Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Book Review: Being Aboriginal

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Being Aboriginal

Author: Ros Bowden, Bill Bunbury, et al.

Date: 1990

Publisher: Australian Broadcasting Corporation

ISBN: 0-7333-0023-5

Length: 121 pages

Quote: “Aboriginal songs sometimes take six months to sing!”

This book is apparently a spin-off from an Australian radio show, called “Link-Up,” whose purpose was to help Australians connect with friends and relatives across the miles of “Outback.” It circulated through my home town and reached me, not by way of the Australian family some of The Nephews used to know in Tennessee, but through people whose interest in our own “prehistory” as a former Cherokee border settlement extended to a curiosity about the indigenous people of Australia, South America, and the Caribbean, and how they were surviving colonization.

Obviously I know nothing whatsoever about being Australian, whether Anglo- or Aboriginal or any other variety, and can review this book only as casual reading, as story. It makes an interesting story. The thing to remember is that it's compiled from fragments of what guests said on the radio show, so the story doesn't hang together as an individual's story should, because it's not. In the absence of Amazon reviews or "buzz" about Being Aboriginal in the U.S., I have no idea how true or useful the story may have been.

The first thing Ros Bowden mentions is that a number of Aboriginal Australians don’t seem to be surviving terribly well. Genetically and culturally the indigenous people of Australia are obviously very different from the indigenous people of the American continents, except, according to broadcaster Bowden, for one thing: “groups of dusty drunks on every pub verandah.” Well, in the U.S. it might be “in front of the liquor store” that visitors would find small groups of people who’ve chosen the same reaction to different forms of Anglo-colonialism : becoming alcoholics.

It is indeed interesting that, according to Joan Mathews-Larson, most of the ethnic groups indigenous to North America share the same incidence of the same specific type of alcoholism that’s also found in Ireland. Alcoholism is global, but in the rest of the world it follows different patterns and may be produced by recessive genes. In my part of the world, where everybody seems to have Irish, Cherokee, or other Native American ancestors and many people have all three kinds, the solution that works has been to develop a mostly alcohol-free culture where "drinks" usually mean soda pop. It would be interesting to find out whether that solution also worked for Aboriginal Australian alcoholics.

Although Aboriginal Australians were traditionally described as “black” and some of them even look like one or another of the different “Black” ethnic groups found in Africa and southern India, a high level of genetic homogeneity has often been mentioned. The first chapter of selections from things people have said on the radio show discusses the experience of Aborigine children who may have been removed from their parents’ custody unnecessarily because they looked White. Although such children were made aware that they weren’t “White” in the sense of having British or Western European ancestors, sometimes in what sound like outbursts of abusive rage (“I was told that I was Aboriginal and that I had mud in my veins”), it could be hard for them to define what they were. “I was 36 when I started to think that I was [B]lack.” “It took a long time to get over that thing of black not being a colour of your skin.”

Reconnection with relatives, sometimes through this radio show where these people discussed knowing that their ancestors were Aboriginal but not knowing who their immediate families were, apparently provided moments of culture shock. One informant bought a load of groceries for a long-lost relative “in the morning. In the late afternoon nearly all the food was gone…and she said, to me, ‘…[Y]ou didn’t buy all that food just for me, you bought it for all of us. Once one of us has got the food, we all have the food. Those children out there are just as hungry as my children are’.” 

One difference I notice between Australian and North American cultural history is probably due to timing. The first English and European immigrants to eastern North America had more sophisticated technology than the native people in some ways, but they were unsophisticated about surviving in the North American environment. Learning “the Indians’” ways of hunting, gathering, cultivating food, making some of the gear they used, and even fighting in the Revolutionary War, were keys to the survival of Anglo-Americans. By the time the English began colonizing Australia they were much more sophisticated and apparently didn’t try to learn, much less take over, the more practical aspects of native Australian culture. People in Virginia are sometimes confused about which aspects of our own ancestral culture originated in England, in our part of the world, in the West or somewhere else; we don’t often remember that wolves and buffalo ranged through Virginia even occasionally, that although ‘corn’ was a European word the British and other Europeans had been using it to mean wheat or barley rather than maize, that ‘scalping’ enemies was an old European custom. We think of potatoes as an Irish thing, although they’re as American as tobacco, and of eating the “weed” called plantain or using it in home remedies as a Cherokee thing,  although it’s as English as ale. Australians don’t describe that sort of overlap. Anglo-Australian culture seems almost pure Anglo-culture, and those who describe herding fish into  “catching pens” made of river stones, hunting with “throwing sticks,” making white paint from “one particular mineral we used to call dohna,” are describing strictly Aboriginal, probably strictly local traditions.

As of 1991 the Aboriginal Australians telling their stories had plenty to resent, “and I suppose to a degree that resentment’s still there,” one of them says almost lightly, toward the end of the book…but this was, after all, the land of “G’day mate,” so at least the radio show needed to end on an upbeat. “There has to be that leeway…for the [W]hite people to now come around and understand the Aboriginal way of life…Because we’re not going to disappear…it’s always been the Aboriginal person who’s had to adjust,” but “Now, I think that…the [W]hite people have to come to the party.”

A culture that depends on family ties so extensive, and work obligations so tenuous, that people have time to participate in a multi-family ritual of singing parts of what’s perceived of one song over six months (the song celebrating the entire migration cycle of certain birds), may sound more like a party than like anything serious or sustainable. Still, even that kind of “partying” seems preferable to the alcoholic kind. 

Ros Bowden is still alive so Being Aboriginal is a Fair Trade Book. To buy it here, send $5 per book + $5 per package + $1 per online payment to the appropriate address at the very bottom of the screen; from this we'll send $1 per book to Bowden or a charity of her choice. This is a slim paperback book, of which eight copies would fit into one package easily. I'm not sure that eight copies are available but if they were, the price for all eight in one package would be $45 or $46. We can, of course, ship books by different authors in the same package, so feel free to scroll around and find other books to tuck in beside this one.