UNDERSTANDING ABORIGINAL CULTURE – AND OUR OWN
Copyright, Dr. A.B. Kelly, 28th July 2000
Figure 1: Trackers Peter and Stanley at Finke 1953
There is both ignorance and confusion about Aboriginal Culture. There are a number of reasons for this situation. Few Australians have any contact with Aborigines. There are also the deliberate distortions introduced by the ‘Aboriginal Industry’ and a lack of any general understanding as to the importance of culture. There is an even greater lack of understanding of what constitutes the essence of a culture.
I was one of a small number of non-aborigines in the 1950’s who had the opportunity to live and work with Aborigines who retained their tribal culture. I was one of an even smaller group who were fully accepted by tribal Aborigines, and invited by the elders to attend secret ceremonies, and to accept initiation – which I declined. I set out to understand them and their culture. At that stage I had a relatively slight understanding of Anthropology and Philosophy. One of the first books I had bought when I left school in 1944 was Elkin’s ‘Aboriginal Men of High Degree’.
After 40 years of working life, I undertook Tertiary studies and Postgraduate research for 14 years, seeking to put my lifetime experience into context and to make sense of my observations in the field. I obtained my Doctorate in 1998.
In the April 2000 issue of Quadrant, Peter Howson, a previous Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, commented on the state of barbarism that is now apparent in every remote Aboriginal community. Unfortunately this reversion to barbarism is not limited to remote communities. Before anything can be done to try to repair this situation, we have to understand its causes.
Howson quoted a 1999 report by Boni Robertson of Griffith University, Queensland, which stated:
“The degree of violence and destruction in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities cannot be adequately described. The Task Force found evidence of all forms of physical, psychological, cultural and structural violence being perpetrated, and while many may consider the violence to be a characteristic of indigenous cultures there are other factors that must be considered.
“Appalling acts of physical brutality and sexual violence are being perpetrated within some families and across communities to a degree previously unknown in indigenous life. Sadly, many of the victims are women and children, young and older people now living in a constant state of desperation and despair.
“A majority of the informants believe that the rise in violence in Aboriginal communities can be attributed to the so-called ‘Aboriginal Industry’. When a community has to deal with three men raping a three year old child, who was raped by another offender ten days later, there is a crisis of huge proportions.”
The horrific tale told by Peter Howson comes as no surprise to me. I was privileged to work closely with tribal Aboriginals in the Northern Territory in the 1950`s, and have maintained my interest since then. While the reversion to savagery in Aboriginal communities, detailed by Peter Howson, has affected the situation from 1970 on, the seeds of that decline in the Northern Territory had already been initiated in the 1960`s.
The problem is essentially a problem of culture. The nature and role of culture has to be understood before we can hope to appreciate the genesis of the problem that Howson describes. It has its origin in cultural challenges with which Aboriginal society has not successfully coped. What follows is a diagnosis, which we have to get right before we can make any attempt to prescribe a cure.
To understand the extent of this problem we first have to understand the essential nature of a culture. The roots of a culture are to be found in the ideas, which the people of that culture take for granted, as to the meaning and purpose of human life. (Dix 1967,7)
Every culture is ultimately based upon a belief system, which tells the members of that culture who and what they are, and what the world is all about. This is the central role of a culture. Humans are made in such a way that they need a culture to complete them. We have an innate need of a culture, and we cannot live without one, nor without creating one. A culture provides the necessary matrix for each individual’s development. (Midgley 1978,286) A person’s culture is literally that person’s second nature.
In Australia, we currently have the opportunity to observe the effects of cultural breakdown in both the broad Australian society and in Aboriginal society. Aboriginal society has been subjected to an inevitable attack on its cultural foundations.
Western societies generally, including Australian society, have also been subjected to an attack on their cultural foundations. The attack on Aboriginal society came from the outside; the attack on Western society comes from within. The consequences are similar, the differences in outcomes being primarily one of degree.
Already in the 1950’s, Central Australian Aborigines were experiencing the effects of the inevitable external attack on their culture from the mere presence of a Western culture. Many young Aborigines were reluctant to learn the belief system, which was the foundation of their culture. However, in the majority of cases, an effective accommodation between the two cultures had been reached. Every cattle station supported a homogenous aboriginal camp where Aborigines were able to maintain the cultural ceremonies, which were vital to the transmission of their cultural beliefs. The status of elders also helped maintain internal tribal discipline. At the same time the camp provided a source of labor for the cattle station.
The two main disasters that overtook Aborigines in the 1960’s, were the decision to apply Award standards to Aboriginal workers on stations, and the decision to remove the prohibition on Aborigines drinking. The Award ensured that the homogenous camps would be disbanded, with the Aborigines gravitating to towns or settlements; the second disaster, Alcohol, ensured their total demoralisation and the subsequent inability to preserve their culture.
The inability of Aborigines to handle alcohol is similar to the inability of Europeans to handle heroin. Their inability to handle alcohol had been recognised everywhere there was contact between the two societies, and prohibition was a universal consequence.
Europeans had been culturally and physically exposed to alcohol for thousands of years, and yet they still produce alcoholics who cannot tolerate alcohol. However in the 1960’s we were busy abandoning many of our own cultural restraints. So why should we continue to impose restraints on others, which earlier generations - who were clearly not as enlightened - had found necessary?
Traditional Aboriginal culture was not going to be able to survive indefinitely, but the inevitable passage into Australian society should have been eased, not made almost impossible by the dehumanising and de-culturing effects of these twin disasters of Alcohol and Award.
The Aboriginal belief system was already under threat from the mere presence of non-Aborigines. The fundamental Aboriginal belief in the importance of increase or maintenance ceremonies was challenged by the relative prosperity of other Australians who did not participate in the ceremonies. The other fundamental belief that all individuals were reincarnated from the land left the origin of non-Aboriginal Australians unexplained.
Both internal and external attacks on the culture of a society can result in cultural breakdown. As humans need a culture to complete them, successful attacks on their culture will reduce them as human beings. The state of nature adverted to by Hobbs, where the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short, is the life of man without a viable culture. The obvious consequences of cultural breakdown include increased crime, increased suicide and increased substance abuse. We cannot understand these symptoms without first having an understanding of the nature and role of culture in a society.
There was a degree of truth in the old paradigm of primitive Aborigines as a proud, innocent and noble race. In my experience, initiated Aborigines, particularly the elders were self-confident and proud. They were convinced of the truth of their own cultural beliefs. By way of contrast, other Australians have largely lost sight of the cultural beliefs upon which their society was founded.
The pride of the initiated Aborigines came from their knowing who they were, what they were, and what their role in the world was. In contrast, other Australians do not now enjoy the same degree of confidence, as did the tribal Aborigines, in the belief system upon which their own culture and society was founded.
The certainty enjoyed by earlier generations of Australians had faded over time. It had left behind many institutions and practices that it had influenced, but the heart of the culture, the Christian belief system which told Australians who and what they were, and what the world was all about, was failing.
In Western society there are potentially three main vehicles of cultural transmission. The first, the most important, and potentially the most effective, is the family. The second is the school, and the third is the church. But the family often requires the cultural support of both school and church to be fully effective.
For various reasons the potential effectiveness of these cultural supports has been significantly reduced. Culture has its origin in the common cultus, the ideas which the people take for granted as to the meaning and purpose of human life. The ideals of Christianity, which underpin Western culture, had in earlier generations become so widely accepted, so much ‘part of the wallpaper’, that they were eventually taken for granted.
It was assumed that these ideals were part of our nature rather than part of our cultural nature, so in the name of liberty, one of the ideals that Christianity had fostered, the foundation of those ideals was removed from schooling. State education proudly became free, universal and secular some three or four generations ago. Most families are now into the fourth or fifth generation that has failed to get this essential cultural support from State education.
The categorisation of religion as unnecessary in the State education system, treating it as an optional extra, like piano lessons or ballet, has in turn diminished the church, and has reduced the church’s effectiveness as a cultural support of the family. I am not suggesting that this is the only reason for the diminution of the church’s role. The church has problems in the understanding and communication of its message, which I have considered elsewhere. (Rethinking Christianity, 1999)
The lack of support for the family, in its role as the primary transmitter of culture, places additional burdens on families. Many families do not have the cultural resources to cope. The situation can only get worse, as the vast majority of people get their mores; their pattern of behaviour, from what everybody else is doing, as Kohlberg has shown. A culturally deteriorating environment breeds further deterioration. Families everywhere are fighting the same loosing battle.
In the Aboriginal context the situation is far worse than in the general Australian society, but the diminishing cultural standard of the Australian society means that effective help is certainly not on its way.
Without the cultural support of a credible belief system, a society will inevitably deteriorate. This deterioration begins in the families that lack support from church and school. The consequences in the broader Australian society are similar to those being experienced by Aboriginals, but so far the consequences are on a much smaller scale.
The cultural deterioration in Aboriginal society is far worse than in the broader society. There are a number of reasons for this. Aboriginal culture was transmitted through and beyond the process of initiation. The foundational myths were a male preserve. Only males were initiated. A non-initiated person was a non-person, with no rights.
Early contacts with Aborigines in remote areas were mainly made by European males. Aborigines were willing to ‘lend’ their females for a consideration. The result was a growing number of half-castes. While some early half-castes were initiated and so incorporated into the tribal system, it was soon realised by the elders that male half-castes presented the tribe with a problem. They were not the product of both their Aboriginal parents, so they could not be initiated or be fitted into the strict marriage system. In this system who a person could marry was strictly determined by the moiety or ‘skin’ of both parents. Once it was realized that half-casts were not the offspring of both Aboriginal parents, they became an anomaly. These half-casts came to be despised in the tribe. As a tribal elder expressed the position to me, ‘White fellow all-right, black fellow all-right, yellow fellow rubbish’. Aborigines always referred to themselves as black fellows. A retired Aboriginal Welfare Officer with whom I had been on patrol, was recently told by a black fellow in Darwin ‘There used to be black fellows, and there used to be white fellows, now there are black fellows and white fellows and there are all these Bloody Aborigines!’
Besides rejection by the tribe, half casts were usually abandoned by their white progenitors. They were in danger of having no cultural formation of any kind, and growing up savage. There were some notable exceptions. There were those who were acknowledged and brought up by their white father. There were others who were rescued, by Missionaries, Police or Welfare Officers, from the tribal situation in which their chances of survival until adulthood were remote. These ‘rescued children’ were generally fostered to white foster parents. In either case they had the opportunity of absorbing the culture of their white parent or foster parents. Those who were not rescued are seldom around to comment.
One of the symptoms of the present cultural deterioration of Australian society is the push to denigrate earlier generations. One notable feature of this trend is the development of an ‘Aboriginal Industry’, devoted to blaming earlier Australians for the poor circumstances of many present day Aborigines and half-casts.
A recent invention of the Aboriginal Industry is the claim that half-caste children were stolen from the tribe. In my experience, these children were rescued from a perilous situation. Male children were not likely to be left to survive until maturity. They were rejected as yellow fellows, and even if they had survived they would not be initiated or allowed to marry. Female children were not as readily killed, but they could look forward to a lifetime of use as the sexual playthings of all and sundry.
Half-castes generally could not be incorporated into the Aboriginal culture. Unless rescued by whites they had no hope of incorporation into any culture. As Hill records “Another tragedy was the fate of the half caste child, mother Aboriginal, father Asiatic or European. Belonging to no definite race, family or tribe, it was often enough at this time destroyed at birth or abandoned by the woman.” (1973,38)
I only ever knew one person who was stolen as a child. He was a full blood Aboriginal who had been stolen by the local Territory tribe from a Queensland tribe. The Aborigines practiced infanticide in hard times, and when the rains came they would raid other tribes for children, killing any adults who stood in their way.
One of the deliberate confusions introduced by the Aboriginal Industry into the discussion of Aboriginal interests is the blurring of the distinctions between Aborigines and pseudo-Aborigines, persons who claim to have some Aboriginal lineage. This strategy only developed when it became financially beneficial to be deemed Aboriginal. The real gulf between Aborigines and part-Aborigines was immense in the recent past. Except in some rare early circumstances, those that followed the initial contacts between white and black, half casts were generally rejected by Aborigines. Aborigines would always relate much more readily to whites. From a strict cultural perspective, the only people who are culturally Aborigines are initiated full-blood people and their full-blood family. The rest are pseudo-Aborigines.
Burnam Burnam, the Aboriginal philosopher, writer and actor, was a lot more Aboriginal than many who claim to speak on behalf of Aborigines. He suggested that the authorities should listen only to full bloods on Aboriginal matters, rather than those who claim to be Aboriginal but who have, as he put it, ‘a severe pigmentation problem’. Burnam Burnam’s view was that the attitude of the chromatically challenged to the real Aborigines, was that the real Aborigines exist to perform for the tourists, while the half casts were made to look after the money side of things. As Michael Warby has pointed out, the real Aborigines are now being used for the patronage opportunities of the Aboriginal Industry, and for the display of moral vanity by the politically correct. He identifies moral vanity as the force which attracts people to causes which provide a sense of moral worthiness but which have no regard to logic, evidence, cause and effect or consequences. A prime example of the triumph of moral vanity over common sense is provided by the story of Ngulupi Station under so-called Aboriginal control, reported in the Weekend Australian of 22-23 July 2000. Aborigines are now suffering oppression by pseudo-Aborigines on almost every Aboriginal settlement in Australia.
Prior to the disastrous decision to make alcohol freely available to Aborigines, these pseudo-Aborigines had a motive to distinguish themselves from Aborigines. If they maintained normal community standards they could seek exemption from the prohibition on alcohol, but this exemption could be withdrawn if they abused alcohol. This system worked to the advantage of many individuals, and of their families. This incentive was removed when it became financially advantageous to be deemed Aboriginal, and alcohol was available to all. The Australian government provides financial benefits to Aborigines, real or pseudo, beyond those available to the general community. This policy, when linked to the policy on alcohol, is demonstrably counter-productive, but is persisted in because of the appeal of the Aboriginal Industry to the morally vain. Ironically, the Aboriginal Industry is also largely financed by the Australian government.
On many forms published by the Australian government, Universities and other Institutions, people are asked whether they are of Aboriginal descent. I know of people with no Aboriginal ancestry who have adopted the policy of always answering yes to this question. These people urge all Australians to do this so that an appropriate distinction will then have to be officially made between the real Aborigines and pseudo-Aborigines. Burnam Burnam’s wish would then become reality.
Let us return to our consideration of the broad cultural question. A culture will find its expression in the rituals and interpersonal relationships of a society. It will also be expressed in the institutions of the society, and in the artifacts and art of the society. These expressions are not the culture of the society, as some tend to believe. They are all cultural artifacts. The culture is the underlying belief system.
If the nature of culture is to be understood in greater depth, every culture has to be understood as a process. Every culture is a process of human self-creation. People make cultures and cultures make people. We are made in such a way that we need a culture to complete us. As our second nature, our culture provides the necessary matrix for our individual development. Our culture also determines the range of possibilities of that individual development.
Twelve thousand years ago Europeans, Asians and Aboriginals were all at a similar Paleolithic stage of material development. However while other cultures moved on to more highly developed stages, Aboriginal culture remained largely static. Why should this be? The answer is to be found in an essential cultural difference. The difference is in the underlying belief systems. Changes were wrought in the belief systems of Europeans and Asians while the Aboriginal belief system remained static.
A surprising feature of Aboriginal culture throughout Australia is its essential uniformity. There were no great differences in the culture throughout the country, despite vast differences in climate and physical resources. The belief system again accounts for this uniformity. We could contrast this uniformity with the diversity between belief systems elsewhere over similar large areas. The area of Australia is slightly larger than the area covered by the old Roman Empire at its maximum extent, for example, with its diversity of peoples and beliefs.
There were two fundamental Aboriginal beliefs. These were the belief in the importance of increase or maintenance ceremonies and the belief in reincarnation. When an Aboriginal was initiated he was told who he was, which Dreamtime ancestor he was the reincarnation of. He was told his secret name. His main role in life was then to ritually repeat the activity of that ancestor. The focus was therefore always on the past, on the Dreamtime, never on the future. There was no concept of progress, or even of a future where things could be different.
The other fundamental belief was in the efficacy of increase or maintenance ceremonies. A ritual relationship between man and the physical environment was thought to maintain that environment and ensure the supply of food sources.
If a source of food disappeared, the problem was in the performance of the ceremony, not in the failure to conserve the source of food, much less to attempt to conserve or propagate food. No such effort at conservation or propagation was ever made. Such an effort would have violated their fundamental belief. In my experience tribal Aborigines refused to be interested in the process of growing food, despite seeing it happen. I could not even interest them in attempting to grow pitjuri, a native tobacco of which they are inordinately fond. Needless to say this fundamental belief that everything was accomplished by ceremony, was contrary to the facts.
Captain Cook, in 1770, was surprised that despite the proximity to Australia of islands that produce coconut trees, these trees were not to be found in Australia. Coconuts propagate by sea, and they wash onto our shores today, as far South as Sydney Harbor. Coconuts are an ancient plant, and the tropical and subtropical coasts of Australia would have been covered with coconut trees when the Aboriginals first arrived. They must have all been eaten out and no new seed, which washed up on the shore, was ever allowed to regenerate. Cook must have realised the connection between the absence of coconuts on the mainland and the activities of Aboriginals, as he only planted coconuts on uninhabited offshore islands, for the survivors of shipwrecks.
The only vegetable food that was eaten by Aborigines and is now eaten by other Australians is the Macadamia nut. A small remnant population with extremely hard shells survived in Queensland. They now flourish as far South as Adelaide. There has been a report that the ancestor of the Macadamia was in Australia before the ancestor of the eucalypt. There should have been as many varieties of Macadamia as there are of Eucalypt – perhaps even soft-shelled Macadamias. Like the coconut, macadamias were a victim of the belief in the importance of ceremony rather than in action. The remnant saved can thank their hard shells, or rather; we should be thankful that the shells were so hard.
The Aboriginal culture was a culture doomed to eventual self-destruction as it destroyed the physical basis of its own survival. There is evidence that the numbers of Aborigines had been far greater in the past than they were upon the arrival of Europeans. They were rescued from their inevitable fate by that arrival.
As a process of self-creation, a culture is capable of being a cumulative process. In a progressive culture, each generation can build on the accomplishments of the previous generation. This is not to say that beneficial progress is inevitable. A culture can progress technically while regressing morally. Anecdotal evidence is that in Western cultures each generation is brighter than the previous one. This is supported by the objective need to continually lift the norm in Intelligence Testing.
This phenomenon appears to also occur at the family level, in the moral sphere. Families whose members tend to criminality tend to produce criminals and families whose members maintain high moral standards tend to produce moral children. How much of this is nature and how much is nurture is difficult to decide. But any Police Officer will tell you that his workload stems from a very small minority of the population. This minority is now growing due to the lack of cultural support to those families that most need it.
In a static culture, such as Australian Aboriginal culture, it is difficult to see the prospect of any progress. Change in a cultural pattern seems to depend primarily on initiatives from within the culture, rather than from outside. Everyone who has had contact with real Aborigines, particularly in those areas of Australia where there was no contact with other races prior to the arrival of Europeans, has described the Aborigines as childlike. Objective support for this anecdotal view has been provided by a series of tests, based on the work of Piaget, which were carried out in Hermannsburg, a remote Central Australian Aboriginal Mission, in the 1960’s.
Piaget is an educational psychologist who describes three distinct periods of mental development through which children pass. The first stage lasts until about age 2, the second to age 11 and then there begins the development of the final stage, where children begin to reason realistically about the future and to be able to deal with abstractions. The capacity to deal with abstract matters is the mark of mental maturity.
A paper by M.M. de Lemos, who carried out the Hermannsburg tests, is republished in The Psychology of Aboriginal Australians (1973) Kearney & Os. In the group of 80 children tested by de Lemos in the 1960’s, half the children were Aborigines and the other half were seven-eights Aboriginal, having had a white great-grandfather. The environment of both groups was identical. The children with a trace of European ancestry showed markedly better performances in the tests, while the general standard of the full-blood Aborigines implied ‘an inability to form logical concepts or to apply logical operations to the organization and systematisation of concrete data . . . affecting the level of logical thinking in all areas.’ Later studies appear to have avoided distinguishing between full blood and part Aboriginal subjects.
This is not to denigrate Aborigines. There is more to a person than measured mental development. A real Aborigine who is immersed in his own culture is in no way inferior as a person, but he perceives the world differently.
The remoteness of European ancestry in the Hermannsburg test group shows that it took some time for Aborigines to realise that those, who they would later categorise as yellow fellows, could not fit into the marriage structure of the tribe.
A Masters Thesis by Margaret S. Bain, published as The Aboriginal-White Encounter (1992) concludes that Aborigines are only capable of first-degree abstractions. These are abstractions that retain a direct link with empirical reality. Westerners regularly recognize and utilise second-degree abstractions, abstract concepts that have no direct link to concrete reality. Westerners understand the world differently from Aborigines. Bain also finds that while social processes in western society are both interactional and transactional, utilising both first degree and second-degree abstractions, Aboriginal social transactions are purely interactional, utilising only first-degree abstractions.
This analysis came too late to prevent a number of tragedies in the black-white encounter. When whites gave food or other gifts to Aborigines in early encounters, the Aborigines interpreted this as a duty. When the gift was not repeated this could be interpreted as a failure to obey a law, and the white man could be punished by spearing. A number of people speared during early contacts were known to be well disposed and generous to Aborigines.
In The Psychology of Aboriginal Australians, we find that Mathew had concluded in 1910 that Aborigines ‘were unreflective and averse to both abstract reasoning and sustained mental effort’. In 1872 Wake had suggested that to speak ‘of intellectual phenomena in relation to the Australian Aborigines is somewhat of a misnomer’ The explanations of these phenomena put forward at the time were all evolutionist, the assumption being that social development could be understood on the biological model.
I would argue that Aboriginal mental development is better understood as a function of their particular approach to human cultural self-creation.
Aboriginal Australians became locked into a non-progressive culture, which limited their possibilities of mental and cultural self-development. The fact that a small admixture of European genes has a significant effect on mental development seems to indicate a Lamarckian development in the progeny, rather than a Darwinian one.
These differences between real Aborigines and pseudo-Aborigines have to be taken seriously if Aboriginal policy is to be effective. Most Aboriginal policy is premised on the assumption that there is no difference between Aborigines and pseudo-Aborigines, or between Aborigines and Europeans. This is clearly not the case. Aborigines think, understand and act differently. They are not usually capable of the self-motivation we take for granted.
Aborigines find any contact with the white man’s law confusing. In their culture, punishment is immediate, physical and mandatory. There is no room for a plea in mitigation. The rituals of our law are largely meaningless charades to them. The approach of our law to offenders is constantly changing. Law enforcement in 2000 is different from what it was in 1950. It is more different from what it was in the 1890’s. It is vastly different from what it was in 1788. Is it reasonable to apply the latest fashion of such variable standards to people whose idea of law was set in stone thousands of years ago? It makes great business for the Aboriginal Industry, but it does nothing for the Aborigines.
The present day situation of real Aborigines is worse than it ever was previously. Most of the damage that has been inflicted on Aborigines was done with the best of motives, but in ignorance of the reality. The activities of good-hearted but ignorant do-gooders have hastened the passing of the Aborigines more rapidly in the last half Century than ever before. The cynical Aboriginal Industry is still hard at work. It is time for a rethink.
The primary cause of the disastrously mistaken policies that are applied to Aborigines is the failure to recognize how different they are, with the consequent projection of Western attitudes and concepts onto them. Their mind-set is fundamentally different from ours. Western man is oriented towards the future. Aboriginal man is oriented to the present and the past.
As we have seen, Aborigines think, understand and act differently from other Australians. In scientific studies de Lemos found an absence of the ability to form logical concepts, which affected the level of their logical thinking in all areas. Margaret S. Bain concluded that Aborigines are only capable of first-degree abstractions, abstractions that retain a direct link with empirical reality. Bain also found that Aborigines only ever utilize first-degree abstractions, those that have a direct link to concrete reality, even in their social transactions. These studies confirmed earlier, less rigorous observations, which had concluded that Aborigines were unreflective and averse to abstract reasoning.
Western thought is essentially abstract. There is a premium on clarity of thought, and on the making of distinctions, which comprise the essence of clear thought. However clear thinking can be impeded by faulty basic assumptions, lack of knowledge or by the `thought control` of political correctness. All of these factors are affecting and have affected Aboriginal policy. Aborigines have suffered and still suffer from mistaken policies.
The most basic distinction is the one that should be made between Aborigines and pseudo-Aborigines. This distinction is based on the distinctiveness of Aboriginal thought patterns, which does not apply to pseudo-Aborigines. Real Aborigines are in need of specifically tailored policies, which take account of their cultural base. Their cultural base is essentially Paleolithic in both material and mental terms.
That is not to say that there should not be appropriate policies for disadvantaged pseudo-Aborigines, but because the circumstances of Aborigines and pseudo-Aborigines are quite different, the policies should be different. There is no real reason for any difference between the policies that should be applied to disadvantaged pseudo-Aborigines and those applied to any other disadvantaged Australians. There are compelling reasons for quite different policies to be applied to real Aborigines. Such policies must take into account the real differences between Aborigines and other Australians.
The projection of Western thought patterns onto Aborigines is particularly evident in the projection of spirituality onto Aborigines and of sacredness onto physical sites. The distinction between the sacred and the secular is an abstract distinction that has never been drawn by Aborigines.
Aborigines maintain a barrier of secrecy around their foundational myths, which is extended to the memory-aids pertaining to those myths and even to the locations where ceremonies pertaining to those myths are usually performed. It is a Western projection to call these things sacred. There are no sacred Aboriginal sites. There are secret Aboriginal sites – secret from the non-initiated – but these are not necessarily fixed. I attended a secret ceremony that the Native Affairs staff knew was immanent, and which some of them intended to attend, but the location was switched by the Aborigines at the last minute.
It is often claimed that a site is sacred because it has a Dreamtime story attached to it. This is total non-sense. Every physical feature of any note had an explanation of its existence in terms of the activities of some Dreamtime agent, just as we explain such features in geophysical or biological terms. Being explained by a story does not make a site sacred, otherwise there would be no non-sacred sites.
The projection of Western thought onto Aborigines is also evident in the supposed spirituality of Aborigines. The concept of spirit only has meaning as the antithesis of matter. It is an abstract concept, which is not well grasped by many in the Western thought-world. A spiritual perception is the perception of something that has no material existence. Aborigines had no concept of anything that did not have a direct material connection. Spiritual perception is most evident in moral perceptions, particularly in the perception that some practice, which is widely accepted, is not moral. A classical example is provided by Xenophanes assertion that the Olympian gods could not be gods at all, because of the immoral actions that were attributed to them. As late as Hesiod these stories had not been challenged. The Aborigines were certainly not more spiritually advanced than were the Greeks of Homer’s time.
It is time we distinguished real Aborigines from pseudo-Aborigines, and treated them differently. They have to be treated as they are and not as they are thought to be, in some romantic projection of Rousseau’s concept of the noble savage. We have to realize the importance of culture. This entails the recognition that the roots of any viable culture can only repose in ideas about the meaning and purpose of human life that are not in conflict with empirical reality. This is a challenge we all have to face.
Bain M.S. (1992) The Aboriginal-White Encounter
Darwin, SIL-AAIB Occasional Paper.
Dix G. (1967) Jew and Greek Westminster, Dacre Press
Hill E. (1973) Kabbarli Sydney, Angus & Robertson
Kearney & Os (1973) The Psychology of Aboriginal Australians
Sydney, John Wiley & Sons.
Kelly A.B. (1999) `Rethinking Christianity in the Light
Of Process Thought` in Quodlibet, July 1999.
Kelly A.B. (1999) The Process of the Cosmos: Philosophical
Theology and Cosmology USA, Dissertation.com
Kohlberg. (1983) Moral Stages: A Current Formulation
Levine & Hewer and a Response to Critics Basel, Karger
Midgley M. (1978) Beast and Man Sussex, Harvester Press