Nick Tree

Aug 28 · 4 min read

Custodian of indigenous Australian song line law custom and plant knowledge. Nick Tree has worked for over 20 years with a number of Australian indigenous tribes archiving and preserving sacred lore, songlines and medical knowledge.

I grew up in Sydney and to be honest I didn’t get any exposure at school in general to any kind of sense of Aboriginal culture beyond a few depictions in films.

I then went to uni where I did a psychology degree and that got me concerned at the time with the increasing prescription of SSRIs which are a class of an antidepressants. I was concerned about the role of pharma companies and their patenting regimes in prescribing these often previously unknown compounds which are linked with suicide and all sorts of other side effects, essentially they are mental straight jackets and treatments.

So I became interested in possible plant based antidepressants. This led me to start searching the Australian flora. I was helped by a friend who was a young chemistry PhD student. We discovered a number of potentially interesting compounds in plants. I started to put out a little bit about these plants to the wider world and I was quite literally intercepted within a very short time by custodians from northern New South Wales.

A friend of a friend brought a representative from the local indigenous matriarchal tribe, which was Bundjalung, to my house. I was really looking forward to meeting him because I hadn’t had much contact with indigenous culture let alone relatively intact indigenous culture. He walked onto my veranda, he took one look at the plants, looked shocked, said “this is a medicine place” and properly ran away. I was a bit upset at the time. I didn’t know what to make of that.

Then quite a few hours later I was sitting in my studio, I was working on some music, it was about midnight, I had the door open. In walked three ‘black fellas’ as they’re affectionately known. They just took one look at me and I knew I was going for a ride. And that was it. Off I was taken in a car to meet the last fully initiated man in the tribe, the senior law man. They then insisted that they train me the ‘proper’ way — that any kinds of medicinal plants need to be handled with not just respect, and respect for the environment, but under the law.

Of protocols as to the ethics of the person and the ways that these plants are given to people, law also refers to the natural law, the natural environment, and understanding of how all life forms work together in symbiosis.

Which brings us to the essential core Bundjalung law which is that they don’t have ten commandments, they simply have three, which are share, care and always tell the truth. The last one being considered the most important, even more serious than murder. I started to meditate on those three laws over the years and if meditated on fully, if everybody behaved according to the full implications of those laws, we would have a much more peaceful and balanced planet. Without the war and destruction of environment that we have today. I believe they are very wise laws.

There are actually over 600 tribes and languages in Oz and 3 different language groups. They don’t consider themselves to be a single race — they consider there to be somewhere between 3 and 5 races.

In general in the matrilineal traditions it means your tribal identity, who you are, what your law is, is determined by who your mother is. It also means that the highest authority is the most senior woman or women in the tribe. They make the final decisions on law, when there’s been a very serious case and there needs to be a serious application of discipline of law (which would be carried out by men), say rape or murder. So in general in Australia you have the East Coast from Victoria up to about half way through Queensland and inland as far as the great dividing range and then the Northern territories and the Kimberley which is the northern part of Australia and also one little tip of Western Australia — they are the matrilineal tribes.

The desert, the inland, the dry country, Uluru and so on, that’s the patrilineal tradition. There are slight cultural differences there. I’m trained in matrilineal law. It’s like two different constitutions if you like. There are many subtle differences between the two — certainly you notice in matrilineal how the people walking around issuing orders are the old women. No one argues. A 60 year old man wouldn’t argue. In the desert it tends to be big law men so patrilineal is more leaning towards that concept of father figure. Spiritually in the matrilineal areas the ultimate deity if you like is the mother, the grandmother.


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