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The whole community and the police knew those responsible.

The Sydney Morning Herald

The youths involved were charged; but the children, who are repeat offenders, cannot be charged because of federal law relating to minors. Instead, they were returned to their parents to be dealt with. It is a choice they have made, much to the disappointment of their elders, who in most instances do not receive the respect they deserve from their descendants. Some of the early settlers in the mids may have treated the Aborigines badly.


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There are solutions, but the bureaucrats and do-gooders are going about implementing the solution the wrong way. The situation is sad, but it is a choice most of the Aborigines in remote regions have made with the help of bureaucrats and do-gooders. There is a way out. Aborigines must abide by the same rules as every other Australian — seek out opportunities, study hard, and free themselves from a culture of bad behaviour. This grand experiment has failed. Aborigines, especially those in remote Australia, need an exit strategy from the dream…. The other of course, are the Aborigines themselves, who have been duped and misled by bleeding-heart liberals, but who are fundamentally at the root of their own problems through their misguided adherence to culture.

Governments merely compound the mistake by encouraging Aborigines to cling to the dead and buried myths. It is individualism in pursuit of material gain. Like the fish who has yet to discover water, Johns cannot admit that his worldview is one among many or that any group of people might possess a coherent, internally logical, and valid structure of thought that differs from his own.

Referring to a study by Paul Memmott, et al.

Contemporary Indigenous Affairs: Seeking the Radical Centre

That presumably leaves Muslims, and Sicilians, and American rednecks, and in fact, everyone but the guardians of Victorian British progressive capitalist values among the unwashed and unimproved. The law and order problems that follow from all this bad behavior must be left to the enlightened authority of Australian justice to deal with. Of course, a mere ten pages later, when explaining away the problem of deaths in custody, Johns takes an entirely opposition position on customary law though he maintains its inefficacy.

The reason too many Aborigines are gaoled is that too many commit crimes. If the solution to the problem is not to gaol so many Aborigines for the crimes they commit, Aborigines would rightly conclude that breaking the law is not wrong, thus causing confusion, which in cultural terms is unfortunate because Aboriginal culture was quite exacting in crime and punishment pp. Both of these investigations shared the unfortunate misdirection of putting white morality rather than black morality under scrutiny, with devastating results for Aboriginal people. The bias in current practices against foster care and the intensely ideological desire to have Aboriginal children stay with their families is causing death and mayhem p.

What began as an apparently innocent exercise in seeking answers to deaths in custody in ended with a major exercise to take the moral high ground against the integrity of Australian laws and society p.

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The Inquiry model as a legal process should be overturned in favour of a scientific approach. Measures should be tested, not opined. These children cannot read and write; most end up in goal, the root cause of Deaths in Custody. It is the end of the road for people not because they are stolen but because they are ignorant p. If these paragraphs represent a scientific approach, then please spare me mere opinion.

The Whiteman’s dream

But then Johns consistently holds up Queensland magistrates and the Queensland Crime and Misconduct Commission as clear-sighted exemplars of Australian justice. Similarly, land rights have failed Aboriginal people on many accounts, primarily for encouraging them to sit down on their land and accept handouts from governments and mining companies while doing nothing themselves to generate wealth. At times, Johns blames land rights for Aboriginal violence and dysfunction because it has resulted in the gathering together in land-based communities of clans that have a history of enmity.

And yet there is a serpent in the view of paradise. But if the government is wise enough to abandon such protections of Aboriginal culture in favor of economic advancement, Johns believes that the problems can be solved. In the end, for Johns, it is all about economics. The Australian taxpayer, or Australian churches, or the Australian mining industry, should not, can not, and must not be called upon any longer to subsidize the bad behavior of Aboriginal people.

I find great reassurance that cultures exist in this country in which people still speak about the riches of dream-life in such terms.

The dualistic ontology of classical Aboriginal religious thought emphasises a definite sense of demarcation between dream-life and waking consciousness, a demarcation that delineates the realms of the profane and sacred. And this demarcation is strictly enforced culturally. When people speak of these things a sense of distance and separation is thought to exist between these two realms, between dream-life and waking reality.

The conceptual preservation of this sense of distance and difference makes classical Aboriginal thought some of the most sophisticated and graceful phenomenology to have been conceived of in this country. That sense of distance is strongly demarcated through the protocols of religious law and the sense of secrecy and circumspection that surrounds spiritual life. As a culture with our lingering allegiance to Socratic and Cartesian rationalism, with its implicit denigration of mytho-poetic consciousness, we no longer possess awareness of another self that is hidden and distinct from everyday life, from our external social self — a self which requires some kind of ritualised or artistic expression.

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Although collectively we do not posses such a sense of the riches of dream life, we do have various manifestations of such an impulse, in the occasional writer or poet, Les Murray being one of the few to have emerged in Australia in recent times. Ceremonial body decoration and the paintings that have evolved out of them, despite innumerable differences, achieve the same thing as, for example, the poetry of Wordsworth or the novels of Dostoevsky. That is making our unconscious and buried sense of the sacred concrete and actual. It is also what part of this essay is clumsily trying to do.

So the hidden mytho-poetic foundation of individual life according to Warlpiri thought is represented collectively and concretely in ritual life. Yet this otherworld of experience also makes its way into collective social reality due to people sleeping and dreaming together in the same space. The emotional attraction — or aversion — to such aspects of classical Aboriginal culture may turn out to be one of the most important factors implicated in how we position ourselves in the Indigenous political debate. The sense of dream-life being embedded in the small family group of the camp, yet transcending that human domain into kinship with the natural world, is a longing many of us may share or, if burdened by the weight of experience, struggle against as being unrealistic and unsustainable in a post-industrial capitalist economy.

Do we value the supposed social values of a closed tribal society, what Marx referred to as primitive communism , or do we value the development of the individual and his or her political liberties in an open democratic society? The answer to this question may determine whether we lean to the Right or to the Left in regards to Indigenous politics. To be able to understand how our political attitudes covertly expose our own subjective bias and emotional proclivities, often revealing more about ourselves than any objective state of affairs, may go some of the way to untangling the skein of confusion and mutual misunderstanding that seems to hobble political debate in this area.

Aboriginal religion and art represents the graphic articulation of a coherent world view in which spiritual fertility, fertility in terms of offspring, and the actual fertility and ordered continuity of the cosmos is maintained. For me this sense of being in the world in such an affirmative sense, and being able to artistically represent such affirmativeness, seems a logical impossibility.

Our world seems out of joint, as though a simple faith in the nature of things as they are is no longer feasible. To live on the personal level, on what Munn calls the level of the familial unit, is still a possibility for us, to create life within the context of the family. What bothered me lying in my bunk tormented by insomniac terror was the sense of absurdity and unreality that attends the sociopolitical and cosmic dimensions of contemporary life. Another installment, I suppose, of the existential-crisis routine I have become all too familiar with. So horribly familiar that at times it does not bear thinking about.

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Classical Aboriginal culture was not an ideal, but it possessed the requisite naivety to affirm life at the cosmic level and be completely certain in that affirmation. Not to put too much of a negative spin on things but the question remains, whether we wish to think about it or not: is that sense of affirmation and fertility, in terms of the human soul and a broader politics and cosmology, a possible option for us any longer?


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  4. Or are we forever condemned to live among those inhuman spaces and silences that so terrified Pascal, which now, being redolent with the scent of fossil emissions and chemical weapons, have become even more terrifying than they ever were for him? From the s Stehlow began recording sacred ceremonial songs and with the benefit of having Aranda as a mother tongue, he was able to produce some of the most accurate linguistic analysis, translation and interpretation of Aboriginal poetry produced in this country.

    It was this research that eventually formed the basis of Songs of Central Australia , which was not published until What gives the book such pathos is the underlying sense that he was mourning the loss of a tradition as he was in the process of recording and preserving it. My heart tonight is sad — because there is no hope that this fate can be averted. Yet Hill seems to have been influenced by the notion that Aboriginal traditions can somehow be resurrected and maintained in a postcolonial, capitalist economy.

    He, like many others, was blind to the fact that those traditions, outside the context of a hunter-gatherer economy, have become in most essential ways obsolete. The sacred ceremonial songs, dances and graphic designs associated with traditional ritual have a very basic, pragmatic purpose. It is through such artistic mediums that young men learn where waterholes and hunting grounds are in order that they will be able take a wife and provide for a family.

    That economic base has been removed and Aboriginal people, at times by coercion and necessity, at others due to informed choice, have decided to move into the modern economy. It is for this reason young people are less interested in their cultural heritage than people of three or four generations ago, for the economic necessities of hunting are no longer the basis of their lives.

    They do not need to know the songs and sand designs, which are essentially aural and visual maps of country, in order to survive. The provision of a welfare cheque enables them to do that and with much less effort than it would require if they were engaging in hunting for subsistence purposes.

    Hill seems to have been blind to these facts of cultural evolution when writing the biography. And I think his elegiac tone is more resonant with the current situation, which is difficult to describe in terms that are not imbued with a sense of tragedy. One of the more recent developments in desert art has produced some wonderful works with a much wider range of colours than the older works; in these paintings, bright luminous reds and greens seem to burst from the canvas. This was a time when many Pitjantjatjara were gainfully employed and consequently had a sense of pride, dignity and purpose, something which is absent from many of the younger generations.

    The idea of a painting being a visual externalisation of the soul that was implanted in a person at birth by their totemic ancestor, a soul that in adulthood one remains connected to through dream-life, all of a sudden seemed quite natural and perfectly explicable. As I drove out to Papunya a few days later the impression of the paintings, or the kind of insight I had gained into their meaning, remained with me.

    Thankfully, however, the school was still open and the principal kindly allowed me to have a look around. Some of the original door murals, although damaged, remained as a testament to those early artistic efforts.

    In the s Bardon had been sabotaged in his efforts to facilitate the sale of paintings in Alice Springs. He was trying to get good prices for the paintings the men had done and the Papunya Tula gallery, which still exists in Alice today, was set up for this purpose. White officials had stopped funds returning to Papunya, which infuriated the Aboriginal men who blamed Bardon for not paying them the money that was due to them.

    People were also buying the paintings for a few dollars and then selling them at exorbitant prices.