Academic journal article Antipodes

Unsettled: On Teaching about Aboriginal Australian Religion in an American Liberal Arts College

Academic journal article Antipodes

Unsettled: On Teaching about Aboriginal Australian Religion in an American Liberal Arts College

Article excerpt

NEAR THE END OF TEN CANOES, THE ELDERS OF A YOLNGU clan confer on how to respond to the latest in a series of misfortunes, misunderstandings and retaliations. The group's leader has been mortally wounded in a payback ceremony after he killed someone he mistakenly thought the abductor of one of his wives. But then the wife returned and told she had being abducted by people from a different group entirely. Should they punish this new group? Go to war? Abduct their women? Various possibilities are bruited, until the most senior elder, Birrinbirrin, speaks: "This is where we stop."

Ten Canoes, the first feature film entirely in Aboriginal language, was where my seminar on "Aboriginal Australia and the Idea of Religion" started. As an oral and visual work of nested stories, as a meeting of old and new media, it seemed the perfect way to kick off a course engaging with the theory of religion's favorite indigenous tradition. Sigmund Freud, Emile Durkheim and Mircea Eliade are only the most famous classic theorists to have anchored a global theory of religion in the "primitive," "elementary" or "archaic" forms they discerned in Aboriginal Australian traditions; the exposé of Eliade's claim to find an axis mundi in an Arrernte story about Numbakullah has become classic, too. I also counted on Ten Canoes to ensure that we did not fall into our predecessors' trap of understanding Aboriginal traditions as timeless and unchangeable. Birrinbirrin 's words were to become one of the course's mantras. The vitality and resiliency of a tradition lies in its ability to decide when to stop looking back. Understanding Aboriginal traditions as alive and engaged with our world would help us see beyond our forbears.

But Birrinbirrin's words resonated with me in other ways, too. They connected to unexamined assumptions that inform my understanding of culture and history and religion, and of the craft and vocation of teaching. The effort to engage with Aboriginal Australian traditions in my little seminar classroom in New York City raised powerful and disturbing questions about why I do what I do; the right word is probably unsettling. In this essay I will try to articulate why I came to wonder if I had any business teaching any of this, although my business is teaching.


It wasn't my idea to teach a course on Aboriginal Australian religion. 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. When I returned to my little college in New York, students asked me for a course on Aboriginal religion. 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.

By the time it came to teaching the course, I had lost interest in the dead white men. Students would have plenty of other opportunities to engage with them. Besides, the pleasure of poking holes in dated ideas doesn't last long. Others in my field have made careers of exposing the founders' complicity in Eurocentric ideologies, including those 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. 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.

Ten Canoes, made in 2006 by the Yolngu people of Ramingining in northern Arnhem Land with settler Australian director Rolf de Heer, was to launch us into the Aboriginal present as well as its traditions. The film's nearly documentary feel initially gives the sense of a timeless Aboriginal world, unchanged for tens of thousands of years. Some of the students thought the world it depicted was still intact and were dejected to learn from the making-of documentary, "The Balanda and the Bark Canoes," that it was a work of historical reconstruction by people who wore basketball jerseys and shopped in supermarkets. …

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