Edgar’s Last Spear Kowanyama
Edgar Bendigo knows today may well be his final birthday and certainly his last spear. He’s weak and his hands have lost their power and dexterity but his spirit is still strong.
Edgar lives in Kowanyama – the place of many waters located in the Gulf of Carpentaria – but this isn’t Edgar’s country. Edgar was born across the river in Pompuraaw and spent the first years of his life sleeping under bark huddled between his mum and dad in the bush.
‘I’m a Thaayir man. I was born on bark, not blanket. I have rain dreaming and my parents warmed me up when I was born.’ Edgar tells me with pride.
Warming up newborn babies over the fire is a ceremony still common in Kowanyama and many places around Australia. It’s the equivalent of a spiritual baptism into the oldest surviving culture on earth. It’s an ancient tradition and a special ritual many First Nations families still practice. Saying someone has ‘no fire’ is a vicious insult akin to saying you have no culture.
Edgar’s spent most of his life living in Kowanyama working cattle in the gulf. Like many of his peers he was drawn to a life in the saddle but found his true passion sitting around the fire after work making spears to go hunting on his days off.
Edgar learned his spear-making skills from his grandfather, father and uncles in the old days when it was more common for men to go out walking and hunting on foot.
Over the years many of Edgar’s spears have found the side of a wallaby, goanna or barramundi and some now hang in safe keeping at the temporary keeping place in Kowanyama.
The spears by themselves are works of art and important cultural objects but the fire lies within Edgar – not his spears. It’s Edgar’s cultural knowledge that will help the next generation keep the fire burning.
Traditional skills like Edgar’s have been diminishing since colonization. The brutality of the frontier wars and the continued denial of our nation’s true history and its assimilationist policies have all but evaporated the pool of complex traditional skill sets passed down over millennia.
The social and political will to invest nationally in Indigenous language and culture retrieval and maintenance has never happened to the extent required.
The ongoing lack of understanding and appreciation of what culture really is and how fragile language and ancient traditional knowledge systems are represent an ongoing problem for the contemporary Australian psyche.
Thankfully there are and always will be pockets of cultural resistance – but all fires go out and all elders pass on.
In places like Kowanyama culture doesn’t exist behind museum glass or in picture books, galleries or documentaries. Culture exists within the people.
Elders such as Edgar are Kowanyama’s and indeed Australia’s forgotten statesmen; national living treasures and cultural encyclopedias.
But how many times does a country need to hear how special it’s elders and culture are?
Kowanyama has one of the most significant cultural collections in Australia but time is fast running out. For longer than Edgar can remember his community has been asking for a Cultural Centre to house their collection and keep the fire burning for future generations.
Maybe just maybe Edgar’s last spear will land in a place that finally waters the ancient and forgotten cultural garden our country and politicians walk so casually past each and every day… and each and every election!
Happy 75th birthday Uncle Edgar!