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Bridging the chasms that blind cultural understanding

Aboriginal people providing drawings & audio recordings,  May 1939 (South Australian Museum)


TUMBY BAY - When I left Papua New Guinea and returned to Australia in the 1970s I went to work recording sacred sites in what was then the North-West Aboriginal Reserve in South Australia.

The job was funded by the Commonwealth government through a grant program channelled through the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies and administered by the South Australian Museum.

I think part of the reason I scored the job was because of my time as a kiap. The people who interviewed me made the erroneous assumption that because I had worked with Papua New Guinean people I could also work at an intellectual level with Aboriginal people.

It wasn’t until I actually got into the field I realised that assumption was mistaken.

If one was able to create a line of cultural polarity, we Europeans would probably be placed at one extreme and Aboriginal people at the other extreme.

Papua New Guineans would be located fairly close to us but nowhere near Australia’s indigenous people.

Over countless millennia (70,000 years perhaps), the people of the Western Desert among whom I worked had built a remarkable bridge between the woken and the unwoken world.

It was a multi-faceted feat of intellectualism which is difficult to define and still puzzles the western mind.

Graeme Connors probably got close to explaining this state of expanded consciousness when he described an Aboriginal character in one of his songs as having “the dreaming in his eyes”.

In the years since they were colonised, these poor people had every ill-informed and sometimes ill-intentioned travesty imaginable perpetuated on them.

There was a standing joke that politicians used to fly into the reserve on fact finding missions and ask the people what they wanted.

Faced with blank looks they would then start making suggestions. “What do you want? Your roads are pretty horrible, what about a new grader?”

And a new grader would duly turn up. There would be no money for fuel or spare parts and no provision made for maintenance.

In my travels throughout the reserve I frequently came across shiny new machinery and vehicles where they had been abandoned after they had broken down or their motors had seized.

And there I was, just another stranger in a long line of misunderstanding.

In my case the last thing the people needed was a puzzled young white fella asking them difficult questions about matters that were the business of the elders of the tribe.

What they did find attractive, however, was the shiny new LandRover with a Commonwealth government registration plate on it that I brought with me.

At the time of my arrival the powerful old men of the tribe were in an existential cultural struggle with their young men who were abandoning customary ways for the bright lights of Alice Springs and all the superficial glitter it offered, including booze and so called ‘sit down money’ (welfare pensions).

Somehow their request for assistance had been misinterpreted by the powers that be as a request that their sacred sites be recorded and put in a filing cabinet in Canberra.

But what they really wanted was help in getting their young men to stay in the bush so they could be initiated and taught customary law. That’s why the LandRover excited the elders.

It took me a while to work this out and the old men were very gentle in the way they did the teaching.

They made allowances for the fact I was a very young uninitiated man and even took me out to some of their sacred places.

Their spiritual realm, that place where the woken world met the unwoken world of the dreamtime, was a dynamic entity. The songs and myths were an ever changing phenomenon.

At any time, an elder travelling in the dream world could come back with new knowledge and nuance to alter the narrative of a particular mythology.

Once I had abandoned the idea of trying to record such a dynamic system on paper, life became a lot easier.

We used the LandRover as the elders intended, and carted groups of young men into the bush to learn the law and visit the places of significance in the various myths.

As the driver, I had a free ticket to come along for the ride. I was even given my own small sacred wooden tjurunga boards and honorary membership of the waiuta, or possum, totem.

I learnt a lot about this very different culture and added it to what I had learned in Papua New Guinea.

Both experiences profoundly altered my view of the world.

Nowadays as I look back on those times I am amazed at the cultural resilience I witnessed in Australia’s first people.

I am also amazed at the apparently innate ability of human beings to misunderstand each other. Rather than narrowing it seems that our cultural chasms continue to grow.

Despite that, and although I haven’t seen anyone “with the dreaming in their eyes” for a long time, I have a hope that they are still out there defeating ignorance and keeping their traditions alive.


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Philip Fitzpatrick

I think what tends to happen Joe is that the cultural past becomes idealised in a form that is largely superficial because it becomes seen through westernised eyes and loses its original significance.

You can see this among Aboriginal people and, indeed, many other cultural groups the world over.

The dreamtime, for instance, is now a Disneyescue shadow of what it once was and what it once meant.

Aboriginal culture is now held up as an example of ideal environmentalism but in reality Aboriginal people were just as good at trashing the countryside as the Europeans who came after them. That's a politically incorrect view but one that I think is true.

I'm Anglo-Irish but both the English and Irish versions of my culture bear little resemblance to their original forms.

In the 1960s and 1970s the Irish actually invented what was a new culture that was supposed to be authentic but was far from it. Irish folk music etc. was largely invented in that period under heavy influence from Irish Americans.

I imagine this has also been going on in Papua New Guinea.

It's a kind of transition in definition from a viable way of life to an impractical westernised homogenisation that simply doesn't work.

One day, I suspect, the whole world will look like California.

Joe Herman

Excellent article, Phil. There are many similarities between the communities of the Australian Aborigines and PNG in how we are dealing with the tension between the dream time and now.

As you know, we have gullibly embraced almost all aspects of the western cultural values that have landed at the shores of PNG.

One of the lasting outcomes is how today’s young people regard formal schooling for wisdom. This is evident and being played out in the classrooms.

For instance, many school children’s drama presentations depict a village lapun man as "longlong kanaka em nogat save". They project the lapuns as being “stupid” and "inogat save".

Schooling can teach students knowledge, but some wisdom can be gained from the lapun’s tutelage.

Growing up in the Enga has impacted my view of the world. Watching and hearing the lapuns helped me develop a dimension that is less apparent in formal schooling.

It helped me in navigating the tensions between two diametrically opposing value systems: a foreign system imposed on us and the Enga cultural value system.

I had the benefit of being immersed in the elders’ tutelage at the hausman; those wisdoms passed down have become my reliable source of strength as I navigate through a fast-changing world.

In today’s Enga, the hausman concept is of the past. The few remaining lapuns have moved in with the grandkids with a diminished role. Many live in makeshift shelters in shanty town at the edge of Wabag town.

The young aimlessly spend each day at the buai and loose cigarette market places along the only main road that leads to Porgera gold mine.

As others have asked, have we gone past the turning point to recoil back to what was?

Is there anything left of the "auu piuu petenge, auu piuu kitenge" (gutpela sidaun pasin) that we can revisit as a source of strength, the go to place as we recalibrate or journey?

Susan Conroy

Thanks Phil Fitzpatrick for this article. Cultural blindness releases destructive and terrible outcomes. Strategies for building cultural awareness need to start early and be nuanced. Regrettably it is rarely valued.

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