The season has arrived in our lives when we shed our old, constricting skin



… and learn new songs.

David Turner, seeking to understand First Peoples cosmology and transformations, asked a key question of his Anindilyaugwa mentor Gula.

“What do you call it when the spirit of the dead person changes into a fish and then changes into a person in the journey to the spirit world?”

“Oh, naugwargadjungawa,” he replied.

This means “shed one’s skin” and in this context means “to change one’s shape”. To shed one’s skin is the shed one’s form and reform as something else.

David H Turner 1997:80. “Afterlife Before Genesis. An Introduction: Accessing the Eternal through Australian Aboriginal Music. ” Toronto Studies in Religion 22. Peter Lang Publishing, Inc New York. . ISBN 0-8204-3477-9 ISSN 8756-7385



One of the recurring themes in the work of Levi-Strauss, in which he compared and contrasted large numbers of myths from North and South America, is that of an image which passes through a  sort of conceptual lens and, as a consequence, is inverted.


This refers to a process he identified which we could say lies between one language and/or culture and another. Features of myths, for example, in one group may (as it were) undergo a transformation when they pass into another group.


For example, in comparing myths in his 1991 work, translated in 1995 as “The Story of Lynx”, Levi-Strauss writes:

“The motif of the fog is missing as well; the myth does not explain the famine which reigns in the village. However – and this is through an effect often noted when crossing a linguistic boundary – the motif doesn’t simply disappear; it becomes inverted.” (Levi-Strauss 1995;10)


Or, better:

“However, as often happens when crossing a cultural or linguistic boundary, the myth turns over: the end becomes a beginning, the beginning the end; and the contents of the message inverted. I have given many examples in Mythologiques and elsewhere of this phenomenon, which the comparatists have long ignored.” (Levi-Strauss 1995:57)

There is a systematic co-relation between the elements on both sides, but the images may stand in a relationship of inversion. For the people concerned, each version will appear to be the orthodox version, and the other inverted.

There is no reason to become engaged in exercises to find the ‘proper’ version. Both exist. In the present case the Warumungu reality versus the Anglo-Australian reality we can, however, presume that the former is far more grounded than the latter.

Can we expect to find a similar process in the highly ritualised ceremony of a formal Hearing in an Aboriginal land claim brought under the Land Rights (NT) Act?

Once we remove the privileged status which non-indigenous participants of that ritual take for granted – once we see it for what it is and not for what others would like us to see it as – it may become possible to subject it to the sort of critique which modern Western professional reserve for imposing on other peoples.


There is certainly an inverted image when you consider the focus of the formal Hearing process on peoples relationship to country.

Those participating in the formal Hearing pay closer and closer attention to the task of finding some binding link between people and country at the most restricted end of the scale. Does it exist between an individual and their country or, perhaps, between a small group people with one father?

The fine minds of lawyers, using the best of either/or reasoning, seek to restore order to a task for which – one senses in their demeanors, submissions and reports – they regard woolly anthropologists as being unable to properly attend to.

But these fine minds are largely unacquainted with the deep challenges of working cross-culturally.  They look for clarity where there is none to be found and then, as though sensing an abyss, abandon their efforts when they encounter it.

Their investment in a particular view of reality holds them back from realisations regarding the cultural relativity of what they take as ‘certain’. Minds shut down when they could open up to the reality that, here they are – Westerners – in the middle of First Peoples country a very long way away from their own cultural homes on the hither side of the planet.


We can see these Westerners as ‘cultural missionaries’ carrying a host a non-indigenous practices which have resulted from transformations within their own Ways – the right of exclusive ownership and private property; the rule of Westminster law; the role of the sovereign in a Constitutional monarchy; the Age of culturally one-sided Reason;  the modern nation-state; capitalism; corporations; the rights of share-holders to obtain a profit;  the illusion of the importance of the individual; and so on.  

Unpacking the conceptual baggage these visitors bring with them would be a major undertaking. We would notice that the baggage, along with freshly minted linear notions of time, contains images of Charles Darwin and icons of which pay homage to ‘descent’.

What has been described as an Anglo-Australian fantasy structure is very much at work in all of these activities of non-indigenous people entering Warumungu cosmos.

That elaborate fantasy structure – no better made visible than in the curly white wigs worn by Anglo-Australian legal professionals  – was premised on the official denial of the place of First Peoples in this country.

Rather than acknowledging their own status as visitors on Warumungu country, and observing the culturally appropriate protocols, the Hearing is conducted – oh so informally of course – in standard imperial measure. There should be no mistaking who is really important here!

Senior First Peoples are cast in the role of ‘claimants’- not Hosts. They will be cross-examined by often hostile lawyers, acting on behalf of their remote clients ongoing interests in continued expropriate of First People country and resources.

This can include, as in the Warumungu land claim, bodies such as the Australian National University working in conjunction with United States interests.

A very good part of the Warumungu land claim area was not granted on the grounds that it was required for a seismic array used to listen to messages from the earth. Not those of Dreaming ancestors but, it was rumoured, distant testing of atomic devices by non-allies of the United States.

The Aboriginal Land Commissioner in the 1985 Warumungu land claim had earlier been the lawyer representing the Australian National University in the aborted 1982 Warumungu land claim.

Messages of self-importance are produced for the approving consumption of the others who participate in this ritual. This dos not lend itself to the opening of mind which is called for in these situations.




In his detailed analysis of Warlpiri men’s ceremonial life, M.J. Meggitt, for example, had speculated that there was probably a continent wide network of higher level connections in the form of dreaming tracks:


“It is possible to start with any myth and, by following up its references, to be led eventually to all other Walbiri myth. They form an interconnected whole. Furthermore, they are not tribally bounded. Many, especially those which are most significant to the Walbiri, have their beginnings or their endings in other tribal territories and in this way link the Walbiri myth complex with those of their neighbours. This indeed seems to be a feature of Australian mythology in general: probably in the past one could have taken a myth from the Kimberley coast in northwest Australia and, by pursuing the relevant leads, have continued without a serious break to the coast of New South Wales in eastern Australia.” (Meggitt 1966:95)

Meggitt’s speculation provides us with a glimpse of a much higher level of organisation for First Peoples Ways than is the more common example of their lives being built up from small groups.

Once we strip away the modern Western fantasy construction of First Peoples Ways consisting of stereotypical ‘primitives’ and ‘stone-age savages’ we come a lot closer to being able to see some of life’s realities in this country.

My own approach is to refer to the existence of a continent wide invisible civilisation.

By taking a much  wider view of things we can begin to interpret First Peoples relationships with each other and with country in very different terms to those which – making sense to modern Western minds –  impose upon First Peoples narrowly conceived notions of ‘local descent groups’.

First Peoples forms of sovereignty are not to be conflated with those of modern nation-states. The locus of First Peoples sovereignty is not within a particular person nor a particular family. The form of sovereignty indigenous to this country has transcendental sources.

It may be far more useful to follow the lead of First Peoples as mentors and to think of there being transcendental Sovereign entities from which First People both emerge and return.

It may be useful to regard people as fractals of the larger form. The composition of their Being is – and there are variations on this – derived from the eternal form.

Those who understand these cultural codes can say who fits in and where.

This seems to me to be consistent with the message which originates from First Peoples and their Ways.

It also seems to me a long way removed from the secular and descent based theories of modern anthropologists, although there is evidence of such matters in their findings.

Given the wide range of practices which exist within First Peoples Ways in this country, it would be a brave or foolish person who stated this is the case across the whole continent.

A minimum position (by way of a working hypothesis) is that there is an element of such an approach across collective living arrangements in many parts of the country. What is done with it may vary.

In his comparative study of seven different groups across the continent Keen found:

“People in all seven regions had doctrines about a creative era when human-like and totemic ancestors lived, and about intermediaries between the totemic ancestors and the living (and the recently dead). However, cosmologies and cosmogonies varied across the continent … ranging from the strong celestial emphasis in the southeast to the strong terrestrial emphasis in the Western Desert and some other regions. Doctrines differed over the length of the ancestral journeys – and hence connections among localities and their peoples – and in the character of totemic sites, which could be used from anything from ‘increase’ rituals to aggressive acts.” (Keen 2004 2008:387-388)


It is clear that, across the continent,  people marked off different places by means of having different languages and other practices which can be viewed as transformations of their neighbours.

There were relative discontinuities – but these discontinuities were not absolute (even when they ‘hardened’ due to breakdown in exchange relationships).


The same hardening of relationships can be witnessed in the best of families – and it is a mistake to assume that a picture of relationships taken at the time of such a breakdown can be regarded as proof of how it has always been.

A quick note on Keen’s ‘aggressive acts’.

The depiction of Black men engaged in violent and aggressive acts plays straight into the hands of those who seek to displace – and keep excluded – senior men from their position in life in this country. Recent events in mainstream Anglo-Australian political life vis-à-vis senior men in the Northern Territory show this to be very much a live issue.

Therefore it is necessary to make a quick comment on the use of the term ‘aggressive acts’ in  Ian Keen’s quote.

In comparison with the ideas of the noble savage, my own view of life in this country is more akin to a world in which powerful land-wizards conducted acts of psychic warfare – usually directed out of the group – in order to restore balance as assessed in terms of an eternal life design.

Additionally there were acts which involved groups of men; throwing spears;  injury and death.  These acts typically seems to aim to restore balance rather than to totally eradicate the opposing side.

I think the category ‘aggression’ has to be handled with great care when dealing with other peoples Ways. So too with ‘violence’. Neither term may do justice to the fullness of the phenomena in question. Low level interpretations of high acts does not aid our understanding. Quite the opposite.


Rather than harder and harder with modern European eyes (exclusive ownership, private property, getting ahead, violence, aggression etc), what is required is to stop looking so hard and step back a little. You need to be able to see something of the larger picture.

First Peoples relationships with country come in the form of a transcendental covenant from life itself.  There is a vast configuration of relationships, past and present, extending in all manner of dimensions, which inscribes identity at a collective (grouping) level and, as members of a collective, an individual level.

The narrow area within which Westerners seek to locate basic and enduring relationships between people and country is not the foundational basis of First Peoples Ways. Rather, it is the outcome of the sum total of high and low existential forces (I lack any other way of expressing this) originating from time immemorial.

Confining academic and professional anthropological debate within this narrow area may well be part of an ‘unconscious’ political process which not only refuses to ‘see’ First Peoples as captives within the modern Anglo-Australian nation-state bt which also refuses to take up the challenge of fashioning new forms of representation which will provide First Peoples with the freedom to live on – to a far greater extent – their own terms.

We should make no mistake about this – part of that challenge is to turn anthropological understanding back onto Western Ways and to learn to see Anglo-Australian Ways as being just as culturally peculiar as those Ways of other peoples which have fascinated modern anthropologists in the 21st Century.

That is to apply our conceptual and other resources to the task of reforming our Ways to better accommodate the original Ways of this country.

As the last two centuries have conclusively demonstrated, such change (necessary to ensure the restoration of First Peoples full well-being, cannot be expected to come from the Anglo-Australia versions of the Westminster system of government.

The work of conceptual craftspeople in fashioning new and two-sided forms of representation may be a vital ingredient in creating the conditions in which elected politicians will be ‘encouraged’ to catch up if they are to represent us.

In this life struggle our role as minor conceptual craftspeople is to  serve the only true master – life itself.

And to do that well requires that we activate parts of our Being long rendered dull by a long history of domestication.

Rather than following the specifications of modern master narratives it is far more useful to follow the lead of First Peoples as mentors – and to think of there being transcendental Sovereign entities from which First Peoples both emerge and return.

And where does that place us non-indigenous peoples resident in this country, by comparison?

Transcendent signs 2. Towards a Rainbow Serpent Perspective

Life as lived in relation to this grand existential undertaking is a long way removed from the secular notions of biological reproduction which gained ascendancy in Western life during the 1800s.

Modern anthropology placed First Peoples and their Ways within a modern Western myth of ‘Nature’ making them objects of studies rather than Beings with whom deep level dialogue was possible.

The cultural construct of ‘Nature’ has to be viewed as a form of mythology produced by the newly emerging elite in Europe in the 1700 and 1800s. This view of the world allowed for easy separation of peoples from their living countries – both conceptually and practically.

Peoples practices were not to be regarded as part of country.

As modern anthropology looked to the success of modern biology as a model for its own field of endeavour, it failed to locate itself on the sufficiently high level required to gain some understanding of First Peoples Ways – and to gain the insights necessary to fashion forms of representation of those Ways which could possibly do justice to First Peoples and their Ways.


Of course, anthropologists did not create the situation. This was done by far more powerful forces. Anglo-Australian authorities failed to establish the proper high level relations between sovereign bodies/peoples – and without these proper relations no comprehensive  high level cross-cultural dialogue is possible.


What was produced under the Anglo-Australian authorities was a chaotic mess. The responsibility for creating this mess cannot be laid at the feet of those few individuals – anthropologists – who were drawn to try and make some degree of sense out of the chaotic swirl.

There has been a tremendous amount of great fieldwork done by a handful of men and women anthropologists over the years. There is a great deal of real value in their work.  If only the Anglo-Australian formation had encouraged more people like them then the process of restoring balance between Peoples in this country would, in all likelihood, have been enriched.

As someone who has had a minor taste of fieldwork, I am – as I re-read modern anthropological accounts – constantly reminded of, and constantly impressed by, both the fine abilities and the breadth of knowledge of these ethnographers.

I never really made it to first base as an ethnographer by comparison and, while my experiences with First Peoples were of real value to me, I have basically had to rely on the work of others.

That said, the challenge of decolonisation remains for anthropology as a discipline (just as the decolonisation of this country remains a major and much more demanding challenge).

Rather than accepting the Anglo-Australian gaze which frames First Peoples ‘realities’ is a given, and beyond serious critique, what happens when we take a step back and consider it – with its self-privileging notions regarding access to objective reality –  as part of the cluster of attitudes which make up imperialism?

The perspective changes – gains a new twist – when we move into this state of mind.




It is to be regretted that, in the 1985 Warumungu land claim investigation, Dr John von Sturmer was unable to spend more time in his role as Consultant Anthropologist to the Aboriginal Land Commissioner.


He recommended, for example, in seeking to gain a well-informed understanding of Warumungu life relevant to the land claim:


“… everything possible should be done to conduct investigations in situ – allowing all parties access to the signs [spiritual access to the sites], and to people’s concrete practices in relation to them: who approaches them and how, how they talk about them, who tends them and introduces newcomers, and in what manner etc. This is much to be preferred over the rather abstracted discussions in a court context, however informal and flexible its methods of proceeding.” (Maurice 1988:62)


But, and here I differ from von Sturmer (at that time), in order to properly comprehend the situation we have to remove the sense of privilege which attaches to the Court proceedings and, in so doing, better ‘see’ the actors in the Court as participants in a ritual themselves.

Two highly ritualised behaviours are being played out – that of First Peoples and that of Anglo-Australians.

Being able to ‘see’ both of these ritualised activities is necessary to be able to dispel the illusion of solidity which Anglo-Australia asserts for itself. We need to ‘see’ the Judge and attendant officials and lawyers etc as figures in eternity entering into a Warumungu cosmos. They are producing messages of their own importance while they are unable to connect with their actual surroundings.

At the end of this performance, the Aboriginal Land Commissioner will produce an official report to the Australian Parliament. This report will include his recommendations for the recognition (or not) of certain people as ‘traditional Aboriginal owners’ in relation to certain areas of unalientated Crown land.

For those First Peoples, nothing will have changed in their relationships – which they have known all along. What will change is how Papulanyi Anglo-Australian officials and others now relate to them.

What is really required is a comprehensive analysis of a formal land claim hearing as conducted by an Aboriginal Land Commissioner as a form of ritual in itself – a very different creature to the ‘rational’ activity in which its leading participates may themselves believe to be taking part.

What are these non-indigenous people – serious and intent lawyers, complete with their tables and chairs and microphones for the transcript – doing in Warumungu country seeking access to the core of First Peoples lives in order for the modern Australian state to be able to ‘recognise’ the traditional owners?

Quick – invert the perspective.

These land claims can be seen as non-indigenous adjustment movements – premised on the notion of recognising First Peoples relations with country but also serving to promote the illusion that the maladapted Anglo-Australian Ways are superior.

What is this strange emanation –  this strange behaviour of these foreign  Court officials  entering into the midst of an eternal Warumungu cosmos – how is it generated?

We need to get a good snapshot of that!

Transcendent signs 1. – Particle or Wave – object or flow. Thing or quality. Then and Zen.


May 2014

Bruce (Japaljari) Reyburn


On 3 November 1982, the same day when Counsel for the Country-Liberal Party (CLP)  Northern Territory Government informed the Aboriginal Land Commission, Justice Sir William Kearney, that their ‘client’ had alienated areas of the Warumungu land claim (and thus arguably taking them out of his jurisdiction) senior Warumungu and Alyawarra men had been preparing a major ground painting to show to His Honour.

This large ground painting had to be prepared according to strict and vigorous criteria in keeping with the highest level of operation of Warumungu and Alyawarra law. In keeping with Warumungu and ALyawarra law, this was strickly mens business. I have no doubt that organising this event had taken considerable resources by the senior men concerned. It was no small thing.

The ground painting represented something akin to the Grand Seal, proving the rights of those seeking recognition (from the Anglo-Australia state) to the country.

As news spread of the disrespectful actions of the CLP NT government – which placed the whole proceedings of the formal land claim Hearing in doubt – there was discussion as to whether or not the ground painting should be shown to the Land Commissioner and other lawyers involved in the land claim hearing process.

The senior lawmen decided to go ahead and to show the ground painting to the ‘Judge’ and the other land claim hearing males (lawyers etc). It was unclear that this juncture whether the formal Hearing would proceed or not. (Ultimately the decision was made to contest the actions of the CLP NT government in the High Court and the 1982 Hearing was adjourned.)

In my role of senior anthropologist working with the senior men in this claim, I was assigned the role of making an audio tape of the showing of the ground painting (rather than having the court recorder do it, since this may result in women beng involved).

At the end of the day’s formal proceedings in the then Country Women’s Association hall, the Land Commissioner and the other men were taken to a site in the scrub on the edge of town and, under the directions of senior lawmen, shown the ground painting.

There was some contextual information provided by the senior men regarding what the ground painting, and some other sacred items, represented.

I recently looked at that transcript again and was, once again, struck by a feature which has always bothered me – both in this instance and in similar situations.

After Justice Kearney shown ground painting by senior men in 1982 Warumungu land claim he thanked the senior men and said words to the effect that he had seen it and he now understood. This was in keeping with the expectations of the senior men.

As this Hearing never proceeded to completion under Justice Kearney it is unclear exactly what he understood as a result of seeing the ground painting etc. But I suspect that, subject to additional advice he would normally obtain from his consultant anthropologist, his understanding would be framed in Western terms and not in those of the senior men themselves. Yes, they had sacred items and ground paintings related to Dreamings and related to country.

For the senior men the event was a clear and overt display (public to a limited extent)  which was self-evident proof of their credentials as the right people for the country in question. There were no challenges to this from any other Warumungu men present, for example.

Nor, it must be said, could the Crown demonstrate a better title.

As far as I know, this highly important event did not carry over into the 1985 Land Claim Hearing under Justice Maurice either in its own right as evidence shown to the previous Aboriginal Land Commissioner or as an exhibit demonstrating important evidence both in relation to questions of traditional ownership or strength of attachment (both factors the Aboriginal Land Commissioner is required to assess).

It was as though this important event ceased to exist. However, that is a separate issue to the one which concerns me here.

The situation which bothers me is one where senior lawmen show non-indigenous people (including myself as a then anthropologist) sacred items which are clearly intended to demonstrate core values for First Peoples, but which are often met with polite incomprehension.

Having decided you are a fit person to have this privilege, the senior men, by contrast, are usually clearly delighted at having shown you these precious items and are convinced that now you will understand the complex relationships between people and country.

Since we lack the whole cultural and experiential background which senior men take for granted we cannot properly grasp the significance of what it is we are seeing.

As various social games are in play what cannot be said, by non-indigenous people who may have adopted a superior position in all of this is “No, we don’t understand.”

We don’t understand because, for the last two centuries, Anglo-Australia has followed a course which placed absolutely no importance on the languages and cultural practices of this country’s First Peoples – nor do we possess a great working knowledge of the country itself – and now when we are required to come up to speed, we simply cannot do it


There is plenty of anthropological materials  regarding how been showing sacra works some kind of magic on the viewer. This happened in the research in lead up to the Woodward report but, in place of such difficult to grasp matters, statutory definitions of ‘traditional owners’ were tried to Western forms of metaphysics – local descent groups – rather than First Peoples realities.

There are deep cultural reasons which mean we operate on different wavelengths.

On the one hand First Peoples Ways are closer to ‘everyday’ experience and less ‘abstract’ than modern Western Ways – thought is more embedded in the matter to which it relates.

There is a closer degree of fit between the cognitive structures and those of ‘the senses’ – more concrete, less abstract. While the quality of the thinking is equally sophisticated,  First Peoples understanding is less alienated from experience. More ‘earthed’ you might say, especially if making a mental contrast with the increasingly ‘unearthed’ world of modern Western popular culture.

On the other hand, there is a clear notion of order which is at a great remove from the world as understood by modern Western thinking. First Peoples interpret experience in keeping with an eternal life design.

Typically this eternal life design places an emphasis on relationships between two complementary opposite hemispheres. Where, in modern Western thinking, we privilege one aspect of experience (the product) and discard the ‘remainder’, First Peoples take as much care in positioning the remainder as they do the product. This keeps life on track and balanced.

Added to this there is a sense in which, in comparison with our late Neolithic modes of Being, First Peoples Being and minds are open and truly alive.  This has been called ‘animism’. There is a comprehensive quickness which can take in a fleeting flash as a sign of something which slower minds will fail to apprehend.

Any maybe much more, but in short, to be properly received the messages of seeing sacra require – and presuppose – that the viewer has already acquired cultural codes and mental modes.

These codes are finely tuned to the context in which they have emerged – incorporating ‘eons’ of close connection with country – across many, many generations.

There is a high degree of alignment between cultural and ecosystemic structures. In my experience, Westerners do not have these cultural codes. We are, as it were, deaf and blind to our surroundings.

By such mean country speaks to First Peoples in far greater specific detail than is the case for Westerners who may, on occasion, experience a general sort of one-ness and/or connection with their surroundings.

David Turner, in his important book “Afterlife Before Genesis. An Introduction: Accessing the Eternal through Aboriginal Music” recounts a special instance of this experience from during the time he was delving deep into Anindilyakawa First Peoples cosmology on Amagalyuagba /Groote Island and/or learning to play the yiraga aka the didjereedoo.

Puzzled by the phrase ‘megamainggamandja‘  ‘the waves are laughing’ in songs of the Rainbow Serpent he had recorded years earlier, he asked a mentor Murabuda about it.


“He couldn’t really tell me in words, he said, but if I went down to the sea in the dry season when the east wind was blowing its strongest and the tide was coming in and I looked out over the open water I would see what they saw and understand how waves could laugh.

The appropriate circumstances materialized late one afternoon while I was on Bickerton Island. I borrowed a four-wheel drive and drove across to the south-east corner of the island, to a place called [name -R] which looked across to Groote Island. I parked the vehicle and set off on foot over the dunes to the beach and looked out over the wide expanse of the Gulf of Carpentaria. The waves were laughing.  I don’t know how to explain it. All I know is I just sat there on the beach chuckling away to myself – laughing with the waves. I felt a rush, a joy, a love, as I entered into a state of identity, not so much with some thing outside of myself, as with a quality of something outside of myself.

What I actually saw was waveForm, its Abiding Presence as my colleague Tony Swain would later call it, repeated over and over again in countless times as a separate dimension- as an illumination – over and above the flow of the waves themselves.” (Turner 1977:28-29)

Particle or Wave – object or flow. Thing or quality. Then and Zen. How we look at life makes a difference. Note also the fascination with waves as evidence in the The Wavewatcher’s Companion by Gavin Pretor-Pinney. Clearly Turner’s experience – as directed by the qualities of life recorded in Dreaming songs – takes this to a higher level.

Not only have First Peoples cultural codes been polished, they have been subject to a process of compression to produce metaphors which allow them to be carried by the living generations – that is, in forms which solve certain problems arising from the limitations of the amount of resources available to accurately do the task (keeping hard-earned insights about life alive) vis-à-vis the amount of information which has to be dealt with.

Anyone who has any knowledge of First Peoples Ways has to be struck with the strong emphasis which is placed on accurately remembering and recounting (in various registers – e.g. song verses, dance movements) what this generation has received from previous generations.

Great feats of individual and collective memory are virtually commonplace!

The wonderful cognitive capabilities of First Peoples is not restricted to mastery of several languages.


It is my position that the further thought is removed from ‘sensory’ experience the more unstable it becomes. As Levi-Strauss demonstrated in “The Savage Mind” there is a level of mental operation is foundational and upon which depends so much else we regard as superior.


We must have real respect for this level of functioning – both as it serves as a sort of great grandparent for modern Ways – and also since it is highly probably that modern Ways (being inherently unstable) will (sooner or later) collapse. It will be to this level we return after the thrilling ride of the short burn.

One problem with the approach which condemns. in advance, all forms of indigenous knowledge as ‘mere superstition’ is that the throws away so much of our hard-won cultural wealth. It is not merely ‘heritage’ – which has a past tense ring to it.

While the modern world regards itself (as it were) as being on a linear trajectory  into a preordained brilliant future (converting the solar system/universe into a capitalistic market), older forms of wisdom predict that there will be a return to Earth long before we reach another habitable planet.


Life is much more complex than modern ideas about it – secular or otherwise.


First Peoples have been dismissed, by ‘civilised’ thinkers, as being ‘animist’. That is, as relating to the whole of life as though it is a living transcendental Being.


My feeling about this condition is that it requires the whole of our Being to be fully ‘turned on’ if we are to be able to relate to our surroundings in this way.

Secularism – and naturalism – require parts of our Being to be suppressed – parts of our Being to be ‘deadened’.  The worship of objects comes at a real cost.

We ‘objectify’ ‘reality’ – treat life as an inert ‘thing’.


We elevate a ‘text’ at the expense of the ‘context’ – that is, we privilege one part of a whole and discount the significance of the context.


Rather than being able to understand the generative processes which provide objects with their more or less fleeting form, we crave a concrete and ‘enduring’ form of eternity.
We should have no concern regarding eternity being enduring – it is enduring but not in the form which one part of humanity may prefer it to be.

First Peoples understanding of such matters leads us into some surprising areas of realisation – realisation, in the present, in relation to an eternal ‘beyond-text’.

The work of David Turner is particularly interesting in regard to the understanding of life which is necessary to keep things on track in ‘this world’. I have already referred to his important book “Afterlife Before Genesis – An Introduction: Accessing the Eternal through Australian Aboriginal Music.” 1997.

By way of a taste:

“The purpose of life on “this side”, according to the Aborigines, is not only to realize the nature of the “other side’ while you are here, but also to bring life on “this side” into mirrored concert with it. This is to reinforce, through the Law, a mutually renunciative, Form-expelling content, process.” (Turner 1997:30)


Dealing with this world requires notions of order of a beyond world. I am not sure if what is commonly understood as ‘transcendent’ is sufficient to describe this situation – where this world is assessed and modified to be brought into alignment (to the extent possible) in relation to something which exists in other dimensions.

‘Transcendent’ may have to do – transcending the limits of what is taken to be everyday empirical experience is one way of trying to express it – but the situation is more complex than that.

Direct unmediated experience is not possible for socialised Beings – our experience is limited in order for it to be framed.  It is more than likely that the role played by notions of other-world order play a direct role in framing everyday experience. That is, there are not two separate forms of experience – everyday and – under special conditions – a transcendent form. They are both aspects of the same thing.

What is possible is to become aware of limits and, in so doing, move beyond then.

Wish I had a copy of the 1930s British philosopher C.D. Burns ‘The Horizons of Experience’ to guide me here. Burns called for a cross-cultural dialogue on the highest levels.

I may have to leave this to rest here for a while. His other book involved contact between minds – which would be good to read as well.


What does seem to be consistent with what is known is this. When First Peoples are shown the relevant sacra – puzzling to the modern mind – they are clearly provided with transcendent experiences which take them beyond the world as it appears to the eyes of naturalists.

They enter into the presence of other dimensions (real or imagined, who can say).

Of course, the  whole cultural conceptual kit and caboodle – the whole unconscious-in-culture – is invested in that moment. It may be that the heightened occasion provided by the revelation of the sacred item serves to energise and activate a good part the neural system as structured within that culture.


Another thing is clear – and this has been commented upon by others who have looked at the differences between modern Western methods of learning and those of First Peoples – the occasion of being shown such important sacra is not an opportunity for asking questions.

The message being transmitted in this situation must be aimed at other (less abstract- more concrete?) levels of experience. These in turn are connected to dimensions of country-life.

For all of us who lack the keys to this country, we wander around like ants on the elaborate surface of a great work of art, unaware of anything but the most gross of features.

The trouble with modern science is that it can detect the presence of a carrier signal (which it regards as material reality) but it has no means of decoding the messages carried by that signal.

Returning to Turner – Similarly:


“During a special remembrance ceremony called Amunduwurrarria, held some five years or so after a person has died, images are carved, not of actual ancestors or ancestresses, but of the archetypical or prototypical spirit-Forms (… neither human nor natural in appearance.) Each image represents an archetypical spirit-Form, and a line of spiritual descent through all the generations in the Land who have gone before as well as those living in the present.” (Turner 1997:29-30)


Life in this dimension is an emanation.  First Peoples have mapped the features of the other enduring dimensions, and fashioned forms of representation of them.

Decolonisation 101 – Radioactive futures for some vs Life is all one family.

Decolonisation 101 – Radioactive futures for some vs Life is all one family.

Wednesday 21 May 2014

Bruce (Japaljari) Reyburn

So, I am now starting to turn my mind to the coming trip to Tennant Creek in what is generally known in English as ‘the Barkly Region of the Northern Territory’.

But English is a foreign language in this part of the world, where there are languages like Warlmanpa. Warumungu, Alyawarra, Warlpiri and many more.

There is another ‘non-English’ reality in this part of the world – the realities of First Peoples who have lived there since time immemorial.

In writing about this trip I expect that the narrative I will fashion will be quite different from those written in the mainstream media, especially  by those who embrace monocultural  Anglo-Australian norms.

I am aiming to be in Tennant Creek for about a week starting on Monday 9 June (Queen’s Birthday) to sample something of the sitting of the Federal Court in the ‘Muckaty’ case regarding the Commonwealth of Australia’s proposed radioactive waste facility.


‘Muckaty’ is the name of a cattle station which has a pastoral lease over land which is officially recognized as Aboriginal land (under the 1976 Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act). The Commonwealth government has bypassed the Aboriginal Land Trust for that land, and dealt instead, via the Northern Land Council, with a small group of ‘traditional Aboriginal owners’ (as defined by Anglo-Australian statute).

As I understand it, a small group of Warlmanpa people accepted a $12m payment to ‘volunteer’ a site for this 200 year national radioactive waste facility.

The Northern Land Council, based on the work of its anthropologists, considers this small group to be a ‘local descent group’ and thereby fit with the requirements of the Commonwealth legislation to volunteer a site.

Other Warlmanpa people, with country connections at Muckaty, have strongly objected to this process and taken the matter to the Federal Court.

An Aboriginal Land Commissioner, who heard the Warlmanpa land claim to the Muckaty pastoral lease area some years earlier, found the smaller group to be part of a larger ‘local descent group’.

Muckaty is about 100 km north of Tennant Creek. The Federal Court may visit Muckaty to view the volunteered site and to deal with related matters.

The Federal Court will also sit in Tennant Creek in June as part of the process of taking evidence from Warlmanpa people, including those opposed to the siting of a radioactive waste facility in the midst of their country. I will be there for a few days of this.


We will fly from Sydney to Arrente (Aranda) country – Alice Springs –  and then drive a hire car the 500 km north to Tennant Creek. The population of Tennant Creek was about 3,000 last time I checked but unlike other similarly sized towns in this country, there is a ratio of about 50-50 indigenous/non-indigenous.  Interesting mix. Great site for some real reconciliation, I always thought.

I have driven this road between Alice and Tennant many times since February 1980, when I first started working with Warumungu and Alyawarra people.

In the early 1980s I was an anthropologist working with the Central Land Council and assigned to help with the preparation of the Warumungu and Alyawarra traditional land claim to areas of unalienated ‘vacant’ Crown land. (Crown land? Since when exactly the senior lawmen asked.)

The senior men slotted me into their systems of relations as a member of the Jappaljarri ‘skin’ group. Due to earlier spelling I still use ‘Japaljari’.


On this June 2014 trip, while in Alice Springs, I will also take the opportunity to pass into the care of the Central Land Council some of the audio cassette tapes I made with senior Warumungu and Alyawarra men while working on the original Warumungu land claim.

These field recordings were made by me for the sole purpose of helping in the preparation of the Warumungu land claim. Most of these senior lawmen are deceased now. Dying 20 years earlier than the Anglo-Australian norm is a very real thing.

I leant much from them regarding the sacred landscape of country which – to European eyes – may appear to be dull and featureless. I learnt that this land has transcendental dimensions – it is not to be rubbished.

The CLC has agreed to digitalise and  properly archive these aging audio cassette tapes. The CLC must talk with the cultural heirs of the senior men as to what happens with these audio tapes.

My  hope is that these recordings will be made readily available, in the first instance, to the families of the men I worked with in the Tennant Creek area in their struggle to gain recognition of their true place in life.

There is still much distance to go on that front… and now is not the time to stop and rest.


The town of Tennant Creek is located in Warumungu country and was founded in the 1930s as a ‘watering hole’ during a depression gold-rush. The creek in question was given its English name by the adventurer Stuart in 1860, and is located near the major – and much older – Wirnkarra (Dreaming) site of Jurnkurakurr.

Over a million ounces of gold was produced by one gold mine – and (to my knowledge) not a cent in royalties to the Warumungu people for the loss of their non-renewable resource. Rather, they were excluded from the town boundaries, marginalised, confined, abused. That story is recorded elsewhere.

I have heard some senior Warumungu people use the expression “Nyinkka Nyunyu town” instead of “Tennant Creek’. Nyinkka Nyunyu is the name of a sacred site in the town area. There is a Nyinkka Nyuynyu Aboriginal Arts and Culture Centre. Check it out at


We are often misled by our use of English. It cuts us off from our true surroundings. We have been denied proper access to the living languages of this country – languages in which we can not only better connect to our surroundings but also frame different world views to those of the modern European nation-state.

If you pause for a moment – and escape from the everyday – you will realise that it is bizarre to have a public holiday to mark the birth of a distant British monarch- an English queen on the hither side of the planet – in the middle of Warumungu country. Talk about empire. Talk about the role of British master narratives!

But the bizarre is ‘normal’ in the back-to-front land of Oz. We are not encouraged to ‘pause and think’. Mass hypnotism is all the go. The recent Royal visit has worked wonders.

The present Abbott government is deeply committed to imposing an Anglo-Australian fantasy in this part of the world. For some of us, though, the time to move into a new relationship with this country and its original peoples is long overdue.

No point in waiting for enlightenment from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Self-decolonisation is long overdue to remove what Aden Ridgeway called the terra nullius of the mind.


This very important Muckaty case (potentially clearing the way for a radioactive waste future in Warlmanpa country) is very difficult for the layperson to follow.

Written documents – including reports by anthropologists – are handed up to the Bench in distant proceedings which, while open to the public in theory, are actually not accessible by members of the public in fact.

There is also the documented difference in ‘narratives’ which lawyers and research professionals tell each other in comparison with those of the people they represent. What arguments and counter-arguments will the professionals use?

I hope to be able to catch – and record – a snatch of this difference in narratives when I attend the sitting of the Federal Court in Tennant Creek. That is, to contrast what the professional are saying with what I am told by some of the Warlmanpa people I know. Maybe I will make some new audio recording to share with others via the internet? I hope so.

Then there is my narrative. It’s a bit different to the usual.

We shall see in this case how the introduced system of law singles out a select few indigenous people to give consent for a radioactive waste facility, despite the objections of a much wider group of First Peoples.

As I know very well from my research in the 1980s, these First Peoples understand that the country belongs to them in ways it could never belong to non-indigenous peoples,  nor to a handful of ‘traditional owners’ as defined by Anglo-Australian statute.

“All one family” was a sort of mantra I often heard from the senior men – all of life is one family. Curiously, this is not the mantra which has informed modern anthropology in Australia. There is more to life than modern anthropology.


Given the past record of neglect of First Peoples well-being, and as things presently stand, the absence of genuine informed consent by a wider group of Warlmanpa people means that the Commonwealth of Australia’s present attempt to impose a radioactive waste facility on Warlmanpa country is not morally or ethically acceptable.

That location has not been selected by any form of scientific reckoning. A highly vulnerable small group of people (beggared and weakened by successive Australian governments) were enticed to accept a financial offer which might help their immediate family both in the present and in the future.

But this may come at a terrible price if it is not done right. These sacred Dreaming living countries are really no place for a radioactive dumping ground which given the record to date will  – sooner or later – inevitably poison the lives of those who live near it, perhaps for generations to come.


There is clearly a good case to say there has not been genuine and informed consent and acceptance of this major project by significant Warlmanpa people at Muckaty – and that takes us into the struggle of First Peoples to be represented by means by which they consider culturally appropriate.

Regional forms of decision-making – in contrast to the non-indigenous fiction of a ‘local descent group’ –  are clearly documented in earlier writings about First Peoples for those who care to look closely.

Hopefully the highly experienced anthropological researcher engaged by the Warlmanpa people to help their case against the Commonwealth will provide evidence of these wider forms of regional governance when the case begins in the Federal Court in Melbourne on 2 June.

But the case may be argued on very narrow legal grounds, including those of due process. Who can say?  The Northern Land Council, for instance, in supporting its anthropologists and reputation may have to take a different view to that which includes recognition of wider forms of indigenous decision-making in major projects.

  • And if these matters are fully explored we will then have to wait for Justice North to deliver his judgment. For that we will have to wait and see.
  • And we need to keep in mind that this case may not end in the domestic Australian courts.
  • Meanwhile, the more public scrutiny is applied to this less than visible case, the better the outcome will have to be.


But out of all this I believe that there is a key issue – until there is global support for the struggle for First Peoples to gain recognition as First Peoples – complete with acceptable forms of regional governance – they will continue to be captives within the Anglo-Australian modern nation-state.

The main land councils in the Northern Territory have never really encouraged or actively promoted effective regional land councils in places like the Barkly region. As statutory bodies themselves, they have an accommodation with Anglo-Australia. This arrangement suits everybody except the First Peoples in whose name they operate.

For that reason alone, I very much doubt if any of the professionals will come to the same conclusion as I have regarding ‘local descent groups’ – that they are a self-privileging fiction invented by Anglo-Australians which is substituted in law for proper recognition of First Peoples sovereign rights.

Having pondered these matters since the early 1980s, I increasingly see ‘local descent groups’ as a kind of modern Western fetish which is systematically substituted for recognition of First Peoples sovereign rights.

And a fetish which – on the one hand – makes life easier for Westernised bureaucrats, careerist researchers, politicians, and mainstream commercial interests while –  on the other hand –  makes a complete mockery out of the living realities and core values of First Peoples.

I believe this case has already provided a clear example of this with the Northern Land Council, by virtue of its stance, effectively telling Warlmampa people they don’t understand their own law! 

Should be an interesting few days in Tennant Creek in June.

To recap.

In  my narrative,

We live in changing times.

The days of the Old West are rapidly fading,

What compromised nations – and their compromised leaders – may not do,

we everyday people can do

once we are moved by a healing spirit.

This attempt to forcefully impose

an unwelcome radioactive future on Warlmanpa people at Muckaty

is not merely ‘their struggle’.

The process of decolonisation of Anglo-Australian life

requires it to be

‘our struggle’.

We are, I am reliably informed, all related.