Interview with Michael Laurie, Youth Worker, Traditional Custodian, Yaegl & Bundjalung Man
Earlier this year we took a work trip to the beautiful Beach Ranch Angourie just outside of Yamba in NSW. We used this time to come together as a team, regroup, reset and remember our mission - to not only do less harm, but to do more good.
We stand for equality and respect for both people & planet. We are committed to a better future. Everything we do, we do with care. We continuously seek out ways that we can restore and protect the place we all call home.
As part of this trip we were lucky enough to have Traditional Custodian Michael Laurie lead us in a culture immersive experience. Caring and protecting our planet is at the core of what we do. So learning more about the history of our Country and our ancestors is truly important to us. We were lucky enough to spend time with Michael, hear more about Aboriginal culture and listen to his stories. While we still have a long way to go, we’re committed to continually learning.
This week is NAIDOC Week - a week to celebrate the achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People and embrace the theme of Heal Country. While it’s important to acknowledge NAIDOC Week, it’s even more important to acknowledge that being an ally is something we should all be working towards each and every day - not only for one week of the year.
Although this is a week of celebration, we acknowledge that it can also be tiring for Aboriginal people. We’re so thankful that Michael generously sat down with us a few weeks ago to chat about the week, how he prepares for it and what we can do to be an ally. We hope you learn something and enjoy the interview.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us Michael. Firstly, what does it mean to you to be a Traditional Custodian?
Being a Traditional Custodian is a real privilege. Knowing that our ancestors walked this Country and had so much to contribute to the energy and power through story, song and ceremony makes me feel really proud to not only continue that but to have an invested interest in sharing and learning the culture as well.
Let’s start with where it all began for you - where did you grow up?
I grew up in Grafton, my Mums a Gumbaynggirr woman and my dad’s a Yaegl man. He started on Angourie Road and he grew up there with his parents and siblings and then moved to Pippi Beach. He loves that part of the world and as a kid we used to walk Country and he’d teach me about a lot of things.
The Clarence Valley has three nations across it, how do you find balancing that?
If you look at our past and our stories, a lot of them have a common theme around them. The Bundjalung, Gumbaynggirr and Yaegl nations all share stories, songs, resources and dances. It can be tricky in this modern world to navigate that. It’s important to be reminded that our ancestors had unity, respect and care and we can continue to do that.
This year the NAIDOC theme is Heal Country. How does this theme apply to your everyday life and how should it apply to ours?
This theme is a good reminder to be aware of our resources and what we use - it all has to come from somewhere! But also to embrace a deep connection to Country through walking and connecting with it and enjoying the space with close friends and family. That’s a powerful way to measure wellbeing where you can get out on Country and feel good doing that but also use that energy to contribute back to your community and family.
Healing Country is a key factor in society today and it needs to be at the forefront of everything we do. It’s so important - we need to really look after our Country. This could mean possibly relying on some of our traditional methods like fire management, and even people being mindful of places and stories and connecting with that more. That’s an important part of healing. Our people used to dance and celebrate Country, the migration of animals, and our brothers and sisters. We love our Mother Earth - it’s everything to us. Going back to that and having an awareness of that is really important.
For non indigenous people Heal Country can mean different things. Being aware of our surroundings and connection to Country that First Nations people have and looking after where we live is really important. Being an activist and an advocate for our local area is crucial too as we’re so lucky to live here. Do you believe this is something we need to remember ongoing?
Yes absolutely. It’s all about being part of being a community. I think in today's society we need to come together regardless of our background so we can walk together with that in mind and look at how can we look after Country better.
Not only does that make our world a better place but also our children's when they get older and so on. It also creates unity and community which is one thing Aboriginal people had around this beautiful Country - this common belief to look after mother earth and Country. That really unified a lot of people.
How do you live your day to day life and make sure your kids have a great connection with you and the community?
I find it’s really important to share culture in a way that fits in with your life. It doesn’t have to be a really romanticised view of culture, it can be drip fed throughout your day. Having a strong foundation about how you speak to your kids and telling them stories and then questioning them about the values of those stories is how I make sure my kids cultivate a connection with their culture. For example, I might tell them a story and then ask them “what’s it like to have a good friend?” “What’s it like to connect with the ocean?” All of that is really important.
Everything I do in my life has a really strong cultural foundation. I remind myself that my values are really cool and consider how I can implement them more in my life. I try to share that a lot with my Non Aboriginal friends too and I see them starting to do this too which is really cool.
NAIDOC week is coming up and you’re amazing at sharing your culture with everyone every day & are very generous with your time. How do you juggle the celebrations with people asking for your time? Do you find in the coming days and weeks that you’re in high demand? How do you balance all of this?
In years gone by when I was doing more cultural work NAIDOC Week was a really busy time. A lot of people would feel similar around Australia. I find it’s really important to enjoy and have fun during the week. Seeing what people can get out of it is really inspiring.
As a young Aboriginal man my role, and others in the area, is to share and continue what we do during this week throughout the year. It’s important that we’re kind to ourselves during this time and use it as a chance to also reset, practice things that our old people have done whether it’s a walk in Country, having a yarn with mates, sitting around the campfire, sharing stories with family and friends.
It’s great people are celebrating NAIDOC Week and more people are becoming interested in Aboriginal culture and to see this is being carried out throughout the year. Especially in times like this I think it’s really good to have important values of unity, respect, love and sharing.
Can you tell us a bit about the cultural immersion experiences we did with you and why they're important?
It was really cool to do a cultural immersion experience with the Seed & Sprout team. A lot of people get Aboriginal culture in the sense of the underlying values of sustainability, only taking what you need, the beauty of coming together as a team and having really good conversations. A lot of our old people would sit around the fire with no hierarchy and share thoughts. I got a really good sense of that and a strong bond of team work from S&S which was great.
The main thing for Non Aboriginal people is that part of our stories, morals values etc can all be implemented in your day to day life whether it’s at work, in your family life and with friends. It’s a cool way of learning and implementing cool values and building relationships. When we can get to those stages we can digest our store is better and share aboriginal stories. It’s a great way to share conversations and a way people can value our culture more, make them more intrigued and knowledgeable.
History can be really confronting but the Heal Country is the theme of NAIDOC Week. I think people can clearly see what’s happening around the world and ask “why wasn't it like this when our old people were here?” First Nations people around the world had really in depth knowledge about looking after Country so maybe we can rely on some of that old knowledge to assist us in our future.