In the early morning of March 2 a smoking ceremony took place on Palm Island, north Queensland, to release the spirit of Mulrunji, who died last November in police custody. The sky was overcast and cockatoos screeched overhead as Mulrunji’s cousin, the activist Murrandoo Yanner, covered the arms of close friends and family with red ochre symbolising blood, to bind them with the spirit. The men in the group, including Mulrunji’s 14-year-old son Eric, took off their shirts. Then everyone walked around a bucket of coals and burning eucalyptus branches, before retracing his last steps.
That November morning, Mulrunji had been heard singing “Who Let the Dogs Out?” and was subsequently arrested by police for being drunk and disorderly. Now his family followed the path the paddy-wagon carrying him would have taken, leaving behind them a trail of smoke. The police station where he was briefly held was burnt down in the November 26 riots that erupted after his death, but the family walked through the cyclone wire gates that secure the site and into the new shelter that will serve as a temporary station. They paused briefly in the place where the cell had been in which Mulrunji died shortly after his arrest, having suffered four broken ribs and a ruptured liver and spleen.
“The whole purpose of the smoking ceremony,” Yanner says, “is where people have suicided, or been murdered, or died in an accident, violently, and a lot of things were left undone, unsaid. They didn’t know they were going on to the next life so their spirit’s extremely troubled. Then, it may linger. White people might say they haunt houses for the same reason. In our way, the spirit lingers and doesn’t go on to where it should go on to, to the next level, and the smoking ceremony allows the spirit, regardless of the issues, to go on to the better life, the afterlife, ginggari in our language, heaven for us Ganggalida people.”
The day before, in the island’s newly built Police Community Youth Centre, the coronial inquiry into Mulrunji’s death had ground to a halt. Lawyers for both his family and the police officer implicated in his death, Senior-Sergeant Chris Hurley, called for the coroner Michael Barnes to disqualify himself amid claims of bias. The family’s lawyers said that Barnes, at the Criminal Justice Commission, had overseen at least eight previous complaints against Hurley and always adjudicated in his favour; Hurley’s lawyers reckoned Barnes had shared a beer the night before with lawyers for the Palm Island community.
For most observers – about a hundred locals, 15 journalists and Mulrunji’s dog, who sat through the entire proceedings – it was distressing to see the various Aboriginal witnesses being examined and cross-examined. Before being questioned these Palm Islanders, many of whom are illiterate, were asked to read through and swear by their statements. They were then questioned in detail about the timing of events, although few people on the island wear watches. Often they were asked leading questions in complicated legalese and some people, confused or perhaps intimidated, tried to guess the correct answer. In a community where alcoholism is a major issue, many witnesses had apparently gone to great lengths to stay sober.
Verna Snyder, a thin, barefoot woman, broke down mid-testimony, overwhelmed perhaps at not being understood by any of the lawyers. The coroner decided Snyder’s evidence would be given less weight. Patrick Nugent, who had shared a cell with the dying man, retracted his statement – in which he claimed he’d seen Hurley punch and kick Mulrunji – and then retracted his retraction. This miscommunication continued until Nugent admitted he had been drinking and sniffing petrol on the morning in question. He was labelled a liar by the police lawyers. That evening he went home and tried to set himself alight.
Murrandoo Yanner thinks Nugent’s friends might have been responsible for making sure he attended the ceremony a day later. The ceremony is helpful for those who were the last to see the deceased alive. Apparently it can relieve a feeling of being haunted, and stop the dead from visiting the dreams of the living. “The smoke purifies, cleanses, and it’s a rebirth, it’s a genesis sort of,” says Yanner, “in that as the wood and timber is burning away, eroding, dying, a new thing is released far purer, far lighter, far more able to move freely, almost as free as the wind smoke is.”
As the group of mourners walked out of the temporary police station, it was clear some had been crying. Others made sure all the building’s doors were closed so that the walls could be properly rattled. Rattling involves applying red ochre in a continuous line around the area where the smoking ceremony has taken place. “Red,” says Yanner, “is the most sacred colour in our religion,” acting as a warning to passers-by to show respect or divert their paths “if they’re drunk, or happy, or laughing”.
Watching one of Mulrunji’s older sisters slowly wipe an ochre-soaked rag along the pristine station wall was very moving. Mulrunji’s family had hoped that after the riot a small garden might be planted on this site, which they believe will now be cursed. The line of red ochre on the new police building looks strikingly like blood and must not be washed off by anyone.
Yanner, an initiated man and clan leader from Burketown, to the west, says many Palm Islanders will not automatically grasp the ritual significance of the rattling. Even though Palm Island is the largest Aboriginal community in Queensland, this smoking ceremony is believed to be the first to have taken place here in at least 50 years. In decades gone by those people relocated to the island, which was considered by many to be a black penal settlement, were punished if they spoke their native languages or engaged in any traditional cultural practices. This smoking ceremony was therefore doubly significant because, as Yanner says, “it brought back a lot of memories of some who remembered seeing them as a kid”.
Auntie Agnes Wotton is a quiet community elder who seems an unlikely candidate to be facing riot charges. She was removed from her family and tribe as a young girl and sent to live in the Palm Island girls’ dormitory. During the ceremony, she says, she “nearly burst”. She and one of the other older women, Elizabeth Clay, say they realised how much tribal knowledge had been suppressed or taken away from them. Wotton says that at the smoking she felt her own spirit released – “released and joining with something powerful”. Mulrunji’s sister, Valmae, also broke down during the ceremony, picturing her brother in the cell. “I cried about it, but felt happy too in releasing him. Spirit was trapped, free now.”
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