Working with Danny an indigenous inmate in a maximum security prison
Danny (not real name) is about 35 years old and fit good looking guy. He says he was a difficult kid and got kicked out of home at a step dads request when he was 12. Lived on the streets a lot, involved in Juvenile detention, street fights etc. Says he has been stabbed six times. I never accept someone’s statement, ‘I was a difficult kid’ at face value. Indigenous men in particular seem to blame themselves. I remember one indigenous man (not Danny) saying to me ‘at 13 I became hard, cold and independent did not think of others feelings’. I asked, ‘I am curious to know if anything happened before 13 that may have led to what happened in your life before that time’. He replied ‘Well my uncle sexually abused me for five years’. So often there is a story about the young indigenous life that creates more understanding of later dysfunctional behaviour.
Danny’s life picked up when he was given a chance as a dancer in an indigenous dance group. He respected the guy who ran the group saw him as an elder, who had given him a go. He danced before some pretty big audiences signed a lot of cards etc. But then after the adrenaline high of that, he took drugs to cope. He would end up crazy and go to prison.
So one day he turned up in my Buddhist meditation class in prison. He was there at the request of a mate to build up class numbers. I asked what is your tribe and totem. He replied Wodi Wodi tribe part of the Yuin nation and my totem is Emu.
So what does Emu mean to you?
It’s about legs, strong legs and lots of curiosity.
I recalled an emu dream a fella called Darren told me about. We were at an indigenous men’s health conference in the middle of the Northern Territory. He was an indigenous men’s worker in Melbourne and his tribe was from the Murray River, his totem was emu. He had never been among full blood tribal men before and was feeling quite honored and excited by the experience. He told me about a dream he had one night there. He was being chased by an emu and he fell over and was lying on the ground, with small indigenous men in full ceremonial paint standing around him. They were dropping small white pellets into his mouth. For me it sounded like a wonderful dream, his totem herding him to the elders who gave him the pellets of wisdom.
Danny listened to the story with great interest. He said ‘I had a strange dream the other night, can you help me with it?’
Go for it Danny, tell me the dream and I will try and explain it for you.
Well he said. I was flying through the forest, felt the leaves brushing against. I could not control where I was going and I had no legs. I crash landed into a coffin in a hole in the ground. I was lying face down and could not get out. My family and tribe were standing around the hole and coffin, throwing clods of dirt in. Pretty scary stuff!
It’s a strong message dream, what they call a big dream. I can tell you what I think it is about. It is your totem warning you, that you need to use your legs, as the emu does and you need to walk your proper journey, otherwise you will die if not a real death then a spiritual death. You need to walk your walk as a man with respect and good intention; you must fulfill your responsibilities to yourself your family, children and tribe. You must also dance, but not just to entertain white fellas. Dance is strong spirit ceremony for you and your people. So learn more about the meaning of dance and teach your young men dance as ceremony. You might ask, how does he know this? Well we move into intuition here. They say that dreams are the forgotten language of the gods or spirits. Big dreams like this have a purpose. In the end my interpretation of the dream only has to pass one test, is it useful? Does it help the dreamer?
So next time a few more indigenous men turned up at my mediation class. I had read book about four years ago, called ‘Bushman Shaman: Awakening the Spirit through Ecstatic Dance’ written by anthropologist and psychotherapist Bradford Keeney. It was about the San people or Kalahari bushmen from the Kalahari desert in Africa, which is in the middle of Southern Africa. They have a history of some 40 000 years and rock art that parallels indigenous Australians somewhat. Their main ceremony is trance dancing in the evening around a fire. It is a fascinating book that had inspired me. In their dancing they often ask the ancient dead ones to come and dance in an outer circle around the fire, and they experience them as being there and communicate with them. Read the book to know more.
So in sitting with Danny and his mates, I used that inspiration. I did a strongly relaxing meditation that can induce a deep relaxation and somewhat trance like state. Then I started a guided journey into a forest to a clearing with strong fire in the center. Seeing the fire, smelling the smoke, hearing the whispering of the trees and the night animal sounds. -Then inviting the ancient ones could be departed fathers or uncles or ancient ones from the tribe. The ancient ones then slowly danced around the men sitting in circle around the fire. They used clap sticks and chanted. I asked each man to choose an ancient one as mentor and healer and to listen to what they said or conveyed by feeling. The meditation was then wound up. The men were in quite a spaced out frame and had enjoyed the experience.
I asked Danny did he experience the ancient ones and did he choose one. He said yes but that the ancient one would not speak to him. I told him that was good but that was his sense of shame that created that, and that he was worthy and that the ancient one did think so as well and wished to help.
A couple of weeks later, we did the same meditation. I asked Danny how it went. He said great there was this ancient one dressed in traditional dress, possum skins etc. and that he was chatting away in a language that he did not understand. I asked ‘did it feel good’ and the answer was a big Yes.
The next session I did a trance and guided journey through a long cave with lots of traditional paintings and with ancient artists showing and explaining the work. When we finished I gave them some paper and colored pencils. Danny and the other guy grabbed the paper and started drawing as if eating a great meal. Danny drew the picture shown here, it was a classical rock art painting of Biami the creator. He said that was the painting that he was shown. It is exactly like the rock art drawing in a cave at Newcastle that is quite famous. He had really enjoyed the experience.
This work with men in prison is very sporadic. I go there once a week, but often there are lock downs or closures of educational rooms where classes take place. So plans to do regular sessions on this work are often disrupted. So it’s do what you can when you can.
Danny is due to leave prison soon to return to his home at Nowra on the south coast. In talking with him recently he told me about a new dream. He was walking along with two dingo dogs, he was in full traditional mode, just a loin cloth and carrying two spears. He was standing and walking straight, proud and dignified. He was walking towards a large full ceremonial gathering. Men were painted and dancing, there were clap sticks and didgeridoos. He had in a sense come home and learnt in his deeper self how to walk proper way, on his journey. A new dreaming – woo hoo.
In all this I have been working on my own belief system and theories around what is important for healing of indigenous men in contemporary Australian culture. I am not claiming it is right but it’s what makes sense to me. Let me try and explain it in brief:
For 40,000 years prior to western colonization, indigenous culture made its place in Australia. Men had identity, purpose and spiritual connection (dreaming). The culture was relatively stable over a long period and the sense of identity and purpose was thoroughly ingrained in the psyche of indigenous men. With the advent of white colonization the culture and its place in the land disintegrated. Along with it the identity purpose and spiritual connection for men fell apart. It is very hard to find identity and purpose in this new European culture.
So it is important to help facilitate the reconstruction of a useful identity, purpose, function and spiritual connection for indigenous men. This belief is what has guided the experimental work with men like Danny. During this time a new indigenous men’s art workshop was started, with men doing artwork for sale. I built a solid door for my house and got them to paint a Rainbow Serpent Dreaming painting on the door. The door pictured has become a symbol for this work.
I have asked a friend of mine David, now working for an indigenous magazine to continue the work with Danny as he leaves prison, to cove to some extent Danny’s new journey. Dave asked me what questions he might ask Danny. Here are some suggestions:
- What’s it feel like to be back home?
- What help and supports have been arranged for you to help you integrate into a new life and not return to prison?
- What are your goals with education, work and family?
- What are the old habits that will bring you down?
- What’s your plan to defeat these old habits and develop more useful ones?
- Is it important to further develop your spiritual connections, and how do you intend to do that?