Academic journal article Oceania

Aboriginal Histories, Aboriginal Myths: An Introduction

Academic journal article Oceania

Aboriginal Histories, Aboriginal Myths: An Introduction

Article excerpt

Until the 1970s, Aboriginal people in Australia were virtually without a voice. Administrators, missionaries, scientists, novelists, spoke of them, and occasionally for them, with such authority as to make a native voice seem unnecessary, even impossible. It was as though Aborigines were incapable of articulating their hopes and their history. The last twenty five or so years, whatever their disappointments, have seen the creation of a public space within which Aboriginal people could speak to other Australians and to one another. The faces of several Aboriginal spokespersons have become familiar to television viewers, and Aboriginal writers, painters, and playwrights have found a sizeable audience, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. But an older and less educated generation has also been able through the use of a tape recorder and an editor to collect their memories and tell their stories to the world at large. Sally Morgan's My Place (1987) tells how a young Aboriginal graduate of the 1970s, ennabled her mother and grandmother to confront their lives and articulate their Aboriginality.

This was a painful and difficult process because the bureaucratic terror and daily oppression which the two older women had experienced had forced them not merely to conceal but to repress their Aboriginality. The authorities weighed particularly heavily on them because their European ancestry and appearance rendered them candidates for assimilation; but not every Aborigine suffered to this extent. People who 'looked Aboriginal' were less pressured and so better able to talk about their Aboriginality, within the confines of home and bush camp, if not yet in public.

The experts who wrote about Aborigines up to the 1970s largely ignored such talk, due to the intellectual priorities of the time - particularly the reconstructionist emphasis in anthropology - but also to the belief that a people who situated all the formative events of their world in a mythological 'Dreamtime' must be without history. Thus, according to Lauriston Sharp, the Yir Yiront had 'no recollection' of the 'battle of Mitchell River' although it had caused the death of some 30 people only 70 years earlier (1952). W.E.H. Stanner reported a similar forgetting among the Murimbata (1966: 139-140). The implication was that the Aborigines, existing in a world of endless repetition, lacked the capacity for linear thought, and so could conceive neither of a past or a future that was different from what they knew. Generalising from such reports, James Urry concluded that history was a construction of the past which was alien to Aboriginal thought (1980: 2-3) a conclusion which Tony Swain has lately endorsed (1994: 3).

Howard and Frances Morphy have questioned this conclusion, retailing Aboriginal accounts of killings from their own fieldwork (1984), yet such notions have not quite disappeared. In 1989, Erich Kolig remarked on the apparent inability of traditionally oriented Aborigines to conceive of political alternatives to colonisation: '. . . having given up their armed struggle against white intrusion, Aborigines seem to have entered a phase of political inertia, or perhaps better described as catatonia, from which they emerge now by participation in the [Australian] political process'. Kolig attributes this change not as I am inclined to do to the changing conditions of colonialism, but to an 'internal revision of the Aboriginal world view' in which 'politics directed at reshaping society as a whole, leaves behind religiously inspired ideas, goals and methods' (1989: 156-157). This change was not easily achieved because the religion was enormously conservative and did not tolerate rivalling knowledge. Contradictory knowledge was either incorporated into the dogma or it was suppressed and wiped away (1989: 104-105).

Such thinking has a considerable genealogy, stretching back at least to A.P. Elkin (1951) and T.G. Strehlow (1947), who provided much of the material for Claude Levi-Strauss's 'Cold Society' (1966). …

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