Coconut Palms and Cultural Practice
Words by Melanie Groves
Torres Strait Islanders come from the islands separating the Australian mainland from New Guinea. There are now approximately 10,000 Torres Strait Islanders living in the Torres Strait region and another 53,700 living outside the region, particularly in coastal towns of Queensland. Until Eddie Mabo’s monumental legal battle in the 1990s, Torres Strait Islanders had a low profile in the consciousness of Australia. The Mabo verdict, however, changed the landscape of Australia when it legally recognised him and two others as the traditional owners of their land. Uncle Steve Mam, a Torres Strait Islander elder based in Brisbane has worked extensively with social scientists and social workers such as Paul Ban, to gain legal recognition of their family structures and customary adoption practices.
“Islander family culture and life”
Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican political leader and African ancestry rights activist once said, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” This saying is particularly significant to Torres Strait culture, as the Islanders strongly identify with the coconut palm tree as a metaphor for Islander family culture and life. Uncle Steve explains the intricacies of Islander culture. “Each part of the life of the coconut tree is a complex representation of how Islander culture works.”
The roots of a coconut tree represent the basis of existence for Torres Strait Islanders, their ancestry and history. The roots still affect their daily life and beliefs. Torres Strait Islanders depend on the ancestral roots as it represents their heritage and determines the rest of the tree and therefore the rest of their culture. Undermined or neglected roots endanger the rest of the tree, so history and traditional culture must be cared for.
The trunk of the tree is a conduit for the spiritual energy that passes between the branches and the roots. Tradition, embodied in the trunk, is strong and straight. The trunk also shows the principle of the union of male and female, husband and wife.
“Strong family relationships”
Strong family relationships, with clearly defined structures, are represented in the leaves of the coconut tree. As Uncle Steve explains, “Just as every leaf has a place and purpose on its branch, every person has their place and position within the family.”
The new shoots of the coconut tree are parallel to the birth process. The leaves shoot from the apex of the coconut tree, and fan out as the leaves mature. The relationship of the different sections of the tree must be strong – healthy roots and the flow of sap through the trunk will ensure that the leaves sprout without complications.
The first tier of leaves surrounding a new shoot represents the aunts and uncles of the siblings, those who will function as an external teacher, separate from their biological parents. The teachers are constantly alert to tend to the needs to the children, relating to physical, mental, emotional and spiritual skills. The elders are guardians of knowledge and culture, and are represented by the second tier of leaves. The elders are treated with great respect and their extensive knowledge of their culture is fed back into the community.
Coconuts represent the individual and the people. Coconuts are the end result of a complex process created by the coconut tree, transforming sap into a flesh and liquid creation that also bears the seed of new coconut trees.
Fulfilling the circle of life are the dead leaves of the coconut tree falling to the ground. The leaves are then absorbed into the soil, with nutrients going back into the roots and further assisting the growth of the tree. This represents the elderly who pass on from the physical world to join their ancestors in the spiritual world. The collective knowledge and wisdom of the grandparents and great grandparents is absorbed into the shared ancestral history in the roots of the tree. The process is holistic – the older generation is put to rest but they continue to benefit the younger generations and their continued culture and history.
The Torres Strait Islander metaphor for life shows us how all parts of their culture are connected, flowing together with each part having unique individual importance but also benefiting the rest of the community and contributing to their culture. Understanding this cultural basis helps us to understand a culturally different view of the world.
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