Sunday, June 12, 2011

Unsettled: Birrinbirrin

[This is the second installment of an essay which began here.]

The idea of teaching a course on Aboriginal Australia was not originally mine. I'd spent a year in Australia for family reasons - my sister makes her home there - and developed an interest in Aboriginal traditions there, as Americans apparently regularly do. Returned to my little college in New York, students asked for a course on Aboriginal Australia. I declared myself unqualified to teach it, but I could perhaps teach a course on the great theorists of religion who claimed Aboriginal confirmation of their most cherished views.

Emile Durkheim's Elementary Forms of the Religious Life and Sigmund Freud's Totem and Taboo: Resemblances between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics are the most famous of the great theorists' book-length engagements with the indigenous peoples of Australia. Godfather of academic religious studies in the US Mircea Eliade taught a course on Australian religions just as he defined the world-historical role the new discipline could play in the new world defined by the dangerous "descralization" of western life and the "emergence into history" of colonized peoples. One might look at these theories, tracing their sources and confronting them with newer, better accounts of Aboriginal traditions. One's mind might be opened not just about Aboriginal traditions but about the study and nature of "religion" more generally.

By the time it came to teaching the course, however, I had lost interest in the dead white men. Students would have plenty of other opportunities to engage with them. Besides, the pleasures of poking holes in dated ideas don't last long. Others in my field have made careers of exposing the founders' complicity in problematic political ideologies, including those of of colonialism and empire. Theirs is invaluable work, and my own approach to the subject is indebted to it. But this occasion seemed to demand something else. Why teach a course using Aboriginal traditions to shine new light on western theory when you could teach a course on these traditions themselves? A course on Aboriginal religion is a great rarity. Why turn it into yet another course on us? The students who enrolled in the class were of the same mind, though this brought its own problems.

The film "Ten Canoes," made by in 2006 by the Yolngu people of Ramingining (in northern Arnhem Land) with director Rolf de Heer, was to launch us into the Aboriginal present as well as its traditions. Its nearly documentary feel initially gives the sense of a timeless Aboriginal world, unchanged - at least until the arrival of Europeans - for tens of thousands of years. Some of the students thought the world it depicted was still intact, and were dismayed to learn from the making-of documentary "The Balanda and the Bark Canoes" that it was a work of historical reconstruction. ("Balanda" is a Yolngu word for white people.) It wasn't enough for them that this reconstruction was the project of the people of Ramingining, cannily making use of western film-making technology and a cooperative settler Australian film director and crew to tell their story. Their very choice of subject betokened a felt "inauthenticity" in their current, more westernized, way of living.

These students weren't ready to consider that the Ramingining might have good reasons of their own to present an image of a world impervious to change. They certainly didn't know what to make of the fact that many of the images in the film were based on photographs taken during what Ramingining people call "Thomson time," the period of first contact in the 1930s, when ethnographer Donald Thomson photographed their forbears. And it was too early to expect the students to understand that the people appearing in the movie were not just not professional actors; they were not acting. The ancient elder Birrinbirrin was played by a current elder named Birirnbirrin, like most of the "cast" taking the place of a kinsman in photographs from Thomson time.

I wanted students to see "Ten Canoes" as only contingently a film, more fundamentally a ceremonial act of cultural transmission. Old message, new medium. It was my hope that letting our first encounter with Aboriginal peoples be contemporary and in a non-textual medium would set the stage for a dynamic understanding of a non-literate but meticulously structured and artfully performed culture. The presence of Thompson and de Heer and their media would suggest there might be constructive ways "balanda" scholars and artists could be part of the picture of Aboriginal survival and thriving. Perhaps I was a bit naive here about how much complexity students could understand so early in a course, and about the complexity of what I was doing.

The story in which Birrinbirrin appears is actually embedded in another. It's a story told by a relatively recent ancestor Mingyululu to his younger brother Dayindi, who's been wondering why Mingyululu should have three wives and he none. That Mingyululu's third wife is Dayindi's age and making eyes at him doesn't help. The embedded story about ancient ancestors seems to replicate their situation - older brother with three wives, younger brother chafing at having none - but the complications which lead to misfortune have little to do with it. They nevertheless make a gripping story. The telling takes the brothers through an entire magpie goose egg hunt (and a movie), during which Dayindi grows a bit toward manhood and respect for elders.

The narrator of the film - the famous actor David Gulpilil (who's from Ramingining), speaking the film's only English - chides viewers for wanting to find out what happened to Dayindi. A good story is like a tree, he said, with many branches. "Ten Canoes" presents a thicket of stories of which Dayindi's seems the least important. Superficially, the message - for Dayindi and for the viewers Gulpilil addresses - is patience. The social disruption which would result from Dayindi's eloping with his sister in law has been forestalled. But he and the viewer don't get a clear ending. Gulpilil won't say if Dayindi ever gets a wife. The clincher is the sense of the continuance of the community's life made possible by Birrinbirrin's "this is where we stop." For life to go on, the stories may have to stop.

"Ten Canoes" works by naming and defying the expectations of a modern film-going audience. Is it an origins story? Is it a story of young love? Is it even a story? It's about stories and storytelling, but it describes a world too messy to be corralled in one story - and how one lives in such a world. "Patience" doesn't really describe all that is being taught. It's not that everything will eventually be revealed and explained and reconciled. What we learn through stories is the messiness of life, and the importance of moving on when the demands of love stories and vengeance stories compound that messiness. To understand a tradition it is not enough to know its stories; one needs to know how they tell stories and when, and when they stop.

I pinned a lot of hopes on our discussion of this film. Circling around it with the making-of documentary, some articles about it and the website "12 Canoes" which it subsidized, I hoped the class would start with a sense of an Aboriginal world as a dynamic and complicated whole, engaged with past and present. Not the artificial and brittle coherence of an ethnographer's account of how Yolngu society works, but a demonstration that it works, is working. And that work is required. Cultures don't automatically reproduce themselves (as we too readily assume about other people's cultures). They are ever having to navigate the messiness of the world through judgment calls like Birrinbirrin's. The challenges to Yolngu survival posed by colonialism are great but responding to challenges isn't new to these traditions. Modern western challenges, I said somewhat wishfully, are different only in degree, not in kind. "This is where we stop" isn't the exception which proves the rule of cultural continuity, but the rule itself.

[The next installment of the essay is here.]

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