Monday, January 17, 2011

A bridge too far?

I'm working on the syllabus for my new course, "Aboriginal Australia and the Idea of Religion," which I'll be teaching along with "Exploring Religious Ethics" in the semester which begins next week. It's a course I proposed soon after returning from Australia in 2007, but it hasn't had to move from idea to practice before now. What was I thinking? Actually, I know what I was thinking: representations of Aboriginal culture play a decisive role in Durkheim's Elementary Forms, Freud's Totem and Taboo and Eliade's Sacred and Profane. Tracing their views to their sources, and comparing these in turn with more up to date studies, could shed light on the theory of religion, its history and the problems in its practice. We might learn something about Aboriginal traditions, too!

There's still a shadow of that rather too academic project in the current syllabus - we follow an account of the sacred pole of an Arrernte ancester named Numbakulla from the description in Spencer and Gillen's The Arunta: A Study of a Stone-Age People to Eliade, through critiques of Eliade's interpretation and appropriation, and back to understandings of Arrernde traditions today. But most of the course will be about Aboriginal traditions today, which can challenge many a received view of the nature of time and space, sacred and natural, etc., but are obviously worth exploring in their own right. But how teach that, especially as a novice in the field, and thousands of miles from the territories of the Dreaming? Quite a challenge not to pull an Eliade myself.

It's still a bit of a work in progress, the syllabus. Ethical and methodological questions will continue to be important, though different ones. Instead of seeing the modern Western interpreter simply as uncomprehending and exploitative colonist, we'll also be looking at the role of ethnographers and historians in chronicling traditions threatened by settler Australian culture - and reinvented in response to these threats. The picture's much more complicated and fascinating. In the making of the film "Ten Canoes," for instance (our topic for the first few classes), film-maker Rolf de Heer and the Yolngu community of Ramingining worked with photographs taken by ethnographer Donald Thomson in the 1930s in order to revive a forgotten tradition of goose egg hunting - and tell a new/old story.

Indeed, the relationship of scholars and Aboriginal traditions can be a highly politicized one, never more so than during the so-called Hindmarsh Island Bridge controversy in the 1990s, when some Ngarrindjeri women tried to stop the construction of a bridge connecting an island in the mouth of the Murray (they call it Kumarangk) to the mainland, on the basis of secret women's teachings that keeping those places apart was necessary to the survival of the Ngarrindjeri. As secret teachings, they could of course not be shared (though they were at one point represented by sealed envelopes at a hearing), and these women's claims were declared a "fabrication" by a Royal Commission (some other Ngarrindjeri women claimed never to have heard of the tradition), and the bridge was eventually built. During the hearings, anthropologists were accused of colluding with the women. Had not earlier scholarship shown that Ngarrindjeri culture lacked the codes of secrecy characteristic of many other Aboriginal peoples. And besides, women don't have sacred knowledge, do they?

How would one (who?) know?

The case is vastly more complicated than I can describe here, but know that a later report, in 2001, vindicated the Ngarrindjeri women's claim, and in July of last year, the South Australian state government recognized the authenticity of the "women's business." The picture at top (from here) is of Ngarrindjeri in a symbolic crossing of the bridge. Especially in light of Ngarrindjeri elder Tom Trevorrow's explanation - "We may use the bridge to access our land and waters but culturally and morally we cannot come to terms with this bridge" - this seems like a powerful image of the forced reinventions of Aboriginal traditions.

Some gaps are meant to stay unbridged. But in time, especially colonial and postcolonial time, nothing meant to stay apart is safe from being bridged. How do I teach without invidious bridge-building?

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