Fred Myers and David Betz on the Air

Saturday afternoon I tuned my web browser to KWMR in West Marin (outside of San Francisco) to listen to Fred Myers and David Betz be interviewed by Ellen Shehadeh on “all things aboriginal.” My first reaction was one of an hour-long cringe, but over the course of the day, thinking it over, I’ve come to realize how snobbish that reaction was, and what a really good introduction to Aboriginal culture David and Fred supplied in response to questions that addressed what most Americans are likely to know about Aborigines: wichetty grubs, Rabbit-Proof Fence, didjeridus, and Mutant Message Down Under. As I listened, it became clear to me just how difficult is is to convey to anyone just what Aboriginal culture comprises in 2006. So the questions were pretty basic, but the answers were pretty amazing for what they packed in to less than an hour’s worth of instruction. Sometimes, they were downright eloquent. Here are some of the questions asked and highlights of the answers.Where did Aboriginal people and their languages come from?

Fred’s first answer was that Aboriginal people will tell you that they come from spirits left behind by the Ancestors. Scientists will tell you that they pretty much don’t know, apart from a common human origin in Africa. The only people with remotely similar DNA live in Papua New Guinea, but the populations have been isolated for so long that most common traces are swimming in the deep end of the gene pool by now. Fred subtly but clearly pointed out that there’s no discernible connection to African peoples at this point in time–something that I’m sure Americans are often mistaken about.

What is the traditional social structure?

Again, Fred fielded this one, and gave the best 30-second synopsis of Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self possible, stressing the patterns of dispersion and aggregation in the Desert, exogamy, the importance of creating connections through travel histories, religious ties, and marriage exchange. He spoke about the nature of foraging, and made the important point that until about fifteen years ago there was little known about women’s business, and that the notion that men dominated Aboriginal social structures thoroughly was an artifact of the limits of anthropological study rather than of the culture itself.

Have you ever participated in secret/sacred religious ceremonies?

David said that he had never been privy to secret/sacred ritual, but that he had experienced much ceremonial type behavior, and praised its beauty in manifesting environmental and spiritual relations, and spoke of ceremonies as integrating the people into the environment and as a means of giving back to the natural world. He commented on how ceremonies help to keep natural cycles moving, insuring rainfall and other seasonal events. Fred took up this theme and pointed out that these ceremonies are not magical in the sense that indigenous believe believe that the world will cease to function if the ceremonies are not completed. He said rather, and I thought this was a wonderful statement, that they represent man’s part in the orchestra of the world.

What about those odd foods that Aboriginal people eat?

David confessed to having enjoyed honey ants and dugong flippers, kangaroo tails and bush yams, and spoke about how the older people in general enjoy the chance to get away from Western staples and reconnect with the old ways through bush tucker. He suggested a link back to the theme of ceremony: that these things are all part of a deep connection to the land that nourishes in many ways. Fred elaborated on the changes in diet brought about by contact, especially the introduction of refined sugar and the negative effects it has had on people’s health. He gave a lovely example of a story about native honey that he found illustrated in a painting by Michael Nelson Jagamara in which the glistening surface of the painted design recalls the light of dawn shining on the dew lying on a honeysuckle, which is scooped up and drunk before the sun gets high. It’s an example of what David was talking about: the combination of poetry and daily life.

What about Mutant Message Down Under? Is it really true?

Both men displayed remarkable tact in answering this one. David said it would be a nice parable if it weren’t represented as a true story, and skewered Morgan for implying, in the preface to the mass-market edition (when the publishers demanded she write a preface indicating that it was not a true story) that the discerning reader would recognize it as a true story, despite the forced disavowal of its veracity. He characterized it as “new age wishful thinking” and “cocktail party chatter” for people who thought that Aborigines should be taking care of Americans. Ellen seemed a little taken aback by his judgment, and laughed when Fred said “Oh, I’d probably have worse things to say about it.” Picking up on David’s final remark that the book fails because it doesn’t do justice to the very hard life of indigenous people, Fred addressed the problems of people who are a minority in a state dominated by another culture, and how important it is for indigenous people to control representations of themselves. He noted that Aboriginal people were very incensed by the book, and that although it may have struck a chord in the United States, it struck a very different chord in Australia.

What about this very confusing concept known as the Dreaming?

Davis gave a brief and concise history of the concept, explaining it finally as a sort of alternate reality that happens along side normal waking reality. Fred noted that the English term, which is a hybrid of many concepts and many words among many different Aboriginal groups, never quite captures all that is meant by it. No matter how hard we try to define or translate it, we’re always leaving a part of it out. David agreed, noting that in our compartmentalized Western society where art, drama, music, religion, and science are each segments of reality to us, the Dreaming offers all these things at once, expressed in what he described as a “multimedia performance art.” Fred went on to say how Aboriginal people will often explain something as “from the Dreaming,” noting that precedent and creativity lie with the Dreaming and not with human agency. Aboriginal people will assert that these “multimedia” forms are not made by humans, but come from the Dreaming. While as an anthropologist he believes that all these forms are ultimately human creations, he stressed that in Aboriginal society, while there are undeniably extremely creative individuals, the emphasis is not on individual creativity so much as it is on execution and the ability to carry out these manifestations of the Dreaming.

And what about the Stolen Generations and the story that was told in Rabbit-Proof Fence?

Again, Fred’s response to the question was nuanced and focused on the personal effects of the politics. He discussed the varying policies of the state governments, and the variety of motives for the removals. Noting that it emerged as a huge problems in the 90s, he said that many Aboriginal people feel that the removals are at the roots of pathologies that have resulted from the experience of terrible loss at an early age and the unanswered questions people have about why their mothers gave them away. This “fundamental trauma at infancy” has resulted in injuries to trust, to the ability to relate to others, and to hope.

David used the change in Australian policy in the 60s, and the granting of citizenship to indigenous people along with the stirrings of self-determination as a bridge to a discussion of art, the contemporary emergence of which he noted as being related to the change in self-perception brought about by changes in law and policy at that time. He spoke of the specificity of place, and said that the more that he knows about the paintings, the more he can feel the singing and dancing that lies behind them. Fred gave a very concise review of the early history at Papunya, Bardon’s influence, and the “explosion” that occurred when the first painting men realized that people were interested in learning more about their culture. He spoke briefly as well about the differing traditions that have survived in the north, and about the hybrid of western art and politics that characterizes the work of artists from urban areas where traditional culture had all but been destroyed by the end of the 20th century.

Next came a musical interlude, with David Betz offering “Dingo Howling for its Mate” on the didjeridu, much to the amazement and delight of the host.

And finally, what of art and money?

David spoke of the contradictions and complications of a traditional, egalitarian society, where sharing is the norm and individual recognition is not, in the face of the Western world of art. He explained how the money filters down through extended families, how Paddy Sims is supporting thirty to forty people with his painting, and how that helps, in David’s view, to keep the old man alive. But David also pointed out that large amounts of money flowing in affect Aboriginal people in the same ways that they would affect most everyone. “Easy” money allows the communities to buy vehicles that die in a few weeks time, and encourages behaviors that wouldn’t have been allowed before the boom, behaviors that are not always healthy. But the simple fact remains that the art is the only basis for an economy (in Western, capitalist terms) in these communities.

Fred closed out the hour by stating that the best artwork comes out the the community art organizations, run by outsiders savvy in the ways of the white marketplaces, but owned by the artists themselves. In these cases, the artists have the most important say in how things work in the communities. While this is generally very positive, when there are large amounts of money involved, artists will go into Alice Springs and paint for people who don’t necessarily have their best intersts at heart. He noted the claims that artists have been locked up sometimes and forced to paint, and concluded that things work best in the communities where the work is built around a strong cultural focus.

And that was the hour. I was reminded of my own first visit to Alice Springs, when chance got us on a small tour through the Western Macdonnells with a guide who had a rich and deep knowledge of local history, black and white, and who spoke frankly and plainly, and ignited an interest that has never wavered since then. Looking back, perhaps much of his commentary was elementary, but it gave me an orientation, piqued my curiosity, and planted the seeds of respect. I think KWMR was able to pull off something similar in only an hour, and Eleen Shehadeh deserves to be congratulated for that.


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