23 December 2014

Indigenous ceremonial performance is a key process for integrating indigenous knowledge from many different domains, and it is a socially powerful means of exchange, transmission and transformation of relationship to country and kin.

A new research project, funded through an ARC Discovery Indigenous grant, aims to examine and compare old ceremonies with contemporary ceremonial practices.

Charles Darwin University researcher, Dr Payi Linda Ford, who will lead the project, was awarded almost $100 000 in the most recent ARC major grants round to develop and implement suitable Indigenous frameworks for the preservation, interpretation and dissemination of recordings of ceremonial performances in the Wagait/Daly region, south west of Darwin in the Northern Territory.

The focus of Dr Ford’s research is a body of recordings of final mortuary ceremonies as documented by early anthropologists and missionaries. The aim is to preserve and extend the power of this ceremony for the benefit of future generations of Indigenous people and of Australia.

Dr Ford, who attended and spoke at the major grants announcement in Adelaide, said the Discovery Indigenous grant would allow for a significant contribution to the body of Indigenous knowledge and culture, as well as to Australian society.

“The overall aim of the project is to improve the lifestyle of indigenous Australians, particularly the mental and spiritual well-being of men and women, youth and families in remote and regional areas of the Northern Territory.

“The research also aims to extend the power of the ceremony from the present recordings and to retrace the first written records of anthropologists and Jesuit missionaries dating back to 1891.

“This research will impact on public Indigenous policy, particularly in the environment, health and education sectors.”

Dr Ford said that in contrast to traditional ethnographic approaches to documenting ceremonies and song, the research would be conducted from the perspective of an insider, emphasising links to country, kin and knowledge that are strengthened by ceremonial action.

“The project activities enact and give life to the connections and knowledge that hold together people, country, kin and stories within the frameworks of relationships through ceremonies past, present and future,” she said.

During her speech Dr Ford drew on some strong advice provided to her by her mother prior to her passing in 2007.

“My mother instructed me to ensure that the research I undertake has real benefits for the indigenous community in terms of recordings and documentation of our culture, languages, ceremonies and practices, so that they are rightfully acknowledged in publications and digitally accessed now and in the future.”

Recordings from a three-day mortuary ceremony held in 2009, celebrating the final rites for Dr Ford’s mother, a senior elder of the Rak Mak Mak Marranunggu people, are a significant resource for the project. Ceremonial leaders from the djanba, wangga and lirrga traditions of the Daly–Wagait region performed at the ceremony, which due to its size and complexity was an important occasion for the cross-generational transfer of ceremonial knowledge.

As an educator and senior researcher, Dr Ford said, she hoped the data collected through her project would be used not only to preserve and enhance recordings, but also to teach student teachers at universities across Australia, extending shared history.

For more information about this project please contact Dr Payi Linda Ford.


Image: Dr Linda Ford.
Photo credit: Mark Ford 2013.