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Australian aboriginal group travels to North America

By David Capriccioso -- Today correspondent

OKEMOS, Mich. - Nokomis Learning Center director Janis Fairbanks poked fun at a MySpace post that called Don Lyons ''the man, the myth, the legend.''

But the posting from the popular online community just might be right.

Lyons, a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Indians in Minnesota and graduate student at Michigan State University, traveled to Australia for a study abroad experience last year. Since that time, he has helped build an international relationship among American Indians in North America and aboriginal indigenous people from Australia and New Zealand.

Several members of the Australian group Traditional Knowledge Revival Pathways recently traveled to Michigan and Canada to learn about the culture and history of tribes in the area and leave part of their identity behind.

TKRP formed in 2001 due to the strong desire of Kuku Thaypan elders to preserve and record their community's traditional knowledge, beliefs and practices for current and future generations.

Victor Steffensen, a member of the traveling group, has been working diligently since at least 1991 to help research and record aboriginal history, much of which was damaged through colonialism in his homeland.

Steffensen, who started out with little funding and few resources, caught a break with new developments in technology. In recent years, technological advances have brought more affordable digital video equipment and computer equipment to many who would have never been able to purchase these expensive items in the past.

Such advancements have been an important asset in documenting the aboriginal history of Australia.

Another goal of the group is to identify with other indigenous people. Their journey to North America exemplifies this and helps expand TKRP's mission, which shares many of the same goals as tribal communities in the Western Hemisphere.

Above all else, perseverance may be the group's most solid identity.

''Adversity teaches me to be patient and to be stronger,'' said John Hunter, a TKRP member and artist. ''It's a strengthening process that empowers us.''

Despite this determination, the group did not force its journey to North America; nor did it foresee these events happening when the graduate student left to study abroad in Australia.

''We didn't go out of our way to push things together,'' Lyons explained. ''We let things naturally occur.''

While Lyons attributes the experience to natural events, he has put in countless hours to arrange details of their journey. He has also helped plan numerous activities for TKRP including speaking engagements at tribal communities and schools throughout the Great Lakes region.

TKRP attended the 2008 Indigenous Earth Day Summit at Northern Michigan University and shared its message at Bay Mills Community College and MSU. Elementary and middle school students also got a chance to learn about the group's journey and aboriginal culture.

The group also dined at a traditional community feast, attended a pipe ceremony and presented a film to communities in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

Additional plans call for the group to continue visiting tribal communities in Ontario and Michigan before Hunter and Steffensen, TKRP's last remaining representatives, return home May 15 after about five weeks in North America.

Due to time constraints, budget and family commitments, some members of the group did not stay for the entire journey.

TKRP members brought artwork and other information with them to share with these communities. Knowledge and items left behind, called ''breadcrumbs'' by the group, serve as important reminders of the similarities among Australian and North American indigenous peoples.

''By the time they head back, they'll just have the shirts on their back they came with and full stomachs,'' Lyons said.

While the travelers have a busy schedule, numerous groups have made sure their guests have been well-fed and taken care of. Several groups have offered lodging for TKRP and flights from Australia were purchased through grants, funding from educational institutions, donations from community members and some out-of-pocket expenses.

''We've had some fantastic hospitality,'' said Brad Lewis, a TKRP member.

The group also discussed a cultural painting at a recent meeting at an American Indian cultural learning center in Okemos. They explained how the painting represented indigenous people throughout the world. TKRP hopes to travel to other global indigenous communities to continue adding to the painting.

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