Thursday, June 16, 2011

Unsettled: Pushing the envelope

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

I may be giving the impression I knew what I was doing, and that the students in the class didn't. Some of the time it was perhaps the opposite. I've described what became clear to me about the experience in retrospect, but at the time I was starting and stopping. Apologies at the start about not being able to offer anything first-hand - no objects, people, land or even personal experience - morphed into anxieties when things seemed to fall into place. Warnings about the likelihood of our getting things wrong because at biased second hand passed into worries that we might be getting things right to which we had no right.

Students had heard me disavow authority before, but not so seriously. When my class on religious ethics comes to Zen, for instance, I bluntly assert: "I haven't achieved satori. You can't trust what makes sense to me." But I can't resist adding that that's just the sort of mind-game an enlightened Zen master would play, too! I allowed myself no such playfulness in this class. Students who had taken other classes with me also noticed - long before I did - that I was muzzling one of the questions I raised about almost anything: "who decides?" In the religious ethics class I follow a reading explaining Zen as a kind of humanism with some chapters from a book on Zen and war. The implication, always, is that we are in a position to question authority claims - indeed, that we owe it to those who are oppressed by religious traditions to ask such questions - but not here.

While not aware how far it would go, I had designed the class for frustration. Our trajectory had roadblocks built in. After the Yolngu reinventions around "Ten Canoes" and the deconstruction of the Arrernte's Numbakulla, we turned to Yorro Yorro, Jutta Malnic's fascinating travelogue about searching with Ngarinyin elder David Mowaljarlai for Lejmorro, a fabled rock painting site in the Kimberley. They never found it - perhaps, it was suggested, because it didn't want to be found. Sites had been known to vanish in a fog when the wrong people came to look for them in helicopters.

I hoped we would learn to be content with Malnic's gorgeous photographs of the Kimberley's amazing variety of terrains and the extraordinary wandjina paintings they did find, together with the stories which demanded to be told around them. Instead of Lejmorro we got Mowaljarlai's remarkable life story, and a remarkable series of Ngarinyin cosmogonic stories they called "Creation in the Kimberley." Even without Lejmorro there was plenty in what was offered. We got a sense of the land, and of how it was inhabited by ancestral movements, songs, and those entitled to sing them. The holiest of holies was closed to us, but what was available was enough for Malnic.* Shouldn't it be enough for us?

* We did wonder later, though, how Malnic felt when it became clear that there was a whole world of other Kimberley rock paintings - known to the Ngarinyin as gwion but celebrated by somewhat dubious settler enthusiasts as the work of a pre-Aboriginal "Bradshaw" people - Mowaljarlai told and showed her nothing about. (Myths of pre-indigenous settlement - often by people like the most recent settlers - haunts settler societies. A century earlier, other settlers had thought the wandjina paintings were too sophisticated to have been Aboriginal work.) Gwion paintings are secret, and Mowaljarlai and others only spoke publicly about them when a land rights case required it a few years after his journey with Malnic. One of my students got it before I did: "Mowaljarlai didn't mislead her. He didn't show her what he wasn't entitled to show her, that's all."

The students welcomed the wandjina stories but were nonplussed by explicitly Christian components in Mowaljarlai's creation narrative. Christianity is the disease for which they were seeking a cure in nonwestern traditions, but here was an Aboriginal man who had been raised to find both traditions true, and even informed in a dream that he should reach out to white as well as Aboriginal people. I was fascinated by his indigenized Christianity. Like many Aboriginal Christians he believed not in heaven and hell but in traditional views of spirits returning to their conception sites on death and eventually being reborn. Like Jesus, all human beings were immaculately conceived. Heaven wasn't overhead but to the west where the sun set, and creation depended on a great serpent coiled within the earth.

I knew, however, that to most of the class, Mowaljarlai's syncretism would be heresy. An authentic Aboriginal would have rejected Christianity and all its trappings! I spent the semester pushing back at student desires for "authenticity" and the quick dismissal of anything and anyone suspected of being "inauthentic." Could they explain why they thought it mattered - without using the word "authentic"? There is no innocent way of using the word authentic, I argued. Some of the smartest students pushed back though. Wasn't I embracing an idea like authenticity in saying, in essence, that no Aboriginal could do anything wrong, and no settler anything right? (I had not yet processed Patrick Wolfe's arguments that racial politics in the Australian case make anyone less than 100% Aboriginal a non-Aboriginal, or that there can be no innocent view of Aboriginal Australia by a balanda.)I knew Aboriginal Christianities would get under their skin for all sorts of reasons and, though we changed some other parts of the syllabus, insisted on reading more about it.

It is in the nature of any tradition to grow and change. Any conception of "authenticity" which permits no change is in fact a death sentence, especially for a colonized people who had no option but to come to some sort of accommodation with the culture which displaced them from their ancient sites and ways. Could not theologies like Mowaljarlai's be seen as acts of counter-appropriation, even resistance? We read about the theology of the Rainbow Spirit elders of north Queensland. They reject the Christianity of European missionaries (likening it to a kind of fig vine which chokes the life out of its hosts) in the name of Jesus - who had been one with the Dreaming ancestors in Australia tens of thousands of years before anything happened in Palestine. (I must confess to a thrill at these appropriations, a kind of payback for European usurpation of their religious heartland - but it also speaks to me religiously.)

Authenticity questions dogged us throughout the semester, in the apparently more benign context of Aboriginal acrylic painting (non-indigenous medium, no-traditional colors), and in the question of changes in Dreaming traditions over time. From Françoise Dussart, whose book on Warlpiri women ceremonial leaders at Yuendumu (in Central Australia) we read, we learned of an Aboriginal appropriation of the English word "new" for amplifications and innovations of traditional stories. This didn't mean they constituted anything unprecedented. "New" meant merely "new to us" or "newly rediscovered." (There's no room in Aboriginal cosmology for anything really new; everything's already here and accounted for.) The knowledge was guaranteed by the unchanging Dreaming ancestors. Whatever else it was, this retrofitting of the English word "new" seemed to me a clever riposte to western obsessions with the fixed and the novel, when a true tradition goes deeper than either of these options.

For the end of our trajectory of roadblocks and diversions - a sort of crash course in pluralist protocol - I planned a bump in the road so big that we’d be catapulted from our seats: the Hindmarsh Island Bridge Controversy. Hindmarsh (or Kumarangk) brought together all the thorniest of issues we'd encountered over the course of the semester - land and knowledge as property, the diversity among Aboriginal traditions, including those long incorporated into settler Australian life, gender, secret knowledge, the authority of anthropology, the transmission and recovery of traditions disrupted by colonization and the heartbreak of the "stolen generations," Aboriginal Christianities, and the invention of tradition. I'm all about complexity: my course began in the messiness of Ramingining people collaborating with a settler Australian director; it was to end with the vertigo of a controversy in which there were settled Aboriginals on both sides.

Hindmarsh (Kumarangk) Island sits at the mouth of the Murray River, just southeast of Adelaide in South Australia. Developers had proposed a bridge linking it to the mainland. There were no Aboriginal objections until the last moment, when some women from the largely assimilated Ngarrindjeri people came forward and said that such a bridge would bring disaster. They could say no more, since the knowledge in question was sacred-secret women's knowledge. What could one do with such claims? Could secret knowledge have standing in modern Australian law? On the other hand, could a court ask Aboriginal people to break protocols on secret knowledge, even in defense of their own interests? The stakes were raised even higher by the emergence of a second group of old Ngarrindjeri women who claimed never to have heard of any "secret women's business." At one stage, some of the secret knowledge was written down and sealed in white envelopes which were never to be opened by men.

In a series of hearings to which not only Ngarrindjeri people but anthropologists were called, the "secret women's knowledge" was first accepted, then declared a "fabrication," and finally - well after the bridge was built - vindicated. The case was a sensation (and gave rise to much sensationalist journalism in John Howard's and Rupert Murdoch's Australia). And it offered, I thought, a perfect consummation for our course - or crisis. Questions of authenticity and economies of knowledge weren't just academic here. Decisions had to be made. Were they made right?

The Ngarrindjeri are among the most and longest-studied Aboriginal peoples; there was no reference to women's secret knowledge - nor, indeed, to any secret sacred traditions - in the literature. Might the "proponent" women, reconstructing an Aboriginal identity in the aftermath of the disruption in cultural transmission, have lifted it from accounts of Central Desert peoples they had learned about? The thing about secret knowledge is precisely that it is not circulated carelessly. One would hardly expect Ngarrindjeri to have told anthropologists about secret sacred things. Women's traditions were systematically excluded from the analyses of male anthropologists across Australia for generations. One would also not expect those Ngarrindjeri women whose more evangelical Christianity involved a demotion of Dreaming stories to harmless "folklore" to learn of it - especially if, as emerged, it involved the abortion of mixed-race fetuses.

I gave the class texts from both camps of Ngarrindjeri women, and anthropologist Robert Tonkinson's assessment of the evidence presented to the Royal Commission which delivered the "fabrication" verdict. Tonkinson acknowledged that traditions grow but thought it unlikely a tradition of secret knowledge could have escaped detection for so long. On the other hand, he observed, neither party had any clear motive to lie. And yet it seemed at least one party was lying. I wanted to dare students to accept or reject the proponent women's view without a God's eye view of the "facts of the case."

I wanted to force a choice. Pluralism's fine until there are contested claims to the same space. I wanted students to say "don't open the envelopes" or "open them," each choice carrying complicated consequences. In the end the issue was too remote to rile anyone but me up in the desired way. Besides, didn't we know the bridge was built? Were one a settler Australian making a home on land on knew had been sung by Aboriginals for millennia, the ramifications of the case might be agonizing. For us the stakes weren't real enough even to be interesting. A different matter entirely - one brought in by a student - provided crisis and dénouement for the class, and also for me.

[The final installment of this essay is here.]

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