On the Antiquity of the Dreaming, Part 2

In the previous entry I tried to offer the bones of Bruno David’s argument for a relatively recent emergence of the Dreaming in Aboriginal society. The question remains: what does this archaeological research tell us then about the Dreaming itself? David is at pains not to presume to speak for Aboriginal people in this matter. What the Dreaming means to Aboriginal people is theirs to tell us.

Primarily, David wants to present the Dreaming as dynamic. It isn’t that it’s developed recently that is the primary thrust his argument; rather, that it has developed. It hasn’t been static for forty millennia. The scientific data that David can marshall tells a story of change and incidentally of change within the last few thousand years.

Additionally, I think that David makes the point that the notion of the recent emergence of the Dreaming tells us more about our conceptions of Aboriginal society than it does about indigenous understandings. 

The notion that the eternal Dreaming and all that it implies about Aboriginal civilization as the oldest culture on earth is a neat inversion of white notions of Aboriginal identity over the last 200 years. Where once Aborigines were the lowest example of human existence, because they had remained unchanged, undeveloped, and unevolved through the centuries, they have now come to be seen as noble bearers of an immutable standard. They uphold tradition; they are in touch with their roots. They remain steadfast in a world that, for the rest of us, has changed far too fast in the last 200 years.

With his diggings and datings, David is attempting to bolster the recognition that what has been understood as primitive or traditional (and think how loaded the connotations of each of those words are) is not static. So much of the Dreaming’s value in the popular imagination seems to stem from its unchanging nature, its inviolable and unalterable character. We want to cling to this sense of sacred stasis in a way that Aboriginal people themselves do not. Although they may tell whitefellas that the Dreaming doesn’t change, it is clear that for them it does, and that it must in order to accommodate the very presence of whitefellas themselves.

Some evidence of change is taken for granted in the literature, such as the incorporation of significant elements of Macassan contact history in the ritual life of the Yolngu. One reason we may find it easy to accept the presence of Macassan elements in the Dreaming is that those features are in themselves old. Indeed they are older than the history of European contact with the Dreaming. But such changes continue to occur. One of the most accessible discussions of accommodations to the Dreaming I’ve read is in the chapter called “Do Places Appear?” in Francesca Merlan’s book Caging the Rainbow: places, politics and Aborigines in a north Australian town (University of Hawai’i Press, 1998). Sylvie Poirier’s A World of Relationships: itnieraries, dreams and events in the Australian Western Desert (University of Toronto Press, 2005) documents adaptations of the Dreaming around Balgo, while The Politics of Ritual in an Aboriginal Settlement: kinship, gender, and the currency of knowledge (Smithsonian Books, 2000) by Francoise Dussart does the same for women’s Dreamings among the Warlpiri.

But having long condemned Aborigines for failing to evolve, we now somehow feel we must celebrate them for refusing to change. Either attitude is a prison.

(Of course, we impose such prisons on ourselves in the West as well. In the Roman Catholic Church, the belief that the soul of Mary, the mother of Jesus, was created without the stain of original sin (the Immaculate Conception) was not officially promulgated until 1854. In another 19th century development of unalterable truth, the doctrine of Papal Infallibility similarly achieved a new metaphysical status during the Vatican Council of 1869-70. In both cases the underlying beliefs, interpretations, and rituals had developed over centuries prior, but I suspect that if asked today, most Catholics would deny such historicity as essentially irrelevant.)

In many ways, I am comforted to think that the Dreaming may not be 40,000 years old. It has always struck me as slightly ridiculous that paintings like Ice Dreaming by Charlie Tjararu Tjungurraryi could be represented as depicting a sort of racial memory of the Ice Age in Australia, which dates to more than 18,000 years ago. I much prefer the explanation that Fred Myers offers that it refers to ice forming on waterholes in the desert. Neil Murray, guitarist and composer for the Warumpi Band, and a long-time resident of Papunya, tells it this way:

Cold wind blew in from the east today
Woke up shivering in a drizzling rain
Somewhere someone’s done something wrong
Cause cold weather has come

We’re sick and tired now trying to keep warm
Wind blowing through the cracks in my back door
Ice Dreaming creeping down into my bones
Cold weather, won’t you leave us alone

There is an immediacy, a reality to this version of an Ice Dreaming that speaks far more of Aboriginal experience of country, that makes a living thing of the Dreaming, than stories of an ice age.

There’s another reason that David’s thesis doesn’t bother me too much. It puts Aboriginal civilization as we know it on a time scale that seems more akin to that of “Western” civilization. Sumer was flourishing about 4,000 years ago, and we still have some cultural continuity, if only in accounting–many of the ancient clay tablets were inventories of sheep and other valuables. So maybe rock art of the Dreaming can’t compare to the antiquity of the beasts of Altamira and Lascaux, but that particular culture hasn’t survived anywhere near to our times.

By setting the Dreaming on a human scale that more resembles the one that I call my own, David positions the Dreaming as somehow less alien, less “other,” and I think that is ultimately for the good. 

When I first starting looking at Aboriginal art and hearing about the Dreaming, I found it impenetrable and very, very strange. And impossible to get a handle on. I couldn’t figure out what these stories were all about.

Finally I stumbled on a book called Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self. And it unlocked a few doors for me. I still wouldn’t say that I understood Pintupi society, but the book at least showed me the social coherence that lay behind the Dreaming stories. There was a glimmer there.

In the fall of 2003, I learned that Fred Myers was coming to lecture at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection, which is just a few hours drive from our home. In a fit of what I can only describe as hero worship, I decided to reread Pintupi Country, since I knew I was going to have the chance to spend a couple of hours with Fred over lunch on the day after the lecture. When the afternoon was over, I asked Fred to autograph my copy. As he inscribed it, I told him that the first time I read his book, I was struck by how alien these people are, how utterly different, but the second time I read it, I couldn’t help thinking, “These people are just like us.” Fred just smiled and said, “I think that’s a pretty good review.”

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