Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Train Reading - Michael O'Rourke's Kamilaroi Lands

My train reading has switched to Michael O'Rouke's Kamilaroi Lands: North-central New South Wales in the early 19th century (Michael O'Rourke, Griffith, 1977). Michael kindly sent it to me after reading one of my posts on the Aboriginal languages of New England.

This is a local/regional history, but of a very different type to most of those published. Self-published by the author in 1997, this book is a detailed and painstaking exploration of the life of one Aboriginal language group at and in the period immediately following European settlement.

For those who do not know the Kamilaroi, they occupied a huge sweep of Australia from the Upper Hunter north along the Western Slopes and Plains into southern Queensland. Depending on the exact boundaries, we are talking about an area of more than 80,000 square kilometres.

Michael's book starts with language. He explores the ethnographic and linguistic evidence as it relates to language boundaries. In doing so, he draws out the way in which names attached to area, to specific local groups, to language, all come together to confuse. He also shows, and I have never seen this done before, how the distribution of Aboriginal place names adopted by the European settlers can actually help indicate the distribution of groups if you know the underlying language structures.

Michael then explores Kamilaroi social structures and ways of life. This is ethno-historical detective work. Suddenly we see traditional structures and relationships at they stood at a point in time emerging from the mists of the past.

I say at a point in time in the sense that we cannot assume that the structures that existed in 1788 and the immediately following period were those holding at earlier points in the long Aboriginal occupation of this continent. However, there are intriguing hints, clues really, that may allow us to at least reach some tentative conclusions about varying structures across geographic areas. We can certainly say that there was variety.

Michael's exploration of Kamilaroi beliefs, too, point to variety. He may be wrong, but his analysis suggests that Kamilaroi beliefs were not in fact the same as some of the standardised presentations of Aboriginal beliefs.

Michael's book was published at a time when certain views about Aboriginal history and especially the Aboriginal resistance/settler violence paradigm had achieved dominance. This clearly makes him uncomfortable.

Michael's analysis of the population data is detailed. He also quotes one James Belshaw on several occasions! My own population estimates were rough, but I did try to come up with actual estimates of varying population distributions across New England. Here my gut feeling was that we had then underestimated the original Aboriginal population.

Michael may not have been be happy with some of the analysis done by others, but his sometimes prosaic prose does draw out the tragedy that hit New England's Aboriginal peoples.

In part of his work, Michael attempts to measure the annual average percentage population decline. I am sure that he is right, drawing from the work of W E Stanner, in simply suggesting that part of the answer lay in stock and especially the spread of wool growing and the way this disrupted traditional life.

But more work needs to be done to chart the causes of the decline. It was just so rapid.

As it happened, I read Michael's book while attempting to write something based on Peter Austin's ideas about language decline. Writing in the context of a global trend towards language extinction, Peter suggests a number of linked measures that might be used to judge the health of a language.

One key measure is simply the extent to which parents pass language onto their children. Here Michael writes of changing attitudes towards Gamilaraay, the Kamilaroi language, within the Aboriginal community, linking this to the decline in traditional life. One simple device he uses is a list of the last known dates of initiation ceremonies across Kamilaroi territory. He concludes:

As it appears then, the transition from what we might call a "traditional" to a "semi-anglicised" or "post-traditional" culture took place in the period 1870 to 1900.

This transition coincided with a change in European attitudes and policies, one that I referred to in another set of posts on Jim Fletcher's Clean, Clad and Courteous (here one, two), a history of Aboriginal education in NSW.

Fletcher records the frustrations created among Europeans by early attempts to educate the Aborigines in the face of a determined effort by Aborigines to maintain their traditional life. These generally well intentioned European actions were based on a vast incomprehension, a failure to really understand and accept an alternative way of life. As I wrote at one point:

Early official policies towards the Aborigines in general and Aboriginal education in particular failed, as they were bound to fail, because they were based upon views held in the newly dominant group formed independent of and imposed upon the other group.

The reasons for failure were much debated, even agonized over. They formed the subject of committees of inquiries and official reports. The evidence presented and the conclusions drawn from that evidence were to influence policies and approaches for generations to the further detriment of NSW's Aboriginal peoples.

The tragedy for the Kamilaroi is that at just the time they were, to use Michael's phrase, moving to a post-traditional way of life, they were side-swiped again. As I see it, central to the shift in Aboriginal attitudes was a recognition that they had no choice but to adjust to a now dominant European society. As one measure of this, Aboriginal parents who had resisted European schooling now wanted education for their children.

At just this time, reformers who had been pushing for new approaches to the treatment of Aborigines gained a measure of success, culminating in the establishment of the NSW Aborigines Protection Board in 1883. Sadly, and the clue lies in the word "Protection", the new approaches were based on previous experiences and lessons that were in fact wrong then and were now in direct conflict with the evolving views in Aboriginal society. The effect was to limit Aboriginal advancement at a critical point. The costs are still with us today.


Re-reading this post, I realised that there was one thing I should amplify.

I wrote:

He also shows, and I have never seen this done before, how the distribution of Aboriginal place names adopted by the European settlers can actually help indicate the distribution of groups if you know the underlying language structures.

This is correct, but Michael is careful to acknowledge that his approach came from the pioneering work of the Australian linguist Tamsin Donaldson. I thought that I should mention this.


Your Secret Admirer said...

Powerful observations.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, SA.