Bennelong Papers

Indigenous Fundamentalism

rainbow serpentThere are common threads running through all fundamentalist movements, as Karen Armstrong explains in her 2001 book Islam. While her comparison refers largely to religious faiths rather than ethnic ‘tribes’, there are lessons for traditional Aboriginal culturists.

Fundamentalists display a serious antagonism toward modernity, with which they’re disappointed. This is based on modernity’s failure to produce what it promised; therefore, because modernity is failing, traditionalism should be preferred. Fundamentalists also display fear of being extinguished as upholders of cultural tradition and faith. This has particularly been the case when aggressive Christianity has subdued Islam, but has also been the fate of many traditional societies, often Indigenous tribal cultures invaded by moderns.

Almost invariably, where modernity, often as secular democracy, has been established, there has been what Armstrong terms a parallel “conscious reaction”. Aboriginal culturists have reacted, as have many dominated minorities, by “overstressing those elements of their tradition” that are in conflict with modernity. In this way the perceived shortcomings of both democracy and secularism are devalued by fundamentalists stressing the wisdom of elders and the essential role of spiritualism in their identity politics. By highlighting the darker side of modernity, the strengths of fundamentalism are offered as the forward path.

The liberal thinking of the moderns often has been interpreted as an assault on faith, culture and identity. As a result, a fundamentalist’s reaction often has been extreme, as happened after the well-known Scopes court case in Tennessee in 1925, when Christian fundamentalists attempted to stop evolution being taught in schools. In that case the modern press so humiliated the fundamentalists that they became even more extreme in their literal reading of the Bible.

pelaco ad largeIn the Australian context, it is worth analysing the extent to which earlier denigration of Aboriginal culture — observe the Pelaco advertisement from another time — tradition and behavior led in time to an increasingly defensive over-emphasis of the values pertaining to their ancient culture. In the process, the virtues of Indigenous mothering, family cohesion, sustainable land use, respect for nature, true environmentalism, caring and sharing were repeatedly offered as solutions to modern dysfunction, corruption, mental illness and materialism in today’s consumer society.

It is unusual for fundamentalism to be viewed in anything but a religious light; however, Armstrong’s rather basic analysis suggests that the Aboriginal modern/traditional debate has much in common with the age-old Arab/Jew/Christian fractures in the Middle East:

Fundamentalism therefore reveals a fissure in society, which is polarised between those who enjoy secular (modern) culture and those who regard it with dread. As time passes, the two camps become increasingly unable to understand one another. Fundamentalism thus begins as an internal dispute with liberalisers or secularists within one’s own culture or nation.

This seems to be precisely what is happening within the Aboriginal First Peoples. In this context the internal schisms become more bitter than those with the previous external enemy. ‘Ultra Orthodox’ is a label usually reserved for Jews, but there is an increasingly loud call that demands respect for an Aboriginal equivalent. The replacement of Moses, Abraham and Jesus by Dreamtime spirits and totems is easily accomplished through the invocation of songlines, which are considerably more ancient than the Exodus to the Holy Land of Canaan and, apparently, equally believed by adherents.

In an era when secular modernity has pushed faith to the sidelines of society, fundamentalists have managed to bring faith back to centre stage. Just as Islam has been able to re-establish its place in United Nations deliberations, so Australia’s First People have created a place for themselves in the UN Human Rights Commission’s debate on cultural recognition. Just as fundamentalism has always used religion to further its political ends, the Dreamtime story  of creation, with all its powerful human/animal/land inter-relations and obligations, has been developed into a strong, albeit belated, demand for recognition and respect. This spiritual fight for survival includes unstated fear which transforms toleration and empathy into an exclusive aggression hat sees moderates lose their nuanced stance at the interface of cultures.

The parallels between Aboriginality and Islam are fascinating, complex and not amenable to rational logic. Bearing in mind that Islam was developed several centuries after Christianity and includes many Old Testament beliefs, the Arabic language and identity reflected in the Koran, rather than theologicy, offered persuasive drivers for the creation of the then-new religion.

In a similar vein, the political emergence of Australia’s First People, while appreciating modern education and health care, understandably feel a need for “our own” cultural, political structures and procedures. Fundamentalist Muslims and Aborigines may both value modernity’s physical well-being, but each regards Western society as having ‘No light, no heart and no spirituality’. They thus feel strongly about the need for a resurgence of their own values – those values which give a sense of belonging which the West seems unable to provide.

The internal divisions among Islamic Sunnis and Shias are purely political, rooted in the ancient belief in direct heredity from Mohammed. The divisions within Aboriginal modernists and traditionalists are also political rather than philosophical, but are more personality-defined than credo-based. The belief that humans need spirituality is fundamental to the present Aboriginal divisiveness, as is the assumption that integration with the mainstream obliterates cultural identity. Aboriginal traditionalists are not alone in their conviction that man cannot live by bread alone.

In modern Australia, it is probably the feeling of discrimination, injustice and second-class citizenship which drives the Aboriginal separatists, rather than a genuine spiritual need to return to ancestral country and beliefs. At a personal level, each individual responds according to his or her self-confidence and feeling of competitiveness. As a result, willingness to join the mainstream may be seen as the avoidance of civil responsibilities, rather than the honouring of ancestral obligations.

Much of the Land Rights and Native Title struggle has centered on a concept foreign to modern capitalism, i.e. obligation to country. This ancient commitment to ‘holy land’ mirrors Israel’s uncompromising commitment to all that tribal homeland stands for. Whether such land was Terra Nullius when Moses, Abraham and David claimed it remains central to the centuries-old claims. While there are similarities with the Jews’ land claims, the Aboriginal land claims are both more ancient and more rooted in the man/land co-genesis. While the Creator as God or Rainbow Serpent is a human construction, the traditional respect for land as an integral part of the Aboriginal psyche, sets them apart. Not that the idea of ‘nurturing terrains’ is foreign to modern societies – witness the growth of the conservation lobby in the West.

The crucial discussion for future Aboriginal societies is whether there is any viable alternative to a productive work ethic as a survival mechanism. Equity, justice and freedom remain central to future societies, but without a responsible and productive foundation these eternal virtues must remain elusive.

Brian Roberts has been Adjunct Professor at James Cook University’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences and CSIRO Honorary Fellow

5 thoughts on “Indigenous Fundamentalism

  • Jody says:

    Hilarious to think that this, er, ‘back to the future’ thinking is regarding as Progressive politics. Priceless!!

  • Geoffrey Luck says:

    I grew up with those Pelaco ads on hoardings along the tramlines. They had a neutral effect on office workers and housewives alike; that is, nobody considered them deliberately offensive to aborigines, who were almost completely invisible to city folk. The focus was on the use of the pidgin “Mine tink it” as an emphatic endorsement from another culture. Bear in mind that the other Pelaco ad, running concurrently, featured a charmingly dressed lady, gushing “It is indeed a lovely shirt, Sir.” I was never aware of any comment about the juxtaposition of the two racial endorsements – proof I suppose that in the era before aborigines could self-describe, they were both few and far between and out of sight and mind.

  • says:

    Australian Aborigines are at a tremendous disadvantage concerning their traditional culture: in the absence of written language in any of the Aboriginal tungues, everything was passed down by word of mouth over millinea. That puts a huge question mark on the authenticity of all Dream Time Stories and all other verbal aspects of the culture, the tradition. The utter unreliability of relating information by the spoken word, even in real tim, is a well known phenomenon, which would have to be exponentially multiplied by the passing of time. Educated Aborigines would have to be cognisant of this. Add to this the fact that those same educated people also now and widely utilise the enormous range of benefits brought by the modernity of the white people. Further, they must realise that almost all of what is called Aboriginal art now – the colourful dot paintings and other endlessly repeating simple patterns – did not exist before the white man came, let alone the utensils and materials used in creating it. They also know that the “Aboriginal Nation” that supposed to exist before the white man came is a myth, the reality being that the numerous tribes were almost constantly fighting one another in a never ending series of pay-backs. All in all, while they were probably quite happy with their daily lives, there is no evidence on offer that they were engaged in efforts trying to improve it. Improve it by building increasingly better shelters, devising means of conveyance, of communication, breeding live stock, growing food, etc. etc. As the result of all that, most educated Aborigines are almost certain to be conflicted in matters of culture and heritage, whether they realise it or not.

  • says:

    And indeed a lovely historical comment by Geoffrey Luck who so often can record that he has seen it for himself. Opinion writer
    Brian Roberts reserves his best paragraph until last when he asks if there is ‘any viable alternative to a productive work ethic as a survival mechanism’. Welfarism and sit-down-money for former stone age hunter-gatherers was guaranteed to doom aboriginal Australians to an aimless destructive existence of gambling,drinking,abusing. It has often done the same for white Australians.

    Culture is so important and often explains the success of Asians and also of Europeans in Australia. The latter retain a strong, sometimes called Protestant, work ethic which results in a prosperity able to be shared with the needy.Now the newly approved almost cashless welfare card might help reconnect the link between work and a meaningful life.

  • says:

    By the end of this year, around forty thousand Indigenous people will have graduated from universities around the country, about one in every six of seven women, one in every twelve men. Overwhelmingly urban, of course. About 120,000 Indigenous people have at one time been, or are currently, enrolled at universities. The great majority of Indigenous people live in urban areas, perhaps a majority now live in metropolitan areas.

    Indigenous people have been living in towns, or on their fringes, for more than two hundred years, some all their lives. To use an offensive term, for which I apologise, there have been quarter-castes around since before 1820 in Sydney, and before 1860 in South Australia. Mostly, they worked and some prospered. Of course, up until the sixties and seventies, most Indigenous people associated with, and married, other Indigenous people, creating what might be called post-traditional social groups and cultural practices, who knew only other Indigenous people, rarely any non-Indigenous relations.

    Since 1980 or so, the Indigenous birth-rate has, after an actual decline in the seventies, risen healthily, at least on paper – part of that ‘rise’ may have been from better counting, or from re-identification, but much of it may be the consequences of massive rates of inter-marriage of working, and usually urban, Indigenous people and working NON-Indigenous people – we are now well into the third generation of that inter-marriage process.

    Ergo, every year, record numbers of university commencements, enrolments and graduations. It’s not all sweetness and light, however: the great majority of Indigenous university students are enrolled, and graduate in, mainstream courses like teaching, surveying, nursing, podiatry, vet science – and the conventional wisdom, what to do with Blackfella graduates, is still to park them in some Indigenous unit. If their expertise doesn’t fit into any Indigenous unit, then, with great sighs of regret, new graduates are told that they may have to do more study, in order to fit into their rightful places, and bugger off.

    So, yes, some decide to play the ‘culture’ game, become truly ruly knowledgeable about their ‘culture’, since after all, there are many written sources of such knowledge these days. At universities themselves, many Indigenous units have followed this path, since after all there are careers to made from it, committees to sit on, conferences to go to – as long as one sits there, strong and silent, deep and knowledgeable but quiet.

    My late wife worked in Indigenous student support and fought like hell against this corruption, which is what it is. Coming from a settlement and a hard-working family, she knew the value of standard education – she even resisted changing the name of the Support Unit that she headed to an incomprehensible (but local) Aboriginal name, which would have needed translating every damn time, and would have effectively shut out Indigenous students from other parts. She would be overjoyed at the numbers, and the proportion, perhaps 95 %, of Indigenous students who enrol in mainstream, standard courses. But she knew of the problems that lie ahead in gaining equitable employment.

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