One of my main anxieties in the Aboriginal Australia course, as you know, has been that I wasn't able to give the students unmediated contact with any aspect of the subject matter - something that seemed particularly problematic for an oral, highly personalized and localized culture. The semester's about to finish and I haven't been able to bring in a single Aboriginal person or even artifact, and, of course, field trips are out of the question. But today we were saved at the last minute by a grandmother from Yuendumu. Sort of, at least.
FD, a French anthropologist who has spent time at Yuendumu in Central Australia for a quarter century, came to visit class. (She was slated to visit last month, but my jury duty messed that up, and she generously rescheduled.) She lives and teaches in Connecticut, but has family in Yuendumu, too - it's classificatory kinship, of course, but it's still kinship if you live it, and she has and does. She was classified as someone's sister when she began her fieldwork in 1982, visits every year, and skypes with her Yuendumu relations three times a week! When she spent six weeks in Yuendumu in 2009, she stepped into the grandmother's role in a house with twenty-eight people under twenty-five (cooking, buying petrol, driving people places, etc., she explained); when she had to leave, they asked if she'd stay if they paid her. For she's the last grandmother left.
At the same time that we finally had a living connection to an Aboriginal society, we were confronted with the reality of its dying. FD showed us a film (from 1991) with a number of famous painters we had encountered earlier in the course. All but three have passed away, she told us. Her book (from 2001) describes the world of Warlpiri "big businesswomen" - female ritual leaders who had played an important role in the ceremonial life of Yuendumu. They've all passed on, too, we learned. "And the next generation of businesswomen?" I asked. There is none, was the reply. "Who maintains the dreaming segments?" I asked, showing off my lingo. Nobody; the place of ceremonies has been taken, and only imperfectly, by acrylic painting.
The situation isn't quite as dire everywhere as it is in Yuendumu. But this confirmation that the transmission of culture has been so grievously disabled by sedentarization took our breath away. The figures described in FD's book were the most fully alive of any we encountered, and now we learn that they are no more - and their way of life, too.
I'm devastated. I should have known, of course, from my research. But I couldn't, didn't want to believe.