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The Land Owns Us

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We arrived in Alice Springs, the small city in the middle of Australia, that briefly hosts hoards of tourists on their way to and from Uluru (Ayers Rock). We too had come to visit Uluru, not as tourists, but at the invitation of Bob Randall, a Yankunytjatjara elder and traditional owner of Uluru.

Bob is a well-known advocate for Aboriginal rights and a member of the "stolen generation," a term given to the tens of thousands of Aboriginal children of mixed race who were forcibly removed from their families by the Australian government and church missions from 1869 through the 1970's. In the early 70's Bob composed a song, "Brown Skin Baby (They Took Me Away)," about the experiences of the stolen children, which quickly became an anthem for the Aboriginal peoples' struggle for rights and equality.

People we met (mostly white people, to be sure) told us that great strides towards equality had been made since the practice of removing mixed race children from their homes had been abolished. However, looking around the streets of this hot and dusty town--watching busloads of tourists rumble down the road, passing scores of homeless Aboriginal men, women and children lying in the shade of trees and bus shelters--equality seemed far away.

The drive from Alice Springs to Uluru is long, straight, and hot. The landscape doesn't change much; there is red dusty earth and scrub brush as far as the eye can see. Yet, even in the car, with the cool air from the AC blasting in my face, I could feel the spaciousness of the land here, and that it is old, very old.

We arrived at dusk and pulled into the Ayers Rock Resort, a local tourist mecca that would regrettably be our home for the next few days. Filled with hotels, swimming pools, and restaurants, this oasis of luxury and relaxation seemed so imposed on the landscape, so out of place in this ancient red desert.

We rose early the next morning in time to film the breaking dawn over Uluru before heading to meet Bob at his home in the small Aboriginal community of Mutijulu, situated at the base of the great monolith. After driving past the "No Entry Without Permit" sign just off the main road that encircles the giant rock, the small community of 150 people became visible with small tin-roofed houses and shacks dotting the landscape. The community was in stark contrast to the developed resort, and we wondered how oblivious the majority of the tourists were to this small community, where the traditional owners of Uluru lived.

It was easy enough to find Bob's house, with the Tibetan prayer flags fluttering in the wind, a gift from a Tibetan Buddhist monk who had visited some years before. Answering the door barefoot, wearing a pair of shorts and a large grin, Bob invited us in. "Are you hungry?" he asked. "Feel free to cook us up something for breakfast!"

After I managed to conjure up an egg dish from the few ingredients in his fridge, we shared a meal and talked together. Bob is a soft and gentle man who loves to smile and laugh, but his face and eyes reveal a life of countless hardships and a deep sadness about the suffering of his people. He expressed regret about how his land has been abused and raped, and a deep conviction that it is time to listen to what the Aboriginal people have always known - that the land is our mother and must be treated with respect and reverence.

Over the next few days we walked the land with Bob. We drove down rough tracks deep into desert and brush where we sat, talked, and listened to him share stories of his childhood in the bush. Although Bob spoke a great deal about his people's connection to the land, and the way they view everything around them as family, it was the feeling of wholeness emanating from him that struck us the most.

Sitting with Bob, we realized how fundamentally simple being part of the land really is; it's sad that our culture either never had this understanding, or it has long been forgotten. "We come from the earth, and we go back to the earth; it really is just that simple," said Bob. "Once you realize that, you can't go on hurting and abusing the place you came from. You just can't rape the mother who birthed you." He also spoke at length about the Aboriginal concept of ownership, and how it isn't anything close to the English system that now dominates this land. "The land owns us," he declared. "That's really all there is to it."

On our last night in Uluru, we left Bob's house and passed an Aboriginal family by the side of the road. Their car had run out of petrol and they needed a ride to the gas station to fill up their gas can. We offered them a lift and the father of the family, who barely spoke English, climbed in. After a few minutes and a bend in the road, Uluru, in all its splendor, came into full view. The father pointed to the rock and motioned his fingers as if to mimic the people who we saw climbing the rock. "Minga," he said, and paused for a moment before finding the word in English. "Ants, minga is ants."

To the real owners of Uluru, the visitors who come here must be seen as... ants. Ants who clamber across the landscape, all too often without respect for their sacred land. I just hope we can change our ways so future generations don't look back and remember us this way.

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