When Trent Nelson performs a smoking ceremony it’s as though his ancestors are standing beside him.
It’s a welcome and a cleansing that has been performed for thousands of years.
And it’s a protocol Mr Nelson would like to encourage on Dja Dja Wurrung country. For the chair of the Dja Dja Wurrung Corporation, it’s about sharing the culture of his people.
But wider performance of smoking ceremonies is not without its risks. Sadly Mr Nelson has seen ceremonies sometimes become generic, and not understood by the people watching.
What does the ceremony mean?
It’s based around fire. The leaves of eucalyptus, acacia and cherry ballard – gum, wattle and native cherry – are burnt to symbolise cleansing.
Mr Nelson normally starts the fire the traditional way, using a drill stick to produce embers that are placed on green leaves to smoulder.
The leaves are dampened to produce a cool white smoke that billows up cleanly. This white smoke signals that the the ceremony is going well, black that it’s being done the wrong way.
Fire is at the centre of the ceremony, in much the way it’s central to life.
“For Dja Dja Wurrung people fire and a lot of other first nations people fire is our life. We need fire to survive for ourselves, to live, but fire’s sacred to us,” Mr Nelson said.
“Fire is used in many ways. One to keep us warm at night. It’s also used as a cleansing, but it’s also used as a [symbol] of a new life.”
Burning the gum leaves is a way of paying respect to elders and Dja Dja Wurrung ancestors, as eucalypts are the oldest thing in the landscape. Older leaves are used, both to pay respect to the tree and to represent the old people.
Cherry ballard represents energy and young people in the ceremony.
As a parasite, that relies on another plant to grow, its use pays respect to the process of growth in young people, who need another being to gain knowledge and strength.
And, as a plant which provides the material for traditional tools, the wattle is burnt. It’s a sign of respect to the timber which was used to make items like boomerangs, digging sticks, clubs and woomera.
This smoking ceremony is one that’s intimately intertwined with a welcome to country.
Mr Nelson believes it’s important that the ceremonies are performed side by side: without the welcome the smoking ceremony can be misconstrued, or misunderstood.
The welcome to country is just that. It’s like giving consent for people to be on Dja Dja Wurrung country.
Traditionally it was performed to give people permission to walk across a country, and use the resources to provide for their family while there.
Today, Mr Nelson said the Dja Dja Wurrung corporation feels that it’s important to welcome people onto country, as a way of respecting ancestors.
“We feel very important that Dja Dja Wurrung people today can conduct that with the wider community, with people who travel to our country,” Mr Nelson said.
“People don’t let people to walk straight into their home. They invite them, they welcome them in.”
When Dja Dja Wurrung people meet up for any reason, they perform a smoking ceremony to cleanse people who have travelled across country, Mr Nelson said.
Its function is to cleanse people’s bad energy, and bring good energy.
It can be used to mark both good and bad, for instance its also performed at death ceremonies.
Read more:Stolen history, laying ancestors to rest
When people meet together, it’s a welcome.
“It’s a protocol of basically welcoming people to country and it’s also cleansing... so it’s getting rid of bad spirits, bad energy and creating that good spirit on country,” Mr Nelson said.
When I do that ceremonies it feels like my ancestors are standing beside me, as well as my elders that have passed on, that they’re there doing that ceremony as well.Trent Nelson
“We do it because it’s a protocol that our ancestors did when we met, and sat down, and had meetings and talks as well as celebrating.”
In the past year Mr Nelson has performed the smoking ceremony at Ulumbarra Theatre, the Conservatory Gardens and Bendigo Senior Secondary College to name a few.
But mostly it’s done on country, out in the bush.
The ceremony is something Mr Nelson would like to see the wider community understand, so he encourages it to be performed at all types of events.
“For us, as Dja Dja Wurrung people, we want to try and encourage a smoking ceremony that we do on Dja Dja Wurrung country, it’s a right of protocol,” Mr Nelson said.
“It’s right for protocol that on this country, Dja Dja Wurrung people commit and do the ceremony.”
The knowledge of how to perform the ceremony has been passed down through families.
Mr Nelson learnt it growing up and participating in smoking ceremonies from his father Uncle Gary Nelson and uncles.
He and the Dja Dja Wurrung Corporation encourage younger members to do the same.
What happens next?
There’s a danger in having more and more smoking ceremonies. As they have become common, Mr Nelson has seen some become generic.
He thinks this happens when people performing the ceremony don’t take the time to explain the meaning behind it.
“They can get pretty clinical and very mundane and boring,” Mr Nelson said.
“We’ve got to try and do them in our own unique way, whoever does that smoking ceremony. They put their heart and soul in that, because that’s the reason why you’re doing a smoking ceremony.”
Mr Nelson makes sure he takes time to get ready for the ceremony, to prepare the leaves and the fire.
Instead of rushing, he takes the time to remind of the reason behind the ceremony, and get people involved as much as possible.
It’s worth the effort because he sees the ceremony as a very serious thing to be doing.
“It’s something that connects me with my old people, with my ancestors. I feel that when I do that there’s been no loss of connection,” Mr Nelson said.
“When I do that ceremonies it feels like my ancestors are standing beside me, as well as my elders that have passed on, that they’re there doing that ceremony as well.”
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