For those inclined to signal their virtue, Aboriginal ‘culture’ presents a problem. With no written language or literature, permanent architecture, horticulture or animal husbandry there is little on which to lavish patronising praise. The solution? Stitch together a ‘philosophy’ from whole cloth
When I experience dadirri, I am made whole again. I can sit on the riverbank or walk through the trees; even if someone close to me has passed away, I can find my peace in this silent awareness. There is no need of words. A big part of dadirri is listening. Through the years, we have listened to our stories. This was the normal way for us to learn—not by asking questions. We learnt by watching and listening, waiting and then acting. There is no need to reflect too much and to do a lot of thinking. It is just being aware. —Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann, “Dadirri: A Reflection”
Imagine—if you can—a mainstream Christian religious congregation in Australia which adopts observance of the ancient Welsh tradition of myfyrdod as a praxis offering not only emotional and psychological healing, but also spiritual enrichment. Myfyrdod, so the faithful may be assured, is an ancient pan-European cultural practice, passed down by oral tradition through the generations over thousands of years, which not only enhances one’s devotions, but also provides relief from pain and trauma, and remediation of mental illness.
Imagine further—if your imaginative faculties are not already exhausted—that myfyrdod is also embraced by institutions of tertiary education, not merely for its emotional, psychological and spiritual benefits, but also as a “philosophy”; indeed, as a “research methodology” which stands on a par with the “transformative education process” proposed by the Brazilian philosopher and pedagogue Paulo Freire, and the “Theory of Communicative Action” advocated by the German sociologist and philosopher Jurgen Habermas.
Well, believe it or not, myfyrdod actually exists. It is, indeed, a Welsh tradition, albeit of indeterminate antiquity, the word myfyrdod being loosely translated as “meditation”. It consists of “reflection made for the benefit of spiritual awareness or physical loneliness”; and is said to involve “a mental exercise that uses the techniques of study, reflection and abstracting”.
To date, nobody has attempted to ascribe to myfyrdod the power to relieve pain or trauma, or to remedy mental illness, let alone suggested it is a “philosophy”, or attempted to appropriate it as a “research methodology”. But perhaps its proponents (if there are any) are yet to find a mainstream Christian religious congregation which is sufficiently credulous, or a second- or third-tier university sufficiently gullible, to buy into such rodomontade.
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Nor, indeed, has anyone attempted to claim that the uniquely Welsh practice of myfyrdod is an ancient and traditional feature of “European” culture, equally applicable to the Scots, the Dutch, the Swedes, the Finns, the Czechs, the Poles, the Slovakians, the Greeks, the Italians and the Portuguese, as it is to the people of its native Wales. Anyone who did make such a suggestion would immediately be written off as a complete charlatan.
Yet everything posited above in respect of myfyrdod has actually occurred—and is still occurring—in respect of an even more obscure and undocumented praxis. What is called dadirri has been embraced by the Roman Catholic and Anglican communions in Australia for its spiritual benefits and its powers of emotional and psychological healing, while institutions as diverse as the Queensland University of Technology, the University of Technology Sydney, James Cook University and the Lowitja Institute have commended it as a “research methodology”, and Curtin University has gone so far as to endorse it as an “Indigenous philosophy”.
Needless to say, the key to this acceptance lies in the word indigenous. Do a Google search for dadirri, and you will find repeated references to it as an “Aboriginal tradition”, or as a feature of “Indigenous culture”. For clergy given to “virtue signalling”, as much as for academics determined to parade their credentials for proactive inclusiveness, there are no sweeter sounding words in the English language than Aboriginal and indigenous, especially when linked with words like tradition or culture.
Even on the most generous view, it is no more accurate to label dadirri as an “Aboriginal” or “indigenous” tradition than it would be to call the Welsh practice of myfyrdod a “European” tradition. The only anthropological evidence—limited to a single source—confines dadirri exclusively to women of the Ngangikurungkurr people, some 150 to 200 individuals in the communities of Nauiyu, Peppimenarti and Wudigapildhiyerr, and in outstations on nearby traditional lands near Daly River in the Northern Territory south of Darwin.
True, there is anthropological evidence of “traditions”, not unlike dadirri, from indigenous communities elsewhere in Australia: for instance, the gulpa ngawal tradition of the Yorta Yorta people along the Murray River, and the molla wariga tradition of the Gunai/Kurnai people in Gippsland. But there is nothing to suggest that these “traditions” are the result of cultural cross-pollination with the Ngangikurungkurr people, over 3000 kilometres distant, on the other side of the Strzelecki, Simpson, Tirari and Tanami deserts.
In other world cultures, even some of the most technical and sophisticated developments occurred independently among people of different cultural traditions. Calendars of various types evolved in Egypt and the Middle East, in China, in India, in Mesoamerica, and later in the Mediterranean region and medieval Western Europe.
Likewise, as alphabets (writing systems in which each character represents a different sound) and syllabaries (writing systems in which each character represents a different syllable or combination of sounds) replaced more primitive pictographic and ideographic writing systems (in which each character represents a different word or idea), various alphabets and syllabaries evolved in different civilisations: Cuneiform script, the Aramaic and Coptic alphabets, and Arabic script in Mesopotamia and the Middle East; in the Mediterranean, the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets; in Northern Europe, the Runic alphabet; Brahmi and Gupta scripts in India, and their more modern derivations (collectively known as Brahmic scripts) which spread across Southern and South-Eastern Asia; the Chinese syllabic script Zhuyin and alphabetic script Pinyin; the Japanese syllabic script Kana; and, in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, the Mayan script and other syllabic or semi-syllabic writing systems.
There are many other examples of cultural convergence. Paralleling the development of incendiary weapons in Europe, where the concoction known as “Greek fire” was deployed militarily by the Byzantine empire from the mid-seventh century AD, was the Chinese use of gunpowder as a weapon of war, some 250 years later, after Taoist alchemists devised a recipe comprising sulphur, charcoal and saltpetre. Similar parallels, between European and Chinese progression, may be seen in the evolution of techniques for representing three-dimensional objects and spaces in two-dimensional graphic art, especially by means of graphical perspective. Printing with movable metal type was pioneered by Johannes Gutenberg in Germany some hundreds of years after it was first introduced in East Asia, though it is unclear whether this technology was appropriated or independently invented in the West. In the late seventeenth century, Isaac Newton in England and Gottfried Leibniz in Germany arrived, independently and almost simultaneously, at the greatest breakthrough in pure mathematics for at least 2000 years, by devising algorithms to perform integral and differential calculus.
Given the independent emergence of such advanced cultural developments in different civilisations, it is unsurprising that a distinctly non-technical and unsophisticated “tradition” like dadirri may have evolved separately from similar “traditions” like gulpa ngawal and molla wariga, just as it is unsurprising that it evolved separately from the Welsh tradition of myfyrdod. In essence, these so-called indigenous traditions consist of little more than what might be termed quiet and peaceful contemplation of nature: doubtless a wholesome and salutary practice, but not so original and esoteric as to invite an inference that no two people (or no two peoples) could have come up with the same idea independently of one another.
The term “contemplation” is not, by the way, my own deprecation of the cultural significance of dadirri; it is a term which the sole indigenous reporter of the “tradition”, Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann, herself volunteered. Only the work of subsequent academic “researchers”—most of them white, and none of them from the Ngangikurungkurr people—has superimposed on dadirri their own construct of what might be implicit in such a significant indigenous cultural “tradition”.
It is these academics who extrapolated, apparently out of thin air, the idea that dadirri involves “a knowledge and consideration of community, and the diversity and unique nature that each individual brings to community”; “ways of relating and acting within community”; “quietly aware watching”; “hearing with more than the ears”; “reflective non-judgmental consideration of what is being seen and heard”; “a purposeful plan to act, with actions informed by learning, wisdom, and the informed responsibility that comes with knowledge”; in short, a “way of learning, working, and togetherness that is informed by the concepts of community and reciprocity”. It all sounds more like a template for an institutional mission statement, rather than a genuine scholarly analysis of a tradition.
Knowledge of the linguistic diversity of indigenous Australians makes cultural cross-pollination at a trans-continental level highly unlikely. This is particularly so in the case of the Ngangikurungkurr people, whose language is unique to their own community: only distantly related to the Garama or Murrinh-patha language spoken in the region of Wadeye (the shared vocabulary has been estimated at no higher than 11 per cent), it is otherwise unconnected even with any of the other language families in the Daly River region, a region which itself has been acknowledged by linguistic researchers as one of Australia’s most complex in terms of linguistic genealogy, and as falling entirely outside the primary typological division of indigenous languages (collectively, the Pama-Nyungan languages). To put it bluntly, before white settlement, even if a member of the Ngangikurungkurr people happened to encounter a Yorta Yorta or Gunai/Kurnai elder from the opposite side of the continent, their chances of having a mutually intelligible conversation would be no better than their chances of communicating with a practitioner of myfyrdod who spoke only Welsh.
It has become fashionable to refer to indigenous Australians as representing “the oldest continuous culture on Earth”. But it takes only a moment’s reflection to recognise that, even if it were accurate, this description is deeply patronising, insulting and frankly racist. In some contexts, “oldest” may be considered complimentary: say, “the oldest family in the county”, or “the oldest recipient of a gold medal”. But, in speaking of a culture, “oldest” is practically a synonym for “most primitive”. The term “continuous” merely adds an imputation of stagnation to the slur of decrepitude.
Worse still, the very notion of an “oldest continuous culture” implies that indigenous Australians—who apparently arrived on this continent some 50,000 to 60,000 years ago—brought with them nothing of the cultural heritage they had shared with the rest of humanity for the preceding 150,000 years or so. As the Aboriginal commentator Luke Pearson complains, “This idea of isolation, and continuation of culture with limited outside influence, has sadly been used in attempts to denigrate Aboriginal cultures and societies.” It engenders a sense of separateness, even dehumanisation, which places indigenous Australians—uniquely amongst the world’s ethnic groups—entirely outside the broad sweep of civilising development which has brought the rest of the human race to their present level of social, cultural, scientific and technological advancement.
But, for those with a predilection for “virtue signalling”, what else is to be said for Aboriginal “culture”? There was no written language or literature; no permanent architecture; no horticulture or animal husbandry; no infrastructure for storing water or food in anticipation of drought or famine; none but the most basic and functional culinary arts.
Nor was there any mechanical technology: no wheel, no pottery or ceramics, no use of metals, and only the most basic wooden or stone hand-tools. There were no life sciences and no medicines, beyond a limited range of herbal remedies. There was no calendar; no writing system, and therefore no need for printing; no weapons other than the boomerang, the waddy or nulla nulla, the woomera and the spear. There was no geometry, no physics, no higher mathematics: in most Aboriginal languages, the numbering stopped at five (in some languages, the numbering stopped at just two or three), and any greater number was represented by a single word translated as “many”.
Pre-colonial indigenous graphic art, although widely celebrated, demonstrates a level of technical and artistic sophistication not elevated above the stone-age art of other world cultures. No statuary or other three-dimensional artworks have been recorded. Indigenous musical instruments—like the didgeridoo and clapsticks—are similarly commensurable with the level of cultural development associated elsewhere with Palaeolithic pre-history.
Then there are the “traditional” rituals: the bogus “corroborees” and “smoking ceremonies” performed for the edification of gullible tourists; and the even more bogus “welcome to country” palaver (a “tradition” which can be traced all the way back to the first such observance, performed by the actor Ernie Dingo in 1976) for the gratification of even more gullible politicians and purveyors of “black armband” historiography.
There are even claims—albeit claims all emanating from a single author—that indigenous Australians were the first people to bake bread. They are also sometimes described as “the first astronomers”, though their mythical stories inspired by the stars might more accurately suggest they were the first astrologers. But, all in all, there is not much for virtue-signallers to work with.
Then along comes Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann and reveals the “tradition” of dadirri. No matter that, aside from her claims, it is entirely undocumented; no matter that, even according to her claims, it is limited to a remote and isolated tribe representing less than 0.03 per cent of the indigenous population, and restricted to female members of that tribe. Here we have an instance of indigenous “tradition”—of Aboriginal “culture”—which combines spiritualism and philosophy, at the same time offering a cure for mental illness and a new “research methodology”. Little wonder that virtue-signalling vigilantes embraced it with an enthusiasm bordering on zealotry.
What all this establishes is nothing more nor less than the intense racism—indeed, the xenophobia—of the white clerics and academics who pretend to push the barrow for indigenous reconciliation and advancement. Not content to celebrate the fact that Aboriginal culture is so very different from those of the world’s other peoples, their object is to find some feature which can be analogised with the cultures of other (more “advanced” or “sophisticated”) civilisations, to “prove” that indigenous Australians were not “primitive” or “backward”.
The results of this reverse engineering are inevitably retrograde. Whether viewed through the prism of the Judeo-Christian heritage shared by most white Australians, or that of “Western” cultures more generally, or even that of the world’s other “advanced” or “sophisticated” cultural traditions—those, say, of China, or India, or the Muslim diaspora—indigenous Australian culture is always going to come up short. It is only by recognising the uniqueness of indigenous Australian culture—by recognising it as sui generis, beyond comparison with other world cultures—that its true value can be perceived.
This lesson was long ago learnt by botanists and zoologists. Historically, Australia’s unique and incomparable flora and fauna were often named after superficially similar but unrelated species belonging to the Old World: for instance, the plants known as the “Australian myrtle”, “Australian ebony”, “Australian mahogany”, “Australian walnut”, “Australian oak”, “Australian teak”, “Australian mulberry”, “Australian olive”, and “Australian sage”, and the animals known as the “Australian magpie”, “Australian mole”, “Australian brush-turkey”, various species of “native mouse” (some of which are, indeed, rodents, but many are marsupials), various Australian fish species of “perch”, “carp” and “cod”, and of course the “Tasmanian tiger” (also referred to as the “Tasmanian wolf” or “native dog”). With a few well-established exceptions, such as the magpie and the Murray cod, these names are rightly falling into desuetude.
As an exercise in fabricating an indigenous “cultural tradition” which bears comparison with Western cultural traditions, the dadirri imposture is all the more offensive for being so ham-fisted. A practice limited to the women of a single tribe, numbering no more than a few hundred individuals, can hardly be presented as the cultural tradition of an entire people. By comparison with Judeo-Christian philosophy or the Vedic tradition of meditation in the Indian subcontinent—even by comparison with the Welsh practice of myfyrdod—dadirri hardly rates as “advanced” or “sophisticated”.
Above all, the attempts to classify dadirri in occidental terms as a “research methodology”, even as a “philosophy”, and to overlay it with mystical, almost supernatural, powers—powers of emotional and psychological healing—transform the merely specious into the utterly risible. Australians, generally, are not unsympathetic with their indigenous compatriots, and are interested in learning about their culture and traditions. But Australians, generally, are also equipped with finely-tuned and perceptive “bulldust antennae”. And to tell Australians, in all seriousness, that an historically illiterate tribe living in humpies on the banks of the Daly River produced a “research methodology” comparable with those of Freire and Habermas—let alone a “philosophy” to be numbered alongside those of Aristotle, Plato and Socrates, of Confucius and Laozi, of David Hume, Immanuel Kant, John Locke and René Descartes—is simply to invite scorn and derision.
By all means, if people find it relaxing to engage in quiet and peaceful contemplation of nature—if they find that it enhances their spiritual engagement, or even helps to alleviate emotional tension—that is unquestionably a good thing. And if they allow themselves to believe they are participating in a centuries-old praxis—whether modelled on the dadirri of the Ngangikurungkurr people, the Welsh tradition of myfyrdod, or even the “Transcendental Meditation” popularised by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (with a little help from his friends)—so much the better, if this serves to foster spiritual receptiveness or alleviates emotional distress.
But, for goodness sake, spare us the claptrap about relief from pain and trauma, about remediation of mental illness, about it being a “research methodology” or a “philosophy”. If dadirri has anything to offer white Australians, that offering will not be enhanced by such ludicrous claims. It will only encourage thinking Australians to place dadirri in the dustbin with all the other fatuous promises offered by the bleeding-heart Leftist high-priesthood, regardless of whether they happen to be attired in clerical vestments or academic gowns.
Anthony J.H. Morris QC is a Brisbane barrister.