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The Gagudju Man: A special sacred Lorrkkon Ceremony

by Stephen Hagan and AIATSIS 26 March 2014

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IATSIS Chairman Mick Dodson called the Lorrkkon Ceremony a special sacred event that commemorated the life of The Gagudju Man, Big Bill Neidjie. “I’ll keep my comments brief because no words from me can do justice to the special sacred event we’ve just witnessed here tonight in Canberra,” Mick Dodson said. Earlier in the evening the crowd of several hundred people were treated to inspiring personal reflections of Big Bill Neidjie by renowned actor and Aboriginal advocate Jack Thompson and Northern Territory Senator Nova Peris. “I met Big Bill Neidjie when

Chris Bourke MLA, Anne Martin, AIATSIS Chairman Mick Dodson and Senator Nova Peris enjoy the Lorrkkon Ceremony in Canberra last night. All images: Rhonda Hagan

I was a young teenager and remember him saying he was expecting me,” Thompson said. “I don’t know how or why he said that but I’m glad our paths crossed and how profoundly privileged I am to have had that pleasure.” Senator Peris said she had a long conversation with her grandfather soon after she won an Olympic gold medal and was being followed around Kakadu with a channel 9 film crew. “My grandfather called my gold medal ‘humbug’ and placed no real importance on it,” Senator Peris said. But she said he started to appreciate why she held it so highly after a relative reminded him that it meant the same to him as the feeling he got when he was given

his land back. A team of 26 dancers from Arnhem Land made the trip down to Canberra to perform the special Lorrkkon ceremony on a cool evening, with only a small ceremonial fire to warm them. About Lorrkkon Lorrkkon is a multi-media ceremonial performance including projected film sequences and live Ceremonial Dancers from across Arnhem Land participating in an ancient funeral rite practised in Australia’s north for thousands of generations. In 2002 Big Bill Neidjie’s passing signified the end of many things and a dramatic moment in Australia’s history. Bill Neidjie was the last

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surviving speaker of the Gagudju language from northern Kakadu. He was instrumental in the establishment of Kakadu National Park and was deeply committed to sharing his love for his country and his culture. Bill knew that along with him many things would disappear; language, songs, dance, ceremonies knowledge and stories. His desire to continue the transmission of his culture and stories was so strong that he broke with traditions and requested his funeral be filmed and his image, voice and stories continue to be shared with all people. So in no small way is the Lorrkkon Ceremony is his gift to all of us. The ceremonial event was performed in three sections. The first an audio-visual segment that brings the story of Bill Neidjie and parts of his funeral ceremony to the screen for the very first time. This is followed by a live ceremonial handover ceremony and a smoking ceremony. After which there is some traditional Bunggul performed by the dancers that welcomes the setting sun and leads to a closing audio-visual segment where you can spend a little quiet time with the last of the Gagadju men Bill Neidjie and Felix Holmes and their Bunitj country. Story about feeling Filmmakers Kevin Lucas & Djakapurra Munyarryun and MusicArtsDance films producer Aanya Whitehead collaborated with the Nedijie family to adapt some of Big Bill’s stories to film and other media. This introductory segment includes a sequence from the Story about Feeling film that is being developed around the stories Big Bill laid down with Keith Taylor in his book of the same title. Bone Ceremony This segment takes you to the Old Man’s Bone ceremony that was conducted and filmed (at his request) three years after his death

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in 2005. The initial ceremony three years prior saw the old man’s body prepared in sacred ochre (Gapan) and wrapped in bark and placed on a platform where it stayed for three years. It is a ceremony that is likely to never happen again in Kakadu and is a traditional funeral procedure reserved for men of high degree. The Bone Ceremony that you see projected on the screens tonight involves the cleaning, preparation and placement of the Old Man’s remains in a cave in the Valley of Bones at Hawk Dreaming. It is called a Lorrkkon Ceremony and involves ceremonial elders and dancers from Nth-East Arnhem Land (Yolngu) and Western Arnhem Land (Bininj) and the nearby islands of Goulburn and Croker, who helped fulfil cultural obligations to Bill Neidjie’s family and country. It involves both

Yirritja and Dhuwa moieties. Lorrkkon The ceremony is led by Binninj ceremonial leader Ronald Lamilami and Yolngu ceremonial elder and Artistic Director of this evening’s event, Djakapurra Munyarryun. Both Ronald and Djakapurra led the ceremony at the Hawk Dreaming bone ceremony in 2005. Lorrkkon relates to having the bones placed in a log (or in wooden container) and taken to a secret cave at Hawk Dreaming near the Valley of Bones for safe keeping. This ensures Big Bill’s spirit remains connected with his country and allows him and his family to continue their care and lawful management of the Bunitj lands. The ceremony will be performed on the specially prepared Bunggul ground. It is a re-enactment of the final part of this funeral ceremony. However, unlike the original it


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does include women and men as tonight it involves a public aspect of this ceremony that involves the handing over of the film footage by the east Arnhem Land Aboriginal people (Yolngu in green) to the West Arnhem Land people (Binninj in blue) who are connected through family and songlines. The footage is then passed across by the Binninj ceremonial leaders to the old man’s children and grandchildren to handover to AIATSIS who become the new guardians of this precious and rare archive. Following the ceremonial handover and acceptance speeches, the group return to the centre of the Bunggul ground for a cleansing smoking ceremony. This will mark the conclusion of the Lorrkkon ceremony. Djapana The dancers and songmen will return to the stage to lead a Djapana song cycle to welcome the setting sun. Both bininj and Yolngu versions of this Bunggul will be performed and Djakapurra will help teach audience members who are

encouraged to participate. Gagudju This final multi-media segment is dedicated to the Bunitj and their country. It has been designed to allow the audience a quiet space to reflect on the ceremony they have participated in as they start to pack

up and leave the ceremonial space. The images have been provided as a gesture to the spirit of the old man by some of Australia’s leading photographers who lived and worked in Arnhem Land with Big Bill, photographing him and his country over many years.

Senator Nova Peris with renowned actor and Aboriginal advocate, Jack Thompson were guest speakers before the Lorrkkon Ceremony.

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The gagudju man a special sacred lorrkkon ceremony