A respectful Zen thing (modern anthropology not the key). #Muckaty #wasteontrail

Modern anthropology is to classical physics as post-modern thinking is to relativity.

17 June 2014

Bruce Japaljari Reyburn


While i was in Tennant Creek last week i stood on a small hill to the east of town and watched the full moon rise on Friday 13 June. To the south of this hill, Warumungu people say the Moon man walked around in the Wirnkara (Dreaming).

Once before i stood on this same hill doing the same thing and – surprise – i saw the earth move relative to the moon! The vast vista of the plains and ranges to the south – and me – were all moving (a slow but steady tumble) through space.

Half expecting the same experience this time, i was surprised once again. I did not see the earth move relative to the moon. Rather, in my peripheral vision, the patterns in the landscape rearranged themselves – for an instance – in what looked like the pattern of the skin of a living Being. It looked very different, but not when you used your central vision.

I later saw paintings by Central Australian First Peoples which had a striking similarity to what i experienced.

Stop looking too hard with Western eyes to see this country? It’s a respectful Zen thing.

And now the blah, blah, blah.

So, in the case of Mark Lane Jangala and others v the Commonwealth of Australia (and Northern Land Council) …

Having spent four days listened to the lines of questioning directed towards Warlmanpa people opposing the Commonwealth of Australia’s proposed radioactive waste facility at Muckaty (NT) i was keen to get home and re-read the earlier Muckaty land claim report of the Aboriginal Land Commissioner, Justice Gray.

So keen i read part of it on the plane from Alice Springs to Sydney, since the movie (the Grand Budapest Hotel) was impossible to appreciate properly on small screen overhead some seats in front and the sound was bad.

Land claim reports are dry reading, but i did not have a window seat from which to view the patterns of clouds and country below. How very much like some Aboriginal paintings it often is.

Anyway, Justice Gray began hearing the ‘traditional’ Aboriginal land claim (as defined by the Land Rights Act) to Muckaty cattle station (Pastoral lease) in 1993 and submitted his report in 1997.

You can download a pdf copy at http://www.dss.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/05_2012/51.pdf Note the copyright restrictions. The ‘Commonwealth’ of Australia guards its spoils jealously.


It seems to me that Justice Gray got the picture back-to-front in his report ( see extracts from his report below) His framework is part of an old paradigm which sits with the modern anthropology of the 20th century. Invert the image and you may come close to a true picture of Warlmanpa realities.

That is, treat First Peoples realities as the prototype to which other theoretical models need to be reworked until they fit – not vice-versa. Do not ‘trim’ First Peoples realities to fit with Western master narratives and European theories.

One bit that interests me in this mix is in relation to the line of questioning of the Northern Land Council against Mark Lane Jangala, relates to Jangala’s position as a kurtunugurlu for the Milwayi (Two snakes) Dreaming.

The specific site for the proposed radioactive waste facility on Muckaty is said – by Warlmanpa authorities – to be part of the Milwayi Dreaming complex. Another group – part of a Ngapa (Rain, water?) Dreaming nominated the site.

During the Tennant Creek session, legal representatives for the Northern Land Council had sought to cut the ground out from under the feet of Mark L Jangala (a lead applicant in the case) by demonstrating that his credentials as kurdungurlu did not comply with a sort of standard Western model of the kirda-kurdungurlu relationship.

This standard model is based on secular notions of kinship and descent. The thinking in modern anthropology and land claim professionals is that someone qualifies as ‘kurtungurlu’ if they are related to a Dreaming through their mother (and, by the same thinking, as ‘kirda’ through their father.)

Modern anthropology systematically privileged Western notions of reality as opposed to First Peoples when they did not align – which is more often than not.

Modern anthropology also privileges Western forms of thinking when it ‘extends‘ the (European) use of ‘mother’ and ‘father’ to accommodate First Peoples use of those terms to include father’s brothers and mother’s sisters. Anthropologists call this ‘classificatory’ kinship.

Another approach, which i consider would bring anthropological thinking into better alignment with First Peoples living realities, is to accept the more general category as the primary meaning. During my years in Central Australia, this seemed to me to better accord with actual usage (rather than abstract theories).


In Tennant Creek i heard Warlmanpa people say that Mark Jangala is kurtungurlu for Milwayi (Dreaming). One witness said – most emphatically! – that Mark Jangala was kurtungurlu because he had the right knowledge.

Knowledge in this context usually refers to esoteric ceremonial knowledge framed according to First Peoples systems of law.

I reckon, as an easy form of shorthand, you could also say Jangala has the right spiritual connections, and that these specifically formed spiritual characteristics are considered ‘primary’ by First Peoples.

To spell it out, the criteria for inclusion or exclusion in the cultural category ‘kurtungurlu’ is not based on ‘kinship’ or ‘descent’ as those terms are understood but on some other consideration or combination of considerations such as (1) being a recognised and accepted player with a position in a local system of reciprocities (which may include all manner of exchange relationships) and (2) having esoteric ceremonial/Dreaming knowledge of a kind which means your ‘spirit’ has the appropriate Dreaming form.

My view is that modern anthropology operates with a low-level paradigm which makes a certain degree of sense out of a complex reality in the same way classical physics has proved useful in the scientific realm. However, the realities of First Peoples lives require a very different level of understanding which can be compared to that of relativity in physics.

When the low-level paradigm of modern anthropology is applied to First Peoples realities, it cannot do justice to the fine subtitles of higher existence which they have attained. Bits have to be cut off the living body – like toes and a wrong size shoe – to make it fit.

In short, modern anthropology – in the gross forms of representation it fashions of First Peoples lives – can only make a mockery of those lives. Time to insist upon some better fitting ‘shoes’ i reckon.

While lawyers and Judges faced with complex cross-cultural problems may draw some comfort from modern anthropology, the certainty provided by such means is false. It comes at the expense of First Peoples, who have to live with the ill-fitting garb fashioned for them, by not by them.

To deal with the genuine chaos of complex living systems, you have to be able to accommodate genuine doubt – and the associated creative challenges which this brings with it.

For non-indigenous people to tackle such challenges requires acts of faith and a willingness to suspend ones own culturally defined notions of ‘reality’ as much as academic knowledge and technical ability.

Basic to what i call a post-modern form of ‘anthropology’ is ‘respect’. While modern anthropology regarded itself as looking at First Peoples as ‘objects of study’ post-modern anthropology seeks to learn how to better relate by respecting First Peoples as First Peoples.

How your own Being is positioned in relation to First Peoples Ways and Anglo-Australian structures will determine how you learn to see the realities of life in this country. Need to balance both hemispheres of yourmind, and centre your Being. A Zen exercise, at the feet of the only true master, life itself?

There is crucial difference in attitude from that of the ‘imperial gaze’ to that which accepts, as non-indigenous people, we are here to learn from our original mentors, and they are the experts in such matters. They are the cultural masters in regard their own cultures.

There is an element of respect for the co-existing sovereignty in this matter which has yet to be articulated.

That element includes the sovereign right of First Peoples authorities to have the definitive say who is kirda and kurtungurlu – who are the ‘right’ people for particular areas of country – not some Western expert.

Well, the applicants have their own anthropologist in this case and, a some stage of the legal proceedings, we will learn what he has to say and how this compares with what Warlmanpa people are saying.

As i hear them, they are talking a high language about how the Being of particular people is related to particular Ancestral Dreaming Beings – not a matter of Western notions of biology, descent or kinship.

But i may stand alone in this.

The Federal Court will sit in Darwin next week to hear more on these and related issues. Would love to be there but limited funds only stretched as far as Tennant Creek, for which we are thankful

Some background reading:

I don’t think i am infringing the provisions of the relevant Copyrights Act by my fair use sharing of information relevant to a case of national and international significance.

Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 Warlmanpa
(Muckaty Pastoral Lease) Land Claim No, 135
Report No. 51
Report and recommendation of the Aboriginal Land Commissioner, Justice Gray, to the Minister for
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs and to the Administrator of the Northern Territory Australian Government Publishing Service

Extracts – “kurtungurlu in the broader sense” – read more.

3.4 Descent criteria It follows from what I have said that the primary descent criterion accepted by the claimants for the ascertainment of the membership of each group is a combination of patrilineal descent and matrifiliation. A person acquires membership of a group as kirta by inheriting his or her subsection identity and dreaming from his or her father and paternal grandfather. Membership of a group as kurtungurlu is acquired by inheritance of a subsection identity from a person’s mother and maternal grandfather. Marriages which are not “straight”, i.e. which take place between persons who are of inappropriate subsections for marriage, create complications and may result in some members of a group having non-ideal subsection identities or dual identities, only one of which is ideal. In some cases, particularly those of one non-Aboriginal parent, there may be attribution of the subsection identity which would have been appropriate if the Aboriginal parent had married “straight”, or inheritance of the appropriate subsection identity through an adoptive Aboriginal parent. Recruitment to a group, particularly in the case of kurtungurlu, is also a possibility. Thus each group is composed primarily of kirta, whose inheritance is from their fathers and paternal grand- fathers, and kurtungurlu, whose inheritance is from their mothers and maternal grandfathers, but there may be additional people of non-standard subsection identities and people whose subsection identities are imputed rather than inherited biologically. These are the descent criteria which the claimants recognise.

3.7.4 1 have not included in the Lauder family branch of this group Phillip Holden, who gave evidence and was described as the son of Jeffrey Lauder’s father’s sister and as kurtungurlu. The genealogy for the Ngapa group does not show any siblings for the father of Harry Lauder, Jeffrey Lauder, Hazel Bill, Alice Lauder and Amy Lauder. It is not clear whether the sister referred to was a sister in a classificatory or biological sense. The view of Dr Sutton, the senior anthropologist who gave evidence on behalf of the claimants, was that Phillip Holden should be regarded as a kurtungurlu in the broader sense, to which I refer in para. 4.3.3. I have accepted this view.

4.3.2 The present claim was presented on the basis that the acquisition of spiritual affiliations is a matter of descent. If a person acquires them by birth or adoption, those spiritual affiliations will give rise to rights which may be invoked at any time during the life of that person. The existence of the affiliations is not dependent upon any particular age or any particular level of knowledge.

4.3.3 Knowledge in Northern Territory Aboriginal cultures is recognised widely as a commodity which is imparted progressively to people who possess the requisite affiliations and have attained sufficient maturity and responsibility to be trusted with a particular level of knowledge. There are cases in which senior people, widely acknowledged as capable of safeguarding and not misusing knowledge, are the repositories of enormous amounts of knowledge relevant to whole regions. Such persons perform useful functions, particularly in safeguarding the knowledge for the benefit of those who are entitled to it. They can be trusted not to use the knowledge for their own purposes by claiming to have it in the capacity of those with particular affiliations. I have already referred, in para. 3.7.11, to the description of Engineer Jack Japaljarri and his brother, Long Paddy Japaljarri, as kurtungurlu. That term is applied to them in the sense of their ceremonial functions and the acknowledgment of them as regional holders of knowledge related to dreamings. There is a similar reference to Phillip Holden’s status in para. 3.7.4. To them should be added Tommy Driver and Charlie Charles Jakamarra in the present claim. Neither of them is a claimant or entitled by descent to be a claimant. Each was described as kurtungurlu in respect of the ceremonies in which the claimants participate and through which they celebrate and assert their rights to particular areas of country. There are also claimants who fill the role of kurtungurlu in this broader sense, in respect of groups and country to which they have no entitlement by descent. Peter Toprail and Angus Riley are two examples.

4.3.4 It might be possible for persons born or adopted into a descent group, and thereby acquiring spiritual affiliations, to reject or abandon them. In the absence of rejection or abandonment, the overwhelming likelihood is that the members of the local descent groups to which I have referred in chapter 3 will be drawn into the ritual life of the claimants generally in relation to the country of the particular group.

4.3.5 For these reasons, I have reached my findings as to the spiritual affiliations of the members of the various groups without regard to their ages or to any level of knowledge which they might or might not possess. I have based my findings on the proposition that they, as members of the groups, have acquired their affiliations by birth or by the other descent criteria to which I have referred. Unless they show an inclination not to pursue the rights which those affiliations give them, they will in due course acquire such knowledge as they have the capacity to acquire.