Encountering Aboriginal culture - Livre d'Or








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livredor
Encountering Aboriginal culture
Friday, 16 December 2005 at 06:08 pm
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I was very aware of issues around Aboriginal culture when I was visiting Melbourne. I have a fairly muddled set of impressions, not a coherent view on all this, and I'm sure I'm not saying anything terribly original but not at all sure I can say anything without offending someone.

For a start, even the terms Aboriginal and culture are problematic. Most people involved in this sort of political issue seem to use the word Aboriginal, including the couple of people I met who were of Aboriginal heritage themselves. But a couple of times I got glared at for using it: I think you'll find the word is indigenous. Please be assured I don't intend any disrespect by the term; I'm very much an ignorant outsider here. And as for culture, there are problems with that too. I take erudito's point, but I want to use the most intuitive term I can think of to indicate the kind of things I want to talk about, which I think normally come under the heading of culture.

I noticed that it seems to be trendy to mention Aboriginal issues in every possible context. I'm not saying that's a bad thing; it's a good counter to invisibility issues and so on. But I didn't really know what to make of things like random plaques with Aboriginal stories on them. For example, the synagogue I went to has a banner on all its handouts saying "This community would like to acknowledge that members of the Kulin nation are the traditional custodians of the land our syngogue stands on". Which is all very well, but it's hard to see how it actually does anybody any good!

I did set out with the intention of educating myself about Aboriginal culture, though, and with all these resources available I did indeed learn something. The Immigration museum is very good indeed; I would say one of the best museums I've ever been to. Obviously as the name would suggest it's not directly a museum about Aboriginal issues, but it did give me a context for the history of relations with Aboriginal peoples. I sort of knew about the early settlers regarding Australia as Terra nullis and treating the indigenous population very badly, though the museum filled in a lot of the horrifying details for me. What I hadn't been aware of was the White Australia policy which continued well into the 20th century. I've always been mystified as to how there could be racism in a country like Australia which is so much built on immigration, and the Immigration museum explained this all too clearly. (There are of course repercussions for non-European immigrants and their descendants, as well as injustices towards Aborigines.)

I also made a point of going to the Indigenous Collection at the main art gallery, the National Gallery of Victoria, on the basis that I wanted to see art different from the sort of thing I can see in any old European gallery. (That's where I got in trouble for using the word Aboriginal; to me, the term indigenous art doesn't make sense, because the art isn't native to the country, it's something that an artist has created.) There's always the difficulty of presenting this kind of thing so that it's art rather than anthropology of "primitive" cultural artefacts; I'm coming to the conclusion that the most effective way to do this is to include the name of the artist wherever possible. Refusing to give any explanation of the significance of the works within the culture they come from doesn't help.

The NGV has absolutely terrible labelling full of pretentious wank that doesn't convey any useful information about the artworks, but at least the Indigenous collection got the same terrible labelling as the rest of the art! Personally, I found the Aboriginal art quite difficult; it's very abstract, and full of conventions that I'm not aware of, so I don't really have the tools to look at it properly. But I got something out of the collection; some of the paintings really convey movement and to some extent emotion, even to me as someone not at all versed in the artistic conventions.

For me, the most informative part of the trip was an Aboriginal Heritage tour of the Botanic Gardens. The guide was the sort of person I would find very annoying if he came from my own culture; he was very into "spiritual" stuff and generally a bit tree-huggy. But his material was very interesting, and very... personal, direct, he wasn't embarrassed to talk about his own life and experiences as an Aboriginal in modern Australia. Most of the tour was fairly standard stuff about how the Aborigines were really in touch with nature and had a lot of knowledge about how to make use of all the plants and so on in the environment. But the personal glimpses made it really worthwhile.

The guide also pointed out what erudito said in his comment, that there wasn't one "Aboriginal culture", but several hundred, not only with distinct customs but distinct languages. And all that is now reduced to cute little staged "ceremonies" and "Dreamtime" paintings and placards for tourists, and kangaroos and boomerangs (the other Aboriginal guy I met was at the wildlife sanctuary, doing a sort of little stage show where the humour consisted of his being really bad at throwing boomerangs, which was cringey to start with and went on far too long repeating the same joke). It made me realize how profoundly I disagree with rysmiel's view that humans are a renewable resource. I mean, a cynic could argue that Aboriginal cultures didn't contribute much to civilization; none of them got as far as agriculture, let alone writing. But they had ritual burial a minimum of 60,000 years ago, and several hundred ancient human cultures were destroyed, mostly deliberately, and that's simply not replaceable, even if you don't bring morality into the question at all.

Greater minds than mine have tried to deal with the question of whether there's anything meaningful that can be done now, since this has happened and history can't be changed. I suppose having all the "Aboriginal myth" plaques all over the place is better than nothing. It's absolutely a given that racism against people of Aboriginal descent is completely inexcusable, but simple anti-racism doesn't seem to go far enough here. There isn't really a way to give everybody the rights of modern, essentially western civilization while at the same time preserving the Aboriginal traditions. At least not preserving them as living traditions rather than museum pieces and tourist attractions. It's probably too late, actually. There have been too many people killed, not to mention deliberate and largely succesful campaigns to destroy cultural elements such as language teaching and religion. (And it's not like this kind of thing is unique in human history; I am aware that there are far too many comparable examples.)


Moooood: pensivepensive
Tuuuuune: Sisters of Mercy: Nine while nine
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rysmiel: vacant and in pensive mood
From:rysmiel
Date:December 16th, 2005 06:37 pm (UTC)
27 minutes after journal entry, 02:37 pm (rysmiel's time)
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made me realize how profoundly I disagree with rysmiel's view that humans are a renewable resource.

I think you're taking that comment out of context; when I first said that, it was very specifically in response to people who were saying about looting in Iraq that they wanted all relief efforts to go to hospitals and didn't give a damn how much priceless cultural heritage was being destroyed, and I quoted it in a similar context on your journal with respect to the Library of Alexandria.

But they had ritual burial a minimum of 60,000 years ago, and several hundred ancient human cultures were destroyed, mostly deliberately, and that's simply not replaceable, even if you don't bring morality into the question at all.

The aspect of my worldview that "humans are a renewable resource" is a deliberately simplistic and provocative way of summarising is very much in favour of preserving exactly this sort of thing, and opposed to those who let short-term profit or indeed short-term kindness obliterate thinking on a historical scale.

It's facinating to compare what you say about the Aboriginal* art in the LGV with the Inuit art room in the Musee de Beaux-Arts here, which I've always thought did rather a good job of what it presented though it too is somewhat lacking in broader contexts for them.

*As I may have said to you before, here it seems to actually be preferable to say "Eskimo", which one can get away with as an ignorant Caucasian from whom nothing better can be expected, rather than to say "Inuit" if someone's tribal affiliation is actually Inukkiak.
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livredor: portrait
From:livredor
Date:December 16th, 2005 09:57 pm (UTC)
3 hours after journal entry, 10:57 pm (livredor's time)

"humans are a renewable resource"

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I think you're taking that comment out of context
I'm sorry. I did try to refer back to the original context in which you made the remark, but it really does look like I've misunderstood your intent. Although I apologize for misinterpreting you I'm really glad I was wrong.

when I first said that, it was very specifically in response to people who were saying about looting in Iraq that they wanted all relief efforts to go to hospitals
I think I hadn't realized (or at least had forgotten) that that was the original context. And it does make a lot more sense in that light.

The aspect of my worldview that "humans are a renewable resource" is a deliberately simplistic and provocative way of summarising is very much in favour of preserving exactly this sort of thing
I'm so glad we actually agree (which means you're pretty much saying the opposite of what I thought you were saying). That comment of yours has been haunting me; witness the fact that I was bothered by the memory of it in a completely unrelated situation over two years after you said it. *close hug*

opposed to those who let short-term profit or indeed short-term kindness obliterate thinking on a historical scale
I can see how my insistence on the value of human beings just for who they are might lead to devaluing the sorts of things that humans can achieve. I suppose what was bothering me was that I was thinking, if you kill large numbers of humans you destroy their cultural achievements too, and you can't get those back no matter how many people are born to replace those who died. All clear now.

the Inuit art room in the Musee de Beaux-Arts here, which I've always thought did rather a good job of what it presented
Yes, I was very impressed with that. Thank you for showing it to me. I never got round to blogging it, I'm afraid, but that is definitely a context where the art is art, not point and gawp at the cute native culture.
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From:neonchameleon
Date:December 16th, 2005 11:34 pm (UTC)
5 hours after journal entry

Re: "humans are a renewable resource"

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that is definitely a context where the art is art, not point and gawp at the cute native culture

Or worse yet, to patronise it and say how much better it is for not having much in the way of training or craftsmanship - but this brings me onto the subject of "Child Art" - which is an automatic rant.
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livredor: letters
From:livredor
Date:December 17th, 2005 10:13 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 11:13 pm (livredor's time)
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The Inuit art in the Musée de Beaux Arts in Montreal is absolutely not like that. It's not primitive in any sense of the word (except possibly in being made from natural materials, I suppose); one can admire the technical skill just like anything from the heydey of pre-19th century European art. That's one of the things that's really cool about that collection.

That said, I am sufficiently in sympathy with the Modernist movement that I do believe art can sometimes be separated from craftmanship. My appreciation of art is more complicated than just trying to estimate how difficult it was to produce. But I do agree that bad art doesn't automatically become good just because it is ethnic, and that sort of judgement is indeed deeply patronizing.
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erudito: default
From:erudito
Date:December 16th, 2005 11:51 pm (UTC)
5 hours after journal entry, December 17th, 2005 09:51 am (erudito's time)

Reasons

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It has been suggested that the convicts needing someone to look down upon were a particular factor in the development of white atittudes to indigenous Australians. Certainly, they were more fraught than the NZ attitude to maoris, but maoris were also a much tougher deal.

As for White Australia, a lot of that was about ensuring a relatively homogeneous population to support a deliberately egalitarian public policy. Folk were worried that the Chinese in particular would undermine labour standards and even the effectiveness of democracy. Along with simple prejudice, but it was the aforementioned concerns with gave it real bite.
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livredor: ewe
From:livredor
Date:December 17th, 2005 10:40 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, 11:40 pm (livredor's time)

Re: Reasons

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The scapegoating model of racism always seems to me to be a bit post-hoc. It's possible that this had something to do with the attitudes of early convicts / settlers towards Aboriginal peoples. But it's also likely that the settlers wanted land, which required them to displace the indigenous population (who didn't have the technology to resist). They may have rationalized their pragmatic approach with racist views, of course.

Interesting point about the White Australia policy being meant to promote egalitarianism. I hadn't really picked that up; I suppose the Immigration Museum is rather slanted against that particular aspect of history. And I suppose it is still an argument that is sometimes used about why multiculturalism is actually not all it's cracked up to be (though I suspect these days that line is somewhat disingenuous). I also had the impression it was partially imposed from the outside, at least initially; Britain wanted to keep Australia white, ie maintain a culture that would be loyal to Britain.
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erudito: default
From:erudito
Date:December 17th, 2005 11:51 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry, December 18th, 2005 09:51 am (erudito's time)

Re: Reasons

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I also had the impression it was partially imposed from the outside, at least initially; Britain wanted to keep Australia white, ie maintain a culture that would be loyal to Britain.
On the contrary, one reason as language test was used was to forestall an Imperial veto. Ruling a multi-racial Empire, the Imperial Government did not approve of explicitly racial barriers to movement within the Empire.

Certainly the settlers wanted land and that was a major factor, as it was in New Zealand. The point was more about differences in attitudes between NZ and Oz. And it is often those who are most threatened who are most antagonistic. The Irish in the US were often particularly anti-black, as they competed for jobs, just as the white working class in South Africa was a mainstay of apartheid sentiment.

And there clearly is a tension between social democracy and multiculturalism, largely due to information and incentive problems which, in Oz, you can see particularly strongly in the failures of indigenous policy.
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usuakari: default
From:usuakari
Date:December 17th, 2005 01:40 pm (UTC)
19 hours after journal entry, 11:40 pm (usuakari's time)
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I noticed that it seems to be trendy to mention Aboriginal issues in every possible context...

Yeah. Very similar to how I feel about it. One hand the ackowledgement is valuable, and on the other it seems ultra PC, hollow, and somewhat pointless. Believe me, it's even odder if you live here.

The Immigration museum is very good indeed; I would say one of the best museums I've ever been to.

I'm sure tooticky will be flattered. :) I'll make sure she's read your post, and I'm pretty sure she'll bite at the topic too.

I've always been mystified as to how there could be racism in a country like Australia which is so much built on immigration, and the Immigration museum explained this all too clearly.

How could there not be racism in a multicultural society, and a relatively new and highly diverse one at that? Racisim is a fear-driven reaction, and everyone fears the unfamiliar, at least at first.

What it perhaps doesn't point out is that racism is an equal opportunity flaw, just like most others. Anyone can be racist - it's not just limited to Anglo cultures (wherever they may dominate society), as perhaps, the stupidity in Sydney recently is revealing. One of the most intriguing pieces of grafitti that Tooticky and I have ever seen was scrawled on a wall in a complex inner city suburb and read "Stop racist Koories from bashing Asians".

There isn't really a way to give everybody the rights of modern, essentially western civilization while at the same time preserving the Aboriginal traditions. At least not preserving them as living traditions rather than museum pieces and tourist attractions.

I disagree there. I think it could be done, and would get a few more Aboriginal people back in touch with their land and tradations a bit more firmly than they currently are, which to my mind could be a Very Good Thing. (It's hard to reconcile the guys/girls that sit around on street corners begging, getting pissed, and fighting with each other and everybody esle with the pure and holier-than-thou nobles that they all beleive to be inside them. I wish it wasn't so hard. It's a bit like the idea that inside every Anglo Australian is really a competent cattle and bush man who can ride, muster, and shoot just like <a href='http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Man_From_Snowy_River">The man from Snowy River</a>.) The hitch is that any strategies I can think of that might facillitate that have to be driven and implemented by the people themselves, not imposed from outside where it will just seem like/be claimed to be one more form of bullying at a societal level. Current Aboriginal politics is convoluted, murky, and frequently nasty. It may take a lot, or a while, for the leaders and elders who think along those lines to achieve such a thing. I live in hope...
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usuakari: default
From:usuakari
Date:December 17th, 2005 03:17 pm (UTC)
21 hours after journal entry, December 18th, 2005 01:17 am (usuakari's time)
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Bugger! LJ just did some very weird things to my comment.

...muster, and shoot just like the man from Snowy River. It just isn't true any more.)

The hitch is that any strategy that I can think of to achieve such a goal is that it has to be driven by the leaders and elders within the Aboriginal communities, otherwise there will be claims that it's just another case of cultural imposition. I live in hope that such a thing can happen. It might go a long way to restoring some sense of balance and trade between the cultures.
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hatam_soferet: default
From:hatam_soferet
Date:December 17th, 2005 06:19 pm (UTC)
1 days after journal entry
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I've thought rather a lot of the same things about Native American culture. You remember the art museum in Manhattan, I'm sure.
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From:(Anonymous)
Date:December 20th, 2005 04:36 pm (UTC)
3 days after journal entry

hey

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heya, just dropped you a line on myspace. :-)
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livredor: likeness
From:livredor
Date:December 20th, 2005 06:31 pm (UTC)
4 days after journal entry, 07:31 pm (livredor's time)

Re: hey

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I am not sure whether you are a real person or some strange form of spam. Assuming the former, I can't see any message from you on Myspace, and that's generally a bad way to get hold of me in any case. If you would like to contact me more privately than LJ, please feel free to email livredor [at] livejournal [dot] com. And signing anon comments on LJ helps to clear up this kind of confusion too.
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