The Oliphant in the Room

It was a chilly Canberra morning on October 5 last year – the day topped at 12degC. On that morning the Australian Academy of Science re-opened its headquarters at Ian Potter House, after fixing damage from a hailstorm on January 5, 2020. Pedestrians passing by might have noticed wisps of blue smoke rising from the forecourt.

The Academy President, Chennupati Jagadish and chief executive Anna-Maria Arabia welcomed Aunty Violet Sheridan for a smoking ceremony (above) they’d commissioned. The Academy aimed to “cleanse the energy” of those present. What the scientists meant by “cleanse the energy” I’m not sure, it sounds like a soap ad. I thought smoking ceremonies were to drive out bad spirits – that’s what it says here and here and not least, with the authority of the CSIRO[1]:

Smoking Ceremony: The ceremony aims to cleanse the space (of evil spirits) in which the ceremony takes place and to cleanse the participants, who are asked to take in the smoke that comes from the earth to protect them on that Country… People are encouraged to walk through the smoke to cleanse their spirits.

Aunty Violet set fire to a swatch of eucalyptus leaves held by grandson Noah Allan. She was rugged up in a puffer jacket and wool bonnet, along with an Aboriginal-themed scarf. Noah was in a brown windcheater emblazoned in large yellow letters with the word, “Bloke”. I’m not sure what point he was making (maybe a comment on the 2021 Academy report, page 61, where 12 of 62 Academy staff declined to say if they were man or woman.)[2] He’s studying at ANU after boarding on a scholarship at prestigious Saint Ignatius’ College Riverview, where Tony Abbott and PM Barnaby Joyce went to school. He likes hanging out with Violet: “She’s always coming over and telling me to come watch her do Welcomes and help her out.”

There’s no paucity of Welcomes in Canberra. For example, Aunty Violet did the Welcome on the re-opening of the hail-damaged Shine Dome a few months earlier. At Academy functions, every speaker feels obliged to Acknowledge the Traditional Owners, which irritates when you get five in a morning. Academy President Jagadish even does Acknowledgements in language (Ngunnawal), a popular pastime in ACT high society but of uncertain validity[3]:

Dhawura nguna, dhawura Ngunnawal. Yanggu ngalawiri, dhunimanyin Ngunnawalwari dhawurawari. Nginggada Dindi dhawura Ngunnawalbun yindjumaralidjinyin.

The Academy’s rationale, involving peak woke, goes like this:

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have experienced a long history of exclusion from Australian history books, theAustralian flag [boomerangs wanted?], the Australian anthem [“Australians all”] and, for many years, Australian democracy. This history of dispossession and colonisation lies at the heartof the disparity between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous Australians today [Jacinta Price denies this]. Including recognition … in events, meetings and national symbols is one part of ending the exclusion… By actively giving an acknowledgment you are acknowledging that the land always will be that of the Traditional Custodians. [My emphases].

The Academy pretends that the Welcomes, a bit of theatrics invented by Ernie Dingo and Dr Richard Whalley in Perth in 1976, have been part of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures “for thousands of years”. In a pastiche of Polyanna, Disney and La La Land, the Academy goes on

When permission was granted the hosting group would welcome the visitors, offering them safe passage and protection of their spiritual being during the journey. While visitors were provided with a safe passage, they also had to respect the protocols and rules of the land owner group while on their Country.

The Academy has swallowed this hook, line and sinker from Karen Mundine’s Reconciliation Australia.[4] Any check of the real anthropology turns up rituals such as presenting a group of women for sex usage, penis holdings[5], sweat exchanges and, commonly across Australia, ritual thigh spearings to avenge sorceries by the outsiders. Bess Price of Alice Springs, mother of successful “No” campaigner Jacinta, has bluntly called welcomes and smoking ceremonies “bullshit”.

Talking of “No”, the Academy, like all the professional elites, vainly urged “Yes” for the Voice, sovereignty, treaty and truth-telling. In May 2022 it voted in Tom Calma as an Academy  Fellow, the co-author with Marcia Langton of the Voice final strategy document. It’s hard to imagine the Academy as other than activists on this issue: CEO Anna-Maria Arabia was appointed in 2016 after three years part-time as policy director/principal adviser for then Opposition Leader Bill Shorten.  Science policy director Chris Anderson,  appointed in 2019, had been adviser and then chief of staff for six years to Labor Senator, Rudd-Gillard minister and factional warrior Kim Carr.

I’ve been sceptical of the “smoking ceremonies” since I visited the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC two decades ago and found myself reading about smoking ceremonies of the Navaho or Cherokee (I forget the details). I think the Australian leaves-in-a bucket deal is a pinch from that Museum Mile along the Mall that connects Capitol Hill at one end with the Lincoln memorial at the other. I’ve checked the Wikipedia Australia page and did find a reference there to an authenticated smoking ceremony – but not for the energy-cleansing purposes imagined by the Academy.

Wikipedia cites a 1906 account to the Royal Society of South Australia by Northern Territory anthropologist, explorer, medico and geologist Herbert Basedow. (The Royal Society UK was parent to our Academy). Basedow’s description of the little-modified culture of the northern coastal tribes is horrific to modern sensibilities, and begins

Personal Mutilations: Female infants are subjected to mutilation by removal of two joints of the right forefinger. In the western tribes the finger is cut off with a stone knife. Elsewhere it is amputated at a later age by binding tightly around the joint a ligature made of cobwebs of a spider that lives in the mangroves. In certain cases the joints are removed by biting, and among the Wogait tribe the amputated segment is buried in an anthill. A singular case came under notice in the Ginmu tribe, where a young girl had her finger imperfectly removed, and upon the mutilated stump a horny growth resembling a diminutive finger nail had appeared…

The ”smoking ceremony” is in Basedow’s section titled “From Girlhood to Womanhood”. It’s a prelude to a pubescent girl’s enforced “marriage” to a mature or elderly man.

The girls of the Larrekiya and Wogait tribes are given away to men at a very early age, although marriage is not fully consummated until after the “smoking ceremony” of the girl – a ceremony which is not attended by the men, although they may witness the proceedings at a distance. The girl, having been decorated, is seized from behind by the old gin who has cared for her and who places her hands upon the novice’s shoulders… The chant suddenly ceases and a new one breaks out, whereupon the old gin delivers three smart blows upon the back of the girl. This procedure is continued for the greater part of a night….

The third part of the performance is the smoking of the young gin. Upon a harmless but excessively smoky fire the old gin seats herself with the girl on her lap, both being completely obscured by the dense volumes of smoke. The smoking completed, the novice is led into the bush by the old women, and returns with them to the camp on the same day… A subsequent secret corrobboree of initiation, about which very little is known, takes place several years later.”

Since modern smoking ceremonies could have violent misogynistic origins, I think the Academy should eschew them. Meanwhile, I’m wondering if, in the Academy’s enthusiasm for “truth-telling” as per the Uluru manifesto, it might do some truth-telling of its own over the racist views of its founder and inaugural president (1954-56), Sir Mark Oliphant? The Academy is big on bagging colonial oppressors of Aborigines, so why whitewash Oliphant, as it does here and here? Of course, I’m not advocating smashing of any Oliphant busts or statuary, as per Oxford radicals’ “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign, or Hobart’s planned removal of its olden-day Premier William Crowther. I’ll leave that civic work to the ABC’s Julia Baird — toppling statues thrills her heart.

Here’s some nitty-gritty about the Academy’s founder – but trigger warning and no safe space for Shine Dome denizens. The story is complex and it’s necessary to give a preamble.[6]

After Oliphant (left) retired from the Academy, SA Premier Don Dunstan in 1971 appointed him State Governor. They soon fell out over Oliphant’s strong and outspoken views, such on Dunstan’s relaxing of sex censorship. Oliphant had requested samples of pornography from the simpatico Police Commissioner Harold Salisbury[7] including images of male and female homosexuality. Oliphant asked Dunstan to his office to see and resile from such alleged depravity, but Dunstan after inspection said he merely found pornography boring and abruptly walked out of Government House.

 Oliphant worsened relations by complaining to the Queen about Dunstan and pornography. The breach widened when Oliphant backed Governor-General Kerr for sacking Whitlam in 1975. He even threatened Dunstan that he’d go public in support of Kerr. Dunstan in turn warned Oliphant that he’d get the Queen to sack him.

Oliphant’s pro-Dismissal stance so angered Dunstan that he resolved to appoint as Oliphant’s successor someone who wouldn’t similarly rock the boat – that is, “to neutralise and downgrade the office” and appoint someone “so politically and constitutionally unsophisticated” that he would never challenge the Premier, as Oliphant’s biographers Stewart Cockburn and David Ellyard put it (p317). Dunstan passed over candidates like Justice Roma Mitchell, Don Bradman and litterateur Geoffrey Dutton in favour of Aboriginal pastor and VFL (now AFL) footballer Sir Doug Nicholls. Nicholls (right) could barely read and write – he would struggle to read the Governor’s speech to open Parliament. Oliphant, learning of Dunstan’s scheme, sent Dunstan a 1000-word note of outrage. After claiming his non-racist credentials, Oliphant wrote (p347-9),

PERSONAL AND CONFIDENTIAL:The first problem likely to be faced by an Aborigine as Governor would be the natural assumption by all other Aborigines that what is his is theirs. The House may well be filled to overflowing by his relatives and tribesmen to whom by custom and duty, he cannot say no. The results could be chaos, inability to find or keep domestic staff, and even loss of valuables because of the “sharing” habits of his people. The Queen is due to spend about a week here in March 1977. If, as in 1963, she lives on the Royal yacht, there may be no problems. If she stays at Government House there could be many…There will be those who construe the proposed appointment as fresh evidence that you wish to downgrade the role and significant of the Governor, even further than you did when I was appointed…

Oliphant cited Lois [also Lowitja] O’Donoghue[8] on her difficulties as an Aboriginal maintaining dual ties to family and the Aboriginal Affairs Department. where she worked. He also cited experiences of white adoptive parents who found their Aboriginal adoptees at puberty reverting to tribal culture. “There is something inherent in the personality of the Aborigine which makes it difficult for him [sic] to adapt fully to the ways of the white man,” Oliphant wrote.

He suggested Nicholls’ education at Cummerajunga mission or camp was insufficient and dubbed Nicholl’s Church of Christ as a fundamentalist religion incompatible with most South Australians’ ethos.

If he should not succeed, his failure could become a setback for Aboriginal advancement … Mr [Charles] Perkins was not successful as a public servant [9]… To appoint a member of a relatively small minority as Governor would win the applause of some, but it could damage your Government and the Labor Party in the eyes of many who have supported you … The reaction of many who support Labor would be one of dismay if you appear to make radical changes in the representation of the Monarchy in South Australia.

The people of South Australia are almost all decent and kindly. There would be few who would demonstrate against an Aborigine as Governor, and public comment by the media would be muted. Resentment would be expressed in other ways, and would be directed against the Government.

Dunstan gave Oliphant a stiff reply marked “SECRET AND PERSONAL”, including

I appreciate your concern about the problems of tribal Aborigines. However, Sir Douglas Nicholls comes from a group of Aborigines long detribalised. From my experience of his social work amongst Aborigines he is well aware of the need for firmness in any situation where he is living in a largely European community, and some Aborigines might try to take advantage of his position in the community on the basis of tribal notions which are inapplicable in the circumstances. I am sure he would have no difficulty with his relatives, and I am sure he could deal with Aborigines who were still retaining tribal associations of their own, although they of course would not have any with him.

While Sir Douglas is a Pastor of the Churches of Christ, I don’t think that he would find difficulty in facing the policies of this Government. I know that there is still racial feeling in the community, but I think it is necessary constantly to war against it, and I feel the acceptance by the Queen of Sir Douglas Nicholls as her representative would help us in that respect.”

Oliphant was personally courteous to Sir Douglas and Lady Nicholls, even having them stay with him privately at Government House pre-appointment to help them learn the ropes.

The Canberra Times, like Oliphant, expressed concern that members of Nicholls’ family might set up camp on the grounds of Government House. In the event, Sir Douglas had a stroke a month after appointment. Thereafter he held only one official function – hosting Queen Elizabeth at Government House – before stepping down after 150 days in office on grounds of ill-health.

The Academy wants its Fellows and staff to celebrate NAIDOC Week, National Sorry Day, National Reconciliation Week, “Survival Day” (once known as Australia Day, January 26), Close the Gap Day, and at least one UN Indigenous day. I’m surprised they ever get any work done. However, they could well add one more: “White Oliphant Sorry-Business Day”.

If I seem a tad jaundiced about the Academy, it’s because it has led the push here for net zero (by 2035 not 2050 for heaven’s sake), windmills, hideous transmission lines, pricey electric cars and censorship of any climate opposition. Victorian consumers’ electricity prices are set to rise by up to 31 per cent this fiscal year, after double-digit rises last year, and that’s in a state sitting on vast and cheap resources of brown coal.

If the Academy would just stick to Aborigine-worship and smoking ceremonies, we’d all be lots better off.

Tony Thomas’s new book from Connor Court is Anthem of the Unwoke – Yep! The other lot’s gone bonkers. $34.95 from Connor Court here

[1] CSIRO deleted this page but it is resurfaced via Wayback Machine.

[2] By 2022 the number had fallen to two.

[3] “Not all (or possibly any) of the Aboriginal languages used in welcome to country cere-monies, however, can be said to reflect unchanged similarities with languages spoken before whites came to Australia. Some can only claim weak links to Aboriginal languages recorded soon after colonisation. As an extreme case, like many Aboriginal groups who have sustained the prolonged and devastating effects of colonisation, Darug descendants have lost virtually all knowledge of Darug language as it was spoken by pre-contact Darug ancestors …   Some Darug descendants always conduct part of the welcome to country in their own version of what they call Darug language. As a language, however, it is not understood either by the audience or the speakers themselves.

Rather than a language proper, this is a recently invented verbal ritual affirming Darug identity. It has been developed without the help or support of white linguists or anthropologists (and in some instances in spite of derision from these sources)… and is hence more of a dramatic ritual performance than a language.” — ethnographer Kristina Everett, “Welcome to Country –Not.” Oceania, Mar., 2009, Vol. 79, No. 1 (Mar., 2009), pp. 53-64. My emphasis.

[4] The Academy took out a “Reflect” Reconciliation Action Plan 2019-2022 with Karen Mundine, and is now working up an application for a more stringent Elevate Plan to “challenge and inspire us to be part of real change in Australia”. Most Australians, judging by the Referendum, might not want such an Academy-led “real change”.

[5] Berndt, Professor Ronald, and Berndt, Catherine, 1999, p176. The World of the first Australians : Aboriginal Traditional Life Past and Present. Aboriginal Studies Centre.

[6] Stewart Cockburn and David Ellyard, Oliphant, Axiom Books Adelaide 1981 p 314-19.

[7] Dunstan sacked Salisbury in 1978 over allegedly misleading the government about what was in Special Branch files. The files included material about Oliphant himself. Oliphant, as ex-Governor, blasted Dunstan and defended Salisbury in a polemic to the Adelaide Advertiser, contrary to all Vice-Regal protocols. He wrote, “I believe all South Australians who are not criminals will share my pride in what he [Salisbury] has achieved and my indignation over his dismissal.” P321-32. This letter “exploded like a political nuclear bomb in the Dunstan camp” and was a factor in Dunstan’s “ill-health” resignation 14 months later.

[8] Ms O’Donoghue, a Yankunytjatjara woman, became the first Aborigine to qualify as nurse and sister at Royal Adelaide Hospital. She fought for Aboriginal legal rights and was appointed Regional Director of the SA Aboriginal Affairs Department, the first woman to hold such a position federally. In 1990 she became inaugural chair of ATSIC and in 1992 the first Aboriginal to address the UN General Assembly. Although co-patron of the Stolen Generations Alliance, in 2001 she admitted to Andrew Bolt that she wasn’t actually “stolen” after all, but was given away by her father: 

“(My father) didn’t want to be straddled with five kids,” the former Australian of the Year said, sobbing. “I haven’t forgiven him … “I don’t like the word ‘stolen’ and it’s perhaps true that I’ve used the word loosely at times… I would see myself as a removed child, and not necessarily stolen.” Asked whether it would be better to state clearly that she wasn’t a member of the stolen generation, Dr O’Donoghue said: “I am prepared to make that concession.”

[9] Perkins claimed to be of the “Stolen Generations” but this was false. In 2000 he referred to Prime Minister Howard as a “racist” and a “dog” and urged British tourists not to come to the Sydney Olympics, warning that buildings and cars would be burnt by protesters. “It’s burn, baby, burn from now on. Anything can happen,” he said.

16 thoughts on “The Oliphant in the Room

  • Blair says:

    ” This history of dispossession and colonisation lies at the heart of the disparity between ..Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous Australians today
    There was no dispossession of Torres Strait Islanders and they weren’t colonised until the 1870s.

  • cbattle1 says:

    The Australian Academy of Science must know about the physics behind the cleansing of energy and spirit by the agency of smoke from Eucalyptus leaves. Perhaps the very learned Professor Pascoe can put it into language that we can understand?

    • Botswana O'Hooligan says:

      Possibly a handful or two of “grass” may be thrown in with the mix and that would explain a lot for just burning eucalyptus leaves doesn’t seem right else each bushfire season many of us would be prancing about sans clothing and gesticulating in an unseemly manner. Mind you, many of the aboriginal activities could be considered a bit suss since I once had a Kundela (bone for the pointing thereof) and not wishing to harm anyone with it’s powers I pointed it at my then MIL in a sort of “my boomerang won’t come back” fashion many times, all to no avail, but like Mr. T I may be slightly sceptical or perhaps MIL’s are as bullet proof as popular opinion states.

    • jbhackett says:

      I suggest that Australia’s most well-known charlatan, Professor Pascoe is far too busy coping with his new-found fame as a (wait for it) Living Legend (as reported in the Australian’s recent add-in magazine, “Research”) to give a toss about gum leaves. These Living Legends are Australian academics, researchers and scholars who loom largest in public discourse world-wide. As our Brucie is neither an academic, a researcher or a scholar, and has had his work debunked by experts, I’m not sure why he’s on this list. His inclusion is insulting to those genuine academics, researchers and scholars who are included, such as Gustav Nossal, Geoffrey Blainey, Fiona Wood, Robin Warren and Quadrant’s very own Keith Windschuttle.

  • cbattle1 says:

    It is impressive to see Aunty Violet and her grandson Noah Allan dressed in their traditional ceremonial regalia for the occasion, very authentic! I assume, naturally, that they made the fire to get the leaves smoking using Aboriginal Technology, thus illustrating their 60,000+ years of thermodynamic knowledge of rubbing sticks together.

  • March says:

    Thanks Tony, you’ve inspired me to put together a research proposal that should be supported by the AAS to do with the smoking ceremony. There are major implications for expunged spirits to be utilised in our nation’s defence, not to mention the potential benefits this research will have to our net zero target…. Watch this space!

  • lbloveday says:

    “PM Barnaby Joyce”? Past Master?

  • Sir Peter says:

    I always try to follow the Science, but always leads me to the money

  • ianl says:

    As an aside, although seemingly culturally related, the Papuan southern highland clans (when I worked there in the late 70’s) had a similar practice to the excision of finger parts noted above.

    In the Papuan case, younger children (both male and female) had a first knuckle cut off if a sibling or cousin child died. Known in Pidgin English as “sorry cuts”, I personally saw late teenage children with 3 or 4 first knuckles missing, the “cuts” distributed over both hands.

    Since these highland Papuans had barely heard of Australian indigenes nor had any knowledge of their culture (and certainly had never met any), the similarity of cultural practices seems indicative of far earlier migration patterns. This is even more interesting as the highlands populations were forced up into the mountainous hinterland by successive waves of later coastal arrivals. The highlanders are the earlier populations, so the anthropologists tell us.

  • Stephen says:

    The last time I checked if you want a “Welcome to country with smoking” it will cost you about a $1,000. If you’re happy to leave out the smoking its only $600. Not a bad little earner for Auntie Violet and her mates. Surely if they were sincere in their welcome they would do it for a cup of tea and a biscuit. I don’t have personal experience but I think it likely that many of the ceremonies held in my rather woke, Teal voting, part of Melbourne were bought and paid for just to avoid trouble.

    • pmprociv says:

      What a lucrative business, owning WtC in Canberra, of all places! She’s a very smart businesswoman. One wonders if payment is in cash only . . . or does she get to pay tax on this?
      If only we could be paid for welcoming visitors to our place — although it’s on land we do actually own (according to the title deed). Trouble is, our supply of visitors would rapidly dry up — and they wouldn’t hesitate to tell us where to go.

  • Mike says:

    Considering the agro between Canberra aboriginal communities, better they work on Welcome Ceremonies for each other.

  • pmprociv says:

    About time that CSIRO and the AAS shifted their intellectual foundations to the more solid Indigenous Sciences, based on 120,000 years of unchanged culture (as asserted by Uncle Professor Bruce Pascoe). Should the imported Western Science even have a place in Oz?

    More seriously, it’s reassuring to see Oliphant’s astute but brief appraisal of the endlessly eulogised late Charlie Perkins, whom I knew as a fellow-member of the Sydney Uni Labour Club in the late 1960s. My outstanding recollection is of a big, loud, mouth, backed by a not-so-big intellect. His presences was exploited by more ambitious members (whose names I won’t mention here, but some went on to greatness), notably on that famous “freedom bus ride”.

  • David Isaac says:

    ‘(My father) didn’t want to be straddled with five kids,” the former Australian of the Year said, ‘

    Prior to the oral contraceptive this was a common problem for married couples the world over, and adoption was often the solution. In a society which did not facilitate motherhood out of wedlock, adoption was even more commonly used by unmarried women.

    Historically infanticide was practised by stone age peoples, including in Australia. It is increasingly performed legally today, but prior to birth.

  • lhackett01 says:

    In the summer of 1976, the television presenter and Yamatji man Ernie Dingo and the Noongar/Yamatji musician Richard Walley were part of the Middar Aboriginal theatre, with a show billed at a Perth fringe festival. They were asked by a group of Polynesian performers – two Māori and two Cook Islanders – to give them a welcome to country as their spiritual beliefs dictated. Accordingly, Dingo and Walley created the welcome to country smoking ceremony we see today.

    It is not a traditional activity and I will not accept being welcomed to my country, Australia.

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