TUMBY BAY - I’ve written a lot about Papua New Guinea over the years. I’ve also written a lot about Aboriginal Australia.
My writing has been as an observer and sometimes as a participant, but it has never been as a Papua New Guinean or an Aboriginal Australian because I am neither of those people.
This fact has occasionally been used to criticise what I write and I admit that such an argument has relevance.
I don’t know what it’s like to be a Papua New Guinean or an Aborigine. All I can do is use what I see and hear, and guess what it feels like.
Some people might say otherwise, but I don’t think this invalidates what I write.
I am well aware, perhaps more than most Australians, how oppressive has been the treatment of Aboriginal people.
I have also seen how difficult it has been for many Papua New Guineans to deal with the sudden changes in their lives brought about by colonialism and modernity.
I have tried to offer cautious and measured advice while at the same time always conscious of being an outsider.
And I recognise that sometimes it’s difficult not to come across as superior or arrogant.
For many years I worked with a tribal group in Australia’s Western Desert. I travelled with the elders and they showed me their country and told me things about it that they didn’t tell their own children.
They could see how the old ways were breaking down and didn’t trust their children with the information.
Much later, when those elders had all died, I went out into the country with their now grown up children to help them direct mining companies about where they could drill and where they could not drill.
In the process I discovered I knew a lot more about the country than those elders’ children. When we came to a place where the mining company wanted to drill those children would turn to me and ask whether it was alright.
I found this sad. Those old men should have trusted their children and passed on their secrets.
I’ve recounted this story to illustrate that an outsider’s view can sometimes be important and shouldn’t be discounted out of hand.
I’ve had similar experiences in Papua New Guinea.
As a kiap I recorded a lot of information in patrol reports and elsewhere. I also remember many things I was told by people long since dead: significant legends, customs no longer observed and skills that are long lost.
In the Star Mountains, for instance, I know where to get suitable stone to make axes, places where they can be ground and to a limited extent the methods of manufacture.
Many Papua New Guineans might think this is useless information when they can go into a hardware shop and buy a shiny new steel axe (or a chainsaw).
Maybe it is useless, but I still think it’s worth knowing.
The point is that, as an observer, it is something I know that many of the descendants of the people who showed me these things might not now know.
In that sense I think it is short sighted to dismiss the views of outsiders as irrelevant simply because they don’t have the lived experience of being you or your fellows.
While I can appreciate the annoying feeling of being preached to by outsiders who don’t understand you, I also think that the way many observers have been cowed by political correctness to the extent that they are uncomfortable expressing a view about something not their own is very sad and counterproductive.
It may just be that those outsiders are not intent upon denigrating you or your people and culture but are genuinely trying to be helpful.
Humble advice delivered by someone with no ulterior motive no matter where they come from can sometimes be immensely valuable.
It can also be utter claptrap not worth worrying about.
What is important is to listen, be polite and think about what they say.