Learning to ‘see’ Australia and speak fair-dinkum Australian

| July 10, 2009

The present episode in the long running debate about whether or not tourists should be allowed to climb Uluru, against the wishes of the traditional owners shows us that we are making some progress in learning to ‘see’ Australia.

There are many people who respect the Traditional Owners requests, even if they do not fully understand the reasons why. That is a promising sign. A respectful stance is the main pre-requisite for real life indigenous studies 101.

You can click here for a media release and views of Anangu Traditional owners on this issue.

I think it was Harry Butler who said, years ago in an interview in Playboy of all places, (Interview: Harry Butler. Issue: 1980.07?) that we have to learn to appreciate the culture of the people at Uluru in order to really appreciate the place of the "Rock" in Australian life.

For those who still ‘see’ the world with secularising eyes, Uluru is ‘just a rock’. This seems to fit well with the business plan ambitions of some in the tourist industry who may well see each ant-like climber on Uluru as part of a flow of cash. Only the dollar is sacred, apparently.

They may not appreciate is that, by reducing the significance of Uluru to a mere fetish, they are short-changing travellers of the full Uluru experience. (Comparisons with the Haj come to mind).

What is required to correct this cultural blindness are cultural tours which result in an understanding and/or appreciation, on the part of those who want the whole Uluru experience, on just why they should not climb it. There must be some real opportunities for joint ventures with the traditional owners here, if they are not already in place.

Of course, this approach suffers from the difficulty of lack of official cross-cultural exchange over the last two centuries, so that ordinary Australians consider themselves well informed about the country they live in without even knowing the local indigenous word of ‘water’.

They think they have seen the country by travelling around it with 4X4 and tinny. But until we learn to better see our surrounding through the eyes of First Peoples, we are only experiencing the message stick without being able to receive the message it carries.

Which brings us to PM Rudd and the key role of the Prime Minister. Does he know the local indigenous word for ‘water’ in his electorate, Canberra and Uluru – areas of life where he considers himself competent to govern? Talk about the need for a dinki-di Australian citizenship test, cobber!

His use of bureaucrat language leaves no doubt that he has long mastered that form of mandarin as well. His ‘come in spinner’ use of Australian slang serves as a clumsy form of yin to the heavy abstract yang of bureaucratese.

I was driving from Wollongong to Canberra the other day, and (memories of Bob Carr) spent the first bit of the trip listening to Stan Freberg’s classic  " Stan Freberg Presents … drum roll … the United States of America!" The country which produced that kind of comic genius (and Mad magazine) can’t be all bad.

But reaching the road to the dry Lake George (what indigenous name?)  I switched to Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunipingu to sing me into the Australian Capital Territory. Given the degree of respect he has in his songs, I felt that the local Ngunnawal traditional owners would not have a major problem with the sound of his Top End language on their country. Hopefully, it would raise their spirits too.

Gurrumul’s moving songs certainly provided a beautiful contrast to English – and to the dominating language of the local high bureaucrats. The evocative timelessness of the "Lake George" country speaks of a very different presence over eons.

Heading into Canberra, and through the central business area towards Parliament House, I stopped at the red light at the corner of Northbourne Avenue and (yes!) Rudd Street. Stopped for long enough to disengage the driving part of the brain as well.

I once heard someone say how stopping at red lights is a good chance to catch up with your soul (rather than fuming about running late etc). Good advice for a sane world.

It struck me at that moment that what we need in Australia is a Prime Minister who can speak one of the original languages of THIS country. Speak and, using both hemispheres of the brain, THINK in one of the original languages of this country as well.

This present episode regarding Uluru provides PM Rudd with a real opportunity to show that his cross-cultural expertise is not solely restricted to the languages of empire.

He should make the most of it as a high level and clear demonstration of his respect towards Australia’s First Peoples – as a message to First Peoples; as an unambiguous example to ordinary Australians, and a clear statement of our position to overseas trading partners presently experiencing difficult problems with their indigenous peoples.

Otherwise, stone the crows, we may have to declare the PM’s position vacant.

Bruce Reyburn (62) grew up in Australia and New Zealand/Aotearoa. He studied anthropology in New Zealand and enjoyed a brief career working on land claims in the Northern Territory in the early 1980s. Described as a ‘maverick’ anthropologist by his gentler critics, Bruce gained a Lionel Murphy Scholarship in 1990 to work (under the late Ken Maddock) on how to improve dialogue between two systems of law in Australia. He separated (by mutual consent?) from modern anthropology in 1991, calling himself a ‘former anthropologist’ (a la Prince). For much of the 1990s he used the internet as a means of advocating for the rights of First Peoples and to promote reconciliation and treaty matters. 

Bruce is presently working on his long-time "Australian life studies" project (see http://www.ozstudies.com.au/) and gets it out of his system and ‘out there’ as an occasional blogger. See http://songlinesoz.spaces.live.com/ http://www.songlines.org.au/ http://breyburn.blogspot.com/ and, since he lives in Wollongong (NSW) where the need for reform is particularly pressing http://www.reformwcc.info/