By Nick Place
When Jamie Marloo Thomas goes for a walk, he tends to take a backpack, so he can pick up rubbish along the way. He always uses a KeepCup and tries never to use a plastic straw. Recently, tired after a long day, he went into a restaurant (eating in, so there wouldn’t be any takeaway packaging) and forgot to ask the waiter for no straw. He’s trying not to beat himself up for that lapse.
Jamie, a 45-year-old Indigenous, calls himself a ‘senior culture sharer’, but others might call him an elder. Either way, he has a name for his way of living. He calls it Wayapa Wuurrk and while there are all kinds of Indigenous activism, this might be the most down-to-earth, peaceful and inclusive path to a better world for both black and white Australians that you’ll ever find. It’s all about tuning back into the Earth to heal ourselves: finding the connection between wellness and nature.
Jamie says Wayapa Wuurrk is the world’s only certified Australian Indigenous philosophy (*certified as an approved training provider and member of the International Institute for Complementary Therapists). He places the philosophy created and taught by himself and his partner Sara Jones, and now also taught by other certified practitioners, right there next to all the Indian, Chinese and other international life philosophies, and even raises an eyebrow at yoga as a philosophical path.
‘The problem with yoga,’ he said, ‘is that the basic eight moves or whatever were never patented so anybody can invent one or two new ones and call it anything they like. It’s so disconnected from what it was intended to be. Put it in a hot room and you make 120 million dollars. Imagine what that money could be used for under the right mindset.’
GiantsAmongMen approached Jamie because we were interested in what it meant to be an Indigenous elder/senior culture sharer in 2018 Australia. Here we all are, 230 years and two months on from the arrival of the first fleet. Here we are, 20 years and one month on from the official apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples by then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
Here we all are in a world where a breakfast TV program on commercial TV can have three non-Indigenous panellists discuss whether it would be better for black kids to be taken away from their families, with one panellist actively enthusing that the historic ‘Stolen Generation’ policies were good for those kids.
There’s still no treaty or even a clear idea of how a treaty might look. The wider Australian community can’t even agree on whether it’s insensitive to celebrate Australia Day on what the black community calls ‘Invasion Day’. Economic, funding and policy band-aids are applied by various governments, but never with a truly long-term view to repair the situation, to find a true solution.
I guess what we wanted to ask Jamie Marloo Thomas, as a senior member of the Indigenous community, was: how do you not despair?
‘Look,’ he says. ‘What I would want to say to people is that all our ancestors used to live very closely with the land, their tribe, their food and their Spirit. Mine might have been doing that 300 years ago, and yours might have been 1000 years ago in another place, but it’s still the same. So many people are so disconnected from the Earth and their Spirit. Black fellas too. You can say what you like but it comes down to your daily actions. I’m pretty sure my ancestor 300 years ago didn’t have seven possum-skin coats, one for each lunar cycle. He only needed one. I would say to anybody: are you living in accordance to the proper law? And if you don’t know what I mean by that, then don’t tell me you’re a black fella.’
It sounds confronting but actually Jamie’s philosophy is gentle; about working together, about mindfulness, respect for the Earth, only taking exactly what you need and nurturing our environment.
For Jamie, the issues that most of us only read about or see debated earnestly on something like the ABC’s Q&A program are deeply personal. ‘Sovereignty was never ceded by my ancestors,’ he said. ‘So am I or am I not in trouble if I was to go out and kill a kangaroo with a spear or catch abalone without a licence. Is that even a crime, if I see this as my land? It’s a complicated issue. Same with the members of my community who say all white people should leave and get off our land. I say there were plenty of those original white fellas who were displaced, as convicts. I mean sure, things they might have done to black Australians once they got here were wrong and yes, they probably suddenly saw they could be kings in this new land, instead of a shitkicker back in their home country, and at the expense of the blacks, but can we really expect their ancestors to up and leave two centuries later?
‘I think of the words of Nelson Mandela who said: “If we turn on our oppressors, we become the oppressors.”
‘I think the big question is how we can respectfully work it out, as black and white Australians?’
It’s taken Jamie a lifetime to get to where he is now. Like anybody in the GiantsAmongMen age group, he’s not perfect. He admits he spent many years not living in a Wayapa Wuurrk kind of way. His grandmother was born in Framlingham, a reservation for forcibly displaced Indigenous people near Warrnambool, dating back to the 1840s and the time of King David (aka Kaawirn Kuunawarn (Hissing Swan), Chief of the Kirrae Wuurong people) but she later moved to Gippsland, where Jamie was eventually born. He lived there for years, just another lost kid totally out of touch with the Earth, with nature, until he moved to Alice Springs. There, he met an uncle who encouraged him to go to Framingham, to try to get in touch with his ancestry.
‘I was embraced immediately when I got there,’ he said. ‘I spent 15 years there in Warrnambool, just being immersed back in my nan’s country and both my children were born there. I was taught by some incredible elders, like Uncle Banjo Clarke, but also Uncle Rob Lowe, like the actor (laughing), and Uncle Ivan Couzens, Uncle Bill Edwards. They were people who showed me the way. Uncle Banjo touched thousands of people with his preachings of love, forgiveness and the importance of country. When they tried to take back the land he was part of the blockade, but he was all about passive resistance, like Ghandi.’
‘I even met Uncle Moogy Sumner, an elder from South Australia, who was an elder who has been through the full business of culture, and it was amazing to have his support and guidance in everything that I do, both in the community but also in the Wayapa.’
Now Jamie is ‘growing into my own grey beard’ and trying to take the wisdom of those elders into a modern, difficult world. ‘Walking in those shoes is about walking in those footprints,’ he said, ‘and you’ll never fit in the shoes but in some way your footprints will be there. I won’t do it like Uncle Banjo, or Uncle Rob or Uncle Moogie. They’re them. I’ll do it like me.
‘They’re the giants in my life, and I’ll do a little bit their way but a lot my way. They had the right path and if you follow the same path, it might be that there are some logs to step over or some ponds to walk around, whatever, but at the end of the day, your imprint is your own, and as long as you’re heading in the direction as your ancestors, you’re honouring them.’
Jamie said some members of the black community rue that the old ones are dying and their knowledge is being lost, but his stance has always been to learn, to drink it in, to absorb everything he could while they were alive.
It was from elders like this that Jamie learned that maybe rage wasn’t the way forward, and that maybe the problems in Australia weren’t black, white or any other skin colour. Instead, maybe everybody was disconnected from the land and needed to tune back in.
His dream is for the Wayapa Wuurrk movement to become viral, to go global, like Bikram yoga or other fads. ‘If it went international, a large part of it would be that the people into it need to be mindful of every aspect of reconnecting with the Earth, down to where their Wayapa pants come from and what materials they are made from,’ he said.
This is where he thinks the yoga lifestyle has lost its way. It’s about the look and the surface culture, whereas Wayapa Wuurrk philosophy drills down to the absolute essence of everything.
His partner, Sara, is originally from Canada. It’s been important to Jamie that they developed the philosophy together, to bring her worldly take to it. ‘I can only be black for myself,’ he said. ‘In my culture and my actions. I think the healing work we have to do, we all have in common. I’m not separating black or white, men or women. It’s your own choices, and you have to close those gaps yourself.’
He sees this as crucial to beating issues like domestic violence and other serious issues: the aggressors needing to reconnect to the earth and heal themselves, to take stock of their behaviour.
Having achieved DGR charity status, he’s hoping his workshops, online videos and other resources can tune a global audience into the proven Indigenous truths. The Wayapa website jokes that the accredited diploma course has been 80,000 years in the making.
But what of the young Indigenous people who aren’t ready to forgive, to try and work together with non-black Australians, to find a genuine path to a united future?
Jamie is also an ex-boxer and he calls back to his training as a pugilist. ‘One thing you learn as a boxer is that you cannot box angry,’ he said. ‘That’s the dance of boxing, to be in control of your emotions. I tell our young ones, be passionate, but not angry. Get out on the streets, sure. Yell, make a lot of noise, jump up and down. But don’t be angry, because anger can lead to violence, it can hurt you or others.
‘We have to understand that difference between passion and anger. Be passionate, be loud, but don’t be angry, because when you’re angry, you can lose yourself, your reason and your rationality. Once a word is spoken it can’t be retracted and that can be a bad thing. I always say don’t shitcan something unless you have something to replace it with, because if you don’t have that, then we may as well keep the shitcan there on the table.’
At its heart, Wayapa is a 25-minute physical practice. It’s about connecting with the environment. It’s about healing. Tapping into the Earth to heal yourself.
Is it enough, in the face of the depressing lack of progress in Indigenous reconciliation, and with the Earth so environmentally fragile in the face of global warming and other threats?
‘Look, I do what I can,’ Jamie says simply. ‘You can say the doomsday scenarios, say we’re at the tipping point, that microbeads of plastic are already inside the fish and everything, but it’s the generations to come who have to deal with that. The last person standing is the last person … all I can do is ask: did I do enough? Did I do what I could? If we all did that, we might get somewhere. I’m trying to lead by example.’