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Noongar Elder: Building bridges for the ‘Big Man in the Sky’

Noongar Elder, Marie Taylor, at the opening of Hammond Park Catholic Primary earlier this year. Photo: Jamie O’Brien

Noongar Elder, Marie Taylor, at the opening of Hammond Park Catholic Primary earlier this year. Photo: Jamie O’Brien

By Mark Reidy

As Noongar Elder, Marie Taylor descends from a long line of storytellers and, after spending several hours with this passionate and jovial woman, it becomes very apparent that she, too, has inherited this family gift.

Marie, in fact, has a plethora of gifts, roles and identities.

She is a mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and has been a junior state hockey representative, Bible College graduate, housing officer, evangelist, a course author and teacher at Murdoch University.

She has helped establish an Aboriginal cultural centre, has produced programs that are taught throughout schools across the city and, in her role as Noongar Elder, is increasing demand to conduct traditional Welcome to Country and Smoking Ceremonies, including many at Catholic venues and occasions.

At 67, Marie, a mother of five, including two foster children, looks back on an eventful life with satisfaction.

It has been difficult at times, she acknowledges.

Officially retiring from paid work earlier this year, she knows her life ahead will not provide too many quiet moments as she prepares, after years of living alone, to move in with her son, grandchildren and extended family.

In recent times, conducting traditional Welcome to Country and Smoking Ceremonies has increased to such an extent that she now delegates some of the responsibility to other family members. She recalls the time, several years ago, when she was asked by four different organisations to conduct a ceremony on the same day, at the same time.

“I think the interest in these ceremonies in recent times is because people are beginning to recognise that the Aboriginal culture is the oldest in the world and they are now appreciating this,” Marie said.

There have been many defining moments in the life of this energetic matriarch who is the oldest of ten children but, during our interview, she singled out three in particular that had a significant impact on the direction her life would take.

Her father shared with her the time, when as a young child living in the Wheatbelt town of Brookton in Western Australia, a Welfare Officer arrived to remove her and her younger brother due to the light colour of their skin, which had come through Dutch bloodlines on her father’s side.

The Official, however, quickly removed himself when confronted with Marie’s imposing grandfather and was never seen again.

Through her experience with Aboriginal victims of the Stolen Generation, Marie is well aware of the alternative life she could have led if her grandfather had not intervened.

Another pivotal moment occurred when, as a young woman, she visited an Aboriginal family which had been housed on a reserve in a small asbestos house.

“It had a real impact on me,” she recalls.

“Here was this woman and her little children huddled under blankets because of the cold, without any furniture, because no one had ever taught her how to light a fire the white man’s way – in a stove.”

Marie realises, in hindsight, that this particular incident went a long way in launching her into her role as a liaison officer.

In a series of positions within the accommodation sector, she would not only assist Aboriginal families in finding and securing housing, but would practically support and educate them in maintaining their property.

The third key moment in Marie’s life came when she was 40 years old.

Her mother passed away and, as the oldest offspring, she was presented with a wana stick, signifying her responsibility for her ancestral land, which includes Perth, Fremantle and surrounding areas.

It was this role, which Marie hesitated in fully embracing until 10 years later, which has since shaped her spirituality to what it is today.

“I eventually realised that the knowledge had always been with me, but I just had to grow into it,” she shared.

It is a spirituality in which Marie has interwoven her Christian faith with her Aboriginal heritage.

Her belief in God had always been central to her life and she has always had a connection with the Catholic Church through her grandmother but, in more recent years, she has found increasing compatibility between her Noongar and Christian spirituality.

It is a connection that continues to grow as Marie is increasingly invited to conduct traditional Welcome to Home and Smoking Ceremonies at Catholic venues and functions, such as Notre Dame University, Catholic Earthcare Australia, the Redemptorist Monastery in North Perth and numerous Catholic schools.

Welcome to Country is an acknowledgement and recognition of the rights of Noongar people’s country, paying respect to the traditional custodians and ancestors, and the Smoking Ceremony is a ritual used to not only cleanse and purify a specific area, but to cleanse one’s spirit, body and soul whilst on Noongar Country.

Marie believes there does not have to be a clash between Aboriginal spirituality and Christianity.

“When I am performing a Welcome to Country ceremony, I will include a personal prayer – of being in the palm of God’s hand and in the shadow of His wing,” she said.

“After all, Aboriginal people have always spoken of the “’ig Man in the Sky’.”

Marie also spent two years as a teacher’s assistant at Herdsman Lake Wildlife Centre which educates visiting students, including many from Catholic schools, in various aspects of the Noongar culture and ancient science.

It was the perfect platform for this cultural ambassador to not only highlight the blending of Aboriginal and Christian spirituality, but to also build bridges and promote racial healing.

“I would tell the kids to look at the colour of the land – the beaches, the bush, the dirt – all different colours, but part of the same country,” she would say. “God has created us all different… and wouldn’t it be boring if He hadn’t.”