A Thorny Problem

Winter_TwilightA 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.


12 thoughts on “A Thorny Problem

  1. So well said Michael.

    Use of the word ‘dadirri’ in itself is problematic, because it is from one Indigenous language which is not representative of the many other Indigenous languages. But it is Aunty Mariam’s word, she has made it known, and it is beautiful. She must be given credit for it.

    And like words, people are lumped into one homogenous glob. It’s all too easy, and just a bit lazy. People from outside the culture cannot adequately describe the complexity of another culture.

    We’ve had this conversation so many times. On one hand, traditional knowledge is idealised. On the other, it is used as an excuse to stereotype, dismiss, differentiate, and discriminate.

    There was a lovely documentary on our Indigenous TV channel the other week. It was about a Chinese artist collaborating with Indigenous artists in one community in the Northern Territory. He was humble and respectful, and the result was expansive. http://www.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/821370/the-making-of-the-film-ochre-and-ink-how-chinese-art-met

    Best wishes.

    1. Tree Girl, I am glad to receive your always thoughtful comment, especially given your direct engagement in the issues. I look forward to watching the video. Yes, the lumping together of people (and words) is all too easy, and indeed lazy. I am as guilty as the next person. I often wonder how we have, as a species, made it this far. I suspect that if we fail to find a way to dramatically reduce our greed, insistence on stereotyping, and discrimination we shall not make it all that much further, or the quality of life for those who remain will not be great. I find myself enraged by all developers, even as I know that I have worked with developers who had marvelous visions and worked to bring them into being, often against great odds. My anger is irrational and comes, I imagine, from a sense of having my back to the wall. Colonialism is designed to divide and to create desperation and has done these tasks uncannily well. That we have dealt with it for over 500 years does not seem to have helped. So we continue to seek new, more effective avenues to challenge its authority, and for healing. It is good to know there are people everywhere, Indigenous and non, who walk this path with us, is it not? I hope things at home are going well for you.

  2. I remember reading from David Abram that there is such a link between song lines and land for some of the Aboriginal people in Australia, that developing the land means erasing the cultures and traditions of people. In South Africa, there is knowledge which focuses on the connectedness between people in the present, the people who have gone before and the children yet to be born. People are also seen to be a part of a greater cosmos. To me, it makes sense that we live in a world which shares a greater and wider understanding of what it means to be human, and shares knowledge from all branches of the human family. But that doesn’t mean westerners sharing in a way which is reductive or through a western lens. I’m still trying to find the balance, I think.

    1. Hi Nicciattfield, Thank you for this thoughtful comment. Back many years, David and I were friends, and had conversations about the sonorous nature of the world. Yes, song lines are important to Aboriginal people i Australia, as the myths and history of the people are woven into the landscape. I know only enough about it to be awestruck.While Indigenous people around the world are immensely complex and diverse, most of us seem to place ourselves in the cosmos, and in connection to other beings. I suspect the divide is less about Western and non-Western than about greed and a strange willingness to deny awareness and value to others. That, of course, is central to so much spiritual teaching across cultures, yet the practice is immensely challenging. In the Americas, many Indigenous traditions speak about the need for balance. The traditions speak about it a great deal, I suspect, because it is so very difficult to achieve, and so transitory. We are constantly losing balance and seeking to regain it.

      1. Hi Michael…thanks for the lovely reply! I too think that it’s perhaps about capitalism and what was lost. This is the research I would like to explore…if we become back in touch with earth, do we learn to treat other people better and become more empathic? Do social and environmental justice interlink? Andy Fisher says so. With the project that I work with, I see people and children wake up to the beauty that is there all around them and it’s so lovely to see.

        But to live in our world, the way that it is, as a person who can see what is happening, it creates a crisis, I think. I’m trying to find ways to give shape to something new.

        I so love David Abram’s books! Are you one of the healers he spoke to while he was writing them?

      2. Nicciattfield, I am probably not one of the David speaks of. When I knew him I was very much the learner, or better, the newbe. I am not certain that being in touch with the Earth makes us better, more compassionate people, and I am sure it helps. Yes, social and environmental justice are closely linked, a fact many would like to obscure. And yes, being even a bit aware can create heartbreak and crisis. But then, we are in a crisis, are we not?

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