The aboriginal leader took his food and walked some distance away from the small crowd that assembled for lunch at a community site run by the indigenous people in western Australia. He sat alone on the ground and began to eat his meal.
I followed the tribal elder out onto the dusty red earth, where he invited me to sit with him. We had been speaking earlier about the life of the community there, the projects the people were undertaking, and his determination to pass on a way of life to the young. Now he began to talk about what it means to be an Australian aboriginal.
He reached down and put his hand on the ground beneath us. "The earth is our mother," he said. Then, putting his hand on his chest, he continued, "I can feel the earth in my bones, in my flesh, and in the blood moving through my body." Our lives depend on the earth, he told me, and we also must depend on each other. "That's why we share what we have with one another. There is no one here who goes without. We would not let that happen."
Relationship to the earth and a communal way of life are at the heart of Australian aboriginal spirituality. And it is still there, despite the genocidal consequences of 200 years of white settlement. One finds it most clearly in the "grandfathers and grandmothers" who provide community leadership by telling the stories of the "dreamtime" and passing on the memory and traditions of the aboriginal people to the next generation.
The grandfather who I sat with on the ground told me that aboriginals are a spiritual people, and their spirituality is essential to life itself. Without it, they would surely die. It seemed to him that most white people have a very different spirituality.