Features Australia

The new great Australian silence

24 March 2018

9:00 AM

24 March 2018

9:00 AM

In Down Among The Wild Men, the anthropologist, John Greenway, describes the process by which Aboriginal adolescents from the Western Desert become men thus: ‘a boy becomes a man by having an upper central incisor pounded out of his head with a rock… by having his foreskin cut off in little pieces… and by having his penis slit through to the urethra from the scrotum to the meatus’. Having endured this torture, the adolescent is then expected to go alone into the desert for several weeks to finalise the process of entering manhood.

As Wordsworth put it, in an entirely different context, ‘That time is past, and all its aching glories are no more’.

All hunter gatherer societies laid a great significance upon the transition to manhood and most had some sort of ritual trial but few were as challenging as that of the Western Desert Aborigines where being a breadwinner was clearly not for sissies. The rituals and ceremonies which were an essential part of Aboriginal social structure usually collapsed in the space of one generation following the arrival of the British.

Most hunter gatherer societies across the globe suffered a similar fate following the arrival of the white man and almost all responded with the complete collapse of the traditional way of life.

In Australia, the natives were denied access to traditional hunting grounds and were usually forced to encroach on lands belonging to other tribal groups or to become fringe dwellers relying on hand outs from their conquerors. In the nineteenth century, traditional owners of land were pushed aside with brutal indifference and the story of Aboriginal dispossession was generally ignored by the migrants in what W. E. H. Stanner, in the 1968 Boyer Lectures, called ‘The Great Australian Silence’.

Stanner’s broadcasts have probably had a greater impact in Australia than any subsequent public lecture and jump- started the process of reincorporating the Aborigine in the story of the development of Australia. He refers to a cult of forgetfulness, of ‘disrembering’ and most subsequent historians and writers have been at pains to remind us all that what was irretrievably lost was a civilisation which had survived unchanged for a lot longer than the Western civilisation which so thoughtlessly replaced it.


But the ‘disremembering’ that Stanner brought to our attention is in danger of being replaced by a ‘remembering’ of a set of ideas that are every bit as false as those which had currency in pre-Stanner days.

The Australian recently contained an article on the growing pressure by traditional owners to ban tourists and hikers from climbing mountains in national parks (‘Calls to ban climbs as culture clash peaks’). The article noted that, following the closure of Uluru to tourists, other mountain walks that are popular with tourists are in danger of being closed because the peaks in question were of cultural significance to the traditional owners.

In particular the summit of Mt Warning in NSW and St Mary peak in the Flinders Rangers will be closed to tourists if local Aboriginal groups have their way. The argument is that mountains or any geographical feature which is central to an Aboriginal creation myth or any aspect of Aboriginal culture, should not be used as a tourist attraction.

One might reasonably ask why it is that, all around the world, sites such as Machu Picchu, Mt Everest, and Lourdes are able to reconcile the conflicting requirements of their religious significance with their tourist profile while this is a task too hard for Aboriginal communities?

But more importantly, it is time for an honest enquiry into the amorphous notion of ‘Aboriginal spirituality’. The tendency to romanticise the life of Aboriginals prior to the arrival of the British serves no good purpose.

No one denies that pre-contact Aborigines may have had a very close, mystical relationship, to their physical environment. But the transition from childhood to adolescence was brutal for both sexes. In many Aboriginal groups ritual defloration of girls was standard practice. In some cases older men were given the task of deflowering preadolescent girls. In other tribes this task fell to a group of young boys and would today be called pack rape. As with the genital mutilation of young males these practices were condoned socially.

By contemporary standards, many of the customs and practices of everyday life in Aboriginal communities were barbarous and, if continued today, would attract a time in prison. The question no one is willing to address is, what aspects of pre-contact behaviour are a legitimate manifestation of ‘Aboriginal spirituality’ and which are illegal or manifestations of an oppressive patriarchy?

This question is not getting the attention it deserves because like so many other issues concerned with remote Aboriginal communities, it is in the too hard basket.

The sickening statistics concerning the spread of a syphilis epidemic among young children in remote Aboriginal communities and the incidence of rape of under-age girls have been swept under the carpet for over twenty years.

All state and federal governments have preferred symbolic, feel-good gestures to honest examination of complex issues. The numerous enquiries have invariably ignored some of the less pleasant facts about life in remote Aboriginal communities and have preferred to focus on failures of policy of past governments. The Little Children Are Sacred report is as great a distortion of a complex reality as any of the pre-Stanner accounts of Aboriginal circumstances.

There is of course no chance of getting an honest government examination of what is meant by ‘Aboriginal spirituality’. The social structure of almost all Aboriginal communities was utterly destroyed by the arrival of the Europeans, but getting politicians to discuss what this means for people living in remote settlements is impossible.

For over 150 years Australians were either ignorant of, or deceived themselves about the consequences of Aboriginal dispossession. Since Stanner’s broadcasts, half a century ago, there has been a radical change in our interpretation of Australian history. But the self-deceit has continued unabated.

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