27 November 2022

Dadirri: The Aboriginal gift

For Indigenous cultures, sharing is a healing force, and acts as a way in which tensions are resolved

By David Tacey

2 February 2017

There is a deep spring within each of us that awaits our discovery. Indigenous Australians have long known about it, writes author and Professor Emeritus David Tacey.

Aboriginal elders in remote communities of Australia sometimes say they have a gift they would like to give to settler, immigrant and all non-Indigenous Australians. In the top end of the Northern Territory, the gift is called dadirri, or deep listening to place. Why would elders want to bestow a gift? It does not make sense using Western logic, and that is because it is part of traditional law. Gift-giving is part of the peace-making process that has been used by Aboriginal tribes for thousands of years.

If a tribal area is trespassed, elders work out a strategy to incorporate the invading element, often by offering a gift. It is believed that the gift will bring out the humanity of the trespassers and cause them to set warlike behaviour aside. This method of dealing with conflict is virtually unknown in the Christian West, despite the fact that Jesus advocated precisely this method of dealing with conflicts: “Love your enemies and bless them that curse you”.

For Indigenous cultures, sharing is a healing force, and acts as a way in which tensions are resolved. In Aboriginal protocols, strangers are welcomed to country in the understanding that they will become reciprocally bound. It is not just permission to walk on land, but an invitation to participate in an ancestral life which involves ethical and spiritual considerations.

Aboriginal cultures speak from a life-world we can barely comprehend. The call of the elders to accept their gift is a call to reconciliation, and also a call to return to the sacred bond with creation. What is powerfully redemptive, in my view, is that Aboriginal elders want to alleviate the sense of exile and alienation that afflicts the non-Indigenous in their land.

“When I experience dadirri,” says Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr of the Daly River, “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.

Miriam-Rose refers to dadirri as “inner deep listening and quiet still awareness”, and says “it is something like what you call ‘contemplation’”. She says her people have “passed on dadirri for over forty thousand years”. It is most likely the world’s oldest contemplative practice. Deep listening has given Aboriginal people their spirituality, law and belonging.

Miriam-Rose belongs to the Ngangikurungkurr tribe, a word that can be broken into three parts: ngangi means sound, kuri means water, and kurr means deep. So the name of her people means “Deep Water Sounds” or “Sounds of the Deep”. She makes use of these associations in her teachings on dadirri, which she refers to as “the sound of the deep calling to the deep”. There is an allusion to Psalm 42:7: “Deep calls to deep”, and by using these allusions she hopes to show that the truth revealed in the Judeo-Christian tradition was always already present in her culture.

Miriam-Rose invites non-Indigenous Australians to join her in the art of deep listening. This is what we lack, she says, and what we need:

We know that our white brothers and sisters in this land carry their own particular burdens. We believe that if they let us come to them – if they open up their hearts and minds to us – we may lighten their burdens. There is a struggle for us too; but I believe we have not lost our spirit of dadirri. It is the way that we strengthen and renew our inner selves.

She believes that this depth of spirit needs to be brought to the surface in this country, and when it does her culture will “blossom and grow”, and new life will come to “the whole nation”. This is what has always astounded me about Aboriginal cultures; even though they have been seriously damaged by the colonisation of their land, they turn toward us, the colonisers, and want to help us in our plight. They can see that we are not happy, are exiled from the land and want to liberate us.

‘The Tree of Life’ painting by Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr
hangs in St Mary’s Star of the Sea Cathedral in Darwin. Used by permission.

Miriam-Rose admits that Aboriginal people have suffered a great deal and continue to suffer. But despite having lost so much, the foundations of their spirituality are intact, and those who suffer can turn to deep listening and be renewed. But she insists it cannot just be Aboriginal people who listen and attend to the sacred:

We all have to try to listen – to the God within us – to our own country – and to one another… My people are used to the struggle, and the long waiting. We still wait for the white people to understand us better… 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.

Aboriginal people do not proceed from a Western ethic of conflict and division, but from an Indigenous ethic of assimilation and sharing. Across millennia, their strategy has been to incorporate the foreign element and grow through it. It is by understanding others that progress will be made and reconciliation achieved.

Miriam-Rose says there is a gift that Aboriginal people want to give to the newcomers to this land:

Deep listening is a special quality of my people that I believe is the most important. It is our most unique gift. It is perhaps the greatest gift we can give to our fellow Australians. This is the gift that Australians are thirsting for.

It is hard for Westerners to understand such generosity, although we might try looking at the Sermon on the Mount for a parallel. Ironically, the Indigenous people seem more naturally Christian than the “Christian” civilisation that imposed itself here. As a nation, I don’t think we have been able to comprehend their unselfish attitude, as we are far removed from the radical ethics of Jesus. It is not what we recognise, and so we don’t know how to respond.

In his book The Aboriginal Gift, inspired by Miriam-Rose, archaeologist and theologian Eugene Stockton writes that the gift of dadirri is being offered, but we are unable to accept it. We cannot accept it because we are riddled with guilt and do not see ourselves as worthy of the gift. Moreover, due to secular conditioning, we do not see ourselves as possessing spirits or souls which might receive their gift. Only the Indigenous have “souls”, we have egos; this is in the national perception.

To receive the Aboriginal gift, it would be necessary for the colonising cultures to open to another dimension, because it is a spiritual gift. Here is where our secularism is a real obstacle and sticking point; the secular is embarrassed by the sacred, and cannot turn to it with openness and warmth. It is left to what remains of Australia’s depleted religious cultures to accept the gift on behalf of the nation, but these traditions seem as lost and confused as the political culture.

Why are Aboriginal elders so insistent on us accepting their gift? They are generous, but they know that if we accept their gift, their future is more assured because we would then respect their sacred pact with the land and claims on it. To accept the gift is to become reciprocally bound. The gift is given in the hope that it would release a new spirituality in the recipients, which would cause them to respect the worldview of the Indigenous and act with compassion toward them. But the non-Indigenous are bemused, don’t know how to respond and Australia’s development is arrested. So I might put the conundrum this way: Giving us the gift we will not accept is their last chance at survival.

Miriam-Rose says “the gift comes with obligations”.

There is a spring within us, and it’s in everyone; it’s not just an Aboriginal thing… Everybody’s got it, it’s just that they haven’t found it yet, and hopefully one day people are able to touch on dadirri.

The gift involves digging within ourselves for the “spring” that will bring renewal. It involves deepening our own story, and finding resources in it to meet the Aboriginal challenge. Herein lies the rub: secular society doesn’t have spiritual resources to draw on; or rather, it once had such resources but chose to abandon them. We can’t steal the Dreaming from the Indigenous, because this would be the ultimate act of desecration. After having stolen their land, identity, traditions and children, to take their Dreaming too would be the final act of abuse. Many of us realise that we have to develop a spiritual awareness that is parallel to the Dreaming in some ways. But we have to do this in our own way, from our own resources.

This is a brief version of an article originally published in Eremos: Exploring Spirituality in Australia, No. 137: December 2016, 5-14.

Dr David Tacey is a writer and public intellectual who has published a number of books on religion, spirituality and Australian culture. His latest book is Beyond Literal Belief: Religion as Metaphor (Melbourne: Garratt, 2015).

The quotations from Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr are taken from:http://www.miriamrosefoundation.org.au/about-us/about-dadirri; Eugene Stockton, The Aboriginal Gift: Spirituality for a Nation (Sydney: Millennium, 1995); personal conversations with David Tacey; a seminar in Alice Springs, July 23, 2016; and a video recording with Eureka Street TV at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2YMnmrmBg8

The word, concept and spiritual practice that is dadirri (da-did-ee) is from the Ngan’gikurunggurr and Ngen’giwumirri languages of the Aboriginal peoples of the Daly River region (Northern Territory, Australia).

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