Koori History Newspaper Archive

Chronicler of a disaster foretold

Australian - Wednesday, March 4, 2009

W.E.H. Stanner understood early the cultural schism at the heart of the crisis in remote communities

THE spirit of Australian anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner (1905-81) has risen from his literary record to prick our consciousness, and for this we have to thank Robert Manne, who has persuaded Black Inc publisher Morrie Schwarz that Stanner's writing, more than a quarter of a century after his death, retains its force as the most literate and persuasive of all contributions on Australia's indigenous people.

Stanner understood both sides of the debate, coining the phrase ``the great Australian silence'' decades before the history wars and encapsulating Aboriginal philosophy in his essays on the Dreaming with neologisms such as ``the everywhen''. The Dreaming and Other Essays, which brings to a general audience some previously relatively obscure work, does great justice to Stanner's last book, White Man Got No Dreaming, published in 1979, two years before his death following a debilitating disease.

Stanner's vivid descriptions of his relationships with Aboriginal people and observations of their lives are so presciently analysed that they read now, ex post facto, as an eerie prophecy of our present predicament. All the troubles in the remote Aboriginal communities can be seen in their earlier manifestations in the rich characters and scenes detailed in these essays.

The opening essay, Durmugam, was resurrected from an obscure journal and is republished for the first time here (although Inga Clendinnen discussed it with great insight several years ago). It is the extraordinary biographic account of Durmugam, the Nangiomeri man Stanner befriended in 1932 on the Daly River in the Northern Territory at the end of a fierce battle between two groups of men armed with spears. In the midst of the noise and dust, Stanner's attention was drawn to an Aboriginal of striking physique and superb carriage who always seemed pinned by an unremitting attack. He seemed, as far as any individual could, to dominate the battlefield.

There were no fatalities, but many painful flesh wounds. When ``the battle died'', this tall warrior approached Stanner, smiling, and ``asked me in a most civil way if I had liked the fight''.

Thus began an odd friendship, and the recording of Durmugam's extraordinary life on the frontier over the ensuing years, during which Stanner hunted with him, attended initiation and other ceremonies with him, and followed for 40 years the deterioration of Aboriginal life on this ``barbarous frontier -- more, a rotted frontier, with a smell of old failure, vice and decadence''.

Durmugam was born about 1895 some 100km south of the Daly River Crossing, and had a traumatic childhood around the copper mines at Fletchers Gully. His father died there, and his mother and her brother took him to the Daly, where she too died. He remembered only the ``endless, bloody fights'' and ``drink-sodden Aborigines lying out in the rain''.

As with several other groups in the region, the Nangiomeri were displaced from their land and their rituals no longer performed. As a man, he was initiated into the ``secret rites of the older men'' of the Victoria River, where he travelled with fellow Nangiomeri and Wagaman youth in a grand adventure. He came ``for the first time ... into intimate association with an Aboriginal High Culture'', Stanner wrote, distinguishing this religious doctrine from the ``Low Culture'' consisting of kinship and marriage rules, and several other aspects of social organisation that remain endemic in the Aboriginal world.

Opium, grog and venereal diseases had added to the general ``chaos'' of the world Stanner stumbled into, wanting to discover the ``unspotted savage'', but finding instead the ``welter which contemporary life had become for the surviving Aborigines''. Durmugam and his fellow initiates were ``fired, and also felt under some kind of command'' of ``a secret wisdom, a power, and a dream shared by no one else on the Daly River''. Stanner became fascinated by the messianic Kunabibi movement, a celebration of the All-Mother that replaced the older Karwadi cult of the All-Father, which had deserted the tribes, leaving them sick and hungry. He recorded the ritual politics that played out across these vast landscapes as Durmugam was challenged and tricked by warlocks and vengeful, manipulating characters who murdered and terrified the entire population by cutting open their victims for their kidney fat, which they used in their hateful magic. ``All the river tribes believed in mystical agency and in the mystical discovery of it,'' Stanner explained.

Durmugam was goaded by his enemies into a series of murders that Stanner considered largely justified under the Aboriginal laws that prevailed: ``Durmugam acted within an established custom and under an acknowledged sanction.''

Intertwining his understanding of the doctrine and spirit of the High Culture religion with the often brutal daily life and jostling for advantage among the men, and worst of all, the outrageous attacks of the young men, freed from the strict discipline of the old laws, Stanner recounted the decline of Durmugam. ``The last time I saw him in 1958,'' he wrote, and the sadness in these passages is overwhelming, he told me that great shame had come upon him and that he would be better dead. His favourite wife, the youngest of four, had run away with the son of his first wife, a great humiliation to a man still alive.

Moreover, a married daughter ``living for the time being with him, had been abducted by a youth whom Durmugam had befriended all his life ... Another wife, the second youngest, had been sexually assaulted, a traditional penalty, by a number of men, mainly Maringar (his enemies), on the ground that she had illicitly seen a bullroarer in Durmugam's camp -- a pretext, he said vehemently, a lie''.

By this time, the old men had lost authority and for some years there had been no ``big Sunday'' or ceremony that had brought together the great religious leaders of the various tribes in the highly politically charged atmosphere of the mystical life. ``The High Culture had not prospered,'' and, Stanner noted, ``many of the young men openly derided the secret life; the coalitions now mattered only to those with long memories.'' Durmugam, distressed by the failure of the police to assist him, concluded that the Europeans were supporting the lawless young men. Stanner could do nothing to persuade the authorities of his friend's claims.

If these events presaged the conditions in Wadeye and many other communities nearly 80 years later, Stanner's explanation of the Aborigines' ``sound calculus'' of dispensing with the rigours and deprivation of the hunting and gathering life in their much impaired homelands in favour of European foodstuffs, and especially the addictive tea and tobacco paid to them for manual labour, provides the historical backdrop to Noel Pearson 's analysis of welfare-induced dependency and passivity. Stanner was the master of the neologism, and his term ``squeeze-play'' remains apt in designating the stratagems used by Aboriginal people locked out of the wealth creation and economic activity around them to obtain a few advantages by politicking and manipulating a heartless system.

He summarised his understanding of the economic basis of the culture change occurring at that time: ``The blacks have grasped eagerly at any possibility of a regular and dependable food supply for a lesser effort than is involved in nomadic hunting and foraging ... a persistent and positive effort to make themselves dependent'' on the peanut farmers along the river. ``I appreciated the good sense of the adaptation,'' he wrote, ``only after I had gone hungry from fruitless hunting with rifle, gun and spears in one of the best environments in Australia.''

I have dwelt perhaps too much on this marvellous essay but the others are just as gripping and his reflection on the 1968 Yirrkala land case is a harsh reminder of the injustice about which Galarrwuy Yunupingu wrote so poignantly in a recent essay in The Monthly. This and several others -- The Dreaming, Caliban Discovered, Aboriginal Humour, and Stanner's 1968 Boyer Lectures, reprinted here -- might have been fruitfully read by a prime minister or cabinet member in the past two decades and changed the course of the pathetic history of the modern state's accommodation with the first Australians.

In this regard, the assessments by the anthropologists who gathered at a 2003 conference in Stanner's honour, collected by Melinda Hinkson and Jeremy Beckett in An Appreciation of Difference, tellingly range across the political and ideological spectrum.

Though Stanner was a dashing, courageous figure in the annals of anthropology, devoting himself with great seriousness to improving Aboriginal conditions as a member of the Council of Aboriginal Affairs, and despite the importance of his scholarly contribution, it was the case during my undergraduate years that some anthropologists in Australian universities performed a kind of wry disregard for his significance. His most important work in the discipline, On Aboriginal Religion, is described here by Howard Morphy as a work of ``intuitive genius'', but it was his public lectures in the mid-20th century that allowed an oblivious citizenry to glimpse what was disappearing.

He wrote elsewhere that only a blindness of the mind's eye prevented Europeans in the past from seeing that ``the ritual uses of water, blood, earth and other substances, in combination with words, gestures, chants, songs and dances, all having for the Aborigines a compelling quality'' were not ``mere barbarisms'' but had a sacramental quality. He added that ``one doubts if anywhere could be found more vivid illustrations of a belief in spiritual power laying hold of material things and ennobling them under a timeless purpose in which men feel they have a place''; and ``one has to look beyond the symbols to what is symbolised; behind the spoken images of myth, the acted images and gestures of rite, and the graven or painted images of art, to what they stand for; beyond the chrism of blood and ochre to what they point to, with the Aboriginal Weltanschauung''.

I was fascinated by his work, in particular his soaring, poetic grasp of a religious life that teetered on the edge of existence, and his precise formulations about the sociological nature of the Aboriginal estate. Of course, he was honoured several times during his lifetime for his service to the discipline of anthropology, his nation and to Aboriginal people. In 1988, his name was included on the Bicentennial Heritage 200 Program, which listed 200 Australians who had contributed to the country's greatness.

Even so, it seemed odd to me that the conference held at the centenary of his birth (and 22 years after his death) should take place in the midst of the ideological wars about Aboriginal matters, waged fiercely by proponents of ill-fitting conceptual frameworks of European, British and American origin. Stanner was of a different age, a gentlemen scholar who carved out his distinction as an anthropologist in the most difficult fieldwork circumstances imaginable. He had served in a range of positions during World War II and had written for the general public in a gracious journalistic style, to great effect.

He was a humanist with a great regard for Aboriginal people and their traditions when most Australians despised Aborigines and were ready to send vigilante parties after them. So why the belated interest in his work? Was it that he was being dragooned into serving as some ideological symbol of the golden age of Aboriginal policy, or perhaps even the symbol of a correct approach? Or even as the father of a current school of thought to which attention should be drawn? There are inklings of this in some of the essays in An Appreciation of Difference but their importance is in the consideration given to his distinguished career and the historical and political circumstances in which he worked, often against the grain.

Melinda Hinkson's biographical contributions are especially welcome in painting a picture of Stanner's career at the end of empire, from Australia to London, to Kenya and back to Australia. Manne's excellent introduction to The Dreaming and Other Essays relies on her superb work.

Her essay on Stanner's fieldwork expedition to the Fitzmaurice River in search of the rock art of the revered High Culture is especially poignant. The Aborigines who went with him, apart from Tjandi, did not stay, Jeremy Beckett notes in a separate essay, adding that it was there, ``in search of the primordium'', that Stanner's ideas about Aboriginal religion crystallised, ``and with it a sense of its fragility''.

Stanner's effectiveness as a dissident anthropologist with a literary turn is evident now. Ian Keen unveils the semiotic approach Stanner developed, giving full strength to the power of his intellectual and literary grasp of matters that had been treated with the peculiar scientism of the structural functionalists such as A.R. Radcliffe-Brown. If in my youth there were those who thought Stanner had failed in his goal of developing a theory of adjustment and culture change, here we find the mature considerations that permit us to consider his success. That much is evident in his essay on Durmugam. It was not so much Stanner who failed but the result of an inadequate intellectual milieu and a poverty of theory at that time, along with Stanner's own humility and wisdom. Peter Sutton, who wrote the pivotal essay on Aboriginal affairs of the past decade, The Politics of Suffering, which so shocked the new romantics in Aboriginal affairs, has turned a ``searchlight'', to use his term, on the anthropological paradigm in which Stanner struggled:

Stanner attacked [French sociologist Emile Durkheim's account of Aboriginal religion as ``very depreciatory of man'' ... Stanner would have felt at home with the proposition that a true grasp of Aboriginal religion bolstered the truth of the universality of transcendent value itself.

Reading that, I am reminded of what Durmugam taught Stanner about what should be held most dear, even in the darkest times: the value of a man's life is in how he lives it. Stanner believed, Sutton explains, to make a full revelation of the sociological causes of religious mysteries and illusions would be act lacking in respect for some veiled core which lay, and properly so, beyond the reach of anthropology.

If a few of the modern anthropologists can rightly claim to have inherited Stanner's mantle, then it is in these humanist, scholarly essays by Sutton, Morphy, Beckett, Nancy Williams, Keen, the great prehistorian John Mulvaney and several others that we see the value of the discipline in understanding Australian life and the accommodation with the first Australians. The ``sightlessness'' of Australians of which Stanner wrote so eloquently has perhaps been cured a little, as they look at themselves looking at us.

Beckett's reconsideration of Stanner's essay on Durmugam contends properly with the author himself; Stanner's epiphany, Beckett writes, occurred when he first met this complicated man at the end of the fight.

After desultory and inconclusive encounters, the Aboriginality that he was seeking was revealed. It was a glimpse, just for an instant -- Stanner knew that the reality was flawed, because of the frontier -- but he had seen it.