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Accidental white heroes of Aboriginal culture


Songline at heart of secret men's business An academic project to chronicle one of Australia's great 'songlines' has run into trouble from an unexpected source. A front-page story in The Weekend Australian quoted Yankunytjajara elder Yami Lester damning an Australian National University and National Museum of Australia project as a 'Trojan horse into forbidden ground'.

'Saying they want to preserve our culture is rubbish,' said Lester. 'White do-gooders ... need their boundaries defined.' Lester, it should be emphasised, is widely respected for the quiet dignity of his lifelong campaigning on behalf of his people.

Anthropology and its relatives certainly have form. For many decades any desire to do the right thing by Aboriginal people ran a distant second to a lust for loot and kudos, to which the desert peoples of South Australia and the Northern Territory, including the Yankunytjajara, were particularly vulnerable.

On land of marginal use to the Europeans, they survived long enough for the emerging discipline of anthropology to arrive on the scene. And they were so accessible. The Overland Telegraph Line, and therefore a track, and then a railway line, ran right through their country. Central Australia became a happy hunting ground for anthropologists.

Among the first to get there were Frank Gillen and Baldwin Spencer, neither the kind of man you would want to have looking after your sacred knowledge. Gillen travelled north in 1874 as an uncomprehending rather than malicious 19-year-old telegraph operator who gawked at the young Aboriginal women and sent reports back to his mates in Adelaide marvelling at a diet of 'snakes and lizards and herbage'.

Spencer turned up 20 years later, a young academic star, and member of the Horn scientific expedition. He had attended as a student the first-ever lectures on anthropology at Oxford in 1882, and therefore knew all about the Aborigines. 'Just as the platypus laying its eggs and feebly suckling its young, reveals a mammal in the making,' he wrote, 'so does the Aboriginal show us, at least in broad outline, what early man must have been like ...'

When Spencer and his fellow expeditioners arrived at the Alice Springs telegraph station in July 1894 they were greeted by the officer-in-charge, Gillen. Spencer and Gillen got on famously, not least because both were fascinated by the Aborigines. After 20 years in central Australia Gillen knew a great deal about them, and Spencer knew that what Gillen knew was pure academic gold.

They agreed to write a book. Their classic Native Tribes of Central Australia was published only five years after their first meeting, but in that short time something important happened, to both men.

Gillen's years on the Line had made him deeply sympathetic to Aboriginal people, but with Spencer's endless grilling and prodding in dozens of letters he began to grasp something that sympathy alone had not revealed.

Almost quivering with excitement and incredulity, he dared to think that the Aboriginal spiritual world was not so different from the Catholic faith of his youth. Gillen was the first European to comprehend the universe of the 'Dream Time' (his neologism) and the 'songlines' of current dispute.

For his part, Spencer found he greatly enjoyed the company of Aboriginal people, took wonderful, humanising photographs of people going about the ordinary business of their daily lives, and came to realise that, as he put it with sharp irony, 'the black fellow has not perhaps any particular reason to be grateful to the white man'.

Pivotal in their epiphany was access to a huge ceremonial cycle of up to six ceremonies a day over three months of 1896–97, an unprecedented revelation of a vast spiritual world hitherto scarcely guessed at by Europeans. Just why the 'Aranda' (Arrente) men granted this extraordinary access has been much speculated upon.

Many motives may have played a part. Hunger, a consequence of the European invasion, was probably one — Gillen stumped up basic supplies for more than 200 people for several months so that the ceremonies could be conducted. Gratitude was another — several years earlier Gillen, as Sub-protector, had caused a violent cop to be put on trial for the murder of two Aboriginal men, an act appreciated by the Arrente but detested by the whites.

And perhaps there was a diplomatic motive, a reaching out through senior men to a people too powerful to be resisted? They may even have had cultural preservation in mind. T. G. H. Strehlow, working in adjacent areas a generation later, was asked by many senior men to provide a safe repository for their treasure. 

Many Aboriginal people have since been grateful to Spencer and Gillen and other anthropologists for doing rather more good than they intended or anticipated. Anthropology's records, artefacts and photographs have been crucial in transforming the European view of the Aboriginal world, and to the partial recovery by Aboriginal people of language, culture, land, and identity.

Lester's coruscating attack on the ANU-ANM project must be set against strong support for it, according to the Weekend Australian's report, from other members of Lester's community.

The real gratitude belongs to the Arrente men who made it all possible. But it seems unlikely that they realised that the price to be paid was, as Lester puts it, 'exposing the most sacred of Aboriginal men's law to unready women and children', which would 'further weaken our culture and humiliate traditional ... men.'

Gillen's epiphany was one beginning of anthropology's desire to do good, sometimes so acute as to be immobilising. Anthropology took over from the missionaries the task of leading white advocacy for Aboriginal interests, and of defining what should be done. They found it no easier than the missionaries, however, to know where 'good' lay, and less possible than ever to turn to the Aboriginal people themselves for the answer.

There, as everywhere, are divided views related to divisions of role and power. If the Weekend Australian report is accurate, opposition to the ANU-NMA project is led by men, while support for it is led by women.

If there is any consolation to be found in this small part of an enormous tragedy it is a grim one: the Yankunytjajara people are lucky to have the problem. The great majority of Aboriginal cultures and peoples did not survive long enough to have it.

Tomorrow is National Sorry Day.

Dean AshendenDean Ashenden has published on anthropology and its historical role.

Topic tags: Dean Ashenden, anthropology, Aboriginals, Sorry Day, Reconciliation



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Existing comments

Interesting how the NPY Women's Council do not have a name of the women in favour of the project. I didn't understand what you meant by the Yankunytjatjara are lucky.

Rosemary Lester | 25 May 2012  

Thanks - am nearly through reading Bill Gummage's The Biggest Estate of All, which is reshaping my understanding of Aboriginal relationship to 'country'. Though an historical study, it has many anthropological - and theological! - implications. Just wondering how it is being received by people like Dean.

Charles Sherlock | 25 May 2012  

Thanks for a good short summary that doesn't dehumanise Spencer, Gillen or the Aboriginal people involved.

Rev Steve Etherington | 25 May 2012  

Fascinating stuff!

Valery | 25 May 2012  

Excellent, perceptive article.

David Woodgate | 15 June 2012  

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