Aboriginal Australia

Aboriginal Flag

I’m going to live a little dangerously now and write about race, specifically Aboriginal Australians. Hopefully reading about it doesn’t make you too nervous; although I have to admit that it makes me a little nervous that I’m going to accidentally write something that doesn’t convey my true feelings or (worse) that shows me to have biases that offend Australians. Try to bear with me, and feel free to call me out.

I still know next to nothing about Aboriginal people in Australia. (And I’m ashamed to say that’s almost as much as I know about present-day Native Americans, too.) I won’t feel bad about buying some of their very interesting art — if we do in fact buy any — but I would really love to know more about them: how they think about themselves, whether they feel or want to be “Australian,” what they do in their daily lives, what kind of lives they want to live.

I like the various “dreaming” stories that we’ve read during our travels; and I like the very idea of a Dreaming, of a set of beliefs that tie people and landscape and ancestry and law and custom and survival all together. It’s a powerful concept. The dreaming creation/preservation stories are excellent, multifaceted, multigenerational works of collective memory.

So I’m a bit sad that we’ve had few interactions with Aboriginal Australians. (I’m using the term advisedly, since I don’t know the names of the clans and tribes whose land we’ve been on.) It’s strange: All of the parks are tribal lands that have been leased back to the government, which runs and manages them almost exclusively with white people. And as we’ve come further into the middle of the country we’ve seen more and more Aborigines, yet we’ve had almost no direct interactions. (One man in Darwin — I think it was Darwin — said “G’day” to me, and the ranger Ubirr in Kakadu.)

When you consider that the white Australian holiday makers we’ve met will talk your ear off and are a jovial bunch, it seems odd. Of course, Aboriginal people aren’t here for my amusement; nor are they obliged to satisfy my bottomless well of curiosity about the world. It just seems like there’s a very distinct separateness between “white” and “black” Australians. One some occasions it seems almost actively enforced, especially at some of the road houses.* But, in general, it’s a feeling like people are expected to be in their own spheres. The supermarket in Tennant Creek was about the only place where everybody under the Australian sun was doing the same thing as equals (presumably).

I don’t want to feed into any stereotypes — after all, I’m not at work myself — but there seems to be a lot of “hanging around” by Aboriginal people.** Is that normal? Perhaps I don’t understand the rhythms of Australian life. Are they waiting for stuff to happen, just like those two white guys at Daly Waters who were sitting around playing the guitar until someone showed interest in their hand-carved wooden signs? And what should be the expected lifestyle anyway of a people who were happily doing their own thing until a couple hundred years ago when a colonizing superpower came through, seized all their lands, stole their children, depersonified them, and only recently came to feel the least bit bad about it? If (hypothetically) an Aborigine — or anyone for that matter — wants to live in a traditional way outside of the European “social compact,” should the state be allowed to say, “No?”

These are some questions that Lisa and I have discussed on this trip since we got to Darwin; and they’re questions that apply to our own country as well. Of couse, I have my inclinations and (probably incorrect) assumptions, but I have no answers. It’s certainly not my right as an American to answer or dictate to anyone else.

Maybe I can start to understand more over the next couple weeks. Maybe even starting tomorrow, when we plan to stop by the Cultural Centre in the Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park.

Let me know what you think.


* — Incidentally, I met my first person in the flesh with a swastika tattoo in a visible place the other day when I was getting gas for the campervan.

** — I most emphatically do not want to traffic in the “lazy fill-in-the-blank” stereotype. I’m merely interested at a basic level in what everyone does and how they do it. I’m an anthropological/sociological busybody.

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