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Drid Williams: The Australian Papers


Wanam Revisited

John von Sturmer and Drid Williams

This paper has been composed out of some of the discussions held by John von Sturmer and me before undertaking a research trip to Cape York Peninsula during the months of July and August this year.1 We think of it as a preliminary paper because it has been written prior to the fieldwork planned later on this year and it is a preliminary outline of some of the theoretical issues involved in such an undertaking.2

     This conference—its title and the opportunity to share some of the insights John and I are gaining into the nature of Aboriginal dances, rituals, and ceremonies—has contributed greatly to our work. It has provided an interesting focal point for our discussions. Indeed, it has helped us to delimit in important ways some of the major problems of our proposed research, starting with the notion of Aborigines 'making' history.

     We have called the paper "Wanam Revisited" because, for von Sturmer, the field trip in July 1988 will be a re-visitation of some of the sites of his original research, carried out between 1969 and 1974, which resulted in a doctoral thesis (von Sturmer 1978). John first saw Wanam in the field in 1969. He saw the dances which compose this tradition hundreds of times and in many different contexts. Later on, I shall talk about one of these dances, the 'String Dance,' but for now, a few more introductory remarks are in order.

     For the benefit of those who may not be familiar with the Wanam tradition and the sites (awu—fish sites) and the totems (kam waya—agnatic ancestors or antecedents, that is, [FFB+ and MMB+]3) involved, let me say that the geographical location of the Wanam dances lies roughly south of the Kendall River (adjacent to the land of the 'Putja mob' on both sides of the Kendall) and north of Christmas Creek on the Carpenteria side of the Cape. The rough schematic diagram below attempts, in a simplified fashion, to assist the reader through what can legitimately be seen as a terminological muddle—or a translator's nightmare:

Figure 1

     Wanam dances focus on what those who are entitled to participate in it call "The Holroyd." We call them Kugu Nganhdjarra (not a name which they use themselves). The area we speak of appears on survey maps as Christmas Creek.

     The history of Wanam dances is contained in what elsewhere in Australia might be called a "dreaming." However, the term 'dreaming' is not used in Cape York Peninsula. People there prefer the English gloss 'story' for something which they might label "old, old talk" or "talk from beforetime" (that is, kuku kath, or in Wik Mungen, wik kaath). The sense of this, briefly, is as follows: 'story' = history. Awu = 'story place'= places where historical events occurred which associated certain phenomena, that is, genus or species in a permanent way with those sites. Kam waya = ancestors (story, plus the notion of patrilineal descent) = actual historical beings.

     Briefly, the story (history) of Wanam is this: two Kaa'ngken brothers traveled south to the Holroyd River. As they traveled, they sang songs about what they saw and did, and they created dances which they taught to the people they encountered. At the Holroyd River they stole fish and were pursued from the camp. Still carrying the fish with them, they continued southward to Wallaby Island in the mouth of the Mitchell River, There were too many mosquitoes, so they decided to return northward. Throwing their boomerangs, they cleared the coastal plain of trees and left the saltpans which still remain today. Finally, they arrived at Thaa'kungadha, at the mouth of the Holroyd, where they left the Wanam ceremony for the future generations. More will be said about this story and the two brothers when we ex­amine the String Dance.

The Basic Problem

In the past, the dance was a medium for the representation and experiencing of a particular Aboriginal people's own history among themselves. This was not history as we conceive it necessarily—that is, a chronology of events—but history in the sense of a series of identity/identification statements. Everybody at the performance both knew and knew about what it was that was being represented: to be taken into the history (identity) of the clan, people, tribe, or what you will.

     If we are looking at dance representations in the western Cape now, we would probably not look at Wanam, but at disco dancing—maybe forms of Island dancing or forms of secular dancing, referred to in the Peninsula as corroboree or 'play-about' dancing, which is much less serious in character than is the Wanam or any single dance included in that complex.

     Our task is to locate Wanam performances both in the past and the present, in both contexts. A present context for Wanam is mortuary ceremonies, but these do not happen often; thus, there is a sense in which we are identifying what is lost. Indeed, a relevant question regarding the dances, past or present, is "What sorts of traces do these performances leave?" A likely scenario is that the Wanam dances will disappear in the not-too-far-distant future.

     If these dances—the Wanam tradition, Kunalum, Aaplatj, Tjiveri, Putja, or Wintjinam—are to be maintained, we have to examine processes of secularization, but if Aborigines are 'making history' and these dances have something to do with the making of history (in any sense of the term), then we are talking about two notions: (1) the nature of the unchanging, because the story (the 'beforetime') heroes, the two Kaa'ngken brothers, belong to that aspect of Aboriginal cosmology which is changeless, outside history or duration, in some sense immutable; and (2) the conditions of change (or secularization), because Aboriginal societies are caught up in history and they are involved with change.

     We have to ask, "Are these (Wanam) people—in the sense of their being-in-the-world—what they are because they and their ancestors always have been what they are?" If the answer to this question is "yes," then 'history' in the European sense of the term has no place in the discussion except in the sense that English and European colonists have inserted Aborigines into their history and have appropriated the Aboriginal past as their past. According to this view, the notion of Aborigines 'making history' is inaccurate.

     We also have to ask if we thus credit ourselves with an obstinate refusal to look at the fundamental differences between Cape York Aborigines and their interpretation of 'history' as represented in their dances and the European notion of 'history,' crediting them with an enormous capacity for self-delusion, perhaps, or attributing to them some kind of capacity to live in contradiction with their beliefs. Faced with an apparent paradox—in European terms with a contradiction between immutability and the values of immutability on the one hand and with social change and historicity on the other—with facts of time reckoning and 'duration'4 which also involves genera­tional differences, how do we reconcile the differences, and how do Aborigines mediate the paradox? What do the facts of these people and their sense of history (as identity/identification statements of be-ing) have to tell us about people, society, and the world? Does the problem simply boil down to the fact that we can explain these people as living in a mildly pathological state? That is, here is a people who themselves know that they have changed and are changing, yet they continue to live in a kind of shared private world where their essential values depend upon immutability. Or do we offer various developmental or evolutionary explanations for such phenomena? Do we say, in effect, "Here are a people who, in spite of the realities of a changing world, insist upon remaining 'primitives' and who display anachronistic or regressive behaviors, especially in their dances and ceremonies"?

     Von Sturmer and I are convinced that there are other alternatives, other answers and explanations. We believe, on a basis of evidence that we already possess and evidence which we intend to collect, that there is an important third alternative to the more commonly held alternatives mentioned above—those of 'pathology' or 'development/evolution' (see Pocock 1967 for further discussion in another context). We ask, "Can Aborigines incorporate all history, including white Australian history, into their system?" We believe, in other words, that Aborigines are making history over not 'making history' per se. The crucial question here seems to be "What is agentive in history?"

     Why is that crucial? For a start, Cape York Aborigines speak and dance their history; they do not write it. This is entirely comprehensible in a case where it is believed that everything is a result of human agency. To Aborigines of the Wanam tradition, 'the human' is everywhere. No European could say this, far less accept it as a basic tenet of a worldview. Wasn't it Marx who said, "Man makes history, but not in conditions of his own choosing"? European conceptions of history include notions about 'Nature,' about conditions over which humans have no control and over which they have never had any control. There are, in other words, natural 'givens' in European and English-speaking conceptions of the universe. In the Aboriginal case, everything is a result of human agency; the universe is a humanized, moral universe, and there is no notion (or a very attenuated notion) of 'nature.' Aborigines operate in terms of an exclusively human history.

The Notion of Performance in Wanam

In Wanam, performances mediate between the Aborigines own past—a past which is the source of life and all good things—because life and all good things come from the ancestors. The dances themselves come from the ancestors. Thus, the dances are traces of the past and signs of life. Performances bring death into life in the sense that the dead past lives through the performances; thus, the Wanam dances are transcendent. We believe that this transcendence is a particular feature of dancing as a form of representation especially present in sacred forms of dancing.

     Wanam performances are forms of mimesis: that is to say that they are forms of embodiment, forms of be-ing. It is necessary to understand what is being said here: originally, in Cape York Aboriginal terms, the spirit beings and everything were human. In this cosmology, the human spirits became animals (when they did); they not only changed the landscape, but they created it—and it is this notion which makes sense of a world where all causation is a result of humanized events and human agency, a world where, in effect, there is no 'Nature.' That is, there is a "humanized Nature," but this is a Western way of thinking. If we are to penetrate the ways in which Wanam dancers think, we have to accept that there is no category of 'Nature.' There is only modifiable substance, and the only modifier is human.

     When one watches a Wanam dance, one must be aware of the transformations which are required in order to understand them. By this, we mean the actual transformations of movements and states of be-ing which are required in the spaces internal to the dances in contrast to the movements and states of be-ing which are required (and commonly used) in everyday life. This is important because there is a total transformation involved in the sense that there are no 'heightened states' in ordinary Aboriginal life such as there are in Aboriginal dancing.

     In one way of looking at these dances, it could be said that the danced spaces of Wanam are a total world of artifice. If it is true that the dances are pure artifice, then one can make certain evaluations of the dancers and the performances, and the performances can be assessed. Assessments are possible because there are certain desiderata upon which the danced events rest. Indeed, there is a high competitive element present in most Wanam dances, and assessments are going on internally, so to speak, between the Aborigines who are dancing and between the Aboriginal audience who knows, a priori, what is being represented and what is going on. Actually, in this case, there is no 'audience' as we normally think of it. There are 'watch­ers' who participate or who are potential participators.

     There are different sets of desiderata pertaining to each tradition which we have mentioned above, as, for example, between Wanam and Aaplatj. There are even desiderata internal to a tradition like Wanam, as, for example, between Wanam and Kunalam. Some of these will emerge during subsequent discussion, so no more need be said here. For now, I should like to draw your attention to some further general features of these performances as we conceive of them.

The Question of Spectators ('Watchers')

If it is true that, in the past, dances were mediums for the representation and experiencing of their own history among themselves and that everybody at the performances 'knew' and 'knew about' what was represented, then that kind of audience is very different from some of the audiences viewing performances of the dances today. Now, one has to deal with an audience which is composed of people who are 'known' in the sense that the performers 'know' them, but it is an audience composed of people, on the whole, who do not know, as in festivals (see Williams 1988), performances in Fiji, and the like.

     A third kind of audience is also in evidence with regard to performances now: the audience which is created through the use of a film or video camera. Here, we are dealing with an audience who, in any direct sense, is unknown. It is an imagined audience for the performers. The question is, "What kind of audience is this? What kind of audience is imagined?" What effects do the performers and the people they represent think that their dances will have on this audience?

     Where it is relatively easy to state what Wanam performances mediated in the past, it is not so easy to determine what it is that these performances mediate in the present and in contexts where there are audiences (a) which are known, but who do not know or (b) imagined audiences. We may well ask what does performing one's past—one's history—mean to performers or audiences who do not know or, in the case of imagined audiences, may not have made any efforts at all beyond pushing a button on a television set.5

     We are preoccupied with these and related considerations because somehow, to the Aborigines, there is a notion that these performances have power (see von Sturmer 1987a for further detailed discussion). There is some sense in which an audience—even if it doesn't know—becomes beholden because a kind of Maussian gift has been given, which involves spectators whether they consciously want to be involved or not.

     Furthermore, the Aboriginal model of 'knowing,' of life itself, is always revelatory and initiatory. This fact cannot, we think, be overstressed. This model of 'knowing' is not a processual model of training or education. Specifically, the Aboriginal model says, "You are part of this history because you have witnessed, because things have been revealed to you. Because of this, you 'know'; you become 'one who knows.'" In studies which both investigators are carrying out concurrently with this one, evidence has been collected in connection with the Aboriginal/Islander Dance Theatre in Sydney that suggests that there is a known and deeply felt conflict of these models among the student body at the school. The dance students at the Australian/Islander Dance Theatre (AIDT) perceive themselves to be in an embattled position because, on the one hand, the school is based on a 'processual' model of education and training to be professional dancers (see von Sturmer 1987b). On the other hand, some of the traditional dances in which they participate partake of the 'sacred'; the dances are owned by specific traditional peoples, and there is divided opinion among traditional people as to the propriety of the performances by the students.6

     How might we understand the notion of 'revelation' which characterizes the Aboriginal model of knowledge and which comprises the Aboriginal model of danced events? For a start, in a revelatory (basically, a liturgical) model of events7 an individual recognizes him- or herself as something—something which is revealed and which is known, so to speak, in a 'flash.' This knowledge is not of the same kind as that which is gained incrementally, nor is it attained as a matter of a process of education.

     If our thesis is correct, what is being revealed to audiences is a kind of recognition, because revelation requires recognition. It is also the case that for many audiences (of the second type described above, that is, those who are known by the performers but who do not know anything about the performance) what is recognized is the possibility of being 'Other.' If it is the case that there is a moment of recognition for audiences of Wanam dances, von Sturmer reckons that the majority of non-traditional audience members has locked into a recognition of 'Self' as a child. Why?

     In our society, a possible model for self-location in time is that of being a child again—to go back, to recapture the past, however fleetingly. We can (and do) do this through other people in a variety of ways. We can recapture our own past through others. For us, it is a way of establishing common humanity, perhaps, or conquering death through becoming children again. This 'recognition model' of non-traditional audiences, then, if it is not tied to the present conditions or adult conditions of the performers—the "Other" whom they are watching—can be seen as a return to a childlike state. This is the only explanation which we have so far been able to discover for the relentless infantilization of Aboriginal people which manifests itself so often through categories and classifications of the 'primitive.' What is interesting is that such consistent infantilization in its turn creates a continuous 'demand.' Constant demanding is, after all, the prerogative of children in English-speaking and European cultures.

     We are not saying that every person in an audience everywhere uses the viewing of Aboriginal dancing to return, however momentarily, to a childlike state. That would be ridiculous for several reasons. However, we are saying that it is a plausible hypothesis for a sufficient number of people in audiences because the collective representation of Aborigines among many white Australians and other ethnic groups in Australia seems to produce a pejorative image of Aborigines as 'primitives,' that is, people who are in an undeveloped, childlike state who constantly demand to be looked after by state or federal government.

     We simply ask that the hypothesis be entertained at this stage of our discussion because it is central to our attempts to understand the underlying mechanisms of racism, which we believe to be tied to such 'recognitions' as we have described, which in turn is tied to the experience of difference. Our reasoning has so far developed along these lines: there are really only two possible responses to experiences of difference. To understand the nature of 'recognition' (as a member of an audience at a performance), there has to be a prior comprehension of difference. The encounter with the 'Other' is always one of difference, and when faced with difference, we must construct a framework to understand or handle the perceived difference. When we recognize similarity (or something we perceive to be similar to ourselves), we incorporate or include whatever we perceive and therefore tend not to examine it in certain ways, both because we are comfortable with it and because we are, in effect, saying, "That is the same as me" (or enough the same that I am not made uncomfortable). The implication is that there is no problem, or that it already fits into a framework which is understood. 'Irreconcilable difference,' on the other hand, poses another kind of problem, because in these cases (exemplified by a racist reaction to Aboriginal or other kinds of difference) the attempt is to annul the differences—to nullify the 'Other' in some way. In other words, we are saying that, if people cannot handle difference, cannot incorporate or attach it to their apperceptions of the world in some way, they simply nullify.

     Nullification can take several forms: one of one of them is the infantilization of the Aboriginal 'Other.' To some extent, nullification and infantilization are connected—and there are other cases of such nullification, as, for example, nullification-qua-infantilization of women which often takes this form. At the same time, the experience of 'difference' is also a form of recognition, but the recognition of difference sometimes tends to be suppressed or simply not comprehended.

     It could be the case that such annulment happens because there are some individuals who have to nullify—they are in some sense impelled to—because they live in worlds where everything is perceived to be the same and therefore controllable. An incomprehensible difference is simply too upsetting. It is, therefore, a negative incorporation of the Other, and there is usually a displacement. The real terror for racists, after all, is that they are recognizing projections of things in themselves which they do not want to recognize and which may not have anything to do with the realities of the people who, through no fault of their own, have triggered the projection.

     There are other possible responses to difference and the incorporation of differences into the private social world of individuals which are certainly more positive for everyone concerned. There is the possibility of perceiving differences in Aboriginal dancing as 'incredible' or 'thrilling.'8 There is very little in a Wanam dance, for example, which is similar to any form of dancing with which Europeans are familiar; nor is there anything similar, for that matter, in many dance forms which is familiar to anything in so-called ordinary behavior. It is often the case that, when people see dancing, they are seeing something which is difficult to incorporate into an existing notion of 'Self.' In von Sturmer's case, for example, he saw something in the Wanam dances which he couldn't recognize at all because he saw people whom he knew doing something entirely different—so different that it couldn't be incorporated into any of his existing frameworks at the time.

The String Dance

In the 1962 film Dances at Arukun,9 the fourth section is titled Punka, the "Wallaby Dance." It is comprised of three segments. Peret Arkwookerum is the leading dancer of segment one. This dance, as narrated on the film, is non-existent. It is not a Wallaby Dance; it is, in fact, the String Dance (Kuyu nga'a-wu, 'string for fish'). The Aborigines are hiding their dancing on this film. Segment two involves the handling of a carved image of a wallaby which, in fact, is present throughout the three filmed segments. Although segment two involves the singing of the wallaby song (minha pangku kuntju umu . . . ), the actual dance performed has nothing to do with the usual Wallaby Dance done by these people. What they actually perform on the film more closely resembles another dance—yuk awum, 'the thing from the sacred site,' that is, Thaa'kungadha. The third segment has nothing to do with the Wallaby Dance either. It is, in fact, ngangka thant, a 'devil' or 'spirit' dance, performed in the film by Jack Koonutta and Joe Holroyd.10

     The dance on which we focus here is segment one: the String Dance, meaning 'string of fish.' The dancers at the beginning and end of the line are the spirit brothers, the two Kaa'ngken brothers, whom we remember traveling and throwing boomerangs, thus clearing the coastal plain and arriving at the mouth of the Holroyd, where they left the Wanam ceremony for future generations.

     In many ways, in relation to the other dances in the Wanam complex, the String Dance is both normalizing (in the sense that everyone can participate, including women, who in the past had their own 'strings' in the dance) and rather boring (mainly because the string and the resulting linear formation prevent really spectacular moves of any kind), but a clear understanding of what is going on in this dance is central to the comprehension of some of the major features of Cape York Aboriginal thinking. The spatial form of the dance is extremely important. The dancers are in a single file line, straddling a rope which they are also carrying with both hands. They do not get out of this line. In the past, the line approached the site of the dance—a mound, around which the line then formed an unclosed circle, always maintaining the beginnings and endings of the line led by Peret and 'ended,' so to speak, by another equally prominent man from the Holroyd.

     In the myth, the brothers run off to the South with the stolen string of fish. Eventually, they are forced to throw the fish into the river because they are rotten and stink. The fish come alive, and some get away, of course; but the significance of the whole thing is the notion of dependence on the two 'main men,' that is, the two spirit brothers or, in the case of the dance, upon the leader of the string and his 'brother' who completes the line. There is a sense in which this myth says, "We take the fish from you [we expropriate your labor], but we give you in return real life—you are not just dead fish. We give you history because the only history that is available to you is what we did."

     There are two points to be considered here: (1) without the two 'big men,' the Cape York Wanam people have no history, and (2) in the absence of written history, it is this kind of history as 'identity' or 'identification' that one has.11 The two dancers at the beginning and end of the line (the string) of 'fish' are both fixed nodes in the dance, and they are focal males in the society. The dancers in between are the 'fish,' and they are the dependent ones. This has to be understood both literally and metaphorically. Peret came from Christmas Creek, the other man from the Holroyd. The dance is danced by people who are dependent upon one another. It is a history of mutual dependence in all ways. The line of dancers, as they move in the dance, represents the moving world and the flow in between. The time frame, apart from the present fact of its manifestation in the 'now,' as the dance, is 'past' because, when this event first occurred, it occurred in the story, in the 'beforetime' when the brothers ran away with the fish.

     There are other interesting features of this dance: here are 'fish' dancing as 'wallabies,' because the jump which is incorporated into the dance as it is shown on the film (1962) is like a wallaby. It is also important to know that the 'fish' on the string of the dance represent actual fish sites. Diagrammatically, the situation can be expressed in this way, although readers must understand that the diagram is simplified for the purpose of presentation:

Figure 2

     Although the dances are tied to geographical spaces and thus to awu (sites and land) in a direct way, and to kam waya ('totems' or ancestors) in an indirect way, we see through the dance the dancers moving through the spaces and occupying all the positions on the diagram above. This means that the identities (in terms of awu or kam waya) are transportable. In other words, the dance is not tied to the geographical space. Its conceptual space is what is important.

     In this regard, it is interesting to know that Peret (a leading figure for many years with regard to Wanam dancing) once wanted to make the String Dance more explicit, and he wanted to put carvings of fish of different kinds on the string. The idea wasn't put into practice. If it had been, then one would have to work out which people would be behind which fish; furthermore, the fish would have to be 'ranked' along the line, because each fish would be able to be identified either in terms of sites or as totems. In fact, awu (sites) and kam waya (ancestors, spirits) are two forms of attachment and identification in this socio-centric model of the world. If Peret had actually carried out his notion of putting carvings on the string, he would have succeeded in putting people into determinate orders, because the fish represent clear systems of classification which the two leaders transcend. In this dance, the two men at the beginning and end of the line contain all the fish, and they transcend the two orders of classification and identification. If the carvings had been introduced, thus forcing a determinate ordering of the fish, a battle would have ensued over which system of classification was to be given priority with regard to the dancers in between.

     The two individuals at the front and end of the line are individuated differently: their individuation is based on their capacities to transcend the two orders of awu and kam waya. The other dancers are individuated in a non-transcendental way because their status as individual beings depends on their differential positioning within the two determinate orders and, in the dance, between the two leading men.

     This analysis has meant to show that the leaders of the String Dance provide coherence in the dance itself and in the conceptions of the society which owns the dance in terms of explanations of history and ideas about the world as it is conceived by the Aboriginal people who are involved. We believe that without these forms of representation—dances—these societies cannot think themselves. But there has to be a moment of reflexivity beyond the moment of representation. One has to move from beyond objectification simply as 'forms of representation' to understand—which consists, in our view, of a consciousness of systems of values as such. Otherwise, all an ethnographic account is is 'objectification,' and we may well ask, "So what"?

     Not only do we need to conceive of some greater value to anthropological investigation and explanation of so-called ritual phenomena than mere data and description, but we need to realize that 'objectification' per se is what tends to leave things interpretable as 'primitive' in a pejorative sense. After all, the only guarantee that one has of the value of the values of any given collective representation like the String Dance is the fact that the dance/ceremony/ritual can be mounted. If ritual forms do 'collapse' or 'die out,' it can be taken as a collapse of values. Moreover, if there were not these kinds of forms of representation of values, there would be no basis for debate or inquiry within the society in question. In particular is this true if one indulges in the delusion that one can (or does) throw over all conventions. As soon as one affirms to oneself the value of overthrowing all conventions, one locates oneself in an intellectual space where it is impossible to understand anything.

     Clearly, people do not 'make history' in any sense outside of social conventions and systems of values. This conference is itself, from this standpoint, a ritual occasion, and we need to ask what values are here being concretized, manifested, objectified, and so on. Then, perhaps it is our task to inquire into 'what' or 'how' these values, generated by such a conference about 'Aborigines Making History' compare (or contrast) with the facts of Aborigines making history over as in the String Dance.

Killing the Dance

Aborigines do not say that the world is created once and for all or that their actions have no effects. Their time reckoning is, therefore, a line (see Pocock 1967 for a discussion of 'duration' in an Indian context). In von Sturmer's terms, we can understand Eddie John's statements12 about the Tjiveri dances (see Williams 1988: 12–13) as follows: Mr. John is making a symbolic statement that says to 'blackfellas,' "They have all those good things and how are we going to get them?" He is saying, in effect, that the traditional dances are counter-productive and should be got rid of, as they (or the ancestors) do not generate technology and the good things of the European and English ancestors. In moving toward a willingness to 'show' or 'present' Wanam dances to external audiences (those who are known but who do not know or the imagined audiences mentioned above), the Wanam people, on the other hand, are asserting their faith that the future can be a history of mutuality. We submit that the moment the Wanam people cease performing their dances is a moment which can be interpreted as a loss of faith in a history of mutuality and in the notion that their own cultural repertoire can serve as the basis of such history.

     Eddie John's death (when it occurs) can be seen to constitute a ritual of Severance—of termination of Tjiveri—which he conceives of as being important for further progress of his people. An alternative reading is that Mr. John is stating a final proud assertion: in 'killing the dance,' he acknowledges that his culture has no future in the world, but, in terms of his own sense of self-identity, he is saying that no one can take Tjiveri from him. By inserting himself as a true believer as the 'boss' of that tradition, he maintains the right to determine his own posterity through it and the independence of his identity—as a timeless essence—beyond the vagaries of the future. He is also saying, "We don't have Tjiveri; therefore, we have no history; therefore, we have nothing." There is a sense in which he is saying, "Camelot is gone; we have to look for a future and a history elsewhere."

     The Wanam people do not take the hard line scenario of future treatment of their tradition that the boss of the Tjiveri tradition has done. Their response to the situation is very different: they have withheld dances, as in the 1962 film, largely, we believe, because they perceive that 'whitefellas' will not initiate Aborigines. In 1962, they were caught in a dilemma which turned around the question of how to present or 'reveal' themselves to Europeans but at the same time protect their cultural repertoire from theft. It might be that filming Dances at Arukun was seen as a form of presentation; yet they still felt obliged (having at that time only recently, then, resettled into Aurukun on any enduring basis) to conceal their secrets (their essential being), from their new neighbors. They did not want to be taken into some other Aboriginal history, so to speak. They wanted to write their own history (identity) directly with those Europeans who were perceived to be able to initiate them into a more global history.

     We have said, and now repeat, the fact that, in this context, the revelation of the dance is a form of initiation. Aborigines have seen fit to initiate 'whitefellas'—and others—into their ways. The Maussian notion of 'gift' would require a reciprocal exchange. It seems to us that the return gift is demanded. Europeans (like Wanam singing) have power, and it is the secret of this power which should be revealed.

     As long as the initiatory consciousness remains in place, the history of Aboriginal-European relations not only can but will be interpreted as a history of withholding. As long as the educational, basically processual, and incremental model of 'knowing' remains in place (in contrast to the revelatory model), the history will be interpreted, from the European side, as a refusal or an incapacity to learn.13

     Aborigines have initiated 'whitefellas' into their ways, but this has not been reciprocated. This can surely be seen as one aspect of a crisis of values for them and which, in a real sense, is the over-riding issue of this paper. There are other aspects of a crisis of values as well: many young people today are saying to older generations, "We don't want your initiations. They don't get us anywhere," thus indicating a kind of epistemological break tied to succeeding generations in Aboriginal thinking and modes of knowing.


1 This research will be undertaken through funding made available by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies. Five persons will be involved: (1) John von Sturmer, principal investigator; (2) Drid Williams, deputy principal investigator; (3) Ronne Arnold, research assistant, Labanotation; (4) Ralph Rigby, visual recording officer (film and video); and (5) Neil Howard, sound recording officer.

2 We have not spelled out some of the theoretical and methodological devices which we have used in considering the Wanam material in this paper. For example, readers will not find an explication of the models of communication which pertain to the discussion of performers and audiences in the sub-section headed "The Question of Spectators ('Watchers')," nor have we devoted more than note space to an exegesis of liturgical and dramaturgical models.

3 These are acronyms for the kinship relations, 'father's father's brother' and 'mother's mother's brother.'—Editor

4 Following Pocock (1967) and his preoccupations with time reckoning and duration (relative to the Patidar in India), we have used these two terms in the same way as Pocock, and we hold with his discussion and general interpretation of the work of Nilsson and van Gennep, cited in his paper.

5 The reason for attempting briefly to examine the nature of audiences is connected with the general idea of historicity: changes in audiences, we believe, are significant because they indicate part of the historicizing process, i.e., that of a passage from the known to the unknown.

6 Dr. Williams is invited from time to time by the director of the AIDT to assist in the discussion and resolution of some of these kinds of problems within the school. Recently, she has made presentations in the School's 'Living History' courses.

7 Implicit in this discussion is a distinction between 'liturgical' models of events, i.e., those events which actually change the state or status of the individuals involved, in contrast to a 'dramaturgical' model of events, which is a re-presentation of events for other purposes, not calculated to bring about changes.

8 There are other possibilities as well, of course, and any of them are extremely difficult to articulate. We are also aware that, in a finished draft of this work, more would have to be said. We have chosen to risk the criticism of incompleteness here, however, rather than to ignore the subject of possible audience response entirely.

9 Viewing of this film preceded the writing of this paper, and later on, after further field research is done this year, there will be available comparative Laban-notated texts of the actual moves themselves so that our basis for criticism can become unarguably clear.

10 This dance is about the brothers, specifically when, after reaching the bora, they disappear; their spirits return. They are weak and frightened, staring about and sniffing for smoke from the campfires. The older brother, with two staffs, is anxious about his younger brother and watches his progress carefully.

11 We need to know a great deal more than we do about (a) our own modes of thinking with regard, especially, to time and (b) how and in what ways we deal with apparent paradoxes in our own religious beliefs, such as that between immanence and transcendence.

12 Mr. John, the traditional 'boss' of the Weipa South area is "seventy two years old, has recently had a stroke, and wanted to attend the [Laura] festival for what may be the last time. His position, as holder of the Chivaree [Tjiveri] tradition . . . is very difficult to accept, yet it is one which is not unknown elsewhere in Aboriginal Australia: he has steadfastly refused to transmit his . . . knowledge of the traditions he represents to his sons or to anyone else. He has not taught anyone the dances, told of the initiations or anything pertaining to his clan(s). He is designating an eight-year-old granddaughter to succeed him as 'boss' of the Weipa South area, knowing that in fact, the traditions which he holds will die with him, and this is the way he wants it" (Williams, Fieldnotes, July 1987).

13 It is difficult to imagine how a conflict in the models of knowledge—'revelatory,' where seeing is witnessing and therefore knowing, in contrast to a model of knowledge gained slowly, by increments over a long period of time—can be resolved or how the misunderstanding can be reconciled.

References Cited:

Pocock, David
1967. The Anthropology of Time-Reckoning. In Myth and Cosmos (ed. J. Middleton). Austin: University of Texas Press, 303–14.

von Sturmer, John
1978. The Wik Region: Economy, Territoriality and Totemism in Western Cape York Peninsula, North Queensland. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis. University of Queensland.
1987a. Aboriginal Singing and Notions of Power. In Songs of Aboriginal Australia (ed. M. Clunies-Ross, T. Donaldson, and S. Wild). Oceania Monograph 32. Sydney: University of Sydney, 63–75.
1987b. The Aboriginal/Islander Dance Theatre. New Theatre 1(2).

Williams, Drid
1988. Homo Nullius: The Status of Traditional Aboriginal Dancing in Northern Queensland. Paper for the Fifth international Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies in Darwin, N.T., August 31.



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