My name is Peter Smith, and I'm from the Aboriginal and Islander Catholic Council in Mt Isa, Queensland. Every month people from the council 'go bush' for a prayer session, held in a dry creek bed a short drive from Mount Isa. Here, I share my story of how the beliefs of my ancestors inform my Catholic faith.
In the late 1970s, I was a ranger in the Aboriginal Ranger Service in Queensland. One of my responsibilities was to locate and help to record and protect Aboriginal sites in my area.
I received a call from the archaeology branch in Brisbane to check on a site in western-central Queensland. They had a report that a significant site in the area could possibly be destroyed because the manager of the station on which it was located was going to bulldoze all the brigalow scrub down.
So I went out to the station. The homestead was empty, there was nobody living there at the time. I went looking for the site in the brigalow scrub. The scrub was very high, and very thick. I looked around all afternoon, till around sunset, and I couldn't find it. So I went back and camped just outside the homestead for the night. The next morning, I got this feeling that I needed to just walk into the scrub in a particular way. So I walked in there, and after about 15 or 20 minutes going through this really thick scrub, I came to a very large, open, cleared area.
In that cleared area was a stone arrangement - pathways, interlocking circles, all made out of stone. The brigalow scrub will actually grow anywhere, but in this case it grew right up to the edge of the ceremonial land and stopped. The ceremonial ground had not been used for many, many years, since the Aboriginal people there would have been taken away and put on reserves. Yet the brigalow scrub did not grow on that ceremonial land.
I stood there, and it was a very emotional experience for me. I could actually feel the presence of the spirits of those old people in that site. I just stood there and appreciated the fact that I was experiencing something very spiritual.
I left and drove up to the nearest town, then phoned Brisbane and told them that this site had to be protected.
Each month I went back to that ceremonial site. I used to drive down an old disused track and stop at this big old gum tree. From there, I'd walk into the scrub, a five minute walk straight onto the site. I'd spend some time there, and each time I went I could feel the presence of the spirits of those old people.
Then, one day, I decided to take one of my mates out there, an Aboriginal man. We drove to the big old gum tree, walked into the scrub the way I always do, then a few minutes later we were back on the track. I thought, 'That's very strange. I always walk this way. Let's try it again.'
So we walked in again, and within a few moments we were back on the track again, just a couple of metres away from where the Toyota was parked.
We decided to split up, with him heading in one way and me heading in the other, so that we'd cover twice as much ground. So I walked in the way that I normally walked in and when I got into the brigalow scrub there was this swirling of mist, like cloud, swirling through the brigalow scrub. And I couldn't see which way to go. I couldn't see which way was north, east, south or west. I didn't know how to get back onto the track.
I don't know how long I was in there for, but after wandering for some time I heard my friend beeping the horn on the Toyota, so I headed toward that sound. When I got out there, he said, 'I don't think I'm supposed to see this, my brother.' And I said, 'No, I don't think you are.'
The following month I went back there and I took my son with me. We drove down to the old gum tree, and walked into the scrub the way I always do, and walked onto the site. Once again, I could feel the presence of those old people at the site.
I did that each month, I worked it into my program in that area. And each time it was the same experience, and always very emotional.
I don't know why I was granted this privilege. I'm sure some traditional men might be able to explain it to me. I've spoken to them, and they just told me that there was a particular relationship between me, my mother's people - the Kamilaroi people - and this group of people. I'm not too sure how that relationship worked, but I was able to see that site and my mate was not able to see it.
I've been brought up with a Christian understanding of God, and I don't have any doubts about that. I believe in what the Catholic Church teaches. But I cannot deny my experience as an Aboriginal man on a sacred Aboriginal site.
So I can see how our Christian faith, and our traditional beliefs, our belief in the spirits of our old people being present at these sacred sites, come together as one for me, and make my faith complete.