From little things social catastrophes grow

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  • Published 20120605
  • ISBN: 9781921922534
  • Extent: 264 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

What of the real present, the men-of-no-politics,

the once respectable Golden Mean?

Obsolete; in any case, lost sight of.

Thomas Pynchon, V.


I SPENT MY recent holidays taking a trip from Adelaide to Alice Springs, travelling up on The Ghan, that modern day homage to Australia’s Afghan cameleers. I thought it’d be a good idea to travel through country I had been long familiar with, but in the kind of lazy window-gazing way that only a train ride affords. The trip was also partly research for a novel-in-progress, providing an opportunity to get a better insight into not only the past but also the present state of remote life. And I had long wanted to go out to Papunya, the community about two hundred kilometers west of Alice where the Western Desert Art movement first began in the 1970s. But there were also other, more difficult and personal reasons for the trip that are a littler harder to get into words.

Over the past decade I worked as a teacher with remote Indigenous students both in the city and out bush. And I had also written about various aspects of classical Aboriginal religious thought and its influence on Australia’s broader cultural life, something I was keen to get a better grasp of. Traditional religion and the embodiment of dream-life in Aboriginal ceremonial activity had long fascinated me. The transposition of that ritual consciousness onto canvas using acrylic paint had begun at Papunya in the 1970s and given rise to what I felt was the richest and most vibrant eco-aesthetic to have evolved out of the post-colonial contexts of Australian history. Yet any thoughtful consideration of the communities from which those paintings emerged and are still emerging somehow negates the richness and vibrancy to which they give expression. That some of the most beautiful and affirmative art of the last and present century has developed out of contexts of profound social disintegration can be a painful duality to contemplate, particularly for those of us who have witnessed the atrocious dysfunction on many communities up close. As Rosemary Neill wrote in White Out: How Politics is Killing Black Australia (Allen & Unwin, 2002) ‘the same communities which incubated an artistic rebirth, have simultaneously suffered a kind of social death.’[1] This duality between the riches of traditionally orientated art and cultural decline, if contemplated without the safety net of optimistic illusions, can be demoralising to say the least.

The famed linguist and anthropologist TGH Strehlow experienced such feelings when witnessing rapid social change, cultural loss and decline earlier last century. The elegiac tone of his Songs of Central Australia (1971), while being a perfectly logical response to a tragic situation, has proved anathema to many who have preferred flinching from bitter truths. He is one of the few writers who have been able to hold this duality in balance, combining both a sense of the spiritual riches of classical Aboriginal tradition with feelings of loss and personal grief. Fortunately for Strehlow he died before witnessing the state of crisis that has developed over the past two decades on many remote communities, a situation that makes his elegiac tone more apposite than he would have ever dared to imagine.

While in Alice I spoke to many people, from young European tourists staying at Annie’s Backpackers where I spent a week reading and writing, to remote community workers and local Aboriginal people. One brief conversation with a bloke working on a remote community sticks in my mind as emblematic of the political atmosphere of not only Alice, but also the divisions with which Indigenous politics is fraught in Australia as a whole. He was working with the older members of a community near Alice Springs, organising trips onto country in order to teach young Aboriginal people about traditional ecological knowledge. It was a noble aim. Collaboration with older members of remote communities in courses on ecology was something I admired and had long been advocating. For the past decade or so I had been teaching subjects in ecology with a bicultural emphasis to students from the Western Desert, making significant use of Peter Latz’s wonderful Bushfires and Bushtucker: Aboriginal Plant Use in Central Australia (IAD Press, 1995). The potential for harnessing traditional ecological knowledge, yet combining it with scientific understanding of ecosystem functioning and plant biochemistry, as Latz had done so well, seemed a fruitful approach with two main benefits; it not only facilitated cultural heritage preservation but it also provided a basis for introducing students to Western scientific discourse, and therefore Western paradigms of knowledge in general.

Initially we shared very similar approaches to the education of remote students. Eventually, however, the subject of the recent intervention in the Northern Territory, itself a partial response to the ‘Little Children are Sacred’ report, became a subject of discussion. We also discussed the South Australian ‘Mullighan Inquiry’, a report with similar aims and ramifications as the ‘Little Children are Sacred’ report. The Mullighan Inquiry focused on communities on the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Lands, and the catalogue of abuse towards children it details makes for disturbing reading. I had thought, along with a raft of other people, including Noel Pearson, Marcia Langton, Peter Sutton and Bess Price, that there were virtues to both these reports and the consequent governmental interventions that should not be rejected lightly. For many the intervention seemed like a recapitulation of former paternalistic policies, a kind of later day neo-colonialism that would compromise the goals of self-determination. Having seen first-hand the levels of social and domestic violence, child abuse and general atmosphere of lawlessness in communities, I always found such a view unconscionable. And I knew of anecdotal evidence where women in particular were glad to have a sense of order within their community, leading to a decrease in violence and a reduction in late-night drinking and fighting sessions, a reduction which enabled children to gain some sleep and therefore, if they wished, attend school. It may have been heavy-handed but it was definitely not without positive outcomes. Not long into the conversation with the community worker, however, I realised picket-lines were being drawn and that we held profoundly divergent views not only on the intervention but on the broader issue of remote Indigenous settlements themselves. Experience had taught me that people’s convictions about such issues are held with a kind of religious ardour and that any apostasy against the sanctity of creed is often condemned as heretical. Considering I was a visitor in the area I decided to bite my tongue and avoid discussing contentious issues. So we discussed what was essentially common ground; the importance of country to older Aboriginal people and also the virtue of helping them through school programs to pass on their knowledge to young people. Yet what lingered in my mind was how this brief conversation, and the argument I tactfully avoided, resounded with the major fault lines of our national political life. The emotionally fueled Babel of voices that afflicts public debate concerning Aboriginal politics was evident, in miniature, in this brief conversation.

I explained that in responding to the ‘Mullighan Inquiry’ the government had increased funding to city-based boarding facilities to enable Western Desert students to experience cultural and linguistic immersion in a mainstream English-speaking environment. His immediate response was to reject any initiative that removed young people from remote settlements, from their traditional country. I had long come to the conclusion that the concept of remote government-funded settlements was on the whole a failed project and that the best way of giving students a decent future was to educate them in a mainstream setting. The repatriation of traditional lands through the period of native title claims, although a necessary historical phase, had produced unforeseen and profoundly tragic consequences. Although the move for judicial acknowledgement of native title began earlier, that momentous symbolic occasion in 1975 when Gough Whitlam poured sand through the hands of Vincent Lingiari, acknowledging the Gurungji people’s claim to their traditional lands, marked a decisive and important turning point in Australian history. It was the same decade that the Western Desert Art movement began to flourish, a decade when many of the paternalistic and ethnocentric assumptions of former times began to ebb away. The post-1970s political landscape signaled the emergence of Aboriginal culture as an important part of our national cultural life, giving a more prominent place to Aboriginal concerns, aspirations and cultural values than any previous period in our history.

Yet what slowly began to dawn on me in the early 2000s while teaching in the Western Desert, was that the concept of remote settlements devoid of economic infrastructure and propped up by government funds was not only unfeasible in the long term but also a social and economic aberration. I could think of no example in human history where an entire culture was absolved of the necessity to engage in some of kind of meaningful labor for subsistence purposes. In other words, no culture had to my knowledge ever existed where the necessity of doing something during the day in order to provide food for yourself and your family was absent. Classical Aboriginal societies were by no means exempt from the burdens of economic necessity and the reasons for living in a specific region were fundamentally pragmatic; the proximity of waterholes, hunting grounds or fishing spots. If the resource base, which forms the foundation of a hunter-gatherer economy, was removed – if, for example, there was a drought year and the number of available game had significantly declined – the group would move into country that would provide adequate resources. Similarly in modern industrial societies, if the demand for minerals or livestock declines then people in mining or pastoral communities will move to regions where a more robust economic infrastructure exists.

Due to the introduction of government services, housing and welfare, people on remote communities no longer needed to subsist by traditional means. And this change to sedentary living is not, particularly in more remote regions, the result of the coercive herding of Aboriginal people into settlements and the forcible denial of their rights to continue their traditional way of life. From the 1930s onwards the Pitjatjantjara and Pintupi moved into settlements such as Ernabella, Papunya and Haasts Bluff frequently of their own free will. The provision of perennial water supplies and food had the effect of making traditional hunting technologies and practices obsolete, dependent as they were upon the capriciousness of seasonal climatic fluctuations. In pre-contact society attrition rates during periods of drought were significantly high, a burden that was in many ways relieved with the arrival of missionaries, whose perennial and abundant supplies of food and water Aboriginal people naturally gravitated towards and actively exploited. The developments of the 1970s saw a movement away from mission and government control of remote settlements to a rights agenda and an ideology of self-determination, one supported and facilitated by increasing injections of government funds in the areas of housing, health and education. The period saw not only the repatriation of land, but also the provision of funds so that people were able to remain on and raise their children on that land. It was an important national gesture of largesse to the original inhabitants of this country that should not be underestimated.

However, the solution to an older problem, that is the denial of proprietary rights, created a whole new horde of problems which we have inherited today. Since the mid-’90s researchers began publishing studies of exponential rises in homicide, suicide, domestic violence and child abuse on remote communities. Serious questions need to be asked as to why life on these communities has severely deteriorated during a period of increased funding, social and educational opportunity and unprecedented levels of political representation and acknowledgement of Aboriginal rights. The problem essentially boils down to this: you can not put people on their land when there is nothing for them to do there, when there is no economic infrastructure and therefore no opportunities for employment. Such a situation devoid of purpose breeds boredom and despair, psychosocial factors that are elements in the causal nexus implicated in the current state of social and cultural disintegration. We have absolved an entire people en masse of the burdens of economic necessity, but not come to grips with what that really means, nor have we really begun to think through the long-term ramifications of such an experiment in social engineering. Many of the problems on remote communities become explicable when the factors I have intimated are taken into consideration. I suppose the final irony here is that a political attitude of benevolence, in which the state supported the perpetuation of classical Aboriginal culture and the attendant attachment to land, has itself produced a social catastrophe.


ALL OF THIS I refrained from mentioning to the community worker and for good reason, or rather reasons. Firstly, I know this is a complex issue with regional variations of which I have little knowledge or expertise. I do know that some communities, particularly some of the smaller ones, are relatively benign and are not dysfunctional ghettoes as are many of the larger remote settlements. Secondly, and more to the point, I have lost count of the times I have offended people’s sense of political piety, provoking their reflexive ire by merely suggesting that the current levels of dysfunction on remote communities are in many cases not historically linked to the dispossession of land or the loss of language and culture, but to the liberal reforms of the 1960s and ’70s. The perception of such dysfunction through a rights-based schema, and the idea of it being historically and casually linked to dispossession and the loss of language and culture, is one of the most insidious delusions in Australian cultural and political life. Rosemary Neill took such thinking to task in her rigorously researched and eloquently argued White Out, although without making too much of a broader intellectual impact. While in Alice I bought Peter Sutton’s recent The Politics of Suffering: Indigenous Australia and the end of the liberal consensus (MUP, 2009). Once I read the first few pages I could not put it down, consuming the book in a day. Sutton has launched an aggressive and extremely cogent full frontal attack on the kind of thinking Neill took to task. Sutton’s book is the kind of seminal work that both signals and inaugurates a paradigm shift, a change akin to that produced by Koestler or Orwell mid last century, whose novels exposed the idiocies of calcified political dogma. Such works not only outline the birth of a new paradigm and way of thinking but they are also a kind of funeral oration, announcing the death of previous certainties and convictions.

Sutton’s book confirmed and consolidated what I had long thought about the state of cultural decline that has been occurring in the Western Desert since the 1960s. When the Ernabella Mission and School were being established in the late 1930s and early 1940s on the Pitjantjatjara Lands it was requisite for teachers to learn to speak Pitjantjatjara as a condition of employment and students were taught to read and write in their mother tongue. It is for this reason that Pitjantjatjara is one of the strongest and most ubiquitously spoken Aboriginal languages in the country. The people, particularly further to the West, were never dispossessed of or removed from their land and they were free at all times to continue traditional hunting practices and ceremonial activities, many of which have persisted into the present. It only requires reading books written before the 1970s to appreciate the nature and extent of the historical changes I am alluding to. Charles Duguid’s No Dying Race (1963) and Winifred Hilliard’s The People in Between: The Pitjantjatjara People of Ernabella (1968) not only depict a reasonably functional economic community under the auspices of the Presbyterian Mission, but also inadvertently alert us to the social and cultural deterioration that has occurred since these books were written. The Western Desert is not an isolated example. Deterioration during the period of self-determination and collective welfarism is a point Noel Pearson has made many times when reflecting on the Mission era at Hope Vale in Cape York. Sutton traces a similar historical trajectory in his analysis of cultural change in

Aurukun in Far North Queensland. It is common for older Pitjantjatjara people and older teachers to reflect on the degeneration in the social and cultural fabric that has occurred in the past thirty years, escalating at an exorbitant rate in the past decade or so. Pitjantjatjara language, culture and attachment to land have remained strong for the past eighty years, yet it is only in the past twenty that problems have escalated to the point where it has necessitated government enquiries such as that undertaken by Commissioner Mullighan. Something definitely requires explaining here.

The only long-term option for young people from remote communities is to equip them to be able to function in a mainstream setting. It is not possible to do this on the more remote communities, where abominable attendance levels and very little contact with the broader English-speaking community effectively compounds already unacceptable rates of illiteracy in English. With an increasing drift of Aboriginal people into towns and urban centers, acquiring the requisite skills to function in such settings is imperative. Such urban drift occurred on the eastern seaboard in the eighteenth and nineteenth century in the wake of conquest and de-tribalisation and the result was the creation of a fringe-dwelling urban underclass with all of the attendant problems that entails. In order to avoid such a prospect for current and for future generations who are negotiating the transition from a tribal, nomadic society to that of modern sedentary living, being educated on remote settlements is unacceptable and counterproductive. It actually prevents students from acquiring the skills necessary to function in the modern world. This was one of the main concerns of the ‘Mullighan Inquiry’ and why the government responded to the report with increased funding for urban boarding facilities.

The bloke I was chatting with preferred that young people remain on country and that they should not live and work in urban centers. Such an attitude is common in Alice Springs, particularly among the alternative sub-culture. An eco-activist girl I had a chat with beside the pool at Annie’s Backpackers shared such an outlook. The conversation with her was interesting. She had suffered a psychological crisis in the city and she consequently moved to the desert in search of some sense of inner coherence. Her feeling of vexed depression lifted when she moved from the city to Alice and began working with Aboriginal people. Alice was for her a place of spiritual discovery, an alternative to the boredom, despair and mind-numbing work she experienced in the city. I sympathised a great deal with what she was saying and despite her language being somewhat misty and vague, she seemed quite reflective and sincere. Yet, as I pointed out, others had to work monotonous jobs and be bored and depressed so that she could smoke her rollies lazily by the pool. Not only did she not seem to appreciate her cultural and economic embeddedness in the system she decried, she was also of the opinion that traditional culture was not only a panacea for her own fraught existence but that its resuscitation would somehow improve the quality of remote people’s lives. Like the community worker she thought it best that Aboriginal people remain on communities segregated from mainstream language and culture, and that the necessity of entering the mainstream economy is something Aboriginal people should be insulated from.

The allegiance to a rights-based agenda and the government-funded maintenance of traditional culture on remote lands is not confined to those seeking out an alternative spiritual paradigm. For example, the much publicised recent debate between Bess Price and the human rights lawyer and academic Larissa Behrendt was a result of the latter’s recalcitrant allegiance to the rights-based thinking of the 1960s and ’70s. Price, a Walpiri woman from Central Australia, had supported the intervention and also supported the need for the racial discrimination act to be held in abeyance for the intervention to occur. Her recent support for the intervention on the ABC’s Q&A program provoked the emotional ire of Behrendt, an urban intellectual of Indigenous descent whose academic career is focused on law and human rights. Price, as a woman who has to deal daily with profound dysfunction, homicide, abuse and suicide amongst her kin, is aware that the rights-based paradigm has failed to deliver on its promises. It is for this reason she is searching for alternative solutions than those offered by what Sutton has called the ‘liberal consensus’, the ideological schemata that have dominated thinking in this area for the past forty years.

Allegiance to the rights-based ideology of the ’60s and ’70s is also deeply entrenched in much academic thinking and it is the intellectual support for such a notion that is under attack in The Politics of Suffering. Consequently the book has drawn defensive reviews from those holding the kind of views that Sutton has taken to task. Those, for example, who are still under the delusion that the maintenance of remote settlements is an ethical imperative that will somehow produce positive outcomes in terms of English language acquisition for remote students. The desire to flog such a dead horse is partly borne of a lack of on-the-ground experience and also a reluctance to abandon long-standing moral convictions. For example, in her review of Sutton’s book in Oceania, Dianne Austin-Broos, fearing the spectre of assimilation in the kind of mainstreaming of education Sutton is suggesting, instead advocated ‘incentives…both for the teachers and the taught, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to realise English literacy and numeracy in remote schools.’[2] I am not suggesting that remote schools should be closed down and that people should be forcefully herded into urban settings. But what the above author is advocating has been attempted for the past thirty years. Her failure to recognise how such an approach has actually produced the appalling statistics in illiteracy is a case in point of clinging to an ideology when its practical outcomes have proven disastrous. Yet this is not an isolated form of politically fueled myopia. Such blindness runs deep and afflicts even the highest sectors of government and bureaucracy.

It is instructive to consider the different sources of funding on remote settlements and how they inadvertently negate one another. For example, one sector of government financially supports a situation which is perpetuating the problems that another sector is seeking to solve. That is, one sector provides funding for housing, welfare and other services to enable remote settlements to be artificially propped up economically; another provides educational funding to try and alleviate the levels of virtual cultural and linguistic illiteracy that is perpetuated by such economic scaffolding. It is not realising this that makes such problems seem so intractable and why fallacious reasons for policy failure are sought, sought everywhere except where they actually exist. They are not to be found in lack of funding, discrimination, loss of land or culture, but in the artificial preservation of traditional culture in regions so remote that the creation of economic infrastructure is not possible and therefore the financial impetus which makes education meaningful does not exist in such places. The attempt to explain remote Indigenous illiteracy and attempts to ‘close the gap’ more often than not seem like people grasping at phantasms of their own creation, more smoke and political mirrors than actual reality. Why there is an inability to actually see this situation more clearly, which is not particularly complex, is most likely due to intellectual and moral inertia. The likes of Austin-Broos fail to perceive that severe illiteracy on remote lands is historically linked to the provision of government housing and welfare and the artificial maintenance of remote communities that lack any genuine economic infrastructure and therefore any cultural rationale for education being important. Education leads to jobs. Without jobs education is deprived of its significance and meaning. Many parents do not make their children go to school, because without an economic rationale for schooling, a sense of its economic necessity, it becomes devoid of significance. It is this broader systemic problem that underpins appalling attendance standards. On most remote settlements in the Western Desert, there is cultural blank space, a kind of semantic vacuum, when the concept of gainful employment is mentioned. This is because it has collectively been absent from people’s experience for more than thirty years. Advocating education on remote settlements as a cure for Indigenous illiteracy is effectively advocating conditions that will exacerbate the situation you are seeking to solve – like suggesting more grog as a cure for alcoholism.

Sutton also details the increase in violent crime on remote communities over the past thirty years. The book opens with a catalogue of suicide and homicide statistics in Aurukun. Such events were very rare prior to the ’60s, yet during the period of self-determination their frequency rose rapidly. Sutton looks at a number of factors; the increased availability of alcohol, welfarism and the transposition of practices that evolved in a nomadic stateless society into the context of sedentary living. These include traditional protocols regarding the treatment of women and retributive violence. In a nomadic stateless society lacking an objective and impartial judicial system, violence is a functional means of settling grievances between groups. Yet traditionally, when living vast distances from one another in small groups of thirty or forty people, spatial dispersal would enable anger and rage to be defused. In sedentary communities of five or six hundred many of those traditional protocols not only become dysfunctional but explosive. This is one of the many problems of resuscitating traditional culture within the context of modern sedentary living. Sutton is arguing for a profound reconsideration of the notion that culture is inherently worthwhile, virtuous and in need of preservation. In many situations the dysfunction of a community is linked to aspects of culture that are disjunctive with modernity and which would be best consigned to the past. Traditional protocols surrounding the treatment of women, children and the use of violence as a means of social control, need to be understood not as the sole cause but as contributing factors to the current state of social disintegration on remote communities. Such cultural practices when enacted in the context of sedentary living, collective generational welfarism and substance abuse, contribute to an increasingly discordant ensemble of causal factors resulting in the kind of social death Neill analysed in White Out. A situation where on the Pitjantjatjara Lands, since the year 2000, amongst a population of about two thousand five hundred residents, there have been 248 allegations of sexual abuse against children.[3] A situation where an eight-year-old girl was seen by a teacher in a classroom simulating masturbation with various objects, where a four-year-old boy was seen giving oral sex to a doll and where a five-year-old girl was diagnosed with an STD.[4] So much for the social death side of things, the hell that life has become for many on remote settlements. If you have made it this far you may want to persist to discover at least some of the good I found there.


ONE OF THE books that I took with me to read was Nancy Munn’s Walbiri Iconography: Graphic Representation and Cultural Symbolism in a Central Australian Society (University of Chicago Press, 1973). I began reading it on The Ghan and it became, over the two weeks I was away, the book that made the most significant impression on me. It also opened up the world of desert art, linking it with social organisation, dream-life and cosmology in ways that I had not previously grasped. I spent a few days lying on my bunk at Annie’s Backpackers finishing it off, noting and commenting on interesting passages, notes which form the basis of much of this essay.

Munn is an American anthropologist who carried out field work in the 1950s among the Walbiri people of Yuendumu, a Western Desert community about two hundred kilometres west of Alice Springs. Munn’s book is a rigorous anthropological analysis of the various symbols used in traditional body painting and sand design, the iconographic system that we have since become familiar with over the past thirty years due to the flowering of the Western Desert Art movement.

Munn emphasizes two distinct levels of socio-political organisation, one based on descent from the mother, the other from the father. As I understand her, the maternal line is associated with pro-creation within the family, yet this personal dimension is also linked with the association that a young man has with his father in terms of ritual life. The association with the paternal line forms the basis of male fertility rituals which are not confined to the mere perpetuation of the family line itself, but incorporate the maintenance and fertility of the land, the resources base if you like, upon which society as a whole is dependent. They are in this sense cosmic and transgenerational, a kind of ritualised resurrection of the eternally present creative beings upon whose actions the continuation of life is thought to be dependent. And it is here that the two aspects of political organisation intersect. Male fertility or ‘increase’ ceremonies are associated with the continuation of life as a transpersonal process. Yet by virtue of being part of, and an expression of this process, the fecundity of the more personal and familial dimensions of life associated with the maternal domain are also maintained by male ritual activity.

For example, the vivifying of a child’s spirit in the womb is thought to be caused by the procreative power of that child’s totemic ancestor. And the fertility rites performed by men, by virtue of ensuing fertility of the entire known cosmos, are thought to indirectly facilitate this personalised embodiment of ancestral power, power which is manifested in the maternal domain and the maternal line of descent. In this way women’s rituals which are more focused on ‘growing up’ or nurturing the immediate family intersect and are complimentary to the male fertility rites and ceremonies which are believed to ensure the fertility of nature as a whole. Munn delves into much more detail regarding how such a system works in terms of moieties, marriage law and various kinship subsections, details most of which were and still are beyond my grasp. Nevertheless, as you may have guessed, I really like this book – despite its complexity it is definitely worth reading, particularly if you want to try and grasp some of the inwardness and richness of Aboriginal religious life.

How do these two levels of social organisation, expressed in matrilineal and patrilineal ritual life, relate to traditional body decoration and ceremonial sand designs and their transposition onto the canvas paintings that are now so well known across the world? When a person paints their Dreaming or Tjukurpa they are painting the ancestral spirit which was planted in them in the womb. The painting may tell the story of that ancestor’s journey through country, how various sacred features of the environment are embodiments of that ancestor, and how the individual is spiritually linked to those sites. Each icon in a painting – whether animal footprints, people sitting around a camp or a waterhole, or the depiction of ancestral journeys – represents an element within the Tjukurpa of that particular person. In the Western Desert language block Tjukurpa in its simplest form merely means story, but the term also encompasses what we often refer to as Dreamings. The concept of a person’s Tjukurpa not only embodies their totemic affiliation with an aspect of the non-human world, such as the rain, honey ants or kangaroos; it also conceptualises that feature of the environment as not only consubstantial with a particular human being, but also the spiritual ancestor from whose creative acts both owe their genesis. Another way of saying this is that the idea of distinct essences as we have inherited it from Aristotle is completely alien to classical Aboriginal ways of thinking and feeling. During ceremonial activity, when a performer decorates his or her body and re-enacts ancestral journeys or activities, he or she is transformed into something other than their everyday individualised self, having become, through artistic mimesis, consubstantial with that specific totemic ancestor – that is, of the same essence or substance.

To understand how such issues are conceptualised in classical Warlpiri thought it is necessary to appreciate how existence is divided into two realms, that of djugurba (tjukurpa in Pitjantjatjara)[5] and yidjaru. Djugurba refers to the abstract creative period when the ancestors emerged from the earth, created the present day environment, and again entered into the ground from which they had originally emerged. However, Djugurba is also linked with sleep and dream-life, hence the translation into the English expression Dreaming. Yidjaru on the other hand refers to actual individual people living in the here and now, the realm of waking individual consciousness, something which is distinct from dream-life and sleep and their association with the creative period. Yet it seems the membrane separating these two realms is permeable, for the dimension of dream-life frequently finds its way into the waking world of concrete everyday perception. Ritual is the most efficacious means of doing this, but art using the same iconographic system similarly achieves the same thing with the added benefit of offering such embodiments of dream-life to the broader public.

What I failed to appreciate before reading Munn’s book was the nature of the transformation that occurs when a performer mimics or becomes his or her totemic or creative ancestor. When an individual acts out the creative journeys of their totem during ritual performances, although they remain the same physical body, they have literally become a being from not only another order of reality but also another dimension of their own existence. And that other dimension is their totemic double or soul which was implanted in them in the womb and to which they still, even in the realm of waking adult consciousness, remain connected through dream-life. Ritual thus becomes a kind of inversion of reality, the sacred totemic self becoming actualised in concrete form. As Munn writes:

Through the designs and songs the sense of values and tradition bound up with the notion of djgurba ‘surfaces’ or becomes publicly visible, and so is integrated into the perceptual field and sense experience of the social world of waking reality… Dreams and rite constitute complementary poles of a single process. The dream works in a private consciousness of sleep, while the ceremonial works in the waking rational order of the social world; both structure the relation between actor and event in a different way from that of ordinary experience, for in the latter the subjective integration of the individual with the ‘cut-off’ djugurba range of experience is not central, while in dreams and ceremony this is the key feature.[6]

I discovered over the few days reading Munn’s book that ritual is not only a form of con-substantial communion, but also an inversion of reality; in everyday life the dreaming self is thought to be hidden within the individual, not part of the social world’s sensory perceptual field. When the performer dresses as his or her totem in ritual that hidden dimension of the self is objectified and made concrete, with the everyday individualised personality being hidden by the decoration and regalia of the ancestor they are mimicking through dance and song. Ritual performance, as Munn writes, is an ‘impersonation of the ancestor within which the dancer himself is hidden.’[7] In other words the self that is usually hidden in everyday life – we might say unconscious – is ceremonially retrieved from its place of hiddenness and symbolically embodied in external concrete form.

I find great reassurance that cultures exist in this country in which people still speak about the riches of dream-life in such terms. The dualistic ontology of classical Aboriginal religious thought emphasises a definite sense of demarcation between dream-life and waking consciousness, a demarcation that delineates the realms of the profane and sacred. And this demarcation is strictly enforced culturally. When people speak of these things a sense of distance and separation is thought to exist between these two realms, between dream-life and waking reality. The conceptual preservation of this sense of distance and difference makes classical Aboriginal thought some of the most sophisticated and graceful phenomenology to have been conceived of in this country. That sense of distance is strongly demarcated through the protocols of religious law and the sense of secrecy and circumspection that surrounds spiritual life. As a culture with our lingering allegiance to Socratic and Cartesian rationalism, with its implicit denigration of mytho-poetic consciousness, we no longer possess awareness of another self that is hidden and distinct from everyday life, from our external social self – a self which requires some kind of ritualised or artistic expression. Such a sense of disconnection was given eloquent expression by WEH Stanner in his book White Man got no Dreaming: Essays, 1938-1973 (1979). Although collectively we do not posses such a sense of the riches of dream life, we do have various manifestations of such an impulse, in the occasional writer or poet, Les Murray being one of the few to have emerged in Australia in recent times. And of course in our own, more clandestine, private dreaming lives, where love and a sense of ‘things more deeply interfused’ may surface from the rich subsoil of our minds. Ceremonial body decoration and the paintings that have evolved out of them, despite innumerable differences, achieve the same thing as, for example, the poetry of Wordsworth or the novels of Dostoevsky. That is making our unconscious and buried sense of the sacred concrete and actual. It is also what part of this essay is clumsily trying to do.

So the hidden mytho-poetic foundation of individual life according to Warlpiri thought is represented collectively and concretely in ritual life. Yet this otherworld of experience also makes its way into collective social reality due to people sleeping and dreaming together in the same space. This is most evident in the overlap at the level of language between the words for the social group, the place of sleep and dream-life; a family is said to share one ‘camp’, or it may also be said that they share ‘one sleep’ or ‘one dream’.[8] Such a sense of communal feeling is the emotional foundation of sociality, maintained and nourished by that society’s collective dream life.


PEOPLE LIKE THE community worker and the eco-activist girl I spoke to beside the pool, I assume, get a vague sense of the richness and importance of such ideas and how they are played out in people’s lives, from the non-acquisitive egalitarian ethos of kinship reciprocity, to the high sacred traditions of ceremonial life. The emotional attraction – or aversion – to such aspects of classical Aboriginal culture may turn out to be one of the most important factors implicated in how we position ourselves in the Indigenous political debate. The sense of dream-life being embedded in the small family group of the camp, yet transcending that human domain into kinship with the natural world, is a longing many of us may share or, if burdened by the weight of experience, struggle against as being unrealistic and unsustainable in a post-industrial capitalist economy. Do we value the supposed social values of a closed tribal society, what Marx referred to as primitive communism, or do we value the development of the individual and his or her political liberties in an open democratic society? The answer to this question may determine whether we lean to the Right or to the Left in regards to Indigenous politics. To be able to understand how our political attitudes covertly expose our own subjective bias and emotional proclivities, often revealing more about ourselves than any objective state of affairs, may go some of the way to untangling the skein of confusion and mutual misunderstanding that seems to hobble political debate in this area.


WHAT BEGAN TO dawn on me as I understood more of what Munn was getting at became simultaneously beautiful and acutely depressing. Aboriginal religion and art represents the graphic articulation of a coherent world view in which spiritual fertility, fertility in terms of offspring, and the actual fertility and ordered continuity of the cosmos is maintained. For me this sense of being in the world in such an affirmative sense, and being able to artistically represent such affirmativeness, seems a logical impossibility. Our world seems out of joint, as though a simple faith in the nature of things as they are is no longer feasible. To live on the personal level, on what Munn calls the level of the familial unit, is still a possibility for us, to create life within the context of the family. This has its own life sustaining and affirming qualities; the joys of listening to your child’s first wonder-packed questions about the world, of sharing the love and beauty of those experiences with your partner. More tragically for us however, the other plane, that which is associated with male fertility rites, one that is ‘cosmic and societal, or sociopolitical’ has become more morally and spiritually fraught. What bothered me lying in my bunk tormented by insomniac terror was the sense of absurdity and unreality that attends the sociopolitical and cosmic dimensions of contemporary life. Another installment, I suppose, of the existential-crisis routine I have become all too familiar with. So horribly familiar that at times it does not bear thinking about. Classical Aboriginal culture was not an ideal, but it possessed the requisite naivety to affirm life at the cosmic level and be completely certain in that affirmation. The limited horizons of traditional Aboriginal culture did not have to take into its conceptual view millennia of war, the de-animated and toxic nature of our urban and industrial environments, nor the possible collapse of our civilisation’s resource base. Not to put too much of a negative spin on things but the question remains, whether we wish to think about it or not: is that sense of affirmation and fertility, in terms of the human soul and a broader politics and cosmology, a possible option for us any longer? Or are we forever condemned to live among those inhuman spaces and silences that so terrified Pascal, which now, being redolent with the scent of fossil emissions and chemical weapons, have become even more terrifying than they ever were for him?


BEFORE HEADING OUT to Papunya I organised to meet up with a guy I met on The Ghan to visit the Alice Springs Cultural Precinct which houses, among other things, the Araluen Arts Centre and the Strehlow Research Centre, where artifacts given to Ted Strehlow by senior Aranda men, are now stored. From the 1930s Stehlow began recording sacred ceremonial songs and with the benefit of having Aranda as a mother tongue, he was able to produce some of the most accurate linguistic analysis, translation and interpretation of Aboriginal poetry produced in this country. It was this research that eventually formed the basis of Songs of Central Australia, which was not published until 1971. What gives the book such pathos is the underlying sense that he was mourning the loss of a tradition as he was in the process of recording and preserving it. As he states, being linked ‘to the soil of Central Australia by…birth and years of residence and travel over its vast spaces, the close of every ceremonial festival has been an event of deep sadness, even a major personal tragedy.’[9] Strehlow feared that the sacred traditions of the Aranda people would soon fade into history, and when writing in his diary at Maryvale Station, he noted the following: ‘The silence that knows no end is about to close in upon this peaceful site. My heart tonight is sad – because there is no hope that this fate can be averted.’[10]

Loss and tragedy is a theme that Barry Hill takes up in his biography of Ted Strehlow, Broken Song: TGH Strehlow and Aboriginal Possession (Knopf, 2002). Hill sees a strain of negativity running through Strehlow’s life, one that began when as an adolescent he witnessed his father die of dropsy at Horseshoe Bend, a sense of negativity which, according to Hill, ended up informing the elegiac tone of Songs of Central Australia. This melancholic strain continued to be an undercurrent in Strehlow’s personal life, which culminated in his obsessive reading of Revelations in his later years, a section of the Bible Hill believes to be perfectly suited to the socially aggrieved. Hill sided with those attempting to resuscitate Aranda cultural traditions in the 1980s and ’90s, and he therefore found the elegiac tone of Strehlow’s Songs of Central Australia indefensible both politically and as a developed theory of cultural change. Hill interpreted Strehlow’s melancholic musings as more a symptom of personal malaise than a legitimate response to tragic historical and cultural circumstances.


I THINK HILL’S book is one of the best biographies recently written in Australia and the epic and tragic nature of its subject makes it an important work. Yet Hill seems to have been influenced by the notion that Aboriginal traditions can somehow be resurrected and maintained in a postcolonial, capitalist economy. He, like many others, was blind to the fact that those traditions, outside the context of a hunter-gatherer economy, have become in most essential ways obsolete. The sacred ceremonial songs, dances and graphic designs associated with traditional ritual have a very basic, pragmatic purpose. It is through such artistic mediums that young men learn where waterholes and hunting grounds are in order that they will be able take a wife and provide for a family. That economic base has been removed and Aboriginal people, at times by coercion and necessity, at others due to informed choice, have decided to move into the modern economy. It is for this reason young people are less interested in their cultural heritage than people of three or four generations ago, for the economic necessities of hunting are no longer the basis of their lives. They do not need to know the songs and sand designs, which are essentially aural and visual maps of country, in order to survive. The provision of a welfare cheque enables them to do that and with much less effort than it would require if they were engaging in hunting for subsistence purposes. Hill seems to have been blind to these facts of cultural evolution when writing the biography. I think Strehlow’s sense of cultural loss, far from being a projection of personal malaise, was actually an appropriate assessment of the cultural changes that were occurring mid last century. And I think his elegiac tone is more resonant with the current situation, which is difficult to describe in terms that are not imbued with a sense of tragedy.

The highlight of the visit to the Alice Springs Cultural Precinct was the Araluen Arts Centre. One of the more recent developments in desert art has produced some wonderful works with a much wider range of colours than the older works; in these paintings, bright luminous reds and greens seem to burst from the canvas. One painter I remember was Tiger Palpatja, a Pitjantjatjara man from Amata. As I have since found out from Tjukurpa Pulkatjara: The Power of the Law (Wakefield Press, 2010), Tiger was born in 1920 and grew up at the Ernabella Mission where he learned to speak English as a young boy. This was a time when many Pitjantjatjara were gainfully employed and consequently had a sense of pride, dignity and purpose, something which is absent from many of the younger generations. Tiger’s main job at the Mission was shepherding, fencing and building stockyards. The book tells us he was renowned as a ‘top gun shearer’ when he was younger. When I was walking around the gallery the beautiful bright colors of the paintings, particularly Tiger’s Wanampi Tjurkuppa (Snake Dreaming), lodged themselves in my mind, fusing with everything I had read about iconography in Nancy Munn’s book. The idea of a painting being a visual externalisation of the soul that was implanted in a person at birth by their totemic ancestor, a soul that in adulthood one remains connected to through dream-life, all of a sudden seemed quite natural and perfectly explicable.

As I drove out to Papunya a few days later the impression of the paintings, or the kind of insight I had gained into their meaning, remained with me. Although it had been my aim I was not sure if I would be able see the school murals the old Pintupi men had done in the ’70s. Thankfully, however, the school was still open and the principal kindly allowed me to have a look around. The original Honey Ant mural that was painted by the old Pintupi men as a ‘gift to the white man’s school’, as Geoffery Bardon wrote in his Papunya: A Place Made After the Story (MUP, 2005), had been since painted over with another mural that was nevertheless impressive. Some of the original door murals, although damaged, remained as a testament to those early artistic efforts.

In the 1970s Bardon had been sabotaged in his efforts to facilitate the sale of paintings in Alice Springs. He was trying to get good prices for the paintings the men had done and the Papunya Tula gallery, which still exists in Alice today, was set up for this purpose. White officials had stopped funds returning to Papunya, which infuriated the Aboriginal men who blamed Bardon for not paying them the money that was due to them. People were also buying the paintings for a few dollars and then selling them at exorbitant prices. Bardon was trying to respectfully encourage and facilitate the growth of a local art culture and it is obvious that he had a great deal of affection for not only the people but also the art that they produced. Yet he was undermined by the less benevolent concerns of those trying to make a dollar at whatever cost and of others who seemed to have resented his admiration of Aboriginal culture. Bardon, after being turned on by both the Aboriginal and white people in Papunya, headed to Sydney, suffering a severe mental collapse from which it seems he never fully recovered.

As I was driving from Papunya out to the Tanami Track on my way back to Alice a storm broke out and my four wheel drive almost slid off the road. When the roads out here get wet it is as though someone has attached ice skates to your wheels, even at ten kilometres an hour. But the storm and cloud-filled sky was wonderful. I did not see it in terms of a beautiful landscape, though, in the tradition of painters like Glover or Von Guerard. Aboriginal people’s feeling for nature is much different, almost antithetical to this disembodied conception of landscape, the colonial visual aesthetic that an American historian has aptly described as the ‘magisterial gaze’. Classical Aboriginal art evokes a fresher and more intimate sense of being part of the land than we find in colonial landscape aesthetics, which seems to exclude the rich texture and interplay of the entire sensorium, being as it is a primarily visual art-form. Aboriginal sand designs or maps of country – which many of the paintings are based on – are physical and tactile as well as visual mediums, something a dancer moves through as he or she mimics the actions of his ancestor travelling across the land. He is actually in the design, moving around within it, in bodily contact with each represented feature of the landscape in the same way that people live and move in and through the environment in actual life. When Aboriginal people describe the stories in a painting, running their fingers over each represented feature of the environment, they are similarly ‘moving through country.’

When I was driving slowly along the road looking out across the horizon, to the outcrops of mountains, the low lying scrub and the dark grey clouds, I did not think of the environment in terms of landscape aesthetics, as something out there distinct from me. It was something that I was in. This sense of the land as an enfolding, transcendent presence has the effect of dwarfing pretensions of individuality, yet it also paradoxically enlarges the sense of self, which seems to expand, becoming as limitless as the land itself.

This simple and natural sense of transcendence expressed in the paintings has a kind of joyful exuberance about it, a quite natural sense of loving country as if mountains and clouds and trees were actual kin. The contrast with the self-enclosed and fragmented subjectivities we find in modern European art, for example in works by Picasso or Francis Bacon, which are so expressive of inner desolation, is something probably best not thought about too much or too often. Bacon and Picasso are not to be denigrated for the work they produce, for it is a faithful representation of a certain modern malaise of the soul, a real phenomenon more prevalent that we like to admit. Western Desert Art, and particularly the exuberance of more recent developments within the movement, express a kind of innocent fullness of being that is perhaps impossible to maintain in a modern post-industrial society, with all of its hyper-business, social and economic anxieties and general condition of spiritual anaemia. It may even be impossible in a modern context – at least, for most of us – to even fully appreciate what such art is articulating.


THIS REFLECTION ON the spiritual riches of classical culture, and the significant impact it can have on us, always raises other issues. Sutton makes the point that a growing number of people have a respect and reverence for Aboriginal high sacred traditions, yet also hold reservations about many of the cultural practices associated with those traditions. I had long felt such a sense of ambivalence towards traditional culture, particularly when it comes to the more brutal aspects of initiation. In an article on ceremonial life, MJ Meggitt quotes a Warlpiri man who stated that in initiating young boys he was ‘killing’ them.[11] At the close of the initiation period, the symbolic death of the child is followed by their rebirth as a man who is able to marry and become an adult member of the community. This process of symbolic homicide has deep resonance with the ancient and widespread practice of sacrifice, symbolic death and rebirth. The difference, however, with child sacrifice of the kind we find in, say, Aeschylus’s Orestes trilogy, is that in Aboriginal culture the child’s death is symbolic and psychological, not actual.

This is a very complex and morally fraught area. Are we to judge such rituals as unacceptable and condemn them, or is it possible to see in them impulses that may foment beneath the veneer of civilised amiability, continually rising to the surface despite moral censure and attempts at social conditioning? There are indications here that classical culture, while articulating and embodying some of the richer dimensions of spiritual life, may also turn out to be a mirror in which the darker reaches of our own minds are reflected. When men engage in symbolic murder during such ceremonies, up to hundreds of women and other family members, from whom the initiates have been separated for months, lie around the camp wailing all night, as if mourning at a funeral.

There are very complex things going on here that I think are still difficult to for us to understand. Aboriginal ceremonies, like the Eleusian rituals of ancient of Greece, express and enact themes of death and rebirth, enact and produce conditions of social and psychological fragmentation and separation, yet they also seem to be seeking a higher unity or form of reconciliation. Much of the sacred dimensions of male ritual are a symbolic expression of the separation and sundering of the masculine and feminine domains of personal and collective life. The child prior to initiation is considered part of the maternal matrix. A violent demarcation and separation of the child from this maternal sphere and his entry into adulthood is the basic function of initiation. Such rituals are structured around the polarities of childhood (in the female domain) and adulthood (in the male domain). Yet the apotheosis of male ritual life seems to move towards a higher unity and integration of these polarities, one not unlike those evident in the Eleusian mysteries or the condition of spiritual hermaphrodism we find in the work of some of the Medieval alchemists Jung was so fond of.

Many of the negative reviews of Sutton’s book have a defensive tone about them, perhaps from reviewers who remain wedded to the moral schemata Sutton is attacking. One of the few genuinely important criticisms of The Politics of Suffering was offered by Tim Rowse in the journal Aboriginal History. Sutton advocates the dismantling of the artificial welfare economies that exist on remote communities, seeing them as being implicated in many of the problems that exist today, from the cultural and linguistic ghettoisation casually implicated in plummeting literacy standards, to the mental lethargy and torpor caused by intergenerational welfare dependency. But, as Rowse asks, will the movement of people to towns and cities, where opportunities exist for engagement with the mainstream labour market, produce as many problems as it solves? Will it produce, in other words, more ‘vulnerable individuals’?[12] The historical pattern of colonisation in Australia has been conquest, detribalisation, urban drift and the creation of an urban underclass. This is what happened around major towns and cities in coastal regions during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The people of the Western Desert, due to their remoteness from civilisation, are only now going through a process that Aboriginal people on the coastal regions had undergone decades, if not a century or two ago. Many Western Desert people were never colonised or dispossessed like those on the coast. The process of detribalisation and urban drift, however, is nevertheless occurring at an increasingly rapid rate as people choose, of their own volition, to become part of the modern world. The moral dilemma this produces, hinted at by Rowse, is that such a process may produce as many problems as it solves.

It is common for the teachers and youth workers I work with to comment on the marked differences between students whose families have spent one or two generations in Alice Springs or major towns and who are consequently more proficient in English, and remote students who have basic English communication difficulties. There are also marked psychological and social differences. Remote students tend to lack the abrasiveness of character evident in more urbanised students. I am not sure if such an assertion could be sustained statistically, for I have taught many very pleasant and friendly urbanised Aboriginal students. But it is a general impression of some validity. On an anecdotal level, one night walking down the main street of Alice Springs, I came upon a group of young boys. A number of them began talking to me. One of them, who would have been lucky to be fourteen, told me he was gay and propositioned me for sex. Then a number of his older friends came up to me and asked me for five dollars. I refused and began to walk off. One of them consequently bashed me in the head and another, grabbing me by the arm, would have done the same had I not broken free and headed towards a crowd lining up outside the local pub. It was not a brutal assault – I only had a sore jaw for a few days – but it was behavior I had not encountered from more traditional remote students over ten years of working with them.

A distinction needs to be made between traditional violence related to inter-kin conflict and the kind of violent impulses I experienced in Alice that night. Living on community it is very rare that a white person will be the object of a violent assault. Much of the violence is directed against other Aboriginal people. This is why it is relatively safe for a white person to live on communities which have extremely high statistics of violent crime. Aboriginal people tend to be very protective and considerate of white people living on their communities and do everything possible to insulate them from violence associated with internal kin-based conflicts. The violence I experienced in Alice, however, seems to have its origins in factors other than traditional protocols surrounding violent behavior.

What I am suggesting, and what lurks at the edges of Rowse’s criticism of Sutton’s book, is that the inevitable drift into urban centers may create a whole horde of new problems. Remote children and adolescents are generally very friendly, and in my experience would never accost a stranger in the manner I was accosted. We might say they possess the quality of naïveté. There is a definite sense of shyness, warmth and affectionate interest in other people that seems to be absent in the more streetwise urbanised students I have worked with. The tragedy is those more wholesome qualities, I fear, will be lost with the increasing urban drift. Further, if we fail to equip students with the linguistic and cultural knowledge to cope with that situation, catastrophic consequences lie ahead of us over the next two to three generations. Many remote young people, who at the age of thirteen or fourteen still have the literacy skills of a five- or six-year-old, are currently moving into larger towns and cities. I fear what the future has in store for them and for their children.

What Sutton has analysed is a crisis within the Left itself when it comes to Indigenous politics. The Politics of Suffering is by no means the work of a conservative or reactionary thinker. Yet many of the problems Sutton raises are those that have been raised by the Right in this country in an attempt to bring Leftist ideologues to account when it comes to dysfunction on Indigenous communities and the realm of realist politics. Historically the Left has had a habit of clinging to ideological systems that are politically and philosophically appealing, but which turn out to be disastrous when implemented in the real world. Periods of crisis within Leftist thinking occur when allegiance to cherished ideological systems overrides reason and the ability to register the facts of social reality objectively. Often it is from within Leftist traditions themselves that thinkers emerge who bring such intellectual inflexibility to account. There is a long history of such internal rejuvenation; from Arthur Koestler’s expose of the Stalinist purges, Orwell’s attack on Russian totalitarianism, Solzhenitsyn’s revelations of the Gulag penal system in Siberia, to Christopher Hitchens’ critique of reflexive anti-Americanism from a socialist and human rights perspective.

I have for some time felt an intellectual and moral aversion towards the Left in this country when it comes to Indigenous issues. I have consequently had more sympathy with the Right politically. But it has been an uneasy alliance. I am not temperamentally sympathetic to the political Right, but it does have the virtue of being intellectually more open and therefore not hobbled by the kind of ideological chains that hinder honest debate on the Left. The virtue of Sutton’s book is that it enables people who instinctively lean to the Left with regard to Indigenous politics, to do so again in good conscience, and without sacrificing one’s intellectual integrity. Prior to reading Sutton’s book and some of the other works in its bibliography, I felt as though I existed in a political no man’s land. Among those of a Leftist persuasion you felt gagged when speaking about Indigenous issues and the failure of liberal policies over the last three decades. Among the Right you could speak your mind but there was a sense of unease as to how such issues as community dysfunction and Indigenous illiteracy were being hijacked for the purposes of a conservative political agenda. And there was very little understanding of the riches of traditional culture amongst those of a more conservative political persuasion, riches which I value a great deal and which I feel may form an important component of a future high culture in Australia. Such a combination of honest, pragmatic and realistic thinking on policy combined with a sense of blanket disdain for traditional Aboriginal culture is evident in Gary John’s recent Aboriginal Self-Determination: The Whiteman’s Dream (Connor Court Publishing, 2010). It is rare to find a pragmatist who does not advocate this kind of conservative disdain for Aboriginal high sacred traditions, who doesn’t filter Aboriginal issues through a preconceived political schema. Sutton is one of the few who possesses the impartiality and depth of knowledge to avoid such ideological distortion.

The general poverty of our intellectual culture has also been demoralising, particularly its debasement to the level of political partisanship.I was pleased to see Sutton drawing on American writers such as Gass, Wolfe and Vonnegut in his treatment of the self-serving pieties of much of our bourgeois political culture – what Wolfe referred to as radical chic. It is possible that with work the calibre of Sutton’s being produced, things may take a turn for the better and the ideological shackles that have prevented the development of an open and honest intellectual culture may be consigned to the past. If we can develop a genuinely native high cultural tradition, that tradition, as Les Murray was saying in the 1980s, is one that may be imbued with elements of classical Aboriginal sacred and mythological traditions. In the same way that the rituals of antiquity and their mythological underpinnings became the basis of works like Homer’s Odyssey, Ovid’s Metamorphosis and the literary and artistic traditions that developed in their wake, Aboriginal tradition is an untapped storehouse of mythological riches that could form the basis of a truly rich cultural tradition grounded in the specificities of our environment, in the kinds of animals, plants and climatic conditions that we are familiar with and which form the often unnoticed background of our experience. This was the hope with which Strehlow, countering much of his book’s despairing tone, ended his Songs of Central Australia.


FOR THE RELEASE of The Politics of Suffering, Sutton gave an interview with Marcia Langton in Melbourne.[13] He talked about issues of cultural transformation and that some aspects of traditional culture, such as culturally sanctioned violence and child abuse – a process of toughening-up young children referred to as ‘cruelling’ – would be best consigned to the past. Yet the high sacred traditions, he argued, will continue to be preserved and studied by all Australians. Sutton made the point that we can enjoy Latin poetry, but this does not mean we would today tolerate Roman military barbarism. The analogy set my mind right with regards to the mixed feelings and plain confusion I felt about Aboriginal culture. Sutton also mentioned that it is better to equip remote people with the ability to be functional adults in a mainstream urban setting as opposed to ‘shattered drunks’. These are limited but achievable aims. I have resigned myself to the fact that you cannot stop the ship from sinking but you can pull some passengers into your lifeboat, watching the ship descend into the ocean, as many of the less fortunate drown. These two comments of Sutton’s gave my teaching some impetus and sense of direction. As well as offering a program of realist pragmatics, Sutton was the first person I had read since Strehlow who spoke to the sense of despair I experienced working on community, but who also shared a sense of the riches of traditional culture. There is something deeply poetic and beautiful about totemic affiliation and its expressions in classical and post-classical art, something that is by turns affronting and renewing, the sense I suppose of an innocent spiritual kinship with the non-human world. This primitive sense of affiliation with the more-than-human world has been all but lost in modern post-industrial cultures. Yet it is something precious, and it is a good thing that it is being offered to the broader community as a gift by people whose culture is grounded in the land we live in, grounded in our environment through the poetic dimensions of dream-life.

In the Afterword to the second edition of The Politics of Suffering, Sutton discusses the difficulties of accepting the failure of an idealistic program to which one may have dedicated one’s life. This points to the more personal and emotional dynamics for maintaining a form of ideological allegiance whose practical outcomes in terms of pragmatics and rational analysis have proved disastrous. Sutton is at his most reflective and compassionate in these few pages. As he writes, the ‘failure of such an idealism can be a small death of the spirit…a dark and terrible one, but it also offers a lightness that comes from facing down, resolving and shedding the negative past without forgetting the positives.’[14] Few writers in this country have dealt with the personal impact the national crisis in Indigenous politics has had, and will continue to have upon many of us, with such sensitivity and insight. They are important words. Let us hope we do not lose sight of them.



[1]   Neill, Rosemary White Out: How Politics is Killing Black Australia, Allen and Unwin, 2002, pp. 38-9.

[2]   Diane Austin-Broos, ‘Making a Difference: The Politics of Writing About Suffering’, Oceania, 80, 2010, p. 110.

[3]   Children on Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands: Commission of Inquiry. A Report into Sexual Abuse. Presented to the South Australian Parliament by the Hon. E.P. Mullighan QC Commissioner. p. XIII.

[4]   ibid, p. 212. These are incidents the inquiry reported as a result of interviewing teachers on the APY Lands. They are the kind of stories I had frequently heard when teaching out bush and it was not particularly surprising reading about them in the report. They are not unusual.

[5]   In Pitjantjatjara and related languages the word for dreaming or story is spelt Tjukurpa; in Warlpiri it is spelt Djugurba. ‘Tj’ does sound very similar to ‘Dj’. I’m not sure if the differences are due to differences in the language or traditions of transcription into the English phonetic system. Your guess is as good as mine.

[6]   Munn, Nancy. Walbiri Iconography: Graphic Representation and Cultural Symbolism in a Central Australian Society, Cornell University, 1973, p. 103.

[7]   Munn, Nancy. Walbiri Iconography: Graphic Representation and Cultural Symbolism in a Central Australian Society, Cornell University, 1973, p. 50.

[8]   Munn, p. 37.

[9]   Songs of Central Australia, Angus and Robertson, Australia, 1971, p.xIvi.

[10] ibid.

[11] MJ Meggitt, ‘Gadjari Among the Walbiri Aborigines of Central Australia’, (Oceania Monographs, No14).

[12] Rowse, Tim. Aboriginal History, 2009 Vol. 33, p. 243.


[14] Peter Sutton, The Politics of Suffering, 2nd Melbourne University Press, 2011, p. 219.

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About the author

Gary Clark

Gary Clark is an author and teacher with the Wiltja Program, an initiative of Pitjantjatjara people, which provides access to urban secondary schooling.

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