The Merging of Indigenous and Western Culture

By September 22, 2012Indigenous, Music, Society, Theatre

Yesterday’s post on the postponement of a referendum on the recognition of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples has pushed me into writing two more, this one on culture and tomorrow’s on the negative side – crime and punishment.

The broad argument I am making is that those who want to see an improvement in the situation of our indigenous people tend to concentrate on the bad stories that come about the isolated settlements in the north of our country and pass over what is happening in urban Australia, where most of Australians, including the indigenous, live. This is especially the case in the broader cultural domain.

Aboriginal art has become an internationally recognised Australian product of high value, and while much of it still comes from the north it has moved from bark and ochre to acrylic and canvas. Western technical competence is easy to borrow, and there are many willing teachers. Charles Darwin University has a print shop, and teaches indigenous artists how to become proficient in this medium. Many are highly skilled, and their work commands high prices.

It is perhaps Western technique that has caused the end of traditional Aboriginal society. Why would you walk if you could use a 4WD, or a spear if you could use a rifle? There is no need to move over country if food comes in packets, or to gather for entertainment if there is satellite television. And the old forms die if they are not practised. So there is limbo, but the underlying dynamic is a merger of Aboriginal ways into the wider Western culture.

This does not mean disappearance, at all. While indigenous musicians have taken to the guitar, the didgeridoo has been taken into string quartets and orchestral music, and exponents like William Barton have an international standing. There is now an Australian sound, which Peter Sculthorpe and Ross Edwards exemplify. Whether or not a particular work contains the didgeridoo, that sound is nonetheless influenced by indigenous music and culture.

In dance, Bangarra Dance Theatre is a perfect example of the transition. Its music is Western in form and indigenous in spirit. Its dancers mostly claim descent from both indigenous and other ancestors, as do all but three of the other principals. Were you to pass one in the street it would not occur to you that she or he was indigenous. The dancing is strongly influenced by indigenous traditions, but is also instantly recognisable as modern Western dance. Bangarra also has a great following, and its new work is widely anticipated.

In literature, indigenous writers like Sally Morgan, Ruby Langford Ginibi, Hilda Jarman Muir and Jackie Huggins are well known and can appear on school reading lists. Deborah Mailman, an indigenous actor of distinction, has appeared in ‘King Lear’. The country and western music tradition in Australia has a lot of indigenous exponents. I could go on and on with examples.

What does all this tell us? In my view, it is evidence that there is a future in which most Aboriginal people are indistinguishable from the rest of us, but are bearers of traditions that are very much part of Australian life. A rosy view – maybe, but I think it is one worth working for.

There is a gloomier view, and I’ll give you that tomorrow.

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