Gurindji History, Japanese Historian

gurindji-journeySometimes the blurb on the back of the book gets it exactly right.  “A playful, whimsical opus of integrity, imagination and breathtaking audacity,” says ANU’s Ann McGrath of Gurindji Journey: a Japanese historian in the Outback (University of Hawai’i Press, 2011) by Minoru Hokari.  I particularly liked “audacity” for, as I read through this wonderful, iconoclastic study, adapted from the author’s doctoral thesis, I couldn’t help imagining apoplectic academics responding to Hokari’s challenges with steam coming out of their ears.  “Whimsical” is pretty good, too.  This is a work of serious, theoretical scholarship whose introduction is entitled “Did President Kennedy Meet Aboriginal People?” and whose first paragraph reads as follows:

Hello, nice to meet you.  My name is Minoru Hokari.  Thank you for picking up this book.  If you’ve paid for it, thank you very much.  This is the first book I’ve authored (not counting translations), so naturally I’m pretty nervous, but in any case, I’m thrilled that my book has caught your eye.  I hope you’ll enjoy it, and I look forward to getting acquainted (p. 30).

Hokari put aside an undergraduate interest in pure economics in favor of more “social” social sciences, and wrote a Master’s thesis in Japan on the history of the cattle economy in Gurindji country.  He then enrolled in a Ph.D. program at UNSW in 1996 and ultimately completed the degree out of ANU’s Centre for Cross Cultural Research in 2001.  (Henry Reynolds was one of his examiners.)  Two years later he was diagnosed with lymphoma, and in 2004 his death cut short what might have been a spectacular career.  I’d like to believe, had he survived, that his brashness and youthful self-assurance would have remained with him, but as it is, this abbreviation has meant that he never repented of those qualities: his challenges to accepted doctrines and methodologies remain untarnished and all the more delightful for that very reason.

Early in 1997 that brashness was evident when he roared into the Daguragu community on a motorcycle, a feat that certainly impressed and probably endeared him to some of its people.   He soon fell in with Old Jimmy Mangayarri, who was to become his Gurindji mentor and who would profoundly affect Hokari’s theories of history.

But let me go back to this business of John F. Kennedy for a moment.

Hokari set out with ideas of “oral history” in his head.  He wanted to learn Gurindji history, including the story of the famous walk-off, from the Gurindji themselves.  And he was startled to learn that one of the precipitating events in the decision to stage the walk-off was a visit to the Wave Hill Station, in 1966, from the American President.  Kennedy wanted to know why the Gurindji were being treated so badly by the white bosses.  The elders explained, and “President Kennedy told them that he was the ‘Big American Boss’ and he would start a war against England and support the Gurindji people in their struggle.  And this is how the walk-off began, backed by a powerful ally, the Americans” (p. 38).

Hokari recognized, as a Japanese academic historian, that it would be “wrong” to assert that Kennedy came to Wave Hill three years after his assassinated.  But for the Gurindji, this event wasn’t a spirit-visit, nor was it a metaphor.  It was history.  This is the seed of a serious dilemma for Hokari, for he was unable to explain how he could say that the Gurindji, who have been passing down their “‘historical reality and tradition” for generations, could be “wrong.”

Are academic systems of knowledge really so unshakably superior?  Let’s not rush to conclusions, but first repeat like a mantra, ‘The plurality of history! The multiplicity of voices!  The instability of truth!’ before asking ourselves deliberately: What if, just maybe, President Kennedy did meet with the Gurindji elders?  If that doesn’t work, try also repeating a few times, ‘Hybridity! Ambivalence! Subalternity!’  If there’s still no effect, next try calling out, “Cross-cultural knowledge!  The implosion of knowledge!  The colonization of knowledge!’ …  Is it working yet?  Even if it’s impossible, under present circumstances, for the Aboriginal peoples’ knowledge, experiences and beliefs to occupy academia’s rigid, modern system of knowledge, isn’t it possible at least to put a dent in it?  Can we be absolutely certain that President Kennedy never met the Indigenous Australians? (p. 39)

As soon as I read that paragraph, I was hooked.  It was better than picking up the latest Swedish crime thriller: I had to keep reading until I understood how Hokari was going to resolve this problem.

Along the way, I learned a great deal about Gurindji history and about Gurindji conceptions and representations of history, but early on Hokari posited a few clues that should be immediately recognizable to anyone with a familiarity with Indigenous culture.  Chief among these is the primacy of place, the overwhelming importance of geography and land above notions of temporality.  He talks about the “right way” not simply as a moral imperative, though it is, but as a geographical necessity, contrasting the Gurindji Jurntakal Dreaming track with its west-to-east movement to the progress of Captain Cook, who came from England to Darwin and traveled north to south into Gurindji country: in his very direction he ran crosswise to the right way.  England is conceived of as a country that is outside the Law, a country where the Law holds no purchase and thus cannot be “right.”  Old Jimmy Mangayarri told Hokari of other countries that occupy a “moral map of the world.”  Some of these, like Japan, the Gurindji make no judgements about.  Others, like “Union,” partake of the Law, even though they are peopled by kartiya and physically occupy parts of the Australian continent.  They are known to be moral, right way, because these unionists supported the Gurindji cause.  Such are some examples of historical analysis presented to Hokari by the most eminent historian he knew, Old Jimmy.

In succeeding chapters Hokari fills in the canvas of Indigenous history, telling the stories of Jacky Pantamarra, who evolved from monkeys and came in Captain Cook’s wake to colonize Australia with his books and his paper Law that knew nothing of sacred geography and hence of the right Law.  He tells of the founding of Wave Hill station and how the earth punished the kartiya with a great flood (which occurred in 1924) that wiped out the station after a local man awakened the Rainbow Serpent in order to restore moral balance. He examines the place of cattle in the country, and tries to understand why they have never been incorporated into the local Dreaming stories.  He investigates the origins of the Walk Off, examining the roles of elders like Sandy Moray and Vincent Lingiari in developing the motivations and tactics of the strike.  Anyone with nothing more than a passing awareness of these chapters in Australian and Indigenous history will learn a great deal from these chapters of Gurindji Journey and far more than what was presented in the media stories around the recent 45th anniversary of the Wave Hill Walk Off.

The penultimate chapter of the book is once again playfully titled: “For Theory Lovers Only (if you are not, please skip to the next chapter).”  But even if your are not, please don’t skip it.  It is in this chapter that Hokari makes his plea for listening to and learning from Gurindji historians, and attempts to resolve the dilemma of the different historical modes practiced by the Gurindji and by Western academic historians.

In brief, Hokari argues for what he calls “localized histories,” and he distinguishes these from “local histories.”  In “local history,” he argues, “the practice of favoring certain historical disciplines as ‘good history’ has remained intact” (p. 250).   Good history implies its opposite, which Hokari dubs “dangerous histories.”  What is important in the recognition of “localized history” is the “possibility of communication across the gap between deeply plural historical spaces” (p. 251, emphasis in the original).  If we are to understand what it means that Captain Cook or JFK came to Daguragu, we must embrace that possibility of communication.

Can we find a chance to practice what [Marxist theoretician Gayatri] Spivak calls the ‘systematic unlearning’ of postcolonial intellectual privilege here? Academic historians or privileged intellectuals know that Captain Cook never came to the Gurindji country.  Without unlearning this privilege of ‘knowingness’, there are no ways for academic historical writings to open themselves up to deeply plural history-spaces (p. 254).

And so it is with President Kennedy:

Let us put aside our naive conviction of ‘We know JFK never came to the Gurindji country.’  Rather, we may need to ask ourselves what it really means that ‘we know’ JFK never came there.  If a history of JFK has been ‘localized’ by the Gurindji historians, instead of calling it ‘wrong history’ from a universal-Western-positivist perspective, can we not relate to the Gurindji historical analysis by sharing the ‘truthfulness’ of this episode?

What is the significance in the Gurindji history of these international networks?  I think the Gurindji people’s history helps us to understand how much ngumpin [Indigenous people] looked for strong supporters from the outside to help realize their project.  I believe that Gurindji and academic historians can share the ‘historical truthfulness’ of a history of JFK visiting Wave Hill station in terms of how scary, adventurous and challenging it was for ngumpin to fight the oppressive colonial regime.  Without confirming these international supporters, the Gurindji elders probably could not make a decision to take action (p. 214).

It is important to recognize that the historical truthfulness that Hokari ascribes to the Gurindji does not reduce the JFK story to the status of myth or metaphor and at the same time that Hokari does not admit that story would be deemed “true” in the “universal-Western-positivist’ mode of thinking.  No more would Old Jimmy admit that English law on paper is “true,” for it does not come from the ground, which is the ultimate, the only, source of all morality and Law.

In writing this short review of Gurindji Journey, I have used the entertaining and perplexing instance of President Kennedy’s visit to Wave Hill to organize some aspects of Hokari’s story telling and analysis.  In doing so, I have not done justice to the complexity and subtlety of his arguments, nor the richness of his immersion in Gurindji culture.  But I hope that what I have written will entice you to pick up this unlikely entry in the literature of Indigenous studies written by a Japanese historian in the Outback.

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One Response to Gurindji History, Japanese Historian

  1. Pingback: unDisclosed: the Triennial returns | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

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