Friday, July 10, 2009

Reflections III: Seeing with the Natives

The picture: Petroglyphs at N'Ghala Gorge. See previous post for more info.

A fresh and unexpected result of Australia Fourteen is my greater sense of Aboriginal culture. I’ve of course been aware of Aboriginals and their history since my first visit in 1985. I even went to a show of Aboriginal art at the state gallery that year. On previous trips I made little effort to explore or learn about Aboriginal culture. I kept looking at art, which resonated in some inchoate way, but I did not reflect on it deeply. I didn’t interact with many Aboriginals. This is a mixture of where I spent most of my time: in remote areas looking at rocks, and my innate natural reticence.

Nonetheless, preFourteen I’d built an impression of Aboriginals, their culture, and their experience. Three strong memories epitomize this. First, in 1987 I went to the Fremantle Markets, probably to buy cheap produce for the field season. There was an Aboriginal sitting at the entrance playing a didgeridoo. He was busking rather successfully. I stopped and watched. At some point we made eye contact. From the glimmer in his eyes, I intuited that I was seeing another human whose life experience and world view were radically unlike than mine. It was a feeling of utter dissimilarity. This profound difference was far greater than I’d ever felt in other places: Indonesia, Japan, South Africa, Costa Rica. The moment was disturbing. It challenged my comprehension of the breadth of humanness.

This experience fit into my evolving appreciation of the Australian land. The outback feels quite different from anywhere else I’ve been. The great age of the deeply weathered red rocks, the acacias of all sizes, the hopping animals, and the frequently harsh conditions create a unique environment. It’s matchlessly beautiful. This man was from a different and separate landscape, which had influenced his distinctive and rich culture. This is what showed in his eyes. I’ve sensed a similar heritage and power of place in the Aboriginal paintings and artwork.

My second experience is uglier. I was visiting friends in Karratha in 1990. At some point we drove through the old town of Roebourne on the Pilbara coast. Roebourne had a wide, arched main street, probably for drainage during cyclones. I though, geez, this town is filthy: the main street gutters seemed to be full of trash. As we got closer, I saw that some of this apparent debris was moving. It was literally piles of drunk and sleeping Aboriginals. This reminded me of seeing inebriated Native Americans in Arizona. Yet there was a sense of conformation here that was different. If I’m right that these were Aboriginals recovering after a drunk, it was like their bodies melded with the ground. They seemed to belong, to fit into the landscape; not or accidentally fallen down. My emotional memory of this scene is this sense of belonging. As with the busker, I felt that these people were of this land in a way that was across a very wide gap from me.

Finally, Newman 2003. In the early 21st century, Aboriginal settlements were established near most of the Pilbara mining towns. I don’t know the politics of this. I am pretty sure that the Aboriginals were the descendants of the pre-white inhabitants of the local areas. I suspect the new settlements are part of the ongoing race reconciliation process through which Australia is going. Many of the mining areas were originally Aboriginal places, taken away by Europeans. Now they’ve been somewhat returned.

We flew into town, and set about the usual assembling of gear for the field season. I was in the town centre shopping area. Newman was originally a one company mining town. Most of the workers were white. The population was a mixture of families and single males. Being the shopping centre felt like entering an excised chunk of Australian suburb: lots of consumer goods, clean people. The new Aboriginal settlement across the highway had changed this. Clusters of Aboriginals wandered the centre. A group of men waited for the liquor store to open, chattering in the local language: rapid, guttural, clearly expressive. I called home; it was hard to hear my parents in America because of another loud Aboriginal conversation going on behind me. There was trash in the streets and on the sidewalk. This seemed to correlate with the density of Aboriginals. I watched white shoppers walk by. Their faces showed distaste, resignation, and even fear.

I was watching a cultural clash in action, certainly. It showed the reverse of what I’d seen before; the unconformation of the Aboriginals to norms of white Australia. At the time, no one seemed happy with this. To be fair, Newman was already changing; the one company town had become a base for a diversity of businesses as the iron ore business expanded. I should note to; the situation did seem more resolved this year.

I didn’t make much effort to understand or integrate these experiences or the many others that took place over the years. The events were transient. Aboriginal culture seemed so far away from my experience. It was not my primary interest about Australia. My eyes and heart were for the rocks and the land. I was content with a cryptic sense of Aboriginals and Aboriginal cultures.

Australia Fourteen was different. Tnorala, which I’ve written about, was the crux. At the crater, my sense of the land aligned with the Dreamtime origin of the place. I could finally sense a bit of what I’d seen in the busker’s eyes back in Fremantle. Uluru and Kata Tjuta had similar although less overt affects. Relaxing and feeling these places was more difficult.

As I wrote this, I realized that Aboriginal art has moved me since I first saw it. This is a gut resonance about place. I didn’t intellectually attempt to figure out the paintings and other works that I saw, but some part of me understood. During Australia Fourteen, Paul was on a quest to buy art in Alice Springs. At some point on this traverse I found a decently sized introduction to Aboriginal art. I read it in the Pilbara. It gave me a basic appreciation for the diversity and breadth of Aboriginal culture and modern art. I don’t pretend to get Aboriginal art, but I do appreciate it more richly. It comes back to place. Fifty centuries have rooted the native culture on this continent. My fifty weeks here have given me appreciation of the land. This is where I can truly meet and understand the people of the place.

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