Video by Malcom McKinnon
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Bruce Baxter is an Aboriginal man of Wiradjuri descent, living near Swan Hill in northern Victoria.
For many years Bruce has performed smoking ceremonies intended to cleanse the spirit of people and places. Here, Bruce tells how he came to be a “keeper of the smoke” and explains why he performs these ceremonies.
BRUCE BAXTER: I grew up on the riverbank near Robinvale. And everything we did was around the campfire. And anyone in the camp would come and cook their meal on that fire.
My role was to keep camp clean. Like leaves and that lying around, I would have to make a broom and clean the whole area.
But this mother came back to the camp. Wasn't taking any notice of anything, just started sweeping and whistling. Then all of a sudden, my nan rushed out of the old shack, grabbed my broom, and beat me with it. Then my parents come home. And my grandmother said to my uncle and my dad, "Boys, make me green fire."
So I'm walking around rubbing all the sore spots, trying to get some sympathy. Never got any. My dad had a little fire going like this. My uncle come out with a big hunk of leaves, big armful, and put it on the fire. Big smoke. My nana come out of the house, put me in the chaff bag, and hung me over the smoke for about 15 to 20 minutes. I think I come out of the bag looking the color of rainbow, coughing and spluttering.
And it wasn't until three months later that we were sitting around the campfire at night yarning. My nana, sitting on her old chair, called me over. "Come here, boy." I said, "What, Nana?" "Climb up on my lap." She said, "You remember when I smoked you?" I said, "Yeah. Never forgotten it, Nana."
She said, "Do you know why I did it?" I said, "No, Nana, I don't." She said, "What was you doing?" I said, "I was sweeping and I was whistling." She said, "But did you look where the sun was?" I said, "No, Nana." She said, "That sun was just starting to set. And you were sweeping and whistling."
And her belief was that I was sweeping away the good spirit from the camp, and with my whistling, whistling in the bad spirit.
Ever since then, my Nana said to me, "Your job in your life is the keeper of the smoke."
Grab the smoke and bring it here.
It's a spiritual cleansing of the smoke. Everything the smoke touches cleanses. I noticed that a few of those this morning were walking up and doing that. But you got to walk into the smoke and let it go all over you. It cleanses your body.
Smoking ceremonies have been happening for thousands of years, like the story of Captain Cook when he landed. He called the land terra nullius, "land belonging to no one." But at night, he seen all thse fires. No one lives here. We had those fires back.