Singing the Land, Signing the Land

A portfolio of exhibits

Some of the material in this Introduction is taken from David Turnbull, The Aboriginal Experience (Nature and human nature), Deakin University, Geelong, Vic., 1982.

Finding methods for using the knowledge and belief systems of different cultures in an enterprise of mutual benefit is not simple. Firstly, if we are to avoid exploitation of other communities' intellectual property we must engage in participatory research where peoples of different intellectual traditions render mutual respect and treat the endeavour as a partnership of equality. Secondly, unlike some others, the Western intellectual tradition does not have established research methods whereby non-Western modes of knowledge production are recognised. Relevant information is embedded in many Western literatures treating issues linguistic, anthropological, historical, technological, cosmological, scientific, religious, political, moral and so on. Locating it is easy but rendering it into a form useful in participatory research across the barriers of cultural tradition is less easy.

At the highest level of generality it is possible to view all systems of knowledge as part of humanity's attempt to answer the two basic problems of existence: survival and meaning. When such systems are seen as answers to the question 'How to survive?', explanations tend to be functionalist and adaptive. That is to say, they concern themselves with success in coming to grips with the environment. When knowledge systems are seen as answers to the question 'Why survive?', explanations are concerned with the construction of meanings, purposes and values. But can these two questions, how and why, really be so nicely separated?

Cutting across these two broad approaches in Western traditions are a variety of explanations which emphasise different aspects of the human experience as the primary determinants of knowledge systems. For example, according to Marx, 'The mode of production of material life condition, the social, political and intellectual life process in general' (Karl Marx & Frederick Engels, Selected works, vol. I, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1950, p. 329), while according to Benjamin Lee Whorf, 'the grammar ... of each language is ... the shaper of ideas, the program and guide for the individual's mental activity' (B. L. Whorf, 'Science and linguistics', in]. B. Carroll (ed.), Language, thought and reality: selected writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1956, p.2l2). Neither of these quotations fairly represents the richness of Marx's or Whorf’s analyses, but they do point to a tradition of trying to identify the factors that determine human knowledge systems. Thus, for Marx, the kind of philosophy, jurisprudence, political theory and aesthetics typical of any epoch reflects the dominant socio-economic conditions of that epoch. For Whorf, the grammar of Indo-Aryan languages, for example, constrains the users of those languages to think in a very different way from the users of the Finno-Ugaritic languages.

Accounts of knowledge systems and belief systems generally involve complex theoretical explanations. One way to identify hidden assumptions, or to locate the intellectual position of a particular account, is to identify any existential determinants of knowledge or belief to which allusions are made. There is no definitive list of such determinants; not all of them will necessarily be effective in a given situation, and many of them will interact. The following are some of the factors investigated by various theorists:

Economic – modes and relations of production

Social – social structure, classes, groups

Demographic – population density and distribution

Biological – brain structures and capacities, physiological capacities

Environmental/Ecological – climate, food supply, terrain, relations among species

Technological – tools, devices, machines, energy harnessing

Linguistic – anguage structure and categories of thought

Religious/mythological/metaphysical – nature and function of belief.

Some historians have created great arbitrary periods in human history, for example, the 'Stone Age' and the 'Bronze Age'. Such categories are based almost entirely on technology and thus may grossly distort and underestimate societies so characterised, especially when they are applied to 20th·century societies. Another general historical classification portrays humankind as having experienced two major revolutions-the 'neolithic' (or 'agricultural') and the 'industrial'. On this account all societies can be classified as 'hunter-gatherer', 'agricultural' or 'industrial', This classification system is superior insofar as it incorporates elements of nearly all the determinants in the list above; yet, it too implies a crudely progressivist interpretation of human history which does not do justice to many elements of cultural formation.

Worst of all, many analysts have attempted to divide 20th-century societies into the 'primitive' and the 'modern'. Such simplistic dichotomies betray an uneasy, if unintentional, lapse into racist terminology, which has no place in scholarship. In this study we seek simply to understand how the two dominant Australian cultures order their knowledge traditions.

Of course, these two cultures are themselves of great heterogeneity. Non-Aboriginal Australian society was first British, then with the inflow of a small, but significant, number of people from other European and non-European cultures it has now become more truly 'multicultural'. In referring to this diverse non-Aboriginal Australian culture we have adopted the terms 'Western' and 'European', having considered and rejected the generic Yolngu term Balanda, implying 'non-Aborigine'. While this term conveys our meaning quite precisely, we considered it insufficiently well-known to be useful to us. By adopting the terms 'Western' and 'European', we in no way wish to diminish the contribution of Asian or other non-Western, non-European Australians. Whenever we wish to refer to the original inhabitants of Australia, we have used the term 'Aborigine/s'; whenever possible, we use the specific term used by the people themselves, for example 'Yolngu'.

Aboriginal society is also diverse, including hundreds of distinct groups, languages, cultural traditions and habitats. In this book we address general questions relating to Aboriginal knowledge, but focus principally on just one people, the Yolngu of Arnhemland. Extrapolations from the evidence of one particular group should always be treated with care. Furthermore, it has frequently been assumed that Aboriginal societies have inherited a static Set of cultural behaviours which existed before British colonisation of Australia. Such assumptions are ill-founded. There is no reason to doubt that Aboriginal societies, like all cultures, were in a continuous state of development throughout their histories.