I was sitting at a worn wooden table in an extraordinary place. It was September 2019 and I had taken on the adventure of following in the footsteps of Dr. Price. I was a long way from home and a long way from civilization.
I was a guest in the home of Suzanne Thompson, an Aboriginal elder of the Iningai people. Suzanne had welcomed me to visit the land that had once been occupied by her people, her ancestors, for hundreds and thousands of years.
She told me I could spend several nights with her at Gracevale Station, outside of Barcaldine, Queensland. In April 2019, Suzanne had been given custodianship of the land—acres and acres of it—and she sat next to me at this wooden table on this particular night to tell me how this came to be.
By candlelight, she told me of the calling she felt which brought her back to the land of her people. She told me that she considered herself an ancestral whisperer because of her ability to listen deeply and to heed her inner “knowing.” I leaned in, captivated by her wisdom and storytelling.
At one point as we spoke the candle at the center of the table flickered out. The thin plume of smoke wafted toward the ceiling. It seemed strange to me that the candle went out because there was still plenty of wax and there was no wind. Nevertheless, Suzanne didn’t miss a beat and continued our conversation. About forty seconds later, the candle spontaneously reignited. Suzanne and I looked at each other in astonishment and burst into nervous laughter. It was clear that we were not alone.
Our take-away? Her ancestors wanted their story to be told. Ancestral wisdom is meant to be rediscovered and uncovered.
This is why I went to Australia in the first place. I wanted to speak about wise traditions. I went to speak about the work of Dr. Price and the Weston A. Price Foundation, of course. But most importantly, I went to learn from those still practicing wise traditions, and to thank them for sharing their wisdom with the world.
And just to be clear, this was a very ambitious trip. I didn’t take it on alone. Chapter leader Sally Walsh took the lead when it came to shaping the itinerary. Chapter leaders Lorraine Pratley, Kelly Abeleven, Elspeth Haswell-Smith, and Tina Taylor organized meals, talks, interviews and events to reach the greatest number of people. Thanks to their efforts and generosity and some crowd-funding support, it all came together and allowed me to spend an entire magical month Down Under.
I visited farmers, individuals committed to zero waste, dentists, doctors, authors, chapter leaders, podcast listeners and more. I spoke to groups large and small. The itinerary was full and there is truly too much to tell. For brevity’s sake, I am going to focus on three encounters with Aboriginal people that shaped my experience and that offer practical ideas for all of us on how we can live more ancestrally.
DADIRRI (DEEP LISTENING) AND RETURNING TO THE LAND
One of the wonders of my visit was exploring Gracevale Station with Suzanne Thompson. She opened up her home to a small group of us—her friend Marianne Stewart (a board member of the Australian Native Foods and Botanical organization), Eve White (of Wandana, an Aboriginal education group), Francis Thompson (my videographer) and me.
At the outset, she took us to a spring on the property. She told us that we guests had to make ourselves known to the ancestors present by washing our face and underarms with the spring water. She said it was a way to let them know who we were and to allow them to welcome us.
She pointed out rock art on the walls of a nearby cliff. There were etchings depicting the Rainbow Serpent and the Seven Sisters, part of the creation story of her people. There were stencils of hands and feet made by mixing blood, ochre and urine, and spitting them to create the outline around the body part. This paint mixture then penetrated the porous rock, enabling the stories to remain, essentially unfaded, thousands of years later.
To see such ancient artifacts in real life was profound. And to have Suzanne point them out was a gift. She also made note of a variety of herbs and shrubs, detailing their medicinal and nutritional qualities. She is the chair of the Australian Native Foods and Botanical Group. At the end of one day, she took the time to bless us with a special, sacred ceremony, using a bundle of burning sagebrush, herbs and plants.
You would think that she had lived this way connected to her land and customs her entire life, but this was not the case. Suzanne told me it was never her intention to be “on country,” as she put it. She was going to make a living cutting and styling hair. But her ancestors had other ideas. The shift that changed the trajectory of her life occurred as she developed the practice of dadirri or deep listening. This is a time of inner and external stillness, a time to cultivate awareness, sit on the ground, observe the flora and fauna, and listen for ancient stories and wisdom. Suzanne heeded the call to return and is now convinced that to understand ourselves fully we need to both practice deep listening and return to the land of our ancestors.
Now that Suzanne has done both, she has new responsibilities as the custodian of her ancestral land. She told me of plans to create a garden alongside the singular home at Gracevale and of her desire to establish a learning center and build lodging for archeologists and others who want to explore and preserve the beauty and history of the place. She sees great potential for living in harmony with the land and helping others do the same.
Unfortunately, she is facing off with local civic officials who want to build a man-made lake for a jet ski park in a nearby town. A more wrong-headed proposition would be hard to find in such an arid part of the world. Suzanne is unabashedly opposed and is mobilizing others in her town to fight this. Dadirri doesn’t simply reconnect us to the land, flora, fauna and community, it is a starting point, a launching pad for purposeful action.
FRESH SEAFOOD AND A SPIRIT OF GENEROSITY
Leweena Williams was the first Aboriginal woman I met. Those indigenous to Australia currently make up less than 5 percent of the Australian population. A bit of history can explain what happened. In the 1700s, the English sent explorers to find a land where they could set up a penal colony.
When Captain James Cook arrived in Botany Bay in 1770, he declared Australia Terra Nullius. This was a bold statement which in Latin means “no one occupies this land.” This was far from the truth, of course. It is estimated that seven hundred fifty thousand Aboriginal people inhabited the island continent at that time, representing at least four hundred different nations.
Captain Cook and those who came to colonize weren’t blind, but it’s as if they were. They declared Australia Terra Nullius because they didn’t consider the Aboriginal or First Nation people to be actual people. Rather they were looked upon as “illiterate natives,” which justified to the colonists their lack of respect for the Aboriginal culture, language and humanity. What followed reads like a U.S. history book. First Nation people were massacred, purposely infected with diseases, removed from their land and separated from their children. They were oppressed and their language, food and customs suffered as a result.
I dove right into this complicated history and current situation when I decided to retrace the footsteps of Dr. Weston Price. This is one reason it was more difficult than I expected to connect with Aboriginal people.
Leweena is of the Bundjalung Nation. I met her in Tweed Shire New South Wales, just outside a Tweed Shire regional cultural museum. She welcomed me with a broad smile. Her broad smile was proof positive that she grew up eating a traditional diet. She confirmed that indeed she was raised on the food that her ancestors ate, including a lot of seafood.
She recounted stories of being woken up by her grandmother at three in the morning to go out to catch the mackerel that were in season. The family would go out to the bay, along with some of the strong fisherwomen that Leweena so admired. Many were over ninety years of age, yet were still able to row boats out to the ocean for the catch.
Those who weren’t able to participate in the harvesting of the fish would still get their share, Leweena explained. Her clan had a culture of sharing their catch—whether it was mackerel or “pippies” (cockles)—with the infirm and the elderly. Dr. Price noted this generosity of spirit in his book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. He remarked that the Aboriginal people “. . . had fulfilled the great motivating principle of their religion, which is that life consists in serving others as one would wish to be served.”
Leweena took time by the water to teach me the “pippie” twist. She and her family would search for the cockles by twisting on the sand until their feet would go deep below the surface. If their toes touched a hard shell, they knew they had succeeded in finding one.
Being raised on such a quantity of seafood had clearly served Leweena well, as Dr. Price had observed so many years before. Of the Aboriginals he wrote, “In their native life, where they could get the foods that keep them well; they had no need for dentists.”
I asked Leweena about her diet and whether she had ever eaten fast food. She tried McDonald’s food for the first time at age seventeen. She didn’t like it. She thought it tasted “plastic-y.”
But she also admitted that it isn’t easy today to eat the way she ate growing up. Life is fast-paced and Westernized foods and trends are creeping into her town. She expressed the feeling that she and her son have a foot in both worlds—that of her ancestors and the world of today. But in a spirit of generosity that her people are known for, she is working hard as part of a team of elders in her community to preserve the wisdom of her people and impart it to the younger generation.
DISCONNECT AND PERSPECTIVE
Dr. Price reported that the indigenous people in Australia knew that their own food would keep them well, but they were forced to eat the food from the government. The result? Sickness, of course, and the physical degeneration that Dr. Price so carefully documented. On top of that there was a depressed spirit exhibited in a loss of optimism and hope.
Maningrida epitomizes what Dr. Price witnessed so long ago. Maningrida is an intentional Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory, Arnhem Land. It was established after World War II to encourage Aboriginals to live there, a trading post village of sorts, designed to help make the Aboriginals less dependent on welfare.
I can’t speak to its success, in terms of economics, health or happiness, as I was there for only one day. But I can speak of my experience and the perspective I gained from it.
When I first arrived, on a small propeller plane, I felt as though I had been plopped down in the middle of a completely different world. It was like Mars—dry, desolate and apparently unpopulated. A worker at the airport (which was simply an airstrip) pointed out the nearby museum and cultural art center. When I entered the single room, it quickly became evident to me that my presence was unwanted.
Out of respect for the people in the town, I do not want to go into great detail about what I encountered on this day. I will say this. The permission I was granted to visit Maningrida was conditional. I was not allowed to visit most areas or interact with the people to a large extent. I found this appropriate. I got the sense that this was set up to protect the people living in this community from objectification or exploitation.
I did find the center of town, which consisted of a community center, a grocery store and the “Hasty Tasty” (a convenience store, not unlike a Seven Eleven). I picked out some warmed-over fish and chips and made my way to the register. When I fumbled around with my coins trying to figure out the correct change, the clerk said to me, “First time in Australia?” “Yes,” I replied. “Why didn’t you go someplace nice?” she inquired sincerely.
Right next to the Hasty Tasty was a grocery store. The displacing foods of modern commerce lined the shelves: canned and boxed processed foods, industrial seed oils and sugary drinks galore.
The people whom Price met in this part of the world were at one time “happy, contented people” with “nearly perfect bodies” who exhibited a great measure of “peace and health.” My interactions with the people on this day led to me believe that this was not the fortune of those in this community.
I was grateful for my day in Maningrida though because I felt like an outcast—a person overlooked and disregarded. And it came to me that this was but a small taste of what the Aboriginal people have experienced in their own land.
Some call the Aboriginal people the “original” people because the “ab” prefix connotes something outside the norm. Would that we all could be the “happy, contented people” with “nearly perfect bodies” as the original people were at one time.
To achieve this for any of us will require a shift to reconnect with the wisdom of the past: the antidote to physical and emotional degeneration. For this reason, I am sincerely grateful to Dr. Weston A. Price for his work that sheds light on this path for health and happiness. And I am also indebted to the Foundation established in his name for continuing his work, lifting up the wisdom of ancient ancestral health practices.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2019