Alec Doomadgee’s ascension to the Lakota Sun Dance ceremony
Alec Doomadgee arrived in the United States with no contacts and little money. He was following a vision, a sense he’d had 13 years earlier that he would walk with the native people of the Americas. He was told to search for Charles Robinson, a Choctaw. But Robinson would only correspond in Facebook messages, occasional and cryptic. “They talk in riddles, you know – ‘Hopi, they are the oldest Nation among us. So you must go to them first.’ And that was it.”
Following his gut, Alec made his way across America to meet with the Hopi. Then another message, to be at Pine Ridge reservation, a thousand miles north, by June 27. Alec headed to the poverty-struck place made notorious by an armed standoff between the American Indian Movement and the FBI in 1973.
The Pine Ridge locals were initially dismissive of the stranger. “I mean, who goes to the res in a hired Fiat Micro – even the kids were laughing at me!” They tested Alec, talking only in Lakota. He spoke back, unflinching, in Waanyi/Garawa. Finally, he was shown a remote dirt road and told to drive to its end.
Alec drove, fearing attack, until he came to a derelict house ringed with dead cars. He stopped. An elderly Lakota opened the door. “I’ve been waiting for you,” the elder told him, beaming. “The medicine man is waiting, too.”
On that first visit, Alec was not only welcomed but was invited to take part in the legendary Sun Dance ceremony. No, his Doomadgee elders instructed. Wait. But this year, he was deemed ready.
“Back home, we also utilise pain and sleep deprivation and hunger to go to another place. The Sun Dance is at the same level. There are four days of purification beforehand, because you’ve got to be leading your life in a certain way. No drugs. No alcohol. If you haven’t been living clean, it’s dangerous: the Sun Dance will hurt you physically, mentally and spiritually. Traditionally you dance nonstop from sun-up to sundown, fasting, for four days. Nowadays, people do eat a little at night. I did the first 24 hours with no food or water, to show full respect and honour for both my First Nations families. Every time I felt a bit weak I’d look up to the sky and I’d see my old people. My grandparents, my father. My mother.”
The elder who had been waiting was 80-year-old Mary Sue Walking Eagle. Alec is now her misun, “little brother”. She is his “womb in this place”.
Alec was nine when his Uncle Clarence became the last Aboriginal man to be publicly flogged by the missionary in his Queensland home town. The year was 1984.
Alec could have grown up in northern feudalism too, but his grandfather, decades earlier, had preferred the risk of being shot dead by white cattlemen out bush. Alec’s parents went on to fight for and win their freehold title during the Whitlam era. As a result, Alec grew up barefoot and free on his traditional Gulf Country homelands, far from any town.
“Well, I was a light-skin boy, see,” he explains, pushing a battered black Akubra back over his shaven head. “We only went to Doomadgee for supplies every four months. Mostly Mum was too scared to take me along, in case the missionaries grabbed me. So I grew up proper bush way. We had nothing – but we had everything.”
Alec couldn’t read when he “came in” to town at 13. But he knew his country viscerally, and was initiated in his law. “I’d learnt the really important thing – not just how to live as an Aboriginal person, or even just as a Waanyi or Garawa or Gungalidda person, but how to exist as a human being.”
Alec came to Doomadgee in 1989 a whole, educated person. At puberty, he began, rather than left, formal schooling. He was hungry to learn. “I always say to people I had four years’ white-man school. But it was plenty – I soaked everything up.”
Alec left school at 16 to support the first of his five children. By 1994 he’d made his way to James Cook University, always working, always feeding his kids. A degree in communications followed, and a career in black community radio: first Townsville, then a seven-year stint in Brisbane, followed by positions at Redfern’s Gadigal Information Service and finally the Opera House.
I ask him how a barefoot kid from faraway Doomadgee came to be a Sun Dancer on the other side of the world. He shakes his head. “I’m still asking that myself. But it was my vision to fulfil... White people might say, ‘Oh, what’s in a dance?’ But all of life is a dance. Everything is in it, you know. The whole universe. The answers are all there.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 29, 2015 as "Universal dance". Subscribe here.