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)
“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.
ANCIENT ORDER OF RAINBOW SERPENTS
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.
TO SEE BETTER STOP LOOKING SO ‘HARD’
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?