we’d ever seen. It incorporated several underwater spirits, including the hammerhead shark, a life-line ki birthing canal, ki a braided weave of a sorts he explained bonded her to water. Before setting to work with the needles, Damion put his hand on piipiiaakii’s shoulder ki prayed. It took him at least an hour to complete the work. Afterward, I took a picture of piipiiaakii ki Damion together, in case we meet again in the future.