Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Living in Two Worlds

Well I'm back home in the cold country after three weeks on the Dampier Peninsula and surrounds.  Still a lot to think about and sort through, though.

One of the things that really became clearer to me over my three weeks was the extent to which the Aboriginal people of the Kimberley are living in two worlds. 

On the one hand, they are participating in the modern Western society and economy.  They wear European clothes (with a distinctive Aboriginal style!) and drive cars, they go to school and university or TAFE, hold down jobs, run businesses and manage large complex community organisations.  A lot of them are very successful at doing this.  One of my local co-workers, in his mid-30s, has half a university degree in marine biology, plus tickets in motor mechanics and construction, and has worked on a number of mine sites as well as in more mundane town jobs.  Others struggle - levels of unemployment are high, there's a lot of alcoholism and mental illness, people are crowded into inadequate housing.

Yet alongside this they also live to a large extent in their traditional world.  Some of this is visible on the surface.  They still speak their own language, although for someone like me it's hard to tell the difference between traditional language and Aboriginal English.  They still largely follow traditional family patterns - their aunts and uncles have the same status as their parents, a man will not be in the same room as any of his mothers-in-law or a woman with her fathers-in-law, care of children is shared between parents, grandparents and aunts and uncles. 

Below this is a deeper level of culture, largely hidden from the outside world.  Despite decades of missionary intervention and multiple dislocations, people on the Peninsula and even those living away from their own country still practice their traditional law.  This law is largely secret, revealed only to male initiates.  I was allowed to know it existed, and was told some superficial information about what it involves, but of course know nothing of the details.  Yet I saw enough to understand that it is not confined to the older people.  The same colleague I mentioned above has "been through the Law" and in turn is now responsible for being jawal to some younger men - a term he translated for me as "god-father", responsible for training them in the basics.  When he is satisfied, they can then be "put through the Law" under the supervision of some of the older men, the "Law Bosses".

All this sounds romantic, perhaps, but it is also difficult.  The Law is not designed for a culture where people travel long distances for work and spend long periods away from home.  It is not designed to fit onto a society where people are required to turn up for work promptly, five days a week.  Some of the older people I spoke to are pessimistic about the future of the Law, and of their language in its pure form.  One gave it only another ten years. 

There are multiple reasons for this.  To some extent, they blame the fact that many younger people are not interested - they have alcohol, ganga and Facebook, why do they need the Law?  Yet this is not the whole story.  The Law requires the senior men to work together to call and organise events, yet disputes over native title and money have split the community and key people are not speaking to each other.  Law ceremonies used to happen regularly, now they are rare events.  Then for some reason which was not explained, the most senior lawmen are not passing the advanced details of the tradition onto the next generation.  They have initiated younger men, but the detailed songs, dances and traditions remain with them.  They are getting older and their health is declining.  One of the most important men had a heart attack while we were there.  It wasn't too serious, he came home and is recovering fast, but how long will he survive, and who can take his place if he goes?

How much does all this matter?  My co-worker is philosophical about it.  The world is evolving, he says, and you can either let it evolve around you, or evolve with it.  He loves the law but hates community politics.  He will keep on training his proteges, but will also keep working in the Western world and is well equipped to be successful there.

Yet for others it is not so easy.  They have not succeeded in the Western world.  They have limited education and job skills.  Many are also without the spiritual and social grounding provided by the Law.  They have the worst of both worlds.  What does the future hold for them?

* Painting is "Searching for Jandamarra" by Mark Norval - click on the link for details.

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