Thursday, February 14, 2008

The emotional power of the Aboriginal connection

This will be a funny, mixed up, personal post. I want to put a simple point, what I see as the emotional power of the indigenous connection.

I hate to admit it, but it is now 42 years since I started my honours thesis on the economic basis of traditional Aboriginal life in New England. By then, I had been on multiple survey missions and digs.

In retrospect, I was very lucky, because there were none of the emotional overlays that now exist. While I had an ethnohistoric focus because of the evidence I was using, my focus was traditional.

Some of my colleagues, Brian Harrison's pioneer thesis on the Myall Creek massacre is an example, were working on issues involving the European/Aboriginal interface. Again, I did not have a problem.

The facts were just that, facts. This was the first time that Europeans were tried for murdering Aborigines. Important in historical terms, but still facts.

I was interested in writing a history of New England. I thought that I should write the first part from an Aboriginal perspective, the invasion, then switch.

As a then avid science fiction reader interested in alternative history, I experimented with novel forms, trying to work out a scenario that would have seen the Aborigines create their own country. I struggled here.

One issue that I had to work out was just how the federated Aboriginal communities might integrate migrants, because it was clear that Aboriginal populations on their own were not large enough to survive in the face of European empires. The device I came up with was the formal adoption of migrants by specific Aboriginal tribes, so that every person in the Federated Nations had a tribal connection.

Soon after arriving in Canberra I started buying first editions of all the early texts, especially the anthropological studies, on the Aborigines. I loved the feel and the smell of the books, as well as the subject matter.

This actually created a bit of a problem for me just weeks ago when I saw Ten Canoes for the first time. I was so interested in what people did and how they did it that I tended to lose track of the story!

During this time I was also interested in Aboriginal art. At the same time I was also buying broader Australian art and books. One of my interests was the process of European adaptation to the landscape, to the Australian environment. I bought paintings and books that had a contextual link. Again, I saw no contradiction between my Aboriginal and broader historical interests.

Now how does all this link to my point in the heading to this post, the emotional power of the Aboriginal connection?

I think that very few Aborigines actually understand the emotional power of their history and connection to the landscape. This is a completely different issue from things such as ownership. Instead, it comes from a capacity to express landscape in a particular way.

I need to clarify this point because Neil in a comment (see below) misread me. I am not suggesting that the Aborigines do not understand their own connection with country. My point is that that they do, and that connection can have very strong resonance among those in the non-Aboriginal commmunity who also have a connection to country.

I am using the word country here in two different senses; one in the sense of the continent and nation, the second in the context of specific locations and areas.

It is, I think, no coincidence that it is Aboriginal painting that has become something that most Australians, at least those born here, can understand. Aboriginal painting has become part of our central culture because it is something that we can understand, to enjoy.

My argument to our indigenous people is that they need to turn some current arguments on their head. How do you reach out, to involve, to assimilate, the broader population?

4 comments:

ninglun said...

I think that very few Aborigines actually understand the emotional power of their history and connection to the landscape. That's interesting, Jim; I must have been lucky in the Aboriginal people I have met or heard, because just about every idea I have on that score has come from conversations with Aboriginal people, or through listening in larger groups! From Burnum Burnum (who my nephew knew personally), through Kristina and the people I met through her, through Boori Pryor, through that young man I mentioned a while back with whom I had that amazing conversation in Redfern... Indirectly too through Malcolm. And so on. Perhaps we don't listen?

Anonymous said...

No, the real problem is we dont see the landscape through aboriginal eyes simply because we compartmentalise and categorize everything we see. The emotion is in the landscape; sacred sites, tribal burial geounds, battle grounds, areas set aside for women's business, men's business, sorry business etc. In medieval times, we had this ability to 'see' but the age of 'I think, therefore I am,the invisible hand, and the origin of the species kicked in. Thus, in a subtle way, we became programmed to believe that we were superior. Why then that we in our white 'superior' western skins and with all the 'superior' knowledge and technology we have today, is there a rush to lower greehouse gas emissions,save fauna and wild life, accumulate wealth wihin our very limited life span of 70-80 years. Shouldnt we be doing something more constructive like learning to 'see' through Aboriginal eyes. maybe then, we will learn what true emotion is.

Jim Belshaw said...

Neil, I think that you misread me, so I have added the following clarification:

"I need to clarify this point because Neil in a comment (see below) misread me. I am not suggesting that the Aborigines do not understand their own connection with country. My point is that that they do, and that connection can have very strong resonance among those in the non-Aboriginal commmunity who also have a connection to country.

I am using the word country here in two different senses; one in the sense of the continent and nation, the second in the context of specific locations and areas."

Both, I will respond tonight. I am running another workshop today and have to complete the workbook.

I think that a key point is that I am trying to tease out something a little new in this post,so will use my response to try to clarify and extend.

Jim Belshaw said...

Anon, I think that you have an important point here, although there are elements that I am not sure about and I think that you also mix things a bit together. Maybe I will in this reply as well!

I agree with your point about our tendency to compartmentalise instead of seeing things, as the traditional Aborigines did, more as a seamless whole.

I also think that you have made an interesting point, one that I had not thought about before, re the division in European thought.

Now, and this is addressed to Neil as well as Anon,at a personal level I have a very strong - some might say - obsessive sense of country. It colours my writing and most things I do.

The reason why I have written so much about the Aborigines is that I see linkages between the two concepts of country. This is the real emotional power. I want to see an integration of the two.

I see problems in this. If, Neil, you look at our respective writings, you will see that our sense of country differs.You have commented on our different worlds, and this is true.

How to merge all this is a problem. But I think, however unclearly, that the emotional feel is important.