September Review of Books: Balgo Business

Cruising the new book shelf at the Library a couple of weeks ago, I came across Zohl de Ishtar’s Holding Yawulyu: White Culture and Black Women’s Law (Spinifex Press, 2005) and thought, hullo, what’s this? A big fat book about life in Balgo that I haven’t heard of in the year since its publication? All of which is an indirect way of saying that I approached this book with some suspicion and wariness. De Ishtar is an academic, but not your ordinary anthropologist writing up her fieldwork. She has a long history of activism in Australia, Europe, and the Pacific, working with indigenous women and against nuclear proliferation. On first browse it had a whiff of politics–gender, cultural, racial–about it that made me wonder if everything in it would be seen through a glass, darkly. But in the end I came to feel that, for all its shortcomings, this is an extremely important book that belongs in any collection of contemporary writing on Aboriginal culture, and one that deserves wide readership.

The book’s strength lies in its contrasts, contradiction, and, yes, confusion. Normally I would find such inconsistency maddening (and to be truthful, there were moments when I did). The shifting point of view undermines any ability to believe in the objective truth of its author’s assertions but paradoxically gives the book its emotional strength and immediacy. It recalls Walt Whitman’s call and response: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” I am not sure whether de Ishtar would find my reading sympathetic to her intentions, for she writes with the passion of conviction that brooks no contradiction. That self-certainty is one of the author’s least appealing features, but her insistence on the emotional truth of her perceptions and their importance beyond mere accuracy is at the heart of a perhaps unwittingly honest narrative.

Holding Yawulyu is two chronicles: it is the story of white (kartiya) settlement, domination, and bureaucratic control (as well as bureaucratic chaos) in Balgo country, and of the resistance to that domination by a small group of women elders who form, with de Ishtar’s help, the Kapululangu Women’s Law and Culture Centre (hereafter simply Kapululangu). Kapululangu is one of a series of organizations, including the Desert Women’s Project and Manungka Manungka, created in the past twenty years by Kimberley Aboriginal women to preserve and promote traditional culture. Many of the senior and widowed women artists of Balgo are among its members; among those named by de Ishtar in her acknowledgments are Margaret Bumblebee Napurrula, Bai Bai Napangarti, Tjemma Freda Napanangka, Marti Bridget Mudjidell Napanangka, and Mille Skeen Nampitjin.

The book’s chapters can be grouped into three major sections. In the first of these, de Ishtar positions herself on the ground, literally and figuratively, with the women of Kapululangu. The second is a historical review of the intrusion into the area around Balgo by missionaries and government, the struggles between the two, and the effects they had on the indigenous people. The third returns to the story of de Ishtar’s involvement with and ultimate expulsion from the community, and creates a sometimes agonizing portrait of the political infighting and social dysfunction in the community, tempered by de Ishtar’s defiant defense of the importance of the women’s project. De Ishtar is careful not to claim to speak for the indigenous women but rather insists that her aim is to construct a critique of white culture and its destructive impact on indigenous society. Her reticence on the first point is commendable, although it undermines somewhat her ability to speak to the second. By foregrounding her own position as a white woman in the black community, she ends up unable to speak convincingly for either side of the racial divide. It is this portrait of herself as caught in the middle, in the maelstrom of conflict, though, that I find to be the book’s ultimate and compelling truth.

De Ishtar’s involvement with Balgo began in the 1990s, but the focus of her personal narrative is on the period 1999-2001, when she lived in the tjilimi, or women’s shelter, located on the women’s Law ground at the edge of Balgo’s Top Camp. (Indigenous living space in Balgo is divided into Top Camp, composed mostly of Kukatja, Ngarti, Warlpiri and Pintupi people; and Bottom Camp, where the Wangkatjungka and Djaru reside.) The tjilimi consisted of a compound, enclosed by a wire fence, that contained a large shed holding sleeping quarters, kitchen and office; a smaller shed where sacred ceremonial objects were safely kept; and a hearth fire and ceremonial dancing space. A bough shed (walytja) outside the compound’s fence provided a daytime refuge from the heat. During these two years, de Ishtar lived with the women in the tjilimi, and this physical environment is the emotional center of the story. De Ishtar lovingly details life in the tjilimi, beginning with a superbly realized account of a morning’s activities–waking, cooking, eating, conversing, singing, shopping for food at the community store, visiting relatives, and ultimately returning to the tjilimi, sitting around the campfire, singing, and dancing. By grounding herself in this mundane activity, de Ishtar aims not just to describe the physical and spiritual realities of the women’s lives, but to delineate the differences in culture. One of her most successful sidebars–full of grit and humor–is subtitled “White Culture Shock: The Kartiya Dirt Syndrome.” Her simple but telling thesis in these few pages is that “dirt is a marker of racial difference.” She offers up the white compulsion toward cleanliness as a metaphor for a deeper urge toward order, a horror of chaos and a fear of disease. In contrast, the soil as ochre, as ritual paint, as protection from the elements, is a source of connectedness and healing for the black women. She goes further to demonstrate how garbage becomes a focus of attempts at both subjugation and resistance and a marker of profound differences as people resist the “tidy town” mentality and use trash to define “Aboriginal” space.

…Whites have a propensity to require clean spaces devoid of ‘rubbish’. The rubbish which litters Aboriginal settlements stands out starkly for Whites on their first introduction to Wirrimanu, and directives are frequently given to the local people to clean up their homes and the settlement. Rubbish cleanups are the first civic-minded action of every new Kartiya Council Administrator. …Indigenous residents both consciously and unconsciously used mess/rubbish as markers of their difference from White society. Fully aware of the White association of mess with chaos and loss of control, many local residents deliberately dropped rubbish to tag locations as Indigenous spaces. I have watched a local resident sitting in an Indigenous space newly cleaned by Kartiya staff slowly throw the peel of an orange, piece by piece, onto the floor in quiet, yet obstreperous rebellion to the restrictions being imposed on her and her kin. … ‘Mess’ is a statement of resistance to White hegemony (pp. 63-66).

Having set the scene with this very personal introduction, de Ishtar removes herself from view and devotes the next chapters Balgo’s “white history,” which she divides into two eras. The first is the mission era, beginning with the arrival of the Pallottines in 1939. The second, the bureaucratic era, was conceived in a “coup” by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in November 1983 that wrested administrative power for the Balgo Mission from Father Hevern and instituted control by Canberra. 

The arc of the story is familiar. The missionaries brought with their zeal for christianizing a genuine concern for the physical well-being of the indigenous people. The settlement became a buffer against the rigors of life in the desert as the missionaries fostered attempts to provide reliable supplies of food and water through farming, ranching, and bores. Although over the decades the Church became firmly entrenched in the culture of Balgo, especially through its efforts to educate the children, adults remained resistant to the call to conversion. Ironically (or significantly?), the first adult baptisms occurred only in the 80s as official control of the settlement was transferred out of the hands of the religious.

The story of the next twenty years at Balgo is told as that of the succession of five pseudonymous holders of the post of Wirrimanu Aboriginal Council Administrator: Adams, Butlin, Chambers, Dickens, and Edwards. Previous to this point, de Ishtar had named names. I presume there are good legal reasons for changing the names here (and at least one of those reasons becomes clear later in the story), but in a section that purports to be history, the effect of the masquerade was to make me begin to question the narrative. Up until this point I was grateful to have the details of the region’s history brought together and presented as such; now I began to wonder about the objectivity or at least the selectivity of the story, especially as the years went on into a period when de Ishtar herself was present in the community and affected by the endlessly inept, occasionally corrupt, and inevitably harmful effects of government administration on the people of Balgo.

In the third section of the book de Ishtar tells the story of the indigenous women’s efforts to preserve their heritage, tracing the history of the Desert Women’s Project, Manungka Manungka, and finally Kapululangu. The three initiatives can be regarded as different manifestations of the same urge, with similar agendas and activities associated with them. They each aimed to bring together indigenous women in an environment that fostered sharing and mutual support. Sometimes this meant women from the group of communities clustered around Balgo; sometimes it was national or international in scope. In the case of Kapululangu, de Ishtar’s role was often administrative: she worked the computer, wrote the grant applications, and acted as guide and “road manager” for the tours during which the Kapululangu elders danced for audiences around Australia and the world. This was living culture. The women were engaged in traditional activities that remained meaningful to them, and the organizations allowed them a structure within the colonial world whereby they could find support in transmitting their culture to a younger generation, while at the same time raising awareness in communities, black and white, outside their own. 

The concept of “living culture” is crucial to de Ishtar, and in a chapter entitled “Living Culture — The Cultural Imperative” she takes on other expressions of indigenous culture. It is here, I must admit, that I began to develop serious criticisms of her methods and arguments. In this chapter a purist and strident voice begins to take over, one which questions embodiments of women’s culture other than those found in the tjilimi. In stressing the orality and the performative quality of the lived and living culture, de Ishtar rails against “the frozen word” and “the invasion of acrylics.” For the author, inscribing cultural traditions on the page rather than in the sand or capturing them on painted canvas is a form of betrayal of the essence of the Law. Shorn of their context, the stories are thus encapsulated and commodified, and in being commodified are removed from the authentic realm into a inert world designed for consumption by kartiya. Critical of the Culture Industry (de Ishtar’s capitalization), she has little but scorn for Warlayirti Artists, though she heaps far greater abuse on the Warlayirti Culture Centre, which she sees as nothing more than an Aboriginal theme park for tourists who come to Balgo eager to take home a desiccated slice of a dismembered tradition. It is a deal made with the devil.

Yet while Indigenous artists/hosts receive some financial and cultural benefit, tourism’s greatest profit goes to entrepreneurs, art brokers, restauranteurs, and customers … who together make up the Culture Industry.

The Culture Industry’s fiscal emphasis is tying Indigenous cultural expression to economic interests within the rubric of tourism. Many Indigenous people are compelled to engage in the industry even when this may be to the detriment of their cultural integrity because, as Marcia Langton notes, “in many communities, the production and sale of arts and crafts constitute the only private sector economic activity and the only goods exported.” (p.219).

My first argument with de Ishtar at this point is with the notion of compulsion. Many pages earlier, de Ishtar wrote, “This book is not a call to traditionalism, an attempt to contain Indigenous peoples with some invented stasis of imagined heritage” (p. 35). But to take the stance that by participating in the colonialist economy indigenous people are complicit in their own defeat strikes me as attempt to ignore historical fact in favor of a romantic return to traditionalism. Granted, had the indigenes not been colonized in a particularly brutal manner, there might be no need to reach out to the colonizers, to attempt dialog, and to co-opt the colonialist means of production for both cultural and economic survival. But the hard hand has been dealt and it can not be wished away; it begs for a response.

My second argument is with the manner in which she deploys academic literature to support her arguments. In this case it is her invocation of Marcia Langton in a manner such that a casual reading might suggest that Langton supports de Ishtar’s contention about the self-defeating nature of participation in private sector economic activity. But instead, the quotation from Langton comes from an essay entitled “Valuing Australia’s Cultural Industries,” published in a work Langton edited which is called in turn Valuing Cultures: Recognizing Indigenous Culture as a Valued Part of Australian Heritage. No-one familiar with Langton’s writings would assume that she is hostile to the notion of Aboriginal people adopting the technologies of the settlers; even more so, Langton has argued for the importance of indigenous and non-indigenous people working together to promote indigenous cultural values and expressions and engaging with the settler economy.

In the next chapter, “White Culture and Black Women’s Law,” we reach the denouement of the book’s narrative in a startling confrontation as de Ishtar returns from a tour of Canada and Hawaii with six of the Kapululangu women to find the tjilimi deserted. Sensing something terribly wrong, she proceeds to the Art Centre where she is handed a note instructing her to leave Balgo permanently within two days. Worse, the letter was signed by most of the women with whom de Ishtar had lived at the tjilimi.

Her shock and sorrow and outrage at this turn of events make hard reading. De Ishtar, to put it as neutrally as possible, had run afoul of local politics. She had criticized the white Council Administrator, Mr. Edwards of the abecedarian run of managers whose story formed much of the chapter on “Wirrimanu’s White History” a hundred pages earlier in the book. In her absence, Edwards had formed alliances with some of the middle-aged, mission-educated men in the community, who in turn had used their influence to pressure the Kapululangu women into exiling de Ishtar. It was at this point that I began to realize how absent men are from much of this narrative, except as representatives of larger and generally negative forces: violence, missionizing, politics, drunkenness, bureaucracy. Similarly, she glosses over tensions between the Top and Bottom Camps. Although her first impulse is to fight back against these forces, to hold on to what she has worked so hard for over the preceding two years, de Ishtar quickly comes to realize that her effectiveness in the community is over, and she leaves.

The remainder of the book chronicles further bureaucratic entanglements and a string of broken promises that spell the end of the Kapululangu Women’s Law and Culture Centre as de Ishtar knew it. Although she was able to return to Balgo in 2004, the deaths of many of the women with whom she had lived further devastated her connections. In the end, this is a book about loss, not only the cultural loss suffered by indigenous Australians, but also the author’s personal loss.

Early in the book de Ishtar claims a right of subjectivity, and in doing so she demands recognition and sanction of a personal perspective uncommon to anthropological or sociological studies of indigenous people. Or perhaps de Ishtar would say that she is simply foregrounding that subjective point of view that any outsider necessarily brings to such study, but rarely acknowledges. I am certain that there are those among my readers who have some knowledge of the events described in Holding Yawulyu and whose perspectives may differ significantly from de Ishtar’s. (I would welcome hearing from those readers, and will treat any information received with appropriate confidentiality.) As I said earlier, I found the book maddening at times, confused and confusing at others. But I stand by my initial assessment of it as an important work that deserves critical discussion. 

Unlike so many memoirs written by kartiya who have lived in Aboriginal communities, this story does not founder on the perceived failure of indigenous people to come to grips with colonialism or with settler culture. Nor does it totally romanticize the indigenous resistance. Instead, it acknowledges the “mess” that often defines the border between the two cultures. If the book does not convince me that “until we White people truly challenge the negative aspects of our culture we will continue to violate Indigenous lives” or that “only when we can eradicate our racism will we be able to celebrate that which is honourable within White culture” (p. xxiii), I do not complain. While there is indeed much malaise in here that can be attributed to racism, there is much that can also be attributed to the human condition of parties who have conflicting priorities and aspirations. I remember reading once (but forget where) that we are all racist; what matters is what we do about it. De Ishtar takes aim at large targets–racism, sexism, colonialism–but the complexity of her experience and the importance of the interpersonal relationships within the community that she documents suggest that a finer degree of understanding will be called for in order to achieve solutions.

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