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Spear: the story of an Indigenous heritage

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Djali wants to understand what it means to be a man. His journey begins in Arnhem Land and takes him to Sydney. Djali’s search for meaning exposes him to the troubled stories of other Indigenous Australian men. He witnesses the indignities and hardships they face as they negotiate life in a contemporary society that ignores their needs. Djali’s challenge is to navigate his way to a state of being that will nourish rather than destroy him.1

This is the synopsis of the film Spear (2015) directed by Stephen Page, mostly known for being the artistic director of the Australian Aboriginal dance company Bangarra Dance Theatre. The film expands a dance work, also called Spear, performed in 2000. Spear, and Bangarra more generally, addresses important themes like identity and belonging. At the core of their performances is traditional culture, its influence on and reception by the contemporary world.2 According to Page, “the company […] is forged from over 40,000 years of culture, infused with contemporary identities”.3  This essential relationship between past and present is truly an interaction for Bangarra and Page as they are constantly rethinking their heritage. It can be argued that more than just re-enacting the past, Bangarra is “creatively re-appropriating” their Indigenous Australian and Torres Strait Islander culture.4
This link between past and present is central to the understanding of Indigenous culture. The Indigenous past has been marked by colonial violence, dispossession of land, destruction of languages, violation of traditions and cultures. Because Aboriginal people were considered by Europeans as being at a lower stage of evolution (for example because of their way of life as hunters-gatherers), it was assumed that their traditions and culture would fade away and disappear with time. Imposing Christianity was regarded as an apt substitution. Another dark chapter in the History of Indigenous people is that of the Stolen Generations: until the 1970s, children of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent were forcibly removed from their families to be raised in institutions or to live with white families, sometimes as servants or labourers. The effect on Indigenous people is ongoing.5 Stephen Page himself is the product of this History. He grew up in a town where his family refrained from speaking their language or from talking about their identity and culture as a result of past repression and fear. This was the time when Aboriginals only just got citizenship after years of activism and campaign for equal rights.6 Page has been able to reconnect with his heritage through dance and acting, and by visiting Northern Territory communities that have accepted him as part of their communities.7 Being of Indigenous descent and performing his/her culture are two different things in contemporary Australia. For most Indigenous Australians, embodying their identity entails reconnecting with certain traditions in order to be able to re-appropriate their own culture, beyond the obvious trauma left by the colonial past.

On Indigenous Heritage

According to official texts published by the Australian Government, the umbrella term ‘Indigenous heritage’ is related to notions linked with the environment. In the Australian context, Indigenous heritage can be defined as being “of continuing significance, creating and maintaining continuous links with the people and the land”.8 The links between Indigenous people and rights on their territories has been growing through time with, for example, the Native Title Act signed in 1993 which permits Indigenous Australians to claim back, regain power and recuperate full access to and ownership of their ancestral land. As exemplified by official documentation produced by the Australian Government, this heritage is therefore closely linked with political discussions over land and is related to “places associated with Dreaming stories; places that are associated with their spirituality; places where other cultures came into contact with Indigenous people; places that are significant for more contemporary use”.9 All these denominations bring out the notion of place, which seems very Western – we may wonder if this captures the whole process of heritage in its broader spectrum. From where does the concept of Indigenous heritage originate? As mentioned in the introduction, the notion of Indigenous heritage has been built mainly through the colonial idea that the ‘newly discovered savages’ would disappear, or at least their outdated practices would disappear. As a result of this vision, Indigenous Australians were considered as not relevant, which resulted in the Australian colonial heritage becoming the “heritage primacy”.10 This meant that colonial architecture, public monuments, and all the constructions built under colonial times were regarded as being worthy of attention and care, while Indigenous heritage was disregarded and discarded.

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Australian aboriginal dancers during the opening ceremony of the 2000 summer Sydney Olympics, 15 September 2000. Source : CTV News © Ryan Remiorz

From a European point of view, the epitome of Australian heritage is likely to be Sydney Opera House – its Indigenous counterpart being the famous red rock of Uluru. Sydney Opera House was opened in 1973 and is one of the most famous buildings of the 20th century. It has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. So has Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Uluru has been a major site for Dreaming and Songlines for thousands of generations. It is interesting to consider how Sydney Opera House, Australia’s iconic building, was used as part of the 2000 Olympics celebration as a location and an opportunity to demonstrate reconciliation to the first inhabitants of the land and to the world. Indigenous choreographer Stephen Page was the one in charge of the ceremony at the front of the Opera House. It was also Page who choreographed ‘The Awakening’ ceremony at the Olympics stadium for the occasion, thus creating an Indigenous performance which exhibited the continuing living culture of Indigenous Australians which Australia, as a nation, was keen to advertise as part of its identity – an identity that had been denied since colonisation until the 1960s.11


Bangarra Dance Theatre Company during the 2000 summer Olympic Games in Sydney.
Source : Bangarra Dance Theatre.

This visibility and recognition was indeed given to Indigenous people and displayed to millions of people in the world on this specific occasion. Introducing a different perspective, Larson and Park have argued that it was not unique to Australia to have wanted to display traditional culture. Indeed, “Olympic ceremonies are designed to highlight nationalistic symbolism, so much so that the pursuit of national pride and national prestige through Olympic success has become a hallmark of the modern Games.”12 In so doing, countries such as Australia have kept on expanding the national identity of their countries as an element of pride where in fact, a true process of deconstruction of colonialism should have happened. In a similar way, taking the example of Uluru, Australia has used the site as a traditional landmark to claim national identity which is, according to White, nothing more than an “invention”, “an idea [that] we carry around in our heads”.13

Intangible Heritage


Traditional dances performed by Aboriginal women near Uluru for the 30th anniversary celebration of the rock land to be given back to Indigenous communities.

For Indigenous Australians, Uluru is more than just a landmark. It is a place of storytelling and collective memory. It is a place where oral history is at the centre of every ceremony which re-enacts the acts of their ancestors, reactivates and keeps alive their traditions and beliefs. It is precisely for all these places which are more than just a dot on a map that UNESCO acknowledged the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage on the seventeenth of October 2003. This Convention has brought a fresh look on what heritage is and means. While heritage can involve places and objects, the main focus of the Convention is on intangible heritage: oral traditions and expressions, performing arts, social practices, knowledge and practices regarding nature and the universe, and traditional craftsmanship.14 The Convention acted because of the “threat of deterioration, disappearance and destruction of intangible culture”.15 In order to prevent deterioration, disappearance and destruction, the Convention proclaimed that the endangered practices were Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in order to record these practices and provide means and actions to preserve them.
Depending on the point of view, heritage can encompass many aspects and fields. According to Roy Jones and Brian J. Shaw, it can be divided topically, ethnically, perceptually and by scale. So far, we have discussed several aspects which are topical as we have mainly dealt with cultural heritage. By trying to assess Indigenous heritage, we have also discussed ethnic aspects. Approaching the perceptual aspect is leading us to explore tangible and intangible heritage. With her Uses of Heritage, Laurajane Smith helps us to find the keys to understand the terms ‘Indigenous heritage’. In the first lines of her book, Smith denies the existence of heritage as a thing. For her, it is a process or work – ‘heritage work’ as she puts it.17 Smith’s main theory lies in the understanding of the notion of heritage as a “cultural and social process which engages with acts of remembering that work to create ways to understand and engage with the present.”18 It is “an act of making meaning in and for the present”.19
As an example, Smith uses the notion of the heirloom to understand the agencies around the concept of heritage. The heirloom can be any kind of artefact, as long as it is material. The heirloom is the presence, the proof of the existence and veracity of someone’s story. Where the material is the physical aspect of what heritage can be, its essence lies in the agencies around it. Indeed, oral storytelling will be accompanying this heirloom, which is just a way to intercede and create an occasion to disperse the story – it is an aide mémoire.20 According to Smith, the actual heritage then lies in the immaterial. Even if the heirloom gets lost, the story is not going to disappear with it. But more than just being a process of transmission, heritage is also about experience and about the recipient.21 While the person who is transferring heritage needs to remember in order to translate the story, the recipient needs to be active and pay attention to what he/she is being transmitted. The whole process of transmission of heritage can therefore be considered as a performance per se.22  Furthermore, Smith clearly explains that heritage is not something material that can be located on a map, but it has to do with a “sense of place”.23  Heritage allows people to understand their cultural and social place within a community in order to be used as a “cultural tool [to] express, facilitate and construct a sense of identity, self and belonging”.24  Through this definition, the ethnical categorization of heritage seems not to be valid since heritage is, by definition, a way to reconnect past and present through the performance of transition agencies, whether it happens in an Indigenous context or not. Therefore, according to Smith, even though we tend to associate heritage with the tangible it is in reality the agencies linked to what we consider heritage – the intangible – which is the real heritage.

On Spear

As explained in the film’s synopsis, Spear is a place where the audience witnesses Djali, the protagonist change as a result of the discrepancies between traditional and contemporary issues as he is travelling through country and meeting with different characters. In his journey, Djali is confronted to Suicide Man, Big Man, Dingo Man, Androgynous Man, Alcohol Man, Prison Man, Abused Man, Old Man, Romeo, Old Lady, Earth Spirit, and Woman of Desire.

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Beginning of the film, ceremony. Source : Stephen Page, Spear, 2015.

The opening sequence of the film shows a contemporary traditional cleansing ceremony during which Djali is starting his initiation.25 In a traditional Northern Territory landscape, male dancers are surrounding Djali and the women are bringing the smoke and paintings. This scene is particularly relevant to the idea of heritage developed earlier. Indeed, Djali, a young man living in the city has got to rediscover his heritage – in a way that is possibly not unrelated to what young Stephen Page did. The character of Romeo, a representation of Djali’s indigeneity, appears in the distance. The process of initiation in itself is a performance in which elders are transferring knowledge, and of which dance, music and story telling are part and parcel. Indigeneity conferred through Dreamtime stories is enhanced by scenes with the Wedge-tailed Eagle, a character of the Dreamtime: a dancer is hanging from the ceiling covered in white ochre and leaves. The whole sequence and the dancer coated with traditional ochre and leaves convey and express Indigenous and ancestral knowledge. Through this initiation, Djali appears as the representation of a contemporary young man of Indigenous descent who is taking part in a performance through which his ancestors’ heritage is transferred to him.

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The Wedged-tailed Eage. Source : Stephen Page, Spear, 2015.

      To highlight how traditional and contemporary aspects of Djali’s life are intertwined, contemporary sequences alternate with more traditional environments. Encounters are numerous, and they all teach different aspects of what it means to be Indigenous in contemporary Australia. In several sequences, Djali intercedes with Old Man who personifies the elder. Through observation and performance, Djali learns how wise the elder is. However, most of the sequences of great complicity between Djali and Old Man happen in an urban jungle. An exchange of knowledge happens between the two men, Djali assuming the role of the elder in order to share some of Old Man’s heritage.

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« Mon boomerang ne reviendra pas » (« My Boomerang Won’t Come Back »). Source : Stephen Page, Spear, 2015.

In another scene, as Old Man and Djali both enter a community hall, the song ‘My Boomerang Won’t Come Back’ resonates26 while in the background a ‘Welcome to Country’ banner can be seen. All the dancers are performing on the British song, and Old Man and Djali end up joining them:

My boomerang won’t come back
My boomerang won’t come back
I’ve waved the thing all over the place
Practised till I was black in the face
I’m a big disgrace to the Aborigene race
My Boomerang won’t come back.27

      The ‘Welcome to Country’ banner and the racist words of the song jar and create obvious irony. In this sequence, irony is clearly used as the expression of an indictment of the British colonial heritage and its contemporary offshoots. Djali and Old Man dance and move through it as a metaphor for all Indigenous Australians who want to live with their traditions, within a colonised world mocking and looking down on Indigenous communities, culture and beliefs.

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The end of Djali's initiation alongside is spiritual self, Romeo. Source : Stephen Page, Spear, 2015.

The setting of the film is mostly the contemporary world. Most of the key Indigenous encounters happens towards the end of the film, at a moment when Djali finally connects with his Indigenous heritage. Indeed, after witnessing the suicide of Suicide Man, he is feeling a great sense of loss and regret. This moment is the rupture in the story when Djali manages to fully reconnect with his ancestors. Djali becomes the centre of one last major ceremony where all the characters intercede, almost as the final act of Djali’s initiation before it is finally completed. In this sequence, Earth Spirit, the source of tradition, brings Romeo and Djali together: the initiation is consumed.28 As a proof of Djali’s completed initiation, he becomes the Wedge-tailed Eagle covered in white ochre.

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Djali has now become the Wedged-tailed Eagle. Source : Stephen Page, Spear, 2015.

All the different stories told and danced in the film are bridging the divide between one young contemporary Indigenous Australian and his traditional heritage. The key element that makes the whole process and show come together is dance and body actions. Jessica Cassita defines dance as a “primary medium for passing down stories that have been accumulating for the past 40,000 years.”29 When Page talks about dance as “the mother element, the form”30, we can take it further and say that dance is the central element of the heritage agency: with time, space and energy, dance, like words, creates the dialogue that conveys the message, and with it, thousands of years of history.

If we consider Spear as acting for heritage, the film, as artefact, is the element through which meaning is made in and for the present, the process which testifies that a transition has happened. Often considered as pagan in colonial times31, dance is the means by which Bangarra Dance Theatre and Stephen Page are transmitting their heritage to young ‘lost’ Indigenous people such as Djali, but also to western communities, as a way to shed light on and explain what the nature and the significance of Indigenous Australian heritage. Transmission is at the centre of Bangarra Dance Theatre. Page and his company engage in “rekindling”32 Indigenous traditions through workshops with dancers of the company. The kind of dance developed by Stephen Page is definitely contemporary, but it is the Indigenous inclusion that makes it a truly unique performance. By combining contemporary and traditional worlds, Stephen Page allows any kind of audience to engage with Indigenous heritage. The agencies of heritage are multifaceted and are everything but material: Indigenous heritage does not lie in museum’s heirlooms, but in traditional and contemporary performances like Spear.

Clémentine Débrosse

Image à la une : Poster du film Spear, Stephen Page, 2015. Source :

1 Marriner 2016, p. 3.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid, p. 4.

4 Glowszewski and De Largy Healy quoted in Nyssen 2018, p. 13.

5 De nombreux enfants sont toujours à la recherche de leur famille. Le 13 février 2008, le premier ministre australien Kevin Rudd a demandé pardon au peuple indigène d’Australie au nom de la nation pour l’enlèvement des enfants. //
Many children are still looking for their parents. On 13 February 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued a formal apology for the removal of children to Australia’s Indigenous people in the name of the nation.

6 À la suite d’un référendum et d’un changement de la Constitution, ce n’est qu’en 1967 que les Aborigènes d’Australie et du détroit de Torrès ont été légalement considérés comme citoyens australiens. //
It is only in 1967 that Indigenous and Torres Strait Islanders were granted citizenship after a referendum and a change in the Constitution.

7 Gough Henly 2004, p. N/A.

8 Anon. ‘Indigenous Heritage’, Australian Government.

9 Ibid.

10 Lowenthal cited in Price 2017, p. 70.

11 Il est important de mentionner qu’en 2000, le premier ministre John Howard refusait toujours de présenter ses excuses au nom de la nation pour la façon dont les Australiens indigènes avaient été traités au cours de la période coloniale. Au cours de la cérémonie de clôture de ces jeux olympiques, le groupe de rock australien Midnight Oil est apparu sur scène avec des vêtements noirs sur lesquels se détachait le mot ‘PARDON’ en lettres blanches, pour protester contre le refus de Howard de présenter ses excuses. Ils ont interprété leur chanson connue ‘Beds Are Burning’.//
It is worth mentioning that in 2000, Prime Minister John Howard was still refusing to apologise on behalf of the nation for the infamous treatment of Indigenous Australians during the colonial period. During th2000 Olympics’ closing ceremony in Sydney, Australian rock band Midnight Oil appeared on the stage unexpectedly dressed in black with the word ‘SORRY’ printed in white on their clothes, as a protest against Howard’s refusal to apologise. They sang their famous song ‘Beds Are Burning’.

12 Larson and Park cited in White 2013, p. 155.

13 White 2013, p. 155.

14 Anon. UNESCO.

15 Ibid.

16 Jones and Shaw 2007, p. 1.

17 Smith 2006, p. 2.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid.

20 Smith 2006, p. 46.

21 Smith 2006, p. 47.

22 Ibid.

23 Smith 2006, p. 75.

24 Ibid.

25 Marriner 2016, p. 8.

26 Ibid, pp. 13-15.

27 The song ‘My Boomerang Won’t Come back’ was created in 1962 and was a success in spite of being racist. It was eventually banned on ABC radio in 2015.

28 Speak EPK Assembly 2016, p. N/A.

29 Cassita 2002, p. N/A.

30 Speak EPK Assembly 2016, p. N/A.

31 Beaman 2018, p. XIX.

32 Bangarra a lancé un programme pour les jeunes (Rekindling Youth Program) en 2013. Son but est “de stimuler la fierté, les liens de parenté et le sentiment de force chez les jeunes Australiens aborigènes et du détroit de Torrès à travers une série de résidences de danse organisées pour des collégiens et des lycéens ». //
Bangarra launched the ‘Rekindling Youth Program’ in 2013. Its aim is “to inspire pride, kinship and a sense of strength in young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders through a series of dance residencies with secondary school-aged students.”

Site internet de Bangarra Dance Theatre :


  • Anon., N/A. ‘Indigenous Heritage’. In: Australian Government – Department of the Environment and Energy [], dernière consultation le 13 mai 2019.
  • Anon., 2003. ‘Text of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage’. In: United Nations Educations, Scientific and Cultural Organization – Intangible Cultural Heritage [], dernière consultation le 13 mai 2019.

  • BEAMAN, P., 2018. World Dance Cultures: From Ritual to Spectacle. Abingdon, Routledge.

  • CASSITY, J., 2002. ‘Ancient Australia Goes Modern’. Dance Spirit 6(1), p. 24.

  • FOLEY, F., 2006. The Arts of Politics, the Politics of Art : the Place of Indigenous Contemporary Arts. Southport, Keeaira Press.

  • GOUGH, H., 2004. ‘Aboriginal Dance in Step with Modernity’. The New York Times [], dernière consultation le 14 mai 2019.

  • GREER, S., 2010. ‘Heritage and Empowerment: Community-based Indigenous Cultural Heritage in Northern Australia’. International Journal of Heritage Studies 16(1-2), pp. 45-58.

  • HENDRY, J., 2005. Reclaiming Culture: Indigenous People and Self Representation. Houndsmills, Palgrave Macmillan.

  • JONES, D., 2008. ‘Dancing the Dawning’. Dance Magazine 82(11), pp. 52-53.

  • JONES, R. et SHAW, B. J., eds., 2007. Geographies of Australian Heritages – Loving a Sunburnt Country? Aldershot, Ashgate Publication Company.

  • KISSELGOFF, A., 2004. ‘When the World Was New: Stories from Dreamtime’. The New York Times [], dernière consultation le 14 mai 2019. 

  • MARRINER, K., 2016. Spear Study Guide. Melbourne, Australian Teachers of Media.

  • NYSSEN, G., 2018. ‘La danse contemporaine en Australie : des performances faiseuses d’images’. Paris, Ecole du Louvre, dossier de spécialité.

  • O’NEILL, M. E., 2018. ‘A Completely New Approach to Indigenous Cultural Heritage: Evaluating the Queensland Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act’. The International Indigenous Policy Journal 9(1), pp. 1-19.

  • PAGE, S., 2015. Spear. Australian Broadcasting Company.

  • PRICE, W. R., 2017. ‘Overcoming the Myth of Extinction: The Path Toward Heritage Rights for the Tasmanian Aboriginals’. Heritage and Society 10(1), pp. 68-90.

  • SMITH, L., 2006. Uses of Heritage. London, Routledge.

  • Speak EPK Assembly. 2016. “Spear EPK Screener for Stephen Page”. In: Vimeo [], dernière consultation le 12 avril 2019.

  • WHITE, L., 2013. ‘Cathy Freeman and Australia’s Indigenous Heritage: a New Beginning for an Old Nation at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games’. International Journal of Heritage Studies 19(2), pp. 153-170.

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