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.