Editor’s Note
June 2013
Coming Home
Paintings on an Aboriginal log coffin represent the identity of the deceased.
Photo: Amy Toensing

To an Aboriginal Australian, homeland is not just where you are born. It is where you will die and be buried. It is the center of gravity, heart and soul, beginning and end. To be in control of homeland is to be in control of one’s life. But European settlement took control away. Aboriginal history is a litany of dispossession. Still, the relationship with the land endured. Aboriginals are spiritual survivors.

So how does an outsider enter a world apart? For Amy Toensing, who photographed “First Australians,” the answer often lay in sitting and waiting. She learned to value the moments between pictures. Planning was useless in a world where clocks are irrelevant. What did matter was relationships—getting to know someone who had a cousin who had a friend willing to help. Like a tree that branches out and flowers, connections and relationships combined to allow Amy access to Aboriginal communities in Arnhem Land. She witnessed the burial of the remains of three Aboriginals taken during a 1948 scientific expedition and repatriated to their homeland by the Smithsonian Institution. Photographing remains is forbidden. But the elders wanted a record of a rite not performed in 35 years. They asked her to document the burial of the ancestral bones; at their request, the pictures will never be published. “I was giving back,” Amy says. “Someday maybe it will help other communities to perform the ceremony and carry on the tradition.”

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