Aboriginal Australia Before Pete Seeger

greenway IIJohn Greenway (left) stole a National Treasure from us. His two books about Australia, Down Among the Wild Men and Australia: The Last Frontier (British title, Last Frontier), were published in America in 1972. His writing was sublime, his timing lousy.

The American academic, born in 1919, first came to Australia in 1956. He was a professor of English, a recorded folk singer and a collector of folk songs. He changed direction, compiling and publishing Biblio­graphy of the Australian Aborigines (1963), the very first of its kind—though at the time he had never met an Aborigine. Then, during study tours in Australia over the next fifteen years, he turned anthropologist, working with and learning from colleagues like Norman Tindale and Jo Birdsell. In 1967 he was responsible for Tindale receiving an honorary doctorate from his own university, the University of Colorado. Greenway married an Australian. His career as an academic continued in the US until he died in 1991. He isn’t forgotten in Australia, simply disremembered for being too honest.

The subtitle of Down Among the Wild Men is “The Narrative Journal of Fifteen Years Pursuing the Old Stone Age Aborigines of Australia’s Western Desert”. He was gloriously opinionated, enthusiastic and admirable. He loved Australia, quoted from Furphy’s Such Is Life, and travelled the deserts with the journals of its first European explorers.

His Australian books were completely, and deliberately, against the spirit of the times. Down Among the Wild Men, a treasure which sells for peanuts on the internet, is one of the finest books ever published about Australia and its desert Aborigines. It was written in the face of the smug new 1960s conformity. Jo Birdsell wrote to him at the time:

I personally am enormously alienated by the institutional trends shown here, and by the smart-ass attitude prevalent at all student levels, including the younger of the graduate students. The best years of academic life passed some time ago.

Greenway never saw Australian current events in quite the same light as we are taught. Students cast themselves as heroes in the 1960s when they re-enacted Mississippi newsreels in country New South Wales in order to open up swimming pools and the Walgett RSL to local Aborigines. Greenway saw  under their actions “the mindless folly of needless contention”:

After his tour [of folk singer Pete Seeger] the Australian university students hired “Freedom Buses” and raided sleepy towns on the eastern fringe making all sorts of nonnegotiable demands of people who had not been conscious of having any racial problem. Many of these weedy children had their tails promptly kicked by the citizenry on the pedagogical principle that what cannot be put gently into one end of a student can be put forcibly into the other, but the kids did succeed in leaving much unexpended resentment … I tape-recorded several colloquies between the newly enlightened whites and the newly resentful aborigines. Like any emotional confrontation recollected in tranquillity, these were distinguished by a fair amount of esprit d’escalier, but to me the significant fact was that the thought lasted longer than the throb. No doubt about it: racial friction was going to become worse before it became intolerable.

As an anthropologist Greenway visited the desert country on expeditions with Tindale and patrol officer Bob Verburgt; these are the journeys related in Down Among the Wild Men. During one tour he saw documentary film-maker Ian Dunlop at work. The films Dunlop made are highly praised, but Greenway was sceptical about the way they were filmed and the opportunities that were being lost.

This essay appears in the January, 2017, edition of Quadrant.
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Greenway, often following the routes travelled by the explorers Charles Sturt and Ernest Giles, was immensely impressed by their sufferings, determination and achievements, or lack thereof. Meeting Aborigines with Tindale, he filmed and tape-recorded what they experienced and kept a daily journal of observations. He made his own ethnographic film called “At the Edge of the Old Stone Age”. Some of the scientific theories in his book may be challengeable but his writing of places and people in his distinct and acerbic voice is refreshing.

He was an intelligent, and always critical, observer. “Religion is nearly the whole of life among the aborigines; war, peace, sex, food and entertainment all flow from it.” The liveliness and virility of his writing leave memorable impressions:

One day on an expedition into the desert’s heart, a Pitjantjara man with whom I had grown friendly (though he had not a word of my language) unwrapped a small packet of rotted cloth and leaves to show me an object of great spiritual value: an incised disk of pearl the size of his palm from the shell of the oyster Meleagrina margaritifer … It cured the sick, lured reticent women, opposed sorcery, and was beyond price. Those in museums doubtlessly came from dead men. It radiated power like a laser.

Remove belief and the treasured object becomes just an ordinary pearl disc to be cut into shoddy tourist souvenirs.

Greenway’s mid-century journeys reveal a generation of Aborigines making decisions, with firmness, to protect ancestral beliefs by bringing them to a tragic end and thus preserving their purity from defilement:

Norman [Tindale] and I shared an approbation for the oldmen who were choosing in these latter days to let traditional ways die rather than pass the sacred lore to young louts who would let it rot into rubbish to be played to a Rolling Stones beat.

The year Greenway’s books were published, the Australian anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner gave an influential lecture, “Aborigines and Australian Society”. What is now dogmatic, and questionable, old-wave history was still emerging. Henry Reynolds published Aborigines and Settlers: The Australian Experience. Lyndall Ryan was working on her PhD, and when it was published at the beginning of the 1980s the part-Aborigines of her early-1970s thesis were rewritten as Tasmanian Aborigines. Australians were learning Aboriginal history from Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and To Kill a Mockingbird. Greenway observed what was happening to us and pointed to the uncritical acceptance of American emotional conduct [in Australia] as if it were the product of both reason and experience”. Colonial repentance was contaminating the universities, politics replacing academic rigour.

In his lecture Stanner talked of an initiation ceremony he had seen in the Daly River region in the Northern Territory in the 1930s. The schism in Aboriginal life was obvious: “All that is now gone or going.” He describes the dances and ceremonies and gives an interpretive narrative of the actions but does not mention ritual circumcision or body-scarring mutilations. After noting that the boys being initiated were painted with secret markings he said, “These signs led on to the later initiations, of which I have not time to speak.” The lack of detail in his account is a softening of the reality he witnessed. Not talking of the ritual circumcision during initiation is like describing a Catholic mass without mentioning the sacrament of communion.

In an earlier essay, “Durmugam: A Nangiomeri” (1959), Stanner was probably describing the same event. Then too he had not precisely described what happened. He was present at a circumcision but was more interested in telling of his own developing friendship with an Aboriginal man, Durmugam. Robert Manne has written of Stanner’s “emphatic understanding”, yet the boy being cut about receives little of that as Stanner blandly jumps to a mention of “the healing by fire” after the cutting. Fire does not heal. This soft-focus representation of Aboriginal traditions, which is also present in contemporary history writing, leads to a misrepresentation of what is actually meant when we blandly talk of Aboriginal traditional culture. Similarly, the basic fact of sexual inequality in traditional society is quietly ignored.

John Greenway, witnessing a Pitjantjatjara initiation, is far more detailed and more conscious of the individuals. After circumcision, “the boy sits over a small fire dripping blood while the men hop around naked in a penis-flapping dance that has some masturbatory elements”.

Differing from Daly River traditions, Pitjan­tjatjara initiations included circumcision, subincision and tooth evulsion. Greenwood suggests that these violent acts are “mnemonic, a memory aid. During the associated religious rites (which are continuous) the initiate learns the fundamental elements of the myths by which he will live. These must be remembered.” The mutilations bought memory and a creed but at the cost of enormous suffering. Horrific they were, but to recreate these acts, or variations on them, at present, without the underpinning  of a rock-solid faith system and the ability to live in a world of Aboriginal law and religion, would be inexcusable torture inflicted on children.

Moderns, whose idea of Aboriginal traditions may be nothing more than flaky “welcome to country” spiels, will encounter a very different perspective from Greenway’s account of subincision:

The operation is literally bloody awful. Using a stone knife, the cutter slits the initiate’s penis from meatus to scrotum. No physical restraint is put on the boy; he is not held, except by the requirements of proper behaviour. He must not show any sign of pain beyond a silent grimace. But when it is over, as all things pass, the boy has become a man. A man. He endured the worst ordeal a human male can imagine, without scream, cry, or snivel. Nothing can frighten him again. He can go into this most hostile of all environments naked as he was born and survive.

After the mutilations:

He goes away by himself, bleeding, terrified, to prove he can live for a time alone. When he returns to camp weeks or months later, he is a man, a child no longer. The little boys throw spears at him. They break against his chest.

Greenway also described an event that would never have made it into the stage version of Kate Grenville’s Secret River:

In Norman’s [Tindale’s] 1933 motion picture of subincision among the desert aborigines one can see an event that will never be photographed again. One boy, well past the normal age for initiation, disqualified till then for being an obviously genetic homosexual (physical anthropologists who maintain homosexuality is entirely cultural may write rude words here in the margin), is accepted on the special plea of his father. But the boy cries out, screams in agony, and sits sobbing long after the deed is done. The father, suffused with shame, tries to make light of the blasphemy. Norman told me the boy was kicked about and ultimately speared to death for having rubbished the sacred ceremony.

Greenway was unsympathetic towards the fringe-dwelling Aborigines who he saw as disrespecting their own religion:

Mostly they were beaten people—beaten, I think, not so much by the whites as by themselves. I could never bring myself to laugh along with their old men, forty years exiled from their tribes to save their penes from the stone knife, when they bragged with their characteristic high giggle, “I nebber bin cut. Dey nebber catch me!”

At the same time he wrote with understanding and sorrow of Aborigines who had not rejected their traditions but had been forced away by the clashing demands of white society. At Yalata he met an inspiring young teacher and noticed that he never joined the men talking together at night. He was twenty-five years old and had never been initiated:

If he had dared come near the sacred singing he would have been beaten, his bones perhaps broken. No prejudice here; no punishment for working in the whitefella’s school; just immaturity in the aboriginal sense. Every hour he spent away from the native camp to learn the white man’s culture was an hour irretrievably lost. So he stood astride the two worlds, now forever unable to stand with both feet in either.

His situation is tragic:

In choosing to work for his people by bringing the children painlessly into the inevitable world of the white man, he missed too many classes in his own courses of education. He failed life.

Forty-five years old, Down Among the Wild Men is not showing its age.

The sadness:

The old men put their past against their future and lamented, “I don’t know why we turned around and threw our law away.”


Norman has the strange illusion that oral tradition preserves historical fact. Encourage him a little in this vagary and he will cite a new traditional remembrance of the Ice Age. My years as a folklorist had taught me otherwise. Dull illiterates cannot tell you what they were doing last Friday night, much less what they had done back in the Pleistocene. Smart illiterates will remember Creation itself for a drink [he was talking of collecting stories from American hillbillies].

Unpopular thought:

I have lived among the wildest of the desert people. I have also been among aborigines who opted for total integration—aborigines who, taking thought, had slipped quietly, one family per block, into cities where their children (possibly) or their grandchildren (certainly) would be white. The very great majority of vanished aborigines we read about as having been exterminated by murderous settlers disappeared on the latter road. So too did the American indians.

A baby kangaroo:

The poor little bugger shivered in fright, though I cosseted him. I do love ’roos; it is a pity they are so edible. How long would he live after we returned to Amata? A day or two while the primitively cruel children played with him, sticking him with toy spears. I hoped not too long.

The kangaroo was killed soon after.

Un-welcome to country:

Defeated these people may be, but they will still execute any aborigine who ranges too loosely through the old tribal countries.

Uncommon common sense:

Perhaps most important, the distillation of their various disadvantages requires them to plead in one way or other for relaxation of ordinary rules (like being allowed to throw the first spear), so that even if they win they lose. It is a kindness that takes away more than it gives.


Abortions are performed by beating on the stomach.


Both George and Teddy had two wives, another mark of status, though one of Teddy’s wives was at the moment in the Alice Springs hospital recovering from a broken forearm, snapped by Teddy across his thigh, a more or less regular chastisement he provided for cheeky wives.


Ordinarily male anthropologists do not talk to women—not because of anyone’s fear of seduction, but because in religious matters women are rubbish, and any walypela [white fellow] seen talking to one would not be spoken to again by the initiated men.


Our men ate grubs as we eat peanuts, tearing up man-high saplings to get two or three grubs. I should like to confront our ecology idiots with the agonizing paradox of sacrosanct livers-with-the-organic-land inflicting such rape upon the environment.

The sadness:

Once, he [patrol officer Bob Verburgt] said, when he was at Yalata, he showed the Ngalea people there a piece of branch from a tree growing in their country south of the Musgraves, a poor fragment of a poor tree that somehow had fallen into his truck. They all burst into sobs, weeping for their lost country and the remembrance of it. I know that feeling. I know it as Hube Trotman knew it—that rough and unsentimental bushman who dug the wells for Canning—and his aborigines, whom he heard express it in their little English, “I am heartcryin’ alonga dat country.”

In 1968, travelling with Bob Verburgt, Greenway found a tomahawk or hatchet head half-buried in clay at a place the Aborigines called Wrakina. Norman Tindale marked the spot on a map which is now in the collection of the South Australian Museum. In Down Among the Wild Men Greenway surmised that it was the first time the place name had appeared in print; this may be the second. It’s worth remembering.

There is a photograph of the rusting piece of metal in his book. Greenway suggests it is an axe head lost there by Ernest Giles, ninety-two years before, on June 24, 1876. He picked it up.

“That’s a National Treasure, John,” he [Verburgt] said soberly. “I’m afraid you’ll have to give it to me.”

“My ass. This is going out of Australia in my pocket, and Christ help anybody who tries to take it away from me. I’ll kill for this thing. You just run along and find some more australites, na?”

“Orright, orright. Don’t do your block. I reckon you deserve it.”

So do I. But now it may be time to find a place for his hatchet head at the South Australian Museum, and to find a place for its finder in future lists of remarkable Australian writers.

Of course, Ernest Giles is probably just as dis­remembered as Greenway.

9 thoughts on “Aboriginal Australia Before Pete Seeger

  • Keith Kennelly says:

    Wow and I thought ( probably wrongly) that Stanner was the only oracle.
    John Greenaway, you say?
    Norman Tindall and Jo Birdsell.

    Well I’ve some googling, downloading, (I’m unlikely to find their writings in an Australian book shop) reading and revising to do. Thanks.

  • Keith Kennelly says:

    I found ‘Last Frontier’ in a 2nd hand bookshop. $17.50.

  • a.crooks@internode.on.net says:

    I just love reading those old pre-anthropolgical texts – written before anthropologists became simple legal mouth pieces for aboriginality rather detatched “scientific” observers. The First Rule of (modern) Anthropology – Never disagree with an indigenous person. The second Rule of (modern) Anthropology – Never disagree with your professor. William Buckley is a good start then on to Lumholtz, Eyre, Woods, Ernest Worms, Bates, Bishop Gsell, Ann Wells. So much detailed information to be suppressed! And then, most important of all, the autobiographies of full-bloods who were born prior to settlement. Try I, the Aboriginal or Moon and Rainbow. They are all still out there.

    • mags of Queensland says:

      I have a copy of I,the Aboriginal which I bought online – from the US. Interesting read. Should be compulsory reading for all the mouthy activists.

      • ian.macdougall says:

        I the Aboriginal was written by Douglas Lockwood, brother of Rupert Lockwood, the prominent communist who figured in the Petrov business.
        Surely contaminated.
        You may also be interested in the work of Charlie Ward re the 1966 Wave Hill strike. IMHO the moral and political issues were a lay-down misere.

        • a.crooks@internode.on.net says:

          The book makes it quite clear – not written by Douglas Lockwood but dictated to him. Contaminated? I doubt it. Firstly, I dont subscribe to the theory that Aborigines lack agency. If Waipuldanya (Phillip Roberts) didnt like what was written about him he would have said something. Secondly, the narrative dovetails well into descriptions by respected anthropologists from the area. Spencer and Gillen Warner etc.

  • Keith Kennelly says:

    I’ve just read Greenaway, he’s had me in fits … of laughter.

    So comically irreverent of the sacred icons of Australian white ‘History’.

    I’m going to have fun with my ‘true blue’ mates tomorrow. I know they’ll recognis the truth and laughter too. Then I’ll have fun with it seriously inclined educates. They’ll be disbelieving … it’s not what they’ve been taught.

    Here’s a morsel. Eureka started as ‘a drunken brawl outside a pub in Ballarat and continued as an aimless exercise in gratuitous violence. ‘

  • Keith Kennelly says:

    To which one Peter Lalor, an Irishman and educated nuisance, the son of an English MP and brother to three who emigrated to the US and who fought on different sides in the civil war. He doubtless believed in whatever liberating purpose and he directed the thousands of miners who turned up. The ‘battle’ lasted 4 minutes.

    Truth is funnier than fiction.

  • Dalone says:

    Greenway is not an Australian writer, he was actually born in Liverpool England and was christened Johannes Groeneweg, although he spent most of his life in the US.

    And he certainly never spent 15 years living with tribal Aborigines. He did spend some time ocassionally with those on the fringes (and quite some time with those in the mainstream) usually while with an anthropologist who actually had spent time living ‘down among the wild men’.

    Like Pascoe however he is a good story teller and another one who does not let the truth spoil his narrative.

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