The Voice and the End of Traditional Aboriginal Culture

Keith Windschuttle

Editor, Quadrant Magazine

They were here first. They have been here for 60,000 years. We took their land and their law.   — Greg Craven, The Australian, May 28, 2022

In recent commentary on the new Labor government’s commitment to hold a referendum to change the Constitution to create an Aboriginal Voice to Parliament in its current term of office, there is no shortage of bold assertions by prominent Australians. Like Greg Craven, the former vice-chancellor of the Australian Catholic University writing in The Australian, they are so confident their views are correct that they express them in simple, absolute terms, with no resort to evidence or sources deemed necessary. Yet it is not hard to show that there is a long and sophisticated intellectual tradition within the once respected field of anthropology that demonstrate most of today’s commentators on the subject don’t know what they are talking about.

The anthropological tradition I am talking about, which was based on exhaustive research and sustained personal contact with Aboriginal people at the same time they were making the transition from ancient to modern society, shows the views so confidently asserted by Craven and others like him are bare-faced bluff. We did not take the Aborigines’ land and their law. The great majority of them gave up their previous culture and beliefs willingly. They “came in” to the new white society and its economy. Aborigines in Australia today do not inhabit the world’s oldest living culture. They gave that away long before the activists who now recite this mantra were even born. Let me review here the anthropological literature that recorded this “coming in” when, or soon after, it actually happened.

Traditional or pre-colonial Aboriginal culture came to an end in the south-east of the Australian continent as long ago as the late nineteenth century. By the 1890s traditional tribal law, cere­monies and rituals were no longer preserved in the Aboriginal communities of New South Wales. In 1893, the thirty members of what was then called “the last wild tribe” were found in the south-west corner of the colony near Lake Victoria on the South Aus­tralian border.[1] For his major work The Native Tribes of South-East Australia (1904), anthropologist Alfred W. Howitt recorded the last ves­tiges of traditional culture he learned from old men living on New South Wales mis­sions and Aboriginal welfare stations before 1889. “Since then,” he wrote, “the tribal remnants have now almost lost the knowledge of the beliefs and customs of their fathers.” [2]   The few cultural beliefs and practices remembered by Aboriginal elders had not been passed on to the younger gener­ation, Howitt found.

In New South Wales, a clear majority of people of Aboriginal descent had already integrated with white society. The remaining non-or partly integrated Aborigines inhabited camps and welfare depots. At best, their culture at these locales was a combina­tion of old family loyalties and the patriarchal rule of missionaries who governed them with a daily timetable.[3] At worst, it was a violent, disorderly, binge-drinking, sex­ually abusive, heavy-gambling lifestyle, little different to the abysmal remote communities in central and northern Australia today.[4]

In the south-west of the continent, the situation was much the same. In 1934, the young journalist Paul Hasluck investi­gated living conditions of Aboriginal communities across the southern half of Western Australia. In Shades of Darkness he observed that all but a handful were peopled by those of part descent who had never inhabited a society based on traditional laws, economy or culture. In the course of a lengthy investiga­tion he spoke to almost every Aboriginal adult in the region and a large number of part-Aboriginal youths. He found few of them had any con­nections to traditional Aboriginal culture or ways of thinking. They had never been deprived of the tra­ditional hunter-gatherer economy or social system, because that was all gone long before their time. Most of these people were born within the farmlands of the Great Southern districts and made a living as seasonal and casual employees of white farm­ers. They identified more with white people than as Aborigines, Hasluck wrote.

In those days [the 1930s] most of the mixed race people [in the south] were living apart from Aborigines and the popular belief among the whites and the common hope of the mixed-race people themselves was that they should live in the white community. As a body, half-caste Aborigines were rejected by the aboriginal people as not being true Aborigines at all. It seemed that they were moving in one direction away from the aboriginal side of their ancestry.[5]

Traditional culture lasted longer in the central and northern reaches of the continent, but little of it survived beyond the Second World War. In the 1950s, the venerated anthropologist W.E.H. (Bill) Stanner found traditional laws and social hierarchy in the Northern Ter­ritory had largely broken down. In the 1930s, when he did his original fieldwork in the Daly River district of the north-west of the Northern Territory, Stanner found physical evidence of the then obsolete High Culture of the Nangiomeri people, including ovoid, circular and linear piles of man-arranged stones, deep excavations and the fragmentary memories of rites last cele­brated before the end of the nineteenth century. This High Culture had per­sisted longer further south in the Victoria River district when, in the 1920s, Stanner’s chief informant, an Aboriginal warrior named Durmugam, attempted to restore it in the Daly River region. In his journey south, Durmugam had learnt the lost secret life of the Nangiomeri which, Stanner recorded, “is fun­damental to the local organization, the conception of descent, the practices of marriage, residence and inheritance”.[6] However, a revival of the culture was beyond him. Through his fieldwork, Stanner found a widespread conviction among Aborigines on the Daly River that their own culture-hero, Angamunggi, the All-Father, a local variant of the almost universal Rainbow Serpent, had deserted them. Moreover, he observed, the material preconditions for revival of the cult were long gone.

Many of the preconditions of the traditional culture were gone — a sufficient population, a self-sustaining economy, a discipline by elders, a confident dependency on nature — and, with the preconditions went much of the culture, including the secret male rites.[7]

Stanner explained the Aboriginal groups were driven by a “sound calculus” they made of the effort required to gain daily food from the whites compared to the difficulty of getting it from their natural surroundings:

The life of a hunting and foraging nomad is very hard even in a good environment. Time and again the hunters fail, and the search for vegetable food can be just as patchy. A few failures in sequence and life in the camps can be very miserable. The small, secondary foodstuffs ― the roots, honey, grubs, ants, and the like, of which far too much has been made in the literature ― are relished tidbits, not staples. The aborigines rarely starve but they go short more often than supposed when the substantial fauna ― kangaroos, wallaby, goannas, birds, fish ― are too elusive.

Then, in a passage once quoted frequently in the anthropological literature (though rarely in history), Stanner wrote:

The blacks have grasped eagerly at any possibility of a regular and dependable food supply for a lesser effort than is involved in nomadic hunting and foraging. There is a sound calculus of cost and gain in preferring a belly regularly if only partly filled for an output of work which can be steadily scaled down. Hence the two most common characteristics of aboriginal adaptation to settlement by Europeans; a persistent and positive effort to make themselves dependent, and a squeeze-play to obtain a constant or increasing supply of food for a dwindling physical effort. I appreciated the good sense of the adaptation only after I had gone hungry from fruitless hunting with a rifle, gun, and spears in one of the best environments in Australia.[8]

Stanner also observed that the young of both sexes were not interested in pre­serving traditional Aboriginal ways. Young men openly derided the secrets of traditional culture and dared to seduce and elope with the young wives of grey-haired Aboriginal elders, esca­pades that would once have cost them their lives. Both they and the women they courted preferred the life offered by the new, white society. Stanner records how powerful a magnet white society was, and how Aborigines vied with one another to join it.

Eventually, for every aborigine who, so to speak, had Europeans thrust upon him, at least one other had sought them out. More would have gone to European centres sooner had it not been that their way was often barred by hostile aborigines. As late as the early 1930s I was able to see for myself the battles between the encroaching myalls and weakening, now-sedentary groups who had monopolized European sources of supply and work. The encroachers used every claim of right they had — kinship, affinity, friendship, namesake-relationship, trade partnership — to get and keep a toehold.[9]

In central Australia, the missionary and anthropologist Ted Strehlow acknowledged the same. He did the anthropological fieldwork for his classic study Songs of Central Australia between 1932 and 1960, by which time knowledge of the old ceremonial languages was already extinct in several of the areas where he collected myths and songs.[10] Young men were abandoning tradi­tional society in order to break down the marriage monopoly held by old men. Rather than being subject to “enslavement” by white pastoralists, as some Labor politicians claimed in the 1890s and 1900s, young Aboriginal men sought work with them freely. Strehlow observed that they acted in the hope of gaining the girls of their personal choice — and the protection of their white masters against the wrath of their outraged elders — in return for faithful service in the white man’s employment. In the intro­duction to his book, Myths and Songs of the Western Aranda, Strehlow wrote:

But after about 1910 both growing depopulation and the rising tide of disbelief among the young generation towards the traditions of their forefathers portended the eventual doom of the old native religion. The end came sooner than had been expected. The Spanish influenza epidemic of 1919–20 wiped out the bulk of the ageing, chronically undernourished population in the Southern and Central Aranda areas, and made serious inroads elsewhere. After 1920, full-scale ceremonial festivals were rarely held either in these parts, or among the Eastern Aranda who had suffered almost as cruelly. Mission influences had caused the complete cessation of ceremonial performances in the Western Aranda district by about the time of the First World War. The last blow was struck by the completion of the railway line from Oodnadatta to Alice Springs in 1929. This brought the majority of the surviving younger non-missionised Aranda folk to Alice Springs and the various rail sidings south of the railhead. Aranda religion and tradition decayed and disintegrated completely in the atmosphere of utter and cynical disillusionment which followed.[11]

By 1932, some of the old, initiated men of the Arrernte people confided in Strehlow that they were selling their sacred objects to the whites and giving up their old customs.[12] None of them had sons or grandsons responsible enough to be trusted with the secrets of their sacred objects, chants and ceremonies. Believing their secrets would die with them, they confided their knowledge to this white anthropologist and missionary, but for him they would be “ceremonially dead”.[13] In May 1932 at Barrow Creek in the Northern Territory, Strehlow recorded in his diary:

Tom came back from the camp and told me how the men everywhere wanted to sell their tjurunga to the whites, and to settle down like white men: the only reason for their walkabout was their duty to protect the sacred caves. Now they would sell not newly manufactured tjurunga but the really old treasures made by the erilknibata, so that they could change their old ways of living. [14]

Anthropologists who followed Strehlow and Stanner argued that, rather than today’s academic model of invasion and resistance, race relations were more a matter of settlement and accommodation. In 1972 Annette Hamilton gave a similar account of events in central Aus­tralia in the 1930s and 1940s.[15] Hamilton was an academic leftist who pub­lished in the Melbourne Marxist journal Arena. This was an unlikely source for a dissenting opinion about the direction his­tory was then taking. But Hamilton’s interpretation of why the Aboriginal people of the Everard Ranges district in the north of South Australia had decided to abandon the bush in favour of the pastoral stations in the late 1930s was completely adverse to today’s historical model of invasion/resistance. She said that Abo­riginal culture itself had compelled them to come in:

There was nothing external to force their movements; here, as in many other places at other earlier times, they came as individuals of their own free will. It seems clear that the values and norms of their own society forced them to do it.[16]

The clans of the Everard Ranges were permitted in the 1940s to camp at the homestead of one pastoral station where, in exchange for labour, they were issued meat, flour, sugar and tea. Hamilton explained the cultural imperative behind their actions:

The twin principles which kept [traditional] Aboriginal society functioning were the need to find food and the desire to limit effort in doing so — vital elements in a hunting and gathering economy. Put in ecological terms, it was a question of maintaining an energy input/output balance favourable to human survival. When the news came that the whites had abundant, if strange, food, more than they could possibly eat, this was like news of Eden — or the super water-hole, in Aboriginal terms. Hence, just as they had always moved to the sources of food — the ripening figs, the run of witchitties — so they moved to the whites, not in order to take part in white society, not in order to experience social change, but in order to eat the food.[17]

Instead of patriotically defending their territory and ancient way of life, the Aborigines had accommodated their behaviour and society to the white arrivals. Indeed, many had been posi­tively seduced by the ability of the colonists not only to provide a permanent supply of food, but also the irresistible stimulants of tea and tobacco.

The dominant Aboriginal culture that remains today, and the only version that any constitutional amendment could possibly hope to preserve, is the post-colonial culture that emerged after Federation. This is a series of attitudes and assumptions, much of it hostile to white Australia, that emerged first in the 1930s, but primarily in the 1960s, the latter under the influence of the American civil rights movement and the anti-imperialist theories of the New Left. Its authentic Abo­riginal content is marginal, even in the remote north. Stanner described the remnants as a “Low Culture” — “some secular cer­emonies, magical practices, mundane institutions, and rules-of-thumb for a prosaic life” — in contrast to the rigour and profun­dity of traditional society’s High Culture.[18]

If today’s Aboriginal culture is not the authentic derivative of the culture that was here before the First Fleet arrived, and if, as Stanner says, it is merely a low culture, then this has dire implica­tions for the constitutional recognition of Aborigines as the traditional owners of the Australian continent. This is because “the lost secret life” of the High Culture whose passing Stanner found so tragic, was, as he said: “fundamental to the local organization, the conception of descent, the practices of marriage, residence and inheritance”. In short, Aboriginal notions of ownership and inheritance of country and water sites are tied inextri­cably to the traditional High Culture.

If the latter no longer exists, it would be improper for Australia to amend its Constitution to “acknowledge the continuing relationship of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with their traditional lands and waters” or to “respect the continuing cultures, languages and heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”, as the original panel of academic and political advisors on this question recommended to the Commonwealth government. We would be acknowl­edging an inauthentic, artificial entity, and professing a respect that was inherently insincere.

[1] Aborigines Protection Board, Report, 1893, p 3

[2] A.W. Howitt, The Native Tribes of South-East Australia, (1904), facsimile edition, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 1996, p xiii

[3] Bain Attwood, The Making of the Aborigines, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1989, pp 7–25

[4] Survey of temperance habits, Aborigines Protection Board, Report, 1890, in Report to Legislative Council, in Votes and Proceedings, Legisla­tive Assembly of New South Wales, 1890, pp 3–15

[5] Paul Hasluck, Shades of Darkness: Aboriginal Affairs 1925–1965, Mel­bourne University Press, Melbourne, 1988, p 69

[6] W.E.H. Stanner, ‘Durmugam: A Nangiomeri’, in Joseph B. Casa­grande (ed.), In the Company of Men: Twenty Portraits by Anthropologists, Harper, New York, 1960, reprinted in Robert Manne (ed.) The Dreaming and Other Essays, Black Inc, Melbourne, 2009, p 33

[7] Stanner, ‘Durmugam: A Nangiomeri’, p 34

[8] Stanner, ‘Durmugam: A Nangiomeri’, p 70

[9] W. E. H. Stanner, ‘Continuity and Change among the Aborigines’, Presidential Address, Anthropology, Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science, Report of the Thirty Third Congress, Adelaide, August 1958, p 101

[10] T.G.H. Strehlow, Songs of Central Australia, Angus and Robertson, Syd­ney, 1971, p xiv

[11] This extract from the introduction to Myths and Songs of the Western Aranda, published in German but reproduced in English by Strehlow in Songs of Cen­tral Australia, p xxxv

[12] Barry Hill, Broken Song: T.G.H. Strehlow and Aboriginal Possession, Vin­tage Books, Sydney, 2002, p 158

[13] Hill, Broken Song, pp 604, 713

[14] T.G.H. Strehlow, diary, 28 May 1932, quoted by Barry Hill, Broken Song: T.G.H. Strehlow and Aboriginal Possession, Vintage Books, Sydney, 2002, p 159

[15] Annette Hamilton, ‘Blacks and Whites: The Relationships of Change’, Arena, 30, 1972, pp 36–7, 40–1

[16] Hamilton, ‘Blacks and Whites’, p 41

[17] Hamilton, ‘Blacks and Whites’, p 41

[18] Stanner, ‘Durmugam: A Nangiomeri’, pp 33–4

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Published by Nelle

I am interested in writing short stories for my pleasure and my family's but although I have published four family books I will not go down that path again but still want what I write out there so I will see how this goes

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