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.
INVERTED IMAGE OF THIS COUNTRY’S LIVING REALITIES
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).
MARK LANE JANGALA IS KURTUNGURLU FOR MILWAYI DREAMING
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.