Existential Justice in forms of Representation of First Peoples Ways

Existential Justice in forms of Representation.

When we craft forms of representation of First Peoples lives it is fundamentally important that those forms recognise the place of senior men’s higher practices – law and ceremony.

These matters must be included in order to do existential justice to First Peoples lived realities.

Forms of representation which systematically exclude these higher practices can only make a mockery of First Peoples Ways. To fail to recognise and acknowledge the importance of senior men’s law and ceremonies is to be involved in the established Westernising practices of fashioning false images of First Peoples lives.

Doing this  is akin to constructing an external image of the cell (in biology) while systematically excluding the role of the nucleus.

While including a necessary (must have) place for these higher practices in forms of representation may be able to be justified in terms of Western notions of human rights, the basis for recognising these higher practices comes from what is , ultimately, a more important authority – that of life itself.

To spell this out – First Peoples Ways, as encountered by Europeans from 1788 to the present, have been shaped as part of this country since long before the advent of European Neolithic societies. The failure of European authorities to properly recognise these Ways in no way negates them as legitimate. 

These First Peoples Ways carry an imprimatur which comes from life itself. They have an existential standing which exists outside of the workings of any European (or other non-indigenous place) authority. They exist as a product of the working of forces operating on a much higher level than those of Westminster Parliaments (for example).

People-without-country are in no position to construct authoritative models of the lives of peoples-with-countries. The Western working class, for example, was created when people were driven off the land upon which they formerly lived and worked. Landless working people may acquire a small block of land, and a sense of identity based on the modern nation-state (their ‘country’) but this does not convert them into peoples-with-countries.  There are two entirely different modes of Being.

Modern forms of production of representations include attempts by some to try to justify First Peoples Ways by relying on entirely Western categories and concepts. To seek to interpret – and seek recognition for – First Peoples practices as form of ‘agriculture’ is one example. Similarly the attempts to recognise First Peoples sky narratives as effort by early ‘scientists’ and ‘astronomers’.

Such well-intentioned attempts invariably result in reinforcing a privilege for the clusters of Western concepts which are themselves the product of European history.  This is done at the cost of making a mockery of the concepts which are the product of First Peoples lived interactions with their surroundings over a much longer period. Key aspects of First Peoples realities are rendered nonsense in the process.

One of the healing challenges for conceptual craftspeople is to move from a modern point of view and to work towards crafting forms of representation which are bi-culturally balanced. That is, the move has to go beyond ‘post-modern’ as well as going beyond ‘modern’.

While there are non-indigenous people who seek to insert their voices into the places life has reserved for senior lawmen, there is a requirement that they defer to the real authorities on such matters. From proclaiming how things must be, in the 21st C the healing move is to respectfully relating.

This attitudinal shift  removes the dominating privileges which Western Ways of life have proclaimed for themselves. In their place the shift has to be from a ‘top-down’ stance to a ‘side-by-side’ mode of cultural partnership. That is, from non-indigenous dominating and manipulating to learning how to relate and to do so be means which systematically recognise the significance of senior men’s higher practices.

The fact is that many Western intellectuals cannot grasp the significance of the higher practices in maintaining a well-tempered cosmos. Their thinking remains grounded in entirely Western unconscious-in-culture; worldview; metaphysic; cosmology (call it what you will).

Consequently they remain within the comfort zones of their own conceptual prison-houses, where (in return for some sort of living) they can fashion the fetishes required to please their modern masters. It is the age of mass production.

The challenge life presents us with in this country is not to render First Peoples lives significant in Western terms but to reform Western thinking in order to better able to recognise (and relate to) First Peoples Ways.

We have to stop looking so hard with entirely Western eyes. Such eyes have a professional deformation.

We have to begin to learn to see with eyes which are properly connected to our surroundings in this country.

This may be a major challenge – but it is not an impossible one.

To a great extent , we (who are not initiated men) can only mark out a space for the voices of First Peoples senior men. We non-initiated cannot complete the picture on our own. We cannot provide the full story. That said, some insights are possible. First Peoples senior men have acted as mentors for anthropologists and others. They continue to try to instill some understanding in our Westernised minds.

Bruce (Japaljari) Reyburn – August 2017


A continent of metaphysicians – and their apprentices

James Cowan (1989 ‘Mysteries of the Dream-time: Spiritual Life of the Australian Aborigines’) has written:


“Recognizing the Dreaming as a living reality, however, demands a fundamental shift in the attitudes of everyone concerned. It requires, firstly, that the Dreaming is seen for what it is: a metaphysical statement about the origins of mankind as a spiritual being.”


Cowan’s words ring true to me. In my analysis of Warumungu systems of relationships – in which Being is signified by Dreamings – it looked to me that the concerns were about relationships of a higher order than those whose conceptions of ‘reality’ were rooted in biology or other Western notions of bodily life.


The origins of mankind as a ‘spiritual being’ however, may suggest that this event was something like the origins of some other cultural feature – say, the acquisition of cooking fire. That is, to suggest a prior condition – some kind of ‘animal’ or otherwise ‘incomplete’ level of existence.


It is far to easy, in these secular times, to ‘blow away’ any reference to man as a spiritual being. Too easy to dismiss. What brand of ‘spirituality’ would you prefer? “Spirituality” is set against materially real in these days – and thus is put in the category of ’unreal’.


In posing the issue as one which smuggles in through the back door what we are attempting to dispose of via the front door, we may fail to properly address the problem which confronts us.


Metaphysical spiritual Being


Rather than man as a spiritual being, with origins as developing out of some prior condition, what happens if we regard Dreaming as a metaphysical statement about life as an existential Being, of which we have always been.


That is, in place of a modern materialist interpretation which dominates our imaginary origins – we need to learn to see our true origins as part of life emerging as a signifying being (and that materialist means of interpreting experience are one of the means by which we signify but not one which enjoys are privileged position vis-à-vis all other contenders).


Cowan goes on to say:


“So long as the Dreaming is regarded merely an as assortment of myths that have little more than a quixotic value for the rest of Australians, then the Dreaming will always be demeaned as a metaphysical event. Men and women of goodwill, both European and Aboriginal, must begin to regard the mysteries of the Dreaming as being important in their own lives in the here-and-now. They must begin to see the Dreaming as a spiritual condition, rather than simply as a word denoting the creation-time of Aborigines. Indeed, the idea that Dreaming is an on-going metaphysical, rather than an historical event is the only way this change can be brought about.” (Cowan 1989:119-120)



While I am personally not inclined to become too ‘spiritual’ about all this, I do agree with Cowan that we need to learn to fully appreciate the great and lasting value of the high achievement of First Peoples in their comprehensive mapping of where things fit into life – and of the corresponding challenge for our comparatively simpleminded means of interpreting experience to transcend our own limitations and come up with new systems.


For me the trans-signification of life which is clear in First Peoples systems of signification demonstrates a through-going respect for ensuring that all aspects of life are categorized in their proper place. While modern Western means of categorization produce ‘things’ First Peoples Ways insist that ‘things’ must be in their proper place.


There is not a system in which a natural or material ‘thing’ has an additional message attached (it belongs in this particular niche) but, rather, a highly polished system of categorization which relates a figure or text to its generative context. This is the highest form of art.


Categories within such systems operate on a higher level – one which respects a host of existential factors of the kind modern science insisted on being jettisoned (in order to better understand life!).


Naturalism is a cultural code which seeks to strip other messages away from our means of interpreting experience.


Life as lived, on the other hand, went in completely the opposite direction to that of the parlor games of modern science. It is crucially important that we relate to the rest of life with systems of signification which do not systematically make a mockery out of the whole of life.


In agreeing that First Peoples Ways can be viewed as the collective work of countless metaphysicians (acting as eco-wizards when restoring balance was called for) the way is not necessary opened up for New Agers to assume they can simply embrace First Peoples as kindred spirits.


Acts of cultural partnership presume that relationships are underwritten, and produced by, genuine systems of reciprocity – that is, the balanced exchange of ‘things’ of real value. Expropriating Dreaming runs contrary to the spirit of cultural partnership. Inserting oneself into the position of expert in indigenous Dreaming knowledge is not the way to go.


Rather, re-balancing life carries ‘lesser’ roles. Learning from life’s masters is one such role.


One aspect to the task at hand is to enable and empower those who – as a result of choices made by life itself – have come to embody Dreaming knowledge and law.