Educated Dancers

This post contains names of people who have passed, used with permission.

At the dance rehearsal we laughed a lot. The plastic bottle on the carpeted floor was supposed to be a snake, with the older woman teaching the younger ones how to approach the snake with respect, caution and humour. “What is that plastic bottle?” I asked our teacher, a desert woman with a powerful repertoire of traditional dance. “It’s the man,” she said with a grin.

Earlier this month I was honoured to participate in the Pacific Regional Indigenous Doctors Congress (PRIDoC) in Auckland, Aotearoa (New Zealand). The conference began when we were ceremonially welcomed onto the Marae — a beautifully decorated building that is the sacred meeting place — by senior Maori community people and our hosts, the Maori doctors. The fine carvings and artwork of the Marae were awe-inspiring. Imposing wooden carvings of ancestors with opalescent paua (abalone shell) eyes watched us as we listened (and participated through our representatives) in oratory and song. Priapic paintings along the cornice of the timber ceiling caught my eye. I smiled. “We wouldn’t be here if our ancestors were not so endowed,” I said to my neighbour as we gathered to leave after the ceremony. She nodded.

Later in the week, our group from the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association prepared a dance for the conference’s Cultural Night, held in a decorated gym at the University of Auckland.

Some of the Australian Indigenous Doctors group prepared to dance. Photo Claudia Jocher.

Some of the Australian Indigenous Doctors group prepared to dance. Photo Claudia Jocher.

PRIDoC was originally the inspiration of three Indigenous doctors. It’s been re-created by Indigenous doctors from around the Pacific every two years since 2002, when our first meeting was held in Hawai’i. That first meeting was a great coming together. I found it exciting then to see Maori health workers (mainly, but not only, doctors) and students greeted by the Native Hawaiians — the Kanaka Maoli. Separated by thousands of miles and centuries of time, their embrace of each other using the nose to nose hongi — the sharing of breath — was moving to see. It was also moving to experience that moment – I was myself greeted thus by a senior Kanaka Maoli man.

On a bus trip during that conference I heard Maori and Kanaka Maoli delegates comparing language. Despite a long separation, these Polynesian peoples still spoke mutually comprehensible dialects. On that same bus trip, a Maori colleague gifted me a ring set with pounamu, a New Zealand jade. I still have it in my jewellery box and wear it when I need a boost of mana (spiritual power).

The conference is a meeting of medical doctors, so the scientific program is strong, with a focus on the work we do to empower our Aboriginal clients in healing. Sometimes there is a lot of hard, bad news to process as well. This year’s conference had a strong theme (for me, at least) in supporting Indigenous doctors’ efforts to name and understand racism in several forms: institutionalised, personally mediated and internalised. A gentle and energetic presentation by the charismatic Dr. Camara Jones, telling her profound ‘Gardener’s Tale,’ grew our power. Her sweet and simple story about a gardener’s preference for red flowers over pink has created a thought-provoking metaphor of how peoples cast on stony ground struggle to thrive and then become stigmatised for it. You can hear this and two other allegorical stories here:

After days of intense learning, the PRIDoC cultural evening was a welcome release. To see urbane doctors shake off the jaded veneer of daily caring for the sick and demonstrate their Indigenous cultures is an unforgettable experience. I love it every time.

The Taiwanese Indigenous doctors dressed in the brilliant colours of their tribes, some with silver threads and bells, others in bright, embroidered pieces. The senior doctor, who called and sang, wore a neon pink turban.

A Maori colleague told me that when the Taiwanese hosted PRIDoC in 2014, she and other colleagues went on a field trip. Because of a translation mishap, they thought they were visiting an old people’s home. After a long trip on a narrow road, they arrived at a place that astonished them. It was a Marae, maintained continuously for over fifty generations. “You know our people came from Taiwan about six thousand years ago,” she said. “Since then, Taiwan has been colonised by the Chinese. They changed the names of rivers and mountains, they changed the Indigenous peoples’ names and languages. But then, here we were, in a building we could recognise. It was a very emotional for us.” This is the kind of connection that gets made at PRIDoC.

Back in Aotearoa, a delegation from Turtle Island (North America) told us the story of a mischievous nature spirit. One of their women, Anishinaabe Dr Lisa Monkman, sang straight into our hearts, while drumming on a hide hand-drum. We’ve seen her dance many times over the years. She has grown from a shy and serious young woman to a mellow, blossoming one. She was always mesmerising in performance. One of the Native American children proudly wore a jingle dress. She had the composed air some Indigenous children have when they dance, as if they have been here and done it all before.

Going to PRIDoC meetings for more than a decade now, I have seen students graduate and journey widely, as I have done. I’m too old now to run away from the snake in the dance but I’m mature enough to help apply the ochres to the dancers. Our dance went well. “Your dance was so grounding for us,” said one of our colleagues, one of the ethereal Hawaiian dancers, gifted enough to make you smell frangipani with the shape of her hands.

The Hawaiians sang often and beautifully throughout the conference, as did the Maori. The Maori performances at Cultural Night are always a highlight, particularly the haka, when the women are sophisticated and strong and the men are brilliantly fierce -- tearing at their chests, tongues and eyes protruding like the veins in their necks.  It reminded me of another year when a Maori colleague, a fine man, now a leader of his people, gave me a pounamu mere — a club which confers the right to speak.

Back in 2006 at that other PRIDoC, which was in Rotorua, (also in Aotearoa), two Australian Aboriginal traditional healers, Rupert and Andy, made me laugh and cry with stories they told. A few years later, my wife and I followed their prompting and came to live in Central Australia. Not least because of that time in Rotorua, I often remember them giggling. How pleased they were with the swim trunks their classificatory son bought for them so they could try the deeply relaxing hot pools the earth produces there. Both of them have now passed away.

I remembered these friends as I watched our Australian Aboriginal men, doctors and medical students, dancing that night in Auckland. The emu dance was taught to them by Rupert and Andy. The old men used to laugh and laugh while their university-educated pupils stumbled along. Now, the AIDA men dance with the efficient and compassionate grace of our earthy people. I watch them and enjoy them and remember my right to speak boldly.