Outsiders Inside Arnhem Land

In a couple of recent posts I’ve made passing reference to Andrew McMillan’s book, An Intruder’s Guide to East Arnhem Land (Dufy and Snellgrove, 2001); another recent read might have borne the same title, but was quite a different experience: Balanda: my year in Arnhem Land by Mary Ellen Jordan (Allen & Unwin, 2005).After reading McMillan’s Strict Rules (Hodder and Stoughton, 1988), his account of experiences on the 1986 tour of Aboriginal communities undertaken by Midnight Oil and theWarumpi Band, I had expected An Intruder’s Guide to be another personal exploration of encounters in remote Australia. Indeed, the book’s opening pages picked up almost where Strict Rules had left off, with McMillan recounting his adventures with George Rrurrambu’s family (including his father Charlie Matjuwi and brother Peter Datjin) on Elcho Island. McMillan’s rock ‘n’ roll connections extend to friendship with the Yunupingu members of Yothu Yindi, and the book closes by coming in a sense full circle to the cross-cultural experiments of that group that give McMillan hope for reconciliation. But what happens is between in history, not memoir, and is even more fascinating and informative reading than I had imagined.

The book is divided into four parts, and the first two, “Misfits” and “Missionaries” offer a good overview of the early history of white contact with the indigenous people of Arnhem Land, beginning with the several failed attempts to exploit the presumed natural resources of the country by farming, ranching, or mining. All of these enterprises were doomed, but in the process they set up a sense that they in turn will doom the Yolngu and Bininj.

Parts of this story are well known. The Macassans are a foil to the invading whites, intruders whose presence seems to be not so invasive and more inclined toward exchange of culture. The tensions between the Macassans and the explorers from the south of the continent foretell the even more charged encounters that involve the Japanese, the Yolngu, and the white men. The stories of Wonggu and Tuckiar, Donald Thomson and Fred Gray, all the subjects of many other accounts, come together here in a continuous narrative that may lack the detail of Ted Egan’s A Justice All Their Own: the Caledon Bay and Woodah Island Killings 1932-1933 (Melbourne University Press, 1996) or Donald Thomson in Arnhem Land (newly issued by Melbourne University Press in 2004). However, they are presented in the context of broader histories of contact, or intrusion (to pick up McMillan’s description).

One of the stories that is not so often told, and which Fred Gray also plays a significant part in, is the colonization of Groote Eylandt. Parts of the early incursions are detailed in the book’s second part, but the entire third section is devoted to “The Curse of Groote Eylandt.”

The story of Groote Eylandt in the twentieth century recapitulates many of the themes of misery that resonate throughout indigenous history. The earliest mission settlements were precursors of the Stolen Generations, established to relocate children of mixed indigenous/white heritage away from their native communities on the mainland, with all the logic that informed later programs of the sort. When, later on, the island became strategically important as a refueling station for seaplanes and, later still, with the discovery of vast manganese deposits, the local people were often conscripted to provide labor for which they were only nominally compensated. “Salaries” were not paid to workers, but to a mission-controlled fund that was to be used for their “betterment.” The mining of manganese was destructive of the environment in itself, but also essentially poisonous to those people exposed year after year to the dust it produced. Petrol sniffing became a serious problem early on, reputedly introduced by American armed forces stationed there during the war at mid-century. McMillan’s portrait is grim in the extreme.

In the book’s concluding section McMillan manages to perceive some “Hope for the Future” in his examination of recent history at Yirrkala. He sees a real possibility for meaningful reconciliation, for the fruitful coexistence of two laws, for the redemption of the land, and redemption of the Aboriginal spirit as well. He covers the great events in Yolngu history of recent decades, especially their essential contribution to the cause of land rights through the Gove case and the continuing work of the Yunupingu clan. The cover of the paperbark edition I own shows Nunki Yunupingu, a Gumatj man, standing with his fishing spears, knee-deep in the waters of Melville Bay, silhouetted against the shadowed bulk of the bauxite processing plant at Nhulunbuy. The image expresses the persistence of tradition in the presence of intruders; the author’s long association with Yothu Yindi provides him with even richer images.

Here in the conclusion of his book, McMillan returns to his rock ‘n’ roll roots to find the metaphors of survival and triumph. Starting with the caring, mutually nurturing mother/child (yothu yindi in the Gumatj tongue) relationship, and moving through the band’s black and white, Dhuwa and Yirritja, yidaki and electric guitar dualities and (more importantly) balance, McMillan sees the band as emblematic of all that is both essential and “right” in Yolngu culture and as a signpost to reconciliation and its promises for both peoples.

Mary Ellen Jordan does not arrive at quite so sanguine a conclusion to her adventures during a fourteen-month residence in Maningrida detailed in Balanda: my year in Arnhem Land. Jordan went to Maningrida from Melbourne to work at the Arts Centre; while there her projects included documentation for artworks, arranging photography for a book on weaving, and working on a project to produce dictionaries for some of the indigenous languages spoken in Central Arnhem Land.

She arrived with self-professed idealism, excited at the idea of working with the indigenous people, living side by side with them, and contributing to the preservation and strengthening of their culture. Almost from the first, she found that there were two societies in Maningrida–black and white–but most often their existences ran parallel without quite touching. In some ways both cultures felt alien: the white assortment of “misfits, mercenaries, and missionaries,” as well as the black society where language was the most immediate and daunting barrier to common understanding. Forced to rely on her fellow balandas for orientation, she found that none of them seem to share her idealism and that their general cynicism left her feeling perpetually isolated.

Many of the stories she tells of her indigenous acquaintances ring familiar in depressing ways–the sodden alcoholic weekends after the supply barge arrives, the humbugging, the bashed and broken women. Some are truly disorienting: she describes a terrible fright received when a young Aboriginal man shows up at her apartment one night looking for its previous tenant but then starts asking for sex. Friendlier encounters are often equally confusing: a sweet friendly woman goes off to Darwin and on to the grog; a young trainee suddenly gives up and disappears from the Art Centre just as it looks as though he’s grasping the computer fundamentals she’s agreed to teach him.

The inability to come to terms with what she learns, to find coherence in the welter of impressions, to reconcile her own aspirations with the evidence of indifference all around her eventually wear her down. In the end, Jordan begins to question whether the white presence in Maningrida isn’t ultimately more harmful than helpful. She comes to believe that all the training and education is ultimately for nothing, that the indigenous people have no real interest in assuming the kinds of jobs that white people perform in the community. And she has the acuity to understand why this is perhaps the natural and appropriate response. Her ultimate insight is that the Aboriginal people understand whites much better than we understand them. Speaking of her friend Valerie in the book’s concluding sentences she says, “She knew what the Balandas thought about her, and about themselves: she was onto us.” 

Taken together, An Intruder’s Guide to East Arnhem Land and Balanda make an interesting pair. The former is broad in its historical sweep, the latter intimate, personal, and encompassing little more than a single year. Both authors see good and bad emerging from the contact of the two cultures. The distance that McMillan is able to maintain allows him to see hope in the pattern, while Jordan’s direct, immediate experience leaves her with the messy confusion that is always the stuff of daily life, no matter where or how it is lived. In the end, despite their differences, both books spoke to my own experiences with Aboriginal culture, my mixture of academic and admittedly limited personal experience of it, and it is perhaps for that reason that I found their complementary portraits of life and culture absorbing and thought-provoking.

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