All history of this area and the general talk and all of that is that 1973 was a turning point and the Aquarius Festival is credited with having turned this region around in so many ways, but I think that is a myth ... and I have to honour the truth; and the truth is that old Dicke Donelly came and did a Welcome to Country the night before the festival. (Joseph in Joseph and Hanley)
In 1973 the Australian Union of Students (AUS) held the Aquarius Arts and Lifestyle Festival in a small, rural New South Wales town called Nimbin. The festival was seen as the peak expression of Australian counterculture and is attributed to creating the “Rainbow Region”, an area with a concentration of alternative life stylers in Northern NSW (Derrett 28). While the Aquarius Festival is recognised as a founding historical and countercultural event, the unique and important relationships established with Indigenous people at this time are generally less well known. This article investigates claims that the 1973 Aquarius Festival was “the first event in Australian history that sought permission for the use of the land from the Traditional Owners” (Joseph and Hanley). The diverse international, national and local conditions that coalesced at the Aquarius Festival suggest a fertile environment was created for reconciliatory bonds to develop.
Often dismissed as a “tree hugging, soap dodging movement,” the counterculture was radically politicised having sprung from the 1960s social revolutions when the world witnessed mass demonstrations that confronted war, racism, sexism and capitalism. Primarily a youth movement, it was characterised by flamboyant dress, music, drugs and mass gatherings with universities forming the epicentre and white, middle class youth leading the charge. As their ideals of changing the world were frustrated by lack of systematic change, many decided to disengage and a migration to rural settings occurred (Jacob; Munro-Clarke; Newton). In the search for alternatives, the counterculture assimilated many spiritual practices, such as Eastern traditions and mysticism, which were previously obscure to the Western world. This practice of spiritual syncretism can be represented as a direct resistance to the hegemony of the dominant Western culture (Stell).
As the new counterculture developed, its progression from urban to rural settings was driven by philosophies imbued with a desire to reconnect with and protect the natural world while simultaneously rejecting the dominant conservative order. A recurring feature of this countercultural ‘back to the land’ migration was not only an empathetic awareness of the injustices of colonial past, but also a genuine desire to learn from the Indigenous people of the land. Indigenous people were generally perceived as genuine opposers of Westernisation, inherently spiritual, ecological, tribal and communal, thus encompassing the primary values to which the counterculture was aspiring (Smith). Cultures converged. One, a youth culture rebelling from its parent culture; the other, ancient cultures reeling from the historical conquest by the youths’ own ancestors. Such cultural intersections are rich with complex scenarios and politics. As a result, often naïve, but well-intended relations were established with Native Americans, various South American Indigenous peoples, New Zealand Maori and, as this article demonstrates, the Original People of Australia (Smith; Newton; Barr-Melej; Zolov).
The 1960s protest era fostered the formation of groups aiming to address a variety of issues, and at times many supported each other. Jennifer Clarke says it was the Civil Rights movement that provided the first models of dissent by formulating a “method, ideology and language of protest” as African Americans stood up and shouted prior to other movements (2). The issue of racial empowerment was not lost on Australia’s Indigenous population. Clarke writes that during the 1960s, encouraged by events overseas and buoyed by national organisation, Aborigines “slowly embarked on a political awakening, demanded freedom from the trappings of colonialism and responded to the effects of oppression at worst and neglect at best” (4). Activism of the 1960s had the “profoundly productive effect of providing Aborigines with the confidence to assert their racial identity” (159). Many Indigenous youth were compelled by the zeitgeist to address their people’s issues, fulfilling Charlie Perkins’s intentions of inspiring in Indigenous peoples a will to resist (Perkins). Enjoying new freedoms of movement out of missions, due to the 1967 Constitutional change and the practical implementation of the assimilation policy, up to 32,000 Indigenous youth moved to Redfern, Sydney between 1967 and 1972 (Foley, “An Evening With”). Gary Foley reports that a dynamic new Black Power Movement emerged but the important difference between this new younger group and the older Indigenous leaders of the day was the diverse range of contemporary influences. Taking its mantra from the Black Panther movement in America, though having more in common with the equivalent Native American Red Power movement, the Black Power Movement acknowledged many other international struggles for independence as equally inspiring (Foley, “An Evening”). People joined together for grassroots resistance, formed anti-hierarchical collectives and established solidarities between varied groups who previously would have had little to do with each other.
The 1973 Aquarius Festival was directly aligned with “back to the land” philosophies. The intention was to provide a place and a reason for gathering to “facilitate exchanges on survival techniques” and to experience “living in harmony with the natural environment.” without being destructive to the land (Dunstan, “A Survival Festival”). Early documents in the archives, however, reveal no apparent interest in Australia’s Indigenous people, referring more to “silken Arabian tents, mediaeval banners, circus, jugglers and clowns, peace pipes, maypole and magic circles” (Dunstan, “A Survival Festival”). Obliterated from the social landscape and minimally referred to in the Australian education system, Indigenous people were “off the radar” to the majority mindset, and the Australian counterculture similarly was slow to appreciate Indigenous culture. Like mainstream Australia, the local counterculture movement largely perceived the “race” issue as something occurring in other countries, igniting the phrase “in your own backyard” which became a catchcry of Indigenous activists (Foley, “Whiteness and Blackness”)
With no mention of any Indigenous interest, it seems likely that the decision to engage grew from the emerging climate of Indigenous activism in Australia. Frustrated by student protestors who seemed oblivious to local racial issues, focusing instead on popular international injustices, Indigenous activists accused them of hypocrisy. Aquarius Festival directors, found themselves open to similar accusations when public announcements elicited a range of responses. Once committed to the location of Nimbin, directors Graeme Dunstan and Johnny Allen began a tour of Australian universities to promote the upcoming event. While at the annual conference of AUS in January 1973 at Monash University, Dunstan met Indigenous activist Gary Foley:
Gary witnessed the presentation of Johnny Allen and myself at the Aquarius Foundation session and our jubilation that we had agreement from the village residents to not only allow, but also to collaborate in the production of the Festival. After our presentation which won unanimous support, it was Gary who confronted me with the question “have you asked permission from local Aboriginal folk?” This threw me into confusion because we had seen no Aboriginals in Nimbin. (Dunstan, e-mail)
Such a challenge came at a time when the historical climate was etched with political activism, not only within the student movement, but more importantly with Indigenous activists’ recent demonstrations, such as the installation in 1972 of the Tent Embassy in Canberra. As representatives of the counterculture movement, which was characterised by its inclinations towards consciousness-raising, AUS organisers were ethically obliged to respond appropriately to the questions about Indigenous permission and involvement in the Aquarius Festival at Nimbin.
In addition to this political pressure, organisers in Nimbin began hearing stories of the area being cursed or taboo for women. This most likely originated from the tradition of Nimbin Rocks, a rocky outcrop one kilometre from Nimbin, as a place where only certain men could go. Jennifer Hoff explains that many major rock formations were immensely sacred places and were treated with great caution and respect. Only a few Elders and custodians could visit these places and many such locations were also forbidden for women. Ceremonies were conducted at places like Nimbin Rocks to ensure the wellbeing of all tribespeople.
Stories of the Nimbin curse began to spread and most likely captivated a counterculture interested in mysticism. As organisers had hoped that news of the festival would spread on the “lips of the counterculture,” they were alarmed to hear how “fast the bad news of this curse was travelling” (Dunstan, e-mail). A diplomatic issue escalated with further challenges from the Black Power community when organisers discovered that word had spread to Sydney’s Indigenous community in Redfern. Organisers faced a hostile reaction to their alleged cultural insensitivity and were plagued by negative publicity with accusations the AUS were “violating sacred ground” (Janice Newton 62). Faced with such bad press, Dunstan was determined to repair what was becoming a public relations disaster.
It seemed once prompted to the path, a sense of moral responsibility prevailed amongst the organisers and they took the unprecedented step of reaching out to Australia’s Indigenous people. Dunstan claimed that an expedition was made to the local Woodenbong mission to consult with Elder, Uncle Lyle Roberts. To connect with local people required crossing the great social divide present in that era of Australia’s history. Amy Nethery described how from the nineteenth century to the 1960s, a “system of reserves, missions and other institutions isolated, confined and controlled Aboriginal people” (9). She explains that the people were incarcerated as a solution to perceived social problems. For Foley, “the widespread genocidal activity of early “settlement” gave way to a policy of containment” (Foley, “Australia and the Holocaust”). Conditions on missions were notoriously bad with alcoholism, extreme poverty, violence, serious health issues and depression common. Of particular concern to mission administrators was the perceived need to keep Indigenous people separate from the non-indigenous population. Dunstan described the mission he visited as having “bad vibes.” He found it difficult to communicate with the elderly man, and was not sure if he understood Dunstan’s quest, as his “responses came as disjointed raves about Jesus and saving grace” (Dunstan, e-mail). Uncle Lyle, he claimed, did not respond affirmatively or negatively to the suggestion that Nimbin was cursed, and so Dunstan left assuming it was not true.
Other organisers began to believe the curse and worried that female festival goers might get sick or worse, die. This interpretation reflected, as Vanessa Bible argues, a general Eurocentric misunderstanding of the relationship of Indigenous peoples with the land. Paul Joseph admits they were naïve whites coming into a place with very little understanding, “we didn’t know if we needed a witch doctor or what we needed but we knew we needed something from the Aborigines to lift the spell!”(Joseph and Hanley). Joseph, one of the first “hippies” who moved to the area, had joined forces with AUS organisers. He said, “it just felt right” to get Indigenous involvement and recounted how organisers made another trip to Woodenbong Mission to find Dickee (Richard) Donnelly, a Song Man, who was very happy to be invited. Whether the curse was valid or not it proved to be productive in further instigating respectful action.
Perhaps feeling out of their depth, the organisers initiated another strategy to engage with Australian Indigenous people. A call out was sent through the AUS network to diversify the cultural input and it was recommended they engage the services of South African artist, Bauxhau Stone. Timing aligned well as in 1972 Australia had voted in a new Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam. Whitlam brought about significant political changes, many in response to socialist protests that left a buoyancy in the air for the counterculturalist movement. He made prodigious political changes in support of Indigenous people, including creating the Aboriginal Arts Board as part of the Australian Council of the Arts (ACA). As the ACA were already funding activities for the Aquarius Festival, organisers were successful in gaining two additional grants specifically for Indigenous participation (Farnham). As a result
We were able to hire […] representatives, a couple of Kalahari bushmen. ‘Cause we were so dumb, we didn’t think we could speak to the black people, you know what I mean, we thought we would be rejected, or whatever, so for us to really reach out, we needed somebody black to go and talk to them, or so we thought, and it was remarkable. This one Bau, a remarkable fellow really, great artist, great character, he went all over Australia. He went to Pitjantjatjara, Yirrkala and we arranged buses and tents when they got here. We had a very large contingent of Aboriginal people come to the Aquarius Festival, thanks to Whitlam. (Joseph in Joseph and Henley)
It was under the aegis of these government grants that Bauxhau Stone conducted his work. Stone embodied a nexus of contemporary issues. Acutely aware of the international movement for racial equality and its relevance to Australia, where conditions were “really appalling”, Stone set out to transform Australian race relations by engaging with the alternative arts movement (Stone). While his white Australian contemporaries may have been unaccustomed to dealing with the Indigenous racial issue, Stone was actively engaged and thus well suited to act as a cultural envoy for the Aquarius Festival. He visited several local missions, inviting people to attend and notifying them of ceremonies being conducted by respected Elders.
Nimbin was then the site of the Aquarius Lifestyle and Celebration Festival, a two week gathering of alternative cultures, technologies and youth. It innovatively demonstrated its diversity of influences, attracted people from all over the world and was the first time that the general public really witnessed Australia’s counterculture (Derrett 224). As markers of cultural life, counterculture festivals of the 1960s and 1970s were as iconic as the era itself and many around the world drew on the unique Indigenous heritage of their settings in some form or another (Partridge; Perone; Broadley and Jones; Zolov). The social phenomenon of coming together to experience, celebrate and foster a sense of unity was triggered by protests, music and a simple, yet deep desire to reconnect with each other. Festivals provided an environment where the negative social pressures of race, gender, class and mores (such as clothes) were suspended and held the potential “for personal and social transformation” (St John 167). With the expressed intent to “take matters into our own hands” and try to develop alternative, innovative ways of doing things with collective participation, the Aquarius Festival thus became an optimal space for reinvigorating ancient and Indigenous ways (Dunstan, “A Survival Festival”).
With philosophies that venerated collectivism, tribalism, connecting with the earth, and the use of ritual, the Indigenous presence at the Aquarius Festival gave attendees the opportunity to experience these values. To connect authentically with Nimbin’s landscape, forming bonds with the Traditional Owners was essential. Participants were very fortunate to have the presence of the last known initiated men of the area, Uncle Lyle Roberts and Uncle Dickee Donnely. These Elders represented the last vestiges of an ancient culture and conducted innovative ceremonies, song, teachings and created a sacred fire for the new youth they encountered in their land. They welcomed the young people and were very happy for their presence, believing it represented a revolutionary shift (Wedd; King; John Roberts; Cecil Roberts).
Images 1 and 2: Ceremony and talks conducted at the Aquarius Festival (people unknown). Photographs reproduced by permission of photographer and festival attendee Paul White.
The festival thus provided an important platform for the regeneration of cultural and spiritual practices. John Roberts, nephew of Uncle Lyle, recalled being surprised by the reaction of festival participants to his uncle: “He was happy and then he started to sing. And my God … I couldn’t get near him! There was this big ring of hippies around him. They were about twenty deep!” Sharing to an enthusiastic, captive audience had a positive effect and gave the non-indigenous a direct Indigenous encounter (Cecil Roberts; King; Oshlak). Estimates of the number of Indigenous people in attendance vary, with the main organisers suggesting 800 to 1000 and participants suggesting 200 to 400 (Stone; Wedd; Oshlak: Joseph; King; Cecil Roberts). As the Festival lasted over a two week period, many came and left within that time and estimates are at best reliant on memory, engagement and perspectives. With an estimated total attendance at the Festival between 5000 and 10,000, either number of Indigenous attendees is symbolic and a significant symbolic statistic for Indigenous and non-indigenous to be together on mutual ground in Australia in 1973.
Images 3-5: Performers from Yirrkala Dance Group, brought to the festival by Stone with funding from the Federal Government. Photographs reproduced by permission of photographer and festival attendee Dr Ian Cameron.
For Indigenous people, the event provided an important occasion to reconnect with their own people, to share their culture with enthusiastic recipients, as well as the chance to experience diverse aspects of the counterculture. Though the northern NSW region has a history of diverse cultural migration of Italian and Indian families, the majority of non-indigenous and Indigenous people had limited interaction with cosmopolitan influences (Kijas 20). Thus Nimbin was a conservative region and many Christianised Indigenous people were also conservative in their outlook. The Aquarius Festival changed that as the Indigenous people experienced the wide-ranging cultural elements of the alternative movement. The festival epitomised countercultural tendencies towards flamboyant fashion and hairstyles, architectural design, fantastical art, circus performance, Asian clothes and religious products, vegetarian food and nudity. Exposure to this bohemian culture would have surely led to “mind expansion and consciousness raising,” explicit aims adhered to by the movement (Roszak). Performers and participants from Africa, America and India also gave attending Indigenous Australians the opportunity to interact with non-European cultures. Many people interviewed for this paper indicated that Indigenous people’s reception of this festival experience was joyous.
For Australia’s early counterculture, interest in Indigenous Australia was limited and for organisers of the AUS Aquarius Festival, it was not originally on the agenda. The counterculture in the USA and New Zealand had already started to engage with their Indigenous people some years earlier. However due to the Aquarius Festival’s origins in the student movement and its solidarities with the international Indigenous activist movement, they were forced to shift their priorities. The coincidental selection of a significant spiritual location at Nimbin to hold the festival brought up additional challenges and countercultural intrigue with mystical powers and a desire to connect authentically to the land, further prompted action.
Essentially, it was the voices of empowered Indigenous activists, like Gary Foley, which in fact triggered the reaching out to Indigenous involvement. While the counterculture organisers were ultimately receptive and did act with unprecedented respect, credit must be given to Indigenous activists. The activist’s role is to trigger action and challenge thinking and in this case, it was ultimately productive. Therefore the Indigenous people were not merely passive recipients of beneficiary goodwill, but active instigators of appropriate cultural exchange.
After the 1973 festival many attendees decided to stay in Nimbin to purchase land collectively and a community was born. Relationships established with local Indigenous people developed further. Upon visiting Nimbin now, one will see a vibrant visual display of Indigenous and psychedelic themed art, a central park with an open fire tended by local custodians and other Indigenous community members, an Aboriginal Centre whose rent is paid for by local shopkeepers, and various expressions of a fusion of counterculture and Indigenous art, music and dance.
While it appears that reconciliation became the aspiration for mainstream society in the 1990s, Nimbin’s early counterculture history had Indigenous reconciliation at its very foundation. The efforts made by organisers of the 1973 Aquarius Festival stand as one of very few examples in Australian history where non-indigenous Australians have respectfully sought to learn from Indigenous people and to assimilate their cultural practices. It also stands as an example for the world, of reconciliation, based on hippie ideals of peace and love.
They encouraged the hippies moving up here, even when they came out for Aquarius, old Uncle Lyle and Richard Donnelly, they came out and they blessed the mob out here, it was like the hairy people had come back, with the Nimbin, cause the Nimbynji is the little hairy people, so the hairy people came back (Jerome).
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