Yesterday I went to a workshop on traditional basket making run by two local aboriginal women, Melissa and Sandra Aitken. The traditional techniques the women shared were handed down to them by their auntie, Connie Hart. You can read her story here
At the workshop I attended a small group of women and men gathered round a pile of native spear grass. Spear grass is indigenous to this part of Australia. Traditionally it is a plant only aboriginal women could to touch so the men in the workshop made their baskets out of rafia.
After we learnt how to split the grass we were shown how to weave it together with a variation of the sewing stitch known as blanket stitch in English. Once you get the hang of the technique the weaving is very relaxing. The grass is tough but pliable and can be easily twisted to form baskets.
My first attempt at basket weaving
The workshop was on National Sorry Day, a day remembering and commemorating the government policy where aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families and sent to mission schools. This practice continued until the 1960s.
Next week is Reconciliation Week where we collectively attempt to work together to heal the damage done to the aboriginal people since white settlement. It could be argued that this damage affects the entire population of Australia and even the land itself for this hidden history is an unhealed wound on our collective psyche.
As we made our baskets talk drifted towards these matters. Recently the Guardian newspaper published an online map showing massacre sites across Australia here Looking at the map I was horrified to discover the area I live in is thick with massacre site. One of the aboriginal men at the workshop told me this is because this area has such good farming land. In places where the land is rougher there are less sites.
The conversation then shifted to a topic that was on the mind of one of the aboriginal women. Apparently land clearances (the euphemism for the forced removal of aboriginal people from their traditional land) were still going on in the 1950s. After WW2 the government set up scheme where returning soldiers were given farm land. To get the land they forcibly removed the traditional owners. Many of these farms later failed because the land the soldiers was given was marginal and wasn’t suitable for intensive farming. These days a lot of this land has become a salt pan because the native vegetation was removed and the traditional methods of land management were ignored.
One thing that was really troubling the woman was the fact that even though aboriginal men had been recruited to fight in the war they were not considered citizens and had no rights. It wasn’t until 1967 that aboriginal people were granted citizenship!
The telling of this story somehow cleared the air in the room. It seemed all the woman wanted was to be heard. Once she had said what she needed to say and was acknowledged we all settled into a companionable silence where we worked on our baskets. When people did speak it was in gentle, soft conversational tones.
The atmosphere in the room was very non-judgmental and non-competitive. I got the instructions muddled up when I’d started my basket and Melissa had carefully demonstrated how to do it correctly. Once I got going she let me get on with it. I noticed that whenever anyone ran into difficulties Melissa and Sandra quietly helped them get back on track.
Working alongside this group of unassuming, quiet people was very relaxing.
Slowly, slowly, in simple and unaffected ways, we sit together to weave new stories of reconciliation and healing.
– an example of Melissa’s work. She screenprinted the cloth beneath the weaving with images of her weaving.