Academic journal article Oceania

Explorations towards Intercultural Accounts of Socio-Cultural Reproduction and Change

Academic journal article Oceania

Explorations towards Intercultural Accounts of Socio-Cultural Reproduction and Change

Article excerpt


In the call for papers for the session 'Articulating cultures: Understanding engagements between indigenous and non-indigenous lifeworlds' at the Australian Anthropological Society conference of 2002, the convenors characterised my book, Caging the Rainbow (Merlan 1998), as an attempt to implement a notion of an 'intercultural' ethnographic description involving Australian Aborigines. I had used this word of my effort to describe the situation of Aboriginal people in a town in the upper central Northern Territory. My concern was to find ways of dealing more fully than many descriptions do with forms of engagement and influence between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people and institutions, and the implications of this for change. It was important to keep 'engagement between' in view at all times, especially with reference to a town situation. But the use of the word, I must admit, remained more indicative than examined. The kind of descriptive and ethnographic issues to which it was intended to apply are difficult ones, involving questions of difference, boundedness and transformation of indigenous life-ways in relation to the broader Australian social order. To these there is no simple 'answer', but there is a variety of potentially relevant theoretical positions, several of which I explore here. Beginning with an ethnographic fragment, I consider what potential they may have to assist in developing the issues raised.


In Caging the Rainbow (1998:49-50) I tell how an Aboriginal woman, Julie Williams, in sharing her experiences of the town with me, talked about a time when roadwork was going on in Katherine's central street. Her understanding, in common with many other Aboriginal people who remembered this period, was that road workers doing excavations dug up a 'rainbol', a little red rainbow serpent, in the course of their work. How are we to understand this episode?

This is a kind of creature that Aborigines of this area associate with caves, and the regional underground limestone system on which the town is partly built. They believe it reacts angrily--creating storm, wind and rain--to people whose 'sweat' or 'smell' it does not know. According to the story as Julie told it from her witnessing of the work, the road workers removed the rainbow serpent (its being red indicated it was young) and threw it in the rubbish tip outside of town.

Julie told me of having seen the road-work that exposed the little red rainbow with her closest age-mate, Margaret Katherine. Her account makes it clear (1998:58) that she did not understand what it was on first seeing it: her idea of what it was came after she and her friend Margaret went home and told their mothers of having seen something, a 'find' of the road workers, that they thought was unusual. Their mothers told them what the creature was. As this suggests, ideas were then widely shared among Aborigines about the association of 'rainbols' with the limestone sinkholes of Katherine town and the surrounding area (Rose 1992:70-71).

Julie and Margaret probably heard their relatives talk about rainbows on other occasions beside this one. But from her story, we realize that here Julie was learning about these matters in the novel and perhaps challenging context of building activity in the town.

Did the girls wonder whether there might be consequences? we might ask. But no question requiring definitiveness could be asked without, according to my experience of her, violating Julie's sense of an answerable question. 'Was the rainbol really gone'? is an hypothetical question that would require too great a departure from circumstances, and too much absoluteness, to answer. She is not inclined to think in such explicitly absolute terms as 'gone for ever'. Such an idea might occur to me and perhaps to many of my readers, but does not come naturally to Julie. The viewpoint from which one may ask about presence and absence, consequence and lack of consequence, in terms of finality is a socially conditioned one, not available to everyone. …

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