Aboriginal life: then and now

I recently commented on John Hirst’s compelling portrait “The distinctiveness of Australian Democracy”. I’ve since gone out and bought the book Sense and Nonsense in Australian History which is a very interesting read. Robert Manne, having been ejected from Quadrant seems to be taking a fair few of his former Quadrant colleagues to Black Inc where he is Series Editor.

Anyway, I thought I’d reproduce for Troppodillians the following passage from an excellent essay on Australian History and European Civilisation The essay contains some interesting and astute reflections on Manning Clark about which I’d like to post at greater length though it would be a substantial post and when will I get the time? In any event this extract does not relate to Clark.
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“Anyone with a thorough understanding of Aboriginal society would hesitate to draw lessons or models from it for our own. Its otherness is almost complete; we can admire but not copy. Understanding how different Aboriginal society was has been one of the great challenges of scholarship in this country. The first observers declared that Aborigines had no religion. Now we know how deeply religious they were and how far religion affected all of life – to such an extent that perhaps our term religion is not appropriate since it is one of the labels by which we distinguish different aspects of life which in AboriginaI society were all intimately interconnected. When the terms of life so different our language is strained to make adequate description. What makes W. E. Stanner, in my view, the best of the great anthropologists is that he recognised this problem and had the ability to overcome it. Listen: ‘The Dreaming is many things in one. Among them, a kind of narrative of things that once happened; a kind of charter of things that still happen; and a kind of logos or principle of order transcending everything significant for Aboriginal man.’ And when the resources of language are exhausted he invents a word: ‘One cannot fix The Dreaming in time: it was, and is everywhen.’ If I were asked to nominate the finest achievement of European civilisation in Australia I would point to the fifteen pages of Stanner’s essay ‘The Deaming’.

The work of the anthropologists after reaching such sophistication is now being censored. The Australian government has recently published a bowdlerised edition of the booklet Australian Aboriginal Culture which it has been issuing since the early 195os and which has sold over 100,00 copies. The first two editions were written by anthro-pologists; the most recent edition has been produced by a project co-ordinator. She and her associates have removed the section on ‘Fighting’. This was the first paragraph of that section; all knowledge of these matters is now being kept from the reader:

A strict system of punishment upheld the social and religious structure of Aboriginal society. Feuding occurred mainly between clans or local groups, but camp fights were a common event. Vendettas were carried on for years between clans and could result in many deaths. The main purpose of warfare was to avenge an insult or crime or to capture women, but not to take the land or other possessions of an enemy. The most serious crimes were murder, the stealing of women, incest and ritual offences.

The section on ‘Magic and Medicine’ has been renamed ‘Healing and instead of the difference of the Aboriginal worldview from our own being stressed, the concern is to find similarities. The first paragraph of the old edition read:

Supernatural forces were blamed for almost every mishap or disaster known to the Aboriginals. The only corrective measures possible were through magic and ritual.

The first paragraph of the new edition reads:

As in Western societies there are doctors who diagnose and treat the sick, so too in Aboriginal society there are men and women who perform these roles. These are the traditional healers.

The section on ‘Growing up’ in the new edition refers to spiritual initiation but omits references to circumcision, subincision, tooth evulsion and fire ordeals which were reported in the earlier editions.”

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Cameron Riley
15 years ago

Very interesting. Historical inquiry suffers when we stop calling a spade a spade. Too often narratives are written when a fact would suffice.

elsewhere
15 years ago

Interesting and reverent as this passage is, there is a feeling of ‘Aboriginal culture as a timepiece’ about it.

Yobbo
15 years ago

I don’t think you’re allowed to call them that any more, Cameron.

Kline
Kline
15 years ago

When you said, ‘the Australian government has recently published a bowdlerised edition of the booklet Australian Aboriginal Culture’, were referring to the 1989 edition, last reprinted in 1993?

Bryan
15 years ago

Can you give me the publication details for the recent government publication, Australian Aboriginal Culture?

Cameron Riley
15 years ago

Yobbo; It isnt about Aboriginals, it is about politics polluting empirical study and conclusions. That is not unique to one party.

Ken Parish
Admin
15 years ago

Well, I thought your comment was pretty funny anyway, Sam. In fact it was one of the few laughs I got in an otherwise tedious day.

Jason Soon
15 years ago

Agreed, though I could see that one coming it was pretty funny anyway …

Bryan
15 years ago

As far as I can tell the most recent publication of Australian Aboriginal Culture was 1989, last reprinted in 1993. So fundamentally you were talking about the Hawke government, and not the Keating nor Howard governments, when you said, “The Australian government has recently published …”.

It would have been nice to reprise for the reader that the quoted passage was more than 10 years old.

By the way, the first edition of Australian Aboriginal Culture was published in 1973, not the 1950s.

Lin
Lin
15 years ago

I’m always wary of commentors who talk about other civilisations who cannot speak the language of that civilisation. As the Maori, in New Zealand, point out; you just cannot understand the subtlty of the people if you don’t understand their language and understand its subtlty.

A serious problem that white Australains have is that so few have even a rudimentary knowledge of just one native language.

Yobbo
15 years ago

Glad to be of service, Ken ;)

jen
Admin
jen
15 years ago

‘Supernatural forces were blamed for almost every mishap or disaster known to the Aboriginals. The only corrective measures possible were through magic and ritual.’

Why would you want to rewrite that? I’d be taking it onboard!

Blaming external forces for anything bad that happens is a fine idea. ‘Not my fault. Not me.’

And blaming a non specific type of of cause means that no-one has to wear anything they are not prepared to wear. Very civilised. ‘Might be some……. ‘

Smilingly laughingly sophisticated.

Finding human error is boring and brutal by comparison.