The Lives of Children

Eickelcamp Growing up in central australiaThe lives of children are the focus of unrelenting rhetoric in Australian and Indigenous politics.  Ever present concerns about health and safety exploded in the past decade as Nanette Rogers and Mal Brough “exposed” pedophile rings that turned out not to exist, but managed to inflame public sentiment nonetheless.  The Northern Territory Emergency Response was intended to save children from abuse, even as it ignored the recommendations of the report entitled “Little Children Are Sacred.”  More recently South Australia’s Premier Mike Rann and Indigenous Affairs Minister Grace Portolesi have come under fire in response to reports of severe malnutrition among children in the APY Lands.

But I can’t help feeling that all these public discussions are about “poster children” whose lives are abstracted into causes and statistics.  And so when I saw Growing Up in Central Australia: new anthropological studies of Aboriginal childhood and adolescence (edited by Ute Eickelkamp, Berghahn Books, 2011) on a bookshelf in Alice Springs, I was immediately intrigued.  Would this volume provide me with more information and insight about real lives and real challenges?

The answer to the question turned out to be yes and no.  There’s little here that specifically addresses the health issues that are so prominent in the media: skin diseases, ear infections, and other problems that blight young children’s lives well beyond childhood.  There’s scant direct attention to social scourges like petrol sniffing and pre-adolescent alcohol consumption.  However, Eickelkamp has assembled an impressive collection of essays from leading anthropologists that document a broad range of issues relating to psychological and social development of children and youth in Central Australia.

The authors collected here, while united in their concern for and interest in Central Australia society, represent a broad spectrum of anthropological approaches: this is but one of the volume’s strengths.  John Morton’s appreciation for psychology is reflected in his analysis of Géza Róheim’s research; Yasmin Musharbash is firmly rooted in the speech and action of every day living, as is Craig San Roque, who takes, however, a far more personal approach to the subject through an account of his own home in Alice Springs as a site of social integration.  Katrina Titjayi and Sandra Lewis offer Aboriginal voices in their description of growing up today in Ernabella.  Fred Myers’s account of friendships in youth and maturity straddles a line between fieldwork and personal life stories.  Eickelkamp’s own contribution, like Myrna Tonkinson’s, reads like classical anthropological analysis, while Marika Moisseeff’s concluding chapter brings a cross-cultural, European perspective to the stresses of growing up a member of a minority group subject to discrimination at the hands of a domineering, other, culture.

Another successful structural feature of this book arises from its very organization.  It begins with John Morton’s “‘Less Was Hidden Among These Children’: Géza Róheim, anthropology and the politics of Aboriginal childhood.”  Morton’s essay looks back to one of the initial studies of Aboriginal childhood and likewise relies on some of the earliest analytic insights into child development.  From there, we are taken directly to Titjayi and Lewis’s first person accounts of childhood in Ernabella.  Moving through the book, the focus gradually shifts from infancy towards adolescence and youth, defined in many desert societies as lasting, as least for males, until the age of around thirty.  Insights and understanding accumulate through the course of the book: recapitulating ontogeny, if you will.

Despite the varied backgrounds and disciplinary approaches adopted by the authors, there are some overriding themes that emerge.  The first of these is the importance of a sense of the future in the development of the child.  Several authors agree that successful maturation of the individual rests upon the child’s ability to foresee a future and to find a place in that vision.  This manifests itself in multiple ways, both positive and negative.   Storytelling, and in particular sand stories, the subject of Eickelkamp’s own contribution, provides a way for children to establish control over their environments through both mimesis and through reiteration of what they have been told about proper behavior.  Mimesis plays a role in games as well, an often noted characteristic of Indigenous childhood where boys engage in mock hunting with toy spears and girls nurture gum-leaf babies in their sand stories.

Negative expressions of the ability to envision a future can account for the failure or the perceived irrelevance of western education in these Centralian communities.  The lessons of a mainstream curriculum may seem to alien to the lifeworlds and responsibilities of adults who surround children in remote desert communities if not even antithetical to them.  Even if the children somehow grasp the value of these occidental lessons, they may find them pointless in a society where whitefella business–the work of repairing motorcars and machinery, of accounting for monies supplied by government, of providing health and even educational services–is almost always conducted solely by whitefellas themselves.  There thus exists a division between education for whitefella work and the fulfillment of that work that is coupled with a failure by government agencies to recognize Aboriginal work–the maintenance of kin relationships as expressed in funeral ceremonies and other ritual, for instance–as work with a significant economic reality in the community.  The end result is a void where a meaningful vision of the future should be.  This void, and the lack of control over one’s destiny that it implies, leads in turn to anomie, restlessness, substance abuse, and a spiral of failed futures.

There is another pattern to the experience of childhood and growing up in Central Australia that runs through these essays and achieves it fullest, most explicit statement in Marika Moisseeff’s essay, “Invisible and Visible Loyalties in Racialized Contexts: a systemic perspective on Aboriginal youth.”  I don’t rise to the status of even neophyte in developmental studies, so I don’t know if the concepts she presents here are commonplaces of the discipline, but they certainly seem to neatly summarize much of what I have read and heard, anecdotally, about child rearing in Indigenous Australian communities.

Moisseeff presents two major stages in the development of desert children, which she calls nurturance and filiation.  Nurturance comes first and is the responsibility of females who are charged with parental roles, whether those caregivers are mothers, grandmothers, or aunties.  In the period of nurturance, the child is cared for physically and receives fundamental instruction in social relations.  The child learns to identify individuals in terms of their relationships to the self, often expressed in desert societies through subsection or “skin” names.  A habit of autonomy is implanted and lessons of self-expression are instilled.

Filiation carries these lessons forward toward the realm of adult behavior, and it is men in the society–fathers, grandfathers, uncles, and husbands–who take on this responsibility.  The classic expression of filiation for boys is their subjection to initiation rites in which they are forcibly removed from the care of their mothers and put through rituals of separation, physical endurance, and symbolic rebirth.  For girls in classical societies, the transition is achieved through marriage, in which the girl assumes responsibility for accepting economic commitment to a man, and through motherhood, in which she becomes herself, in turn, an agent of nurturance.

Ruptures in the pattern of nurturance and filiation are intimately linked to the previously noted inability of children to successfully envision a meaningful future for themselves.  Here the collapse of filiation seems to be both more severe in itself and more profound in its implications both for individual maturation and for the sustaining of the society.  Filiation is the process by which the twinned principles of autonomy and relatedness so richly described by Fred Myers twenty-five years ago in Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self are fully realized.  It completes the work of nurturance that allows a child to attain a sense of selfhood and creates the bonds of interrelatedness that structure the community.  As the rituals of initiation have become rarer and less fully constituted, they leave a critical gap in the lives and aspirations of young men, a gap that increasingly filled by the distractions of heavy metal and hiphop, DVDs, and fast cars.  Without a developed sense of responsibility, these young men also fail at the demands of paternity, which leaves young women to fend for themselves as they enter the domain of motherhood.  Ironically, motherhood remains the intact means of assuring a kind of prestige in the community, an option by which girls can achieve adult status, but one which now comes with its attendant modern dilemmas and dysfunctions.

There is an admittedly teleological perspective on childhood here: the focus is on how children grow up and how they are “grown up” (in Aboriginal parlance) more than on a strictly phenomenological analysis of essential aspects childhood apart from its endpoints.  I don’t intend that as a criticism.  Indeed, Growing Up in Central Australia is one of the most successful anthologies of anthropological studies that I’ve encountered in a long time.

Part of its success is due to the authors of the essays themselves.  The writing is consistently fresh and engaging, as well as free from jargon, ideological evangelism, and methodological introspection.  Essayists as diverse as Katrina Titjayi, Fred Myers, and Craig San Roque found their studies in the unabashedly personal, and even those that adopt a more distant, classically ethnographic stance partake of a vivid, humanistic involvement with their subjects.

But surely much of the credit should go to Ute Eickelkamp herself.  I find it hard to think of another collection of essays in which the authors explicitly acknowledge their editor quite so fulsomely.  Additionally, there is a wealth of cross-referencing among the essayists, who almost all seem to have read drafts of one another’s compositions before submitting their own final versions to Eickelkamp’s editorial ministrations, oversight, and arrangement.  As she points out in the opening sentences of the book’s introduction,

Indigenous people, while still a small minority, represent the youngest and fastest-growing population sector in Australia.  Arguably, their culture is also the most profoundly transforming.  Yet there is astonishingly little research on how Indigenous children and adolescents experience life, shape their social world, and imagine the future (p. 1).

Growing Up in Central Australia admirably addresses that lack and makes a real contribution, not just to the anthropological literature, but to the ongoing discussion and debates about the future of Indigenous communities through the continent.

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3 Responses to The Lives of Children

  1. Pingback: Sorry Business | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

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