Sunday, 17 May 2015

The Philosophy of an Aboriginal Tribe

     One of the advantages of being a compulsive book buyer is that I tend to have a book available for every occasion. Thus, when I learned that on my visit to Alice Springs in 1997 I would have the chance to attend a demonstration of the customs of the Warlpiri tribe, I thought it was time I read the book I had purchased twenty years before: Desert People, a Study of the Walbiri Aborigines of Central Australia by M. J. Meggitt. Written in 1962, it had the added advantage of describing the tribe as it existed in the 1950s, before they had picked up the worst parts of our civilisation.
     "Alice Springs is not the homeland of the Warlpiris," explained our white guide. "Their territory extends from Yuendumu and Mt. Eclipse right up northwest to Hall's Creek in Western Australia."
     "So," I said, "they have further extended their range in the last fifty years."
     "What do you mean?" he asked.
     I then explained how Meggitt had recorded that, originally, they lived south of Winnecke Creek. Nevertheless, with the decline of other tribes, they managed to extend their range - at one stage by force, at another by ceremonial purchase - north to the headwaters of the Victoria River and southeast to Teatree. But by 1962, they still had not expanded to Hall's Creek.
     "Well, we were told they had always lived there," the white guide replied.
     Don't believe everything an Aborigine tells you, my man.
     However, before we go into specifics about the Warlpiris, I ought to clarify one misconception about Aboriginal culture. It is often claimed that we white people cannot possibly understand the Aborigine's bond to his land. This is not true. We have the same attitude, and we call it patriotism. However, Aboriginal and white Australian patriotism differ in two points.
     The first is that, we not only occupy the whole continent, but we also form a subset of British civilisation, itself a subset of European civilisation. Indeed, many of our most significant sites are not even in the country. The homeland of an Aboriginal tribe is much more circumscribed. It is as if Parliament House, the Opera House, Ayers Rock, Gallipoli, and Jerusalem, and a hundred of other sites were all crammed into an area the size of Sydney.
     Secondly, our "dreaming", the things which make us who we are, is based on historical events, which every member should have been taught in childhood, but all too often are not. For Aborigines, it is based on a mythology of creative spirits which roamed the land at the dawn of time, creating sacred sites, animals, and humans, and linking them all together.
     Another aspect of Aboriginal culture which seems strange to our ears is the kinship system. Officially, every member of the tribe is related to every other member, the precise manner determining their rights and duties. Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, whom my generation will remember as the star of Jedda, once said that the hardest thing to learn as a tribal Aborigine is where he or she fits into this system. Nevertheless, we also define relationships functionally. As an example, I could ask: who is your aunt ie what sort of person do you call your aunt? You might answer that she is the sister of your mother or your father's. However, she could also be the wife of your uncle, unrelated to you by blood. You call both of them "aunt" because your parent's sister and your uncle's wife both have the same duties and rights with respect to you. Likewise, your brother-in-law can be either your spouse's brother or your sister's husband, because both are required to fill the same position in your relationship network. Also, as the term implies, although neither is your real brother, both are your brothers "in law". Aborigines take this system to the extreme. Thus, your father's brothers are all called "father", and their sons are your "brothers". But even then, there are distinctions. In our own society a man can marry his uncle's widow, but not his parent's sister. Likewise, an Aborigine will distinguish between his "close" brother and a distant one ie a cousin, because every now and then their rights and responsibilities differ.
     Again, if we are going to allow Aborigines their specific patriotism, we must respect their tribal identity. It is easy enough for a white person to consider a Warlpiri - one of the wild men of the desert - and, for example, a Yolngu from Arnhem Land as both just "Aborigines". But how do you think an Englishman and a Russian would react if an Aborigine said, "Well, you're all just the same, anyway, aren't you?" Looked at objectively, from the point of view of race, language, and religion, not to mention level of culture, the English and Russians have far more in common with each other than with any Aborigine, but just the same . . . So, of course, a Warlpiri and a Yolngu are not the same. They don't speak the same language, perform the same ceremonies, have mystical links with the same geographic sites, even eat the same food. Even tribes living cheek by jowl recognize their own differences.
     As Meggitt explained, the Warlpiri recognized the social pecking order as the whitefellow on top, the yellowfellow (half-caste or Afghan) in the middle, and the blackfellow at the bottom. To which he added that, looked at dispassionately, this was a pretty accurate view, and it is important to understand that stereotypes are not necessarily incorrect. With regard to their attitude to other tribes:
When associating with Aborigines they work within a simpler frame of reference. "There are two kinds of blackfellows," they say, "we who are the Walbiri [an alternative spelling of the name] and those unfortunate people who are not. Our laws are the true laws; other blackfellows have inferior laws which they continually break. Consequently, anything may be expected of these outsiders." This ethnocentrism leads them to patronize other Aborigines in a lordly fashion whenever they meet; but, such is the Walbiri reputation for aggressiveness and fighting ability, the victims generally swallow the sneers in silence.
     That last sentence should remind of something else: Aboriginal society was, and is, violent. Although the author was more interested in their complex systems of ritual and relationships, he nevertheless often mentioned occasions when clubs were brought out in order to settle personal disputes, fights which, with the egging-on of the women, could envelop half the camp. And this was sixty years ago, before Aboriginal society had been degraded by alcohol, pornography, and welfare! Reports from visitors to other tribes paint the same picture.
     But to get back to the subject, even if a Warlpiri marries a woman from another tribe, he always ensures that his sons are initiated as Warlpiris. "The people cannot believe that a person fortunate enough to be born a Walbiri would ever allow his 'citizenship' to lapse, " said Meggitt, "and I have never encountered a Walbiri who has done so." Furthermore,
whether or not the Walbiri regard other tribes in a favourable light or not, their opinions always reveal an aggressive belief in their own superiority. As might be expected, they evaluate the behaviour and usages of other peoples in terms of the coincidence of these with Walbiri norms, and they consider any noticeable divergence of the two to be evidence of the shortcomings of the outsiders. The fact that Warramunga mortuary ritual differs from that of the Walbiri, or that the Pintubi lack a thorough-going subsection system, is thought to reflect the essential inferiority of the group in question. On the other hand, the highest praise the Walbiri can bestow on well-liked neighbours, such as the Walmanba or Yanmadjari, is to refer to them as "half-Walbiri".
     I record this to illustrate the fact that racism can take many forms, and you do not have to be white, or belong to a dominant group, to be guilty.
     Indeed, if I might digress, I came upon the same phenomenon in Africa. To appreciate this, you must understand that the majority of the population of Zimbabwe are Shonas, but a significant majority belong to the Ndebele, who conquered the country a couple of generations before the British conquered them. In 1998 I strolled into the Anglican cathedral in Harare, and joined a small mid-week service conducted by the white bishop for a number of black congregants, most of whom where women. Afterwards, I was invited to join them in morning tea. One of the women said she would like to see a hymn book produced with Shona hymns on one page, and Sindebele hymns on the other. "They won't do it," said the bishop, and discussed the general antagonism between the two tribes. After the discussion had gone on for some time, I piped up and said: "In my country, this would be called racism." Indeed!
     But to return to the Warlpiri, you might be interested to know their outlook where their own law is concerned. Their attitude it: You know The Law. You've had it drummed into you since childhood. So there is no excuse for breaking it. And if you do, it means you must have traded immediate advantage for the possibility of future punishment, and you can't complain when the latter falls on you. It would be interesting to see what would happen if we applied this in our own society, instead of making excuses. All right, you may be poverty stricken. You may have come from a dysfunctional family. Perhaps no-one has ever been nice to you. Just the same, can you honestly say that you do not know that taking drugs, painting graffiti, brawling, or laying your hands on other people's property are universally considered no-nos? And if you do such things, how can you expect any mercy when you are eventually caught?