A while back I received the Spring edition of Contemporary Shamanism. The first article was a piece by Hank Wesselman, Ph.D., entitled Australian Aboriginal Wisdom. I read the piece, or most of it, put the journal down, and forgot about it. Last night Jennie was rummaging through our magazines and brought it out.
In his article, Dr. Wesselman discusses the Australian Aboriginal word, dadirri (deep listening/stillness) as defined by Miriam Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann. Dr. Ungunmerr-Baumann who, according to UNIYA, “was born in the bush near Daly River in 1950…. is a member of the Ngangiwumirr language group (and) speaks four other local languages.” I encourage you to watched the You-Tube video of Dr. Ungunmerr-Baumann speaking about dadirri, if you have not done so already.
There are a great many Aboriginal cultures, and language groups, in Australia, very much as in the Americas. Yet Dr. Wesselman does not specify which culture Mariam Rose hails from, nor the linguistic roots of the term; rather, he generalizes her comments as Australian Aboriginal. This has the unfortunate effect of erasing cultural differences. He then turns to an Indian scholar, the Venerble E. Nandisvara Nayake Thero, Ph.D., who wrote a paper, “The Dreamtime, Mysticism, and Liberation: Shamanism in Australia,” published, in 1987, in a volume entitled, Shamanism: Expanded Views of Reality, edited by Shirley Nicholson.
Dr. Nandisvara is quoted as having written, “….If (a) civilization can be defined (by) the degree of polishing of an individual’s mind and the building of his or her character, and if the culture (reflects) the measure of our self-discipline as well as our level of consciousness, then the Australian Aboriginals are actually one of the most civilized and highly cultured peoples in the world today.” Later in the article he is paraphrased by Wesselman as having written, “….those Aboriginals still involved in their traditional lifeways are so peaceful and quiet, as well as so harmoniously in tune with Nature and the spiritual dimension…. ” (compared to so-called “civilized” societies).
Sadly, Dr. Wesselman does not share crucial information with the reader. He understates the influence of Australian governmental policies and multinational resource extraction schemes that have greatly limited the capacity of Australia’s Aboriginal people to live in their homelands or continue traditional subsistence practices. (The same thing is occurring at an accelerated pace in North America, particularly Canada.) Further, Dr. Wesselman neglects to inform us that Mariam Rose holds an honorary Doctorate, in addition to an M.Ed. He does not put her words in cultural context, nor does he acknowledge her accomplishments in the fields of education and the arts, and her ceaseless work for Aboriginal people. It is these omissions I find most troubling.
Although I have a keen interest in Australian Aboriginal cultures, I am not very knowledgeable about them, save they are both diverse and complex. I do know it is important for non-Indigenous people to resist the impulse to make Aboriginal and Indigenous people into “noble savages”, as such attempts to place Native people firmly in the spiritual realm, and/or in the past, are detrimental to Indigenous self-knowledge, and ignore the many, and growing, obstacles placed in way of Indigenous people around the world who wish to continue traditional lifestyles and practices. They also ignored the active presence of Native people in all walks of life. Thus, decontextualizing Indigenous knowledge is a best misleading, and at worst, a subtle form of genocide.
Shamans come in all shapes and sizes, and hail from most, if not all, cultures. They work in cities and villages, jungles and academia. I imagine there are more non-Indigenous shamans working in the world today than Indigenous ones. Many of us, Native and non, live in multiple, overlapping, cultures, making our way through social worlds that often appear in opposition, or at least uninterested in truly sharing with one another. Yet, somehow we find each other and we share. I firmly believe it is best to do this with as little pedestal raising, and as much generosity and humbleness as possible.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts on these thorny problems.