October Books: Aboriginal Biography

I’ve been traveling so much in the last month that I feel like I’m way behind in my writing…and to an extent in reading too. But in early in October I was inspired by Nicolas Rothwell’s review in The Australian of Liam Campbell’s new book, Darby: one hundred years of life in a changing culture, (ABC Books, 2006) to spend some time reading and thinking about the genre of biography.

As usual, Rothwell nailed the central issue right away: biography is a culturally defined phenomenon. In the modern West, biography is often subordinate to another discipline, frequently that of history. We hope that the lives of distinguished men will help us to understand how they influenced events that in turn have influenced nations or cities. In a slightly different manner, we hope that biographies of great artists like Mozart and Joyce will illuminate their symphonies and novels. Among the earliest examples in the Western canon, Plutarch’s Lives attempted to illuminate character through chronology and anecdote, with moral instruction as the ultimate goal. 

How then does one create Aboriginal Australian biography? In a society where knowledge of genealogy is shallow, going back just a few generations, and where following up the Dreaming and preserving through one’s actions not an individual achievement but a renewal of what has happened before, does our Western approach to the events of a life stand a chance of being meaningful? I’m reminded of an anecdote Eric Michaels told about making video among the Warlpiri–that the camera may be set to gaze at what looks like empty landscape: what is revealed in the stillness of the video image is the land and thus its story, the Dreaming that occurred there and that is known in the mind of the viewer but presented in a way that appears mute to a Western ear. And I wondered, how does one approach the life story of a man who might point to a tree in the desert and say, “That Tjakamarra, my grandfather”? (I touched on some of these issues in an earlier post in which I discussed an Aboriginal autobiography, Dick Roughsey’s Moon and Rainbow.)

With these questions in mind, I decided to begin with Darby, and then take up a similar and recent life of another elder of the Central Desert, Wenten Rubuntja, as told in Jenny Green’s collaborative work The Town Grew Up Dancing: the life and art of Wenten Rubuntja (Jukurrpa/IAD Press, 2002). And taking another cue from Rothwell’s review, I went back in time a ways to reread W. E. H. Stanner’s portrait of “Durmugam: a Nangiomeri,” written in 1959 and reprinted in White Man Got No Dreaming: essays 1938-1973(Australian National University Press, 1979). What I discovered is that despite the differing ways in which each author has attempted to capture the essence or the sprit of their subject’s life, in the end what emerges is a portrait of how that life is shaped by the contact with non-indigenous society. These are biographies that oscillate between Plutarchian character studies and social history.

Liam Campbell seemed to have been highly aware of the tension between indigenous and whitefella storytelling in composing his biography of Darby Jampijinpa Ross, and doesn’t shy away from the relevance of social history to Darby’s lived experience: it’s right there in the subtitle of the book, “one hundred years of life in a changing culture.” His focus, though, is laudably on the Aboriginal culture and the life of a man within that culture as it encounters and adapts to the presence of Europeans in Central Australia.

He tackles the problem of two-way living in part through the book’s organization. After a brief introduction to the “oldest man in Australia,” the first three of the book’s thematically organized chapters focus on the Jukurrpa, on traditional Warlpiri ways of life, and on the importance of painting and ceremony. The next three chapters deal with the impact of missionaries, of government workers and scientists, and of the cattle industry on the Warlpiri and chart Darby’s responses to those intrusions. The chapters on missions and pastoralism are particularly effective in revealing the syncretic character of Darby’s life. The former details the ways in which Darby participated in the religious quest to imbue life with meaning by integrating the indigenous and Christian traditions, seen most remarkably perhaps in the vision of Jesus clad in a yellow jumper, appearing in the skies over Yuendumu and searing Darby with lightning (Darby was a traditional rainmaker), to which Darby attributed his extraordinarily long life. The latter chapter, on Darby’s experiences as a drover, reads almost like a Dreaming journey of Darby’s country as he follows the cattle trails through Central Australia. This chapter in particular makes extensive use of first-person narration by Darby, allowing us to hear the stories in his own voice.

The seventh chapter tells the story and the aftermath of the Coniston Massacre in 1928, perhaps the key event in Warlpiri history of the 20th century. Although Darby was not directly involved in the events surrounding the Massacre, he has been one of bearers of the Warlpiri oral histories of them, and it is in this chapter that the balance of Warlpiri and European history is made manifest through Darby’s voice.

The final chapter, “The Good Old Days,” takes us full circle back to Darby’s youth and allows the indigenous voice to have the final word in the story. The events related here are chiefly those of Darby’s youth, of the time before he was initiated and became a man, and so in some ways (and especially through the reliance again on first-person narration) this ultimate chapter in itself blends the essential Western biographical technique of reconstructing a life chronologically with an indigenous selection of significant moments outside the scope of Western culture.

A final note, to step outside the concerns of biography for a moment, about the production values of the book. Rothwell notes that the volume is “replete with maps, archival images and new photos, though these last are gravely vitiated by the effects of digital manipulation, with the result that the sober beauty of the desert landscape around Yuendumu is often obscured.” To be honest, I felt that relatively few of the bounty of photographs in the book showed extensive digital manipulation–although looking back with Rothwell’s complaint in mind, his point is much clearer to me than when I originally read the book. But for my part, I won’t quibble with the artistic license that has been taken with these landscapes and portraits. I think that the retooling of these images offers an atmospheric enhancement of the story, though admittedly in some cases at the expense of clarity in depicting the landscape. Like the numerous and sometimes extensive sidebars entitled “Visitors” that share the pages of each chapter with the narrative, they offer a different kind of richness to the text. Both the photographs (of all types and vintages) and the sidebars are well integrated into the text, laid out in such a manner that they never force the reader to lose his place or interrupt his flow. For this kind of subliminal attention to the layout of the physical volume, I offer commendations to the editors.

In comparison to Darby, I found The Town Grew Up Dancing to be a much less successful attempt at melding the indigenous and non-indigenous forms of story-telling. This may come from the simple fact that for much of his life, Wenten Rubuntja was far more actively involved with negotiating the white man’s world than Darby Ross ever was, and his ties to the land, and to the Arrernte people around Alice Springs less firmly anchored than Darby’s among the Warlpiri. This in itself may simply reflect the longer and greater concentration of white influence in the Alice Springs area.

One of the ways in which the author’s attempt to provide a multi-faceted portrait of Wenten’s life is through the use of Arrernte and English quotations, but I found the whole exercise more frustrating than helpful. There are three intertwined narrative voices. The first of these is Jenny Green’s, in which she either relates parts of Wenten’s life or provides contextual information designed to help the reader understand what is being said in the other narratives. These other narratives are parallel Arrernte and English texts, usually in Wenten’s voice, but occasionally reproducing stories from his friends and relatives. 

The problem is partly typographical and partly editorial. Green’s texts are presented in standard typography. The first-person narratives by Wenten (and others) are produced in a lighter typeface. The Arrernte usually comes first, in italics, followed by the English translation, in regular Times Roman, but lighter, and harder to scan, than Green’s texts. Wenten’s Arrernte remarks often begin with a sentence or in Aboriginal English, and then in mid-stream switch to Arrernte. But not all of Wenten’s remarks are presented bilingually, and so I found my eye constantly bouncing around the page. All of this might have been less frustrating had there been some coherence to the stories, but frequently the texts are fragmentary in themselves. For example, in the chapter “Growing Up in Alice Springs” there’s a section entitled “Bush Foods.” The first paragraph talks about different kinds of bush foods, and is followed by a bilingual reminiscence about baby Wenten’s crooked feet, another bilingual entry on the bush tucker Wenten remembers eating, then descriptions of Wenten’s childhood nicknames, bush medicine, the movement of the family around the bush, camps in the Alice area, and finally a vignette of children pestering drinkers. Then, without a segue, the next subhead introduces “Ceremonies in the Town Area.” 

Similarly, the chapter on Christianity begins with a history of missions in the Alice Springs area, followed by Wenten’s reminiscences of childhood religious instruction in the 1930s and then–snap!– it’s 1986 and Pope John Paul II is in town receiving a painting from Wenten. The lack of coherence made me wonder exactly what I was supposed to be taking away from all this.

The situation improves in the book’s later chapters that deal with Wenten’s work with the Central Land Council and his political organizing, but even here the fragmentation is frustrating. A long section on land rights, including a moving account of T. G. H. Strehlow’s attack on Wenten’s leadership, unexpectedly morphs into a vignette about Wenten’s sudden need to buy a hat in which to meet the Queen. Then the chapter abruptly closes with a discussion of the role of paintings in indigenous political maneuverings, in which Wenten tells the story of the Central Desert portion of the Barunga Statement. But the connection between this important work and the political organizing is left undeveloped, and the significance of cooperation with the Yolngu is not even glossed.

All of this is doubly unfortunate in that the major theme of the book is Wenten’s achievement in bridging two laws, and in fusing two traditions into a politically significant career. It was obviously written with respect and affection. I just wish that the attempts to portray his multi-faceted achievements had in themselves achieved coherence.

Still, both biographies attempt to tell their stories with self-awareness of the difficulties of being true to their subjects’ cultures while accessible and meaningful to a Western audience. I don’t know if it would be fair or accurate to call them “post-Modernist” biographies, but they certainly feel quite different from earlier attempts, like Joyce Batty’sNamatjira: wanderer between two worlds (Hodder & Stoughton, 1963), which lies squarely in the traditional “great man” school of biography. Despite Batty’s admiration for and sympathy with her subject, her perspective on the events of his life is unremittingly European in its values and assumptions. It was with interest and curiosity then that I the turned to a third of Rothwell’s examples, roughly contemporaneous with Batty’s book, Stanner’s “Durmugam: a Nangiomeri.” 

Stanner’s essay, written in 1959 and originally published in an anthology edited by Joseph B. Casagrande, In the Company of Men: Twenty Portraits by Anthropologists (Harper and Row, 1960) is part biography, part anthropological investigation, and part memoir. Stanner wrote it based on nearly thirty years of intermittent contact with his subject. It is a moving tribute by the great anthropologist to a man he perceived as emblematic of the Aboriginal struggle to adapt to the destruction of Aboriginal society in the face of increasing contact with outsiders. Stanner first met Durmugam in 1932 while doing research along the Daly River. With characteristic vividness, Stanner describes their early encounters, first during a pitched spear-throwing battle between opposing factions (think of the makarrata in Ten Canoes) and later during an initiation ceremony. Stanner is immediately impressed by Durmugam’s physical prowess and by the nobility of his manner. Over the course of Stanner’s expedition, he and Durmugam became confidantes of sorts, and Stanner grew to understand not only the recent history of the clans inhabiting the Daly in the 1930s, but also the details of Durmugam’s life, which included, somewhat to Stanner’s apparent consternation, the killings of several other Aboriginal men.

The two narratives, of the clans and of the man, are inextricably intertwined in Stanner’s telling. The intrusion of Europeans and Chinese, the subsequent depopulation of the country, the drift towards settlements and the attractions of manufactured goods, and finally the consequent loss of traditional structures, values, and patterns of life find their focus in the lens of Durmugam’s biography. What sets Durmugam apart in Stanner’s view is his adherence through it all to the principles of traditional life, and his attempt to articulate from those principles a strategy that is equal parts adaptation, survival, and steadfastness. Orphaned young, and removed from his traditional country, Durmugam eventually becomes a ritual leader in the kunapipi ceremonies that flourished in Arnhem Land in the middle of the 20th century and represented a temporary resurgence of ritual after the arrival of Christians. Living in the midst of an invasive culture that is eroding the traditional way of life, Durmugam maintains a dignity and a moral compass that distinguishes him from most of his fellows.

It is thus all the more poignant and equally indicative of the problems of social decay when, upon returning to the Daly in the 1950s, Stanner encounters his friend grown old and isolated. The kunapipi had ceased to be performed. Durmugam’s youngest wife had run away with his first wife’s son, another wife had been sexually abused, and a daughter had been abducted, along with her child, by a long-time friend. Although Durmugam still retained his dignity and stoicism in Stanner’s eyes, it is clear that he had also taken on a new kind of symbolic stature, that of the ultimate degradation of traditional culture. Stanner’s story ends with Durmugam’s death from stomach cancer in a Darwin hospital, a last-minute baptism, and a Christian burial. Stanner contrasts this conclusion with a description of a traditional mortuary ceremony Durmugam had taken part in two decades earlier. So affective is Stanner’s conclusion that it is nearly impossible not to mourn just the warrior brought low, but the entire civilization that produced him.

In the course of doing some background research on Stanner’s essay, I came across an incisive examination of it by Inga Clendinnen entitled “The Power to Frustrate Good Intentions: or, the revenge of the Aborigines,” published in the journal Common Knowledge (vol. 11, no. 3, 2005, pp. 410-431). I’ve only lately come to know and appreciate Clendinnen’s work, thanks to my friend Jonathan Shaw, and her respect for Stanner’s acuity made me eager to read what she had to say. It is a remarkable piece of analysis, based on the insight that in this essay the normally “nuanced and unsentimental understanding of the complexities of cultural change” that distinguishes Stanner’s contributions to the anthropology of indigenous Australian cultures appears to break down in his retelling of Durmugam’s life. She notes the many points of contradiction in Stanner’s portrait of Durmugam, for example, of the noble and aloof traditionalist who yet seeks Stanner’s intervention to restore his lost honor and punish those who have disgraced him. She comes to an important conclusion that is relevant to all biographical endeavor, but in particular to the sort of cross-cultural explorations conducted in the books I’ve looked at here: “Some preliminary attribution of character is essential if we are to establish terms of engagement with a stranger, yet the attribution can only come out of our own preexisting cultural repertoire (p. 426).” 

Despite this conundrum, Clendinnen retains her admiration for Stanner’s curiosity and for the passion that he brought to his investigations.

Stanner wrote to an old student about the Durmugam essay: “I wrote it in, and with a passion. He was such a man, I thought I would like to made the reading world see and feel him as I did.” And he succeeded. We “see and feel” Durmugam because Stanner, lifting him free from the obscuring fog of generalities about “Aborigines,” has obliged us to look. But we need not “see and feel him” just as Stanner does. I found my “Durmugam” in Stanner’s writings, and my “Stanner” too. I also learned that my understanding of both men was defective–that I needed to learn and think more about each. This is a looping path toward enlightenment, and possibly an endless one, but it is the surest one we have (p. 430).

The strength of Stanner’s essay lies, perhaps unknown to Stanner himself, in what Clendinnen describes as his failure to alleviate Durmugam’s pain, and his failure to resign himself to that failure. In a postscript to her analysis of Stanner’s essay, Clendinnen warns that “the social malaise enveloping many Aboriginal Australian communities continues to confound the hopeful intervention of whites” (p. 431). Campbell and Green have chosen instead to celebrate the accomplishments of Darby Ross and Wenten Rubuntja while acknowledging the difficulties that both men faced. By exploring new narrative strategies for presenting the indigenous voice in their biographies, perhaps these contemporary authors can point the way to another path toward enlightenment, another way of thinking and learning about the lives of Aboriginal people today.

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One Response to October Books: Aboriginal Biography

  1. Pingback: I Am Large, I Contain Multitudes | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

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