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!