BONUS | Dadirri and healing: A yarn with Dr Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann

In 2021, Dr Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann was honoured as the Senior Australian of the Year. It is recognition for a lifetime of work as a teacher and role model in her Daly River (Nauiyu) community. In 1975, Miriam-Rose became the Northern Territory’s first fully qualified Aboriginal teacher and a strong advocate for integrating art into mainstream education.

Perhaps her greatest achievement however, is bringing the concept of Dadirri to the world. It speaks to the value of deep listening and quiet stillness, and has been a part of Aboriginal practice for thousands of years. In this special episode, Miriam-Rose talks about Dadirri, healing and the importance of listening.

 

Photo of Cliff with quote, “I felt like I was in this sealed glass box that just moved where I moved.”

Photo by Craig Greenhill of Salty Dingo

 

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Transcription

V/O (MARC)
Hey there, I’m Marc Fennell, and welcome to this bonus episode of Not Alone.

I had the good fortune of chatting with Dr. Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann for a recent episode of the show. We thought we’d give you all the opportunity to hear more from Miriam-Rose. We’ll talk more about Dadirri, the importance of connection to country for her community, and mental health in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Dr. Miriam-Rose is a teacher, she’s a principal, and a respected elder in her community in Daly River in the Northern Territory. She’s also the 2021 Senior Australian of the Year. Throughout this episode, we’ve included little excerpts from some of Dr. Miriam-Rose’s writings that I hope you enjoy. And now, over to our chat.

MARC
Thank you so much for doing this. It’s really lovely to talk to you.

MIRIAM
Okay. Yeah, no. That’s all right.

MARC
So could I just get you to start by telling me a little bit about Daly River? What is it like for people that have never been there before?

MIRIAM
It’s two and a half hours drive from Darwin, southwest. And the population here is about 500. And there are about 10 different language groups living here in this community. And then we’ve also got another language: It’s called a Creole. It’s a bit of English and bit of Aboriginal words chucked in it, you know. Yeah, Aboriginal English. So we can get by, by communicating with each other. Yeah, I think we’re doing all right.

MARC
I also hear you have some of the best barramundi fishing in the world.

MIRIAM
Sure have. The River - Daly River - is famous for its fishing. And we get a lot of people come and go during the dry season. And they have a lot of competitions on the river. And everybody’s elbow to elbow, kind of thing. But it’s also famous for crocodiles. And you know,

MARC
That must keep people on their toes.

MIRIAM
Ah right, yeah, yeah. When we were kids, we used to swim anywhere in the river here. And it was because our elders used to work as crocodile shooters, or hunters. They used to get it for their skin, for a farmer here on the Daly, you know. But you can’t do it now. Because as soon as you splash or in the boat, they pop up their head and want to have a look.

MARC
Wow. One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you - and thank you so much for making the time to talk to me - was to ask you about Dadirri. I might actually…kind I just say, what’s the correct pronunciation of it? Because I’ve read a few different pronunciations on it. How is the word supposed to be said?

MIRIAM
DA-DEER-REE.

MARC
Dadirri.

MIRIAM
Yeah, Dadirri. You know that song, ‘doo wah didi didi dum didi doo?’

MARC
Yeah, like that?

MIRIAM
Yeah.

MARC
Got it. With Dadirri, would it be okay for you to explain what that word means?

MIRIAM
Dadirri is deep listening, silent still awareness. And it’s to bring people around to look into themselves. Because, look, we’re in the digital era now, modern Australia. And you fast, you know, the world is going faster and faster. And we forget about who we are. And to bring them around, I ask them, like full stop kind of thing questions, as in “who are you? What are you doing? Where you come from? Where do you belong?” And some people say, “I shouldn’t ask those questions.” And I say, “I have to ask them. If they want to know about Dadirri, they have to be open in the spirits, their being,” you know?

And then people ask me to teach them Dadirri, I can’t. I just can’t come teach you Dadirri, you have to be open to be able and at peace with yourself, you know? And understand what we’re about. Yeah.

(music - high drones)

V/O (MIRIAM)
When I experienced Dadirri, I am made whole again. I can sit on the riverbank, or walk through the trees. Even if someone close to me has passed away. I can find my peace in this silent awareness. There is no need of words. A big part of Dadirri is listening.

MARC
The concept has been called Aboriginal Australia’s gift to the world. Do you think it’s something that could help non Aboriginal Australians as well?

MIRIAM
I reckon. If they take the time out to understand what it’s all about. You have to be open to what our teachings are, you know what I mean?

MARC
What stands in the way of people being open to the idea, do you think?

MIRIAM
Well, like, somebody said to me that, you know, when I’ve asked them that question, “who are you? Where are you going? Where you come from? Where do you belong? What are you doing?” They say “that’s personal, personal question that I shouldn’t ask.” And I say, I’m trying to prepare this person to be calm, cool and collective, and open. And then that deep listening that I talked about in Dadirri is also to do with that you don’t just listen on the outside, you listen on the inside. And that kind of prepares a person.

(music - high drones)

V/O (MIRIAM)
to be still brings peace. And it brings understanding. When we are really still in the bush, we concentrate. We are aware of the anthills, and the turtles, and the water lilies.

MARC
How important is connection to nature, connection to country?

MIRIAM
‘Belonging’ is a very important word that we use. And like I said, you know, we’re in modern Australia now, and people have been forced, or dragged, or taken, or whatever, you know, to all over places. And they marry other people. But we’re made up of what nature’s about. And if it wasn’t for nature, I wouldn’t be here sitting talking to you. Because it’s to do with survival.

And in between the two seasons that we have here, there’s many seasons for us when it comes to food and gathering. You know, bush tucker and hunting, camping, whatever, and ceremonies. It’s also healing for us, you know, when you’re feeling down and out.

MARC
That healing that you’re talking about, how important is connection to your country for your healing? Does it make a difference that you’re connected to your country?

MIRIAM
Yeah, it does, because we’re not just a spirit, or a being just wandering around in this world. We’ve been rooted in the sense that we belong to a tribe, we’ve got our homelands. There’s no such thing as Aboriginal people being homeless. You know, so we belong to a traditional homeland. We belong to a tribe, or language group. We’ve got animals and plants, the stars and moon, that we belonging to; the water, the rain, the lightning, that sort of thing, you know. Like our dreamings that we belong to, they’re like our brothers and sisters.

And we learn about who are our blood relations, and we belong to them and they belong to us. So that ‘belonging’ bit is a very special word. And we try and instil in our kids that they belong, and not just somebody that’s just drifting through their life journey, you know what I mean? Yeah.

MARC
Yeah, yeah.

(music - high drones)

V/O (MIRIAM)
My people are used to the struggle, and the long waiting. We still wait for the white people to understand us better. We ourselves, have to spend many years learning about the white man’s ways. Some of the learning was forced. But in many cases, people tried hard over a long time to learn the new ways.

MARC
You started the Miriam-Rose Foundation, when several young people in your community took their own lives in a relatively short period of time. If I was to ask you to kind of unpack for people what the purpose of the foundation is, what are you aiming to change with the foundation?

MIRIAM
We’ve got four pillars, education, culture, art, and opportunity. ‘Opportunity’ as in trying to find work for the young ones around here, which is very hard to find. But we do manage with a lot of the service providers that are living and working here amongst us in the community. There’s people that are running job opportunities, as in Working for the Dole, they do four hours of that. And then if they’re interested in something else, they can go off and be farmed out to other service providers in the community, and things like that. And then ‘opportunity’ is also not just work, but opportunities in finding places where our kids can go to high schools, wherever, in Darwin or interstate, you know, for further education, and things like that.

‘Art’ is…what’s your name again?

MARC
Marc.

MIRIAM
Whatever, yeah.

MARC
I’ll answer to “hey you”, it’s all good.

MIRIAM
Your people are good at recording things, in the sense that they write about things, you know. Things that they like, things that they don’t like, all that sort of thing. Whichever way, you know, they’re writing it on computer and photographs and all that sort of thing. And that was always a thing with your people.

For us, it’s the art. Painting, dancing, miming all those stories. For kids to understand, and own those stories, it’s more creative. Or if you’re teaching a kid how to read, you know, in a classroom, when they finish reading a story, they paint that picture, and then they tell you what that story is through their art. I do that in relation for the children or anybody. It’s more creative, so that they own that story. Rather than us talking to them all the time, sometimes it gets a bit boring, you know what I mean?

MARC
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. That makes a lot of sense.

MIRIAM
And meaningful.

(music - high drones)

V/O (MIRIAM)
Our Aboriginal culture has taught us to be still and to wait. We do not try to hurry things up. We let them follow their natural course. Like the seasons. We watch the moon in each of its phases. We wait for the rain to fill our rivers, and water the thirsty earth.

MARC
I think a lot of people listening don’t have an appreciation for different ways of processing mental health for Indigenous Australians and non-Indigenous Australians. And I think what your work with Dadirri and your foundation is really important, because I’d like people to understand that there are different ways of working through mental health issues. And your work is really crucial in sort of helping people understand the difference. Does that make sense?

MIRIAM
I think so, but I didn’t reckon I was that important. (laughs)

MARC
I decided, I’ve decided you’re that important. Just me, no one else. (laughs) But I think it’s important…I think it’s important for people to understand that there are different ways of dealing with mental health issues. And one of the biggest things that’s come out of this is that there are a lot of Aboriginal Australians that don’t get necessarily great outcomes from traditional Western approaches to mental health. And some of the work that you’re doing is actually finding a way that is better informed by their cultural experience. Does that make sense?

MIRIAM
Yep, yep.

MARC
What is it that you would like people to know?

MIRIAM
They’ve never had been exposed to that sort of being supported, or they’re still trying to understand the western way of doing things. And there’s a lot of things that we do that we’re still having issues with, you know, in trying to understand your ways.

Sure, I keep saying and for us, and when we talk to our kids, young people, or whoever, and especially the ones that go away to boarding school, or if they get educated, they’ve got to learn to walk in two worlds. And then for them to be able to do that, they’d have a better understanding of what the western in society is all about. You know what I mean?

MARC
Yeah.

MIRIAM
And look, people come and go - the professions as in mental health. It’s not the same as if I’m walking with young person here in the community, or are the elders are, you know. As soon as they have suicidal thoughts, I go and say and sit with them and bring them food and let them know that I’m there for them if they want to sit with somebody, or I get other elders to come with me.

And we’ve lost seven people in ’07, up to ’10, those years. And my nephew was the last one that went. It didn’t hit me until he took his life, my sister’s kid, he was 22 years old. And I said, “this has to stop.” And then all, a lot people from the health department come down, Beyond Blue, mental health, drug and alcohol, you name them. And they come and sat and talk with us.

And I gathered all the people and the families that have lost loved ones. And then we listen to them. And they talked to us. And they said, “we want to help you and sort this thing out.” And I said, “no, you talk to us, and give us what we have to look for in our young people. This, like, cyber bullying, drug and alcohol, relationships, and all that sort of thing can play a part in upsetting someone young.

And I said, “this is our problem, but it’s good that you are here with us to walk with us, but we want to sort this out. Because this is our problem.” So we jump on it really fast. And then there’s enough young people around to update us elders in…updated as in if there is somebody that’s thinking or talking or carrying on about wanting to, you know, do the…do in with their lives, kind of thing. Or take their lives. So we latch on to them straightaway.

(music - high drones)

V/O (MIRIAM)
My people are not threatened by silence. They are completely at home in it. They have lived for 1000s of years with nature’s quietness.

MARC
Can I ask you a little bit about grief? The approach to grieving in your culture is that it takes time. Can you explain to me the importance of taking time in not rushing grief?

MIRIAM
We own our grief. You, when someone passes a loved one, you know, you organise…yeah, sure, you mourn the death of your loved one. And then you organise a funeral service. And then you have a wake. And I know you still continue to mourn. You know, if it’s somebody that’s very close to you.

For us, we have, well, I suppose it is like a wake, but it doesn’t happen straightaway after the funeral. Okay? There’s other ceremonies that take place. We’ve gotta purify the house where the deceased have lived. And, but at the very beginning when someone passes away, and he was in a house with his family, that family moves out, and then leaves the house for couple of weeks, and goes and lives with other families in the community for that time, until the funerals had taken place.

Then they’ve gotta go and purify the house, and reconciliation takes place through smoke. And when they smoke the house out and everyone walks through the house, in the smoke. And this mourning, again, people wailing. And then there’s corroboree to make it so that, you know, where it’s a tiny bit of the celebration of the person that’s passed’s life. And then the families can go back and move into the house again.

So it take time. And until the family - immediate family - are happy to have that last ceremony. And then if you are married to somebody and you lost your wife, you’re not allowed to marry anybody until that special ceremony takes place. The one after it might be a year or two. And then you’re free to go and do whatever, you know, you’re a free person.

So they burn the belongs of that person in a pit. And before they do that, you go and stand in the pit and they bathe you. And it’s a cordoned-off area in the centre of a, like, a circle. And then they burn the belongs of the deceased and cover it up eventually, and then they dance all around in that area and celebrate. And then they have a feast, and that’s the end of…I mean, you know, like, if it’s your dad, or your sister, or your mom. You still carry that loss, you know? Yeah.

(music - high drones)

V/O (MIRIAM)
We don’t like to hurry. There is nothing more important than what we are attending to. There is nothing more urgent that we must hurry away for. We are river people. We cannot hurry the river. We have to move with its current and understand its ways.

MARC
This year you were of course awarded the Senior Australian of the Year. What does that award mean to you? And the work that you’ve dedicated your life to? What does that mean to you?

MIRIAM
I’ve been nominated several times here in the territory, and nothing happened. And when I think about it, I wish it happened again, this time around, you know? (laughs) But this time, I said to them, “no, I’m not coming”. Because my name came up, probably out of a hat, but anyway. (laughs)

They said, “come you’re wanted in Darwin, the government wants you.” And I said, “what for?” “‘Cause you’ve been nominated for the award as Senior Australian.” And I said, “yeah, right, I’m not gonna go.” I said, “I’m not coming.” And then they kept humbugging me and said, “come on, hurry up.” And then I jumped in the car and drove off. And it’s not gonna…it’s just a waste of your time and money and, you know, wear and tear on my car, and all that sort of thing.

And then I went in, and there was this big ceremony at the convention centre. And bang, my name came up. And I had my family with me. And they’re all screaming and carrying on in the back there. And I said, “oh, my god.” And I said, “well, ‘bout time, you know.” I’ve done…but I didn’t realise that it was going to be hectic as it is, as in people like yourself ringing and saying, “we want to talk to you. We want to record you on Dadirri and all that sort of thing”, you know? Yeah, it’s just constant with people with inquiries.

MARC
What do you think it means to young Aboriginal kids to see you up there on that stage getting handed this award by the Prime Minister? What do you think the impact is on that next generation to see you there?

MIRIAM
That was the best thing for them to see that I forced him to come and help me up them steps. (laughs) “Come here, Scott! Hold me.” Because I’ve got bodgy knees. And I said, “don’t stand there, come here and give me a hand.” But nah, they’re really excited to see the man that they call, here, ‘The Boss of Australia’ was there, you know, holding me and helping me up the stairs.

And with him handing me the trophy, that was exciting. And I thought “that was it”, you know. But now, when I come back here, sometimes people forget that, you know, you’ve got your own duties to do here in the community with your people. And they think you just sit on the trees, waiting for the next phone call. (laughs)

(music - high drones)

V/O (MIRIAM)
We have learned to speak the word man’s language. We have listened to what he had to say. This learning and listening should go both ways. We would like people in Australia to take time to listen to us. We are hoping people will come closer. We keep on longing for the things that we have always hoped for: respect and understanding.

MARC
The trauma of what’s happened in Australia to Aboriginal people is still really raw, as we know. This is a very big and very deep question and how you want to answer it is entirely up to you, but what do you think is the best way forward to reconcile some of the traumatising things that have happened on this land to move together?

MIRIAM
I’ve inviting people throughout Australia to come and visit and sit on country with me to learn and listen to what the needs are, and how people should help in making things better for us. But don’t all rush up here, please.

You know, we’ve done the hard…well, I’ve done the hard yard - and others here in the community - the hard yards of learning about you. And what is expected of me when I’m in the city, and how to live. And I’ve been taught by your way of educating people - the western way - and I believe I’ve got enough to get me through. So, I’m just saying it’s your turn. Not you, but I’m saying your people. I mean, you can come.

MARC
I get it, I get it. Okay, so let me let me ask you this, you know, we’ve been chatting for about half an hour, where should I start? What’s the first thing I should do?

MIRIAM
There’s still a lot of things that have to be listened to in what the needs are in our communities. It is not just this community, in other communities in the Territory, and wherever else. You know, whether it’s Aboriginal people or Torres Strait Islanders.

And people out there, like officials, and politicians are not really listening. And if there’s a project that has to be done in a community, you know, you get that thing happening, and, and everything’s all working out really good. And then the money runs out, and they pull the carpet from under your feet. And then they leave you gasping for air, you know. And then then they start up another program, it’s almost similar to the one before and they call it another name, you know.

So for people to come and listen to what the needs are in our community would be fantastic. And to improve things. And it makes it hard for us, because I’m not complaining about where I’m living, or I’m not throwing rocks at government or whatever. All I’m saying is, people have got to listen to what the needs are. And support us.

I don’t know whether that answers your question.

MARC
It does. It does.

MIRIAM
You know, you were also saying like with trauma and that…sure, we’ve had trauma happen here. When my dad died, mum - and after all the things that I talked to you about like ceremony wise - lived with a farmer here. And they had a little girl. And her dad was white. And it was in that era where they were taking kids away from families, and then having them adopted out to people wherever. And I think my sister ended up in Adelaide with a family. That sort of thing.

Mum never talked about it. She just understood it as it was the law of the day. You know, she hardly ever spoke about it. But, when I was old enough, I started to understand what it was all about. And eventually, my sister knew where she came from. And then she asked the missionaries back here to get in touch with us. And she made arrangements to come back and meet us. And it was very moving for us to meet her for the first time, you know, ever since she left us. And those sort of things. It wasn’t just my sister, it was other kids that have been taken away too.

And government, whoever was responsible, haven’t been able to come back and listen and supported the families in what they’ve done. Sure…not Scott Morrison, the other…Kevin Rudd is it? Was the Prime Minister at the time. And he had the guts to go and say something like that, you know, to say “sorry” to us.

MARC
Yeah.

MIRIAM
But I think people want more of what it is. Like, with them, now, they’ve all come back a lot of them and found their family and some haven’t. They’re still looking for family, even now. People come from Darwin to say, “help me find my family.” And I do my best to try and find family for them, their family. And I have at times, but they still need more about this story, for government to come and listen to. You know what I mean?

MARC
Mmm, yeah. Thank you so much for talking to me.

MIRIAM
That’s okay, that’s okay.

MIRIAM
I appreciate it a lot.

MIRIAM
That’s okay, that’s okay.

(music - high drones)

V/O (MIRIAM)
And I believe that the spirit of Dadirri that we have to offer will blossom and grow. Not just within ourselves, but in our whole nation.

(music - show theme)

V/O (MARC)
I do want to say another thank you to Dr. Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann for taking the time to chat with me, or at least small computer screen version of me. I hope you all got something from her words and her thoughts. We’ll put more information about Dadirri and the Miriam-Rose Foundation in the show notes.

Also thanks to Lori Uden for recording Miriam-Rose and special thanks to the Nauiyu community for helping us with the setup.

This podcast was produced on Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung, Boonwurrung, Gadigal, Dja Dja Wurrung and Malak Malak Country, and we pay respect to the traditional owners of these lands.

Thank you so much for listening. Goodbye.

Auslan translation

Not Alone is hosted by Marc Fennell, produced by Sam Loy and executive produced by Darcy Sutton and Sarah Alexander. Recorded by Lori Uden. Mixing and sound design by Que Nguyen.

Our theme song Sense of Home is by Australian artist Harrison Storm.


Helpful resources

Through education, art, culture and opportunity, the Miriam-Rose Foundation works to help young indigenous people walk in two worlds. You can learn more about the foundation’s work, and donate on their website.

 

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