Chapter 4 [Conditional Culture, by Rex Ingamells, 1938]

[Editor: This is a chapter from Conditional Culture (1938) by Rex Ingamells.]

IV. The culture of the aborigines.

Of Australia’s traditions I have already said something in general; and, as these and the facts of her history may readily be studied by the student, in books and archives, I need say little more.

There is, however, one factor of the past which is too little understood and which must be of primary importance to the proper evolution of our culture; and to this we should give much thought. It is the culture of the aborigines.

They are now a forgotten people. One by one the tribes have vanished from their hunting grounds. No longer do the tribes go out in the dark before the dawn to stalk the kangaroos; no longer do they fish, with their spears or nets, in the rivers or billabongs or at the edge of the sea. They no longer hold their sacred corroborees under the twisted fire-reflecting branches of massive gum trees or among the stunted mallee. The blacks that remain are a degenerate, puppet people, mere parodies of what their race once was.

With the extension of white settlement, the blacks who lived practically undisturbed under their old conditions are confined to a few main areas, not very amenable to white penetration, in the centre and northern parts of the continent. In such regions as Cape York Peninsula, Arnheim’s Land, and that stretching from the Cambridge Gulf to King George’s Sound, there are many thousands of aborigines. But the vast majority of tribes, those whose hunting grounds consisted of the most fertile country in Australia, have vanished. These were the finest tribes physically; but they have none or few pure-blooded descendants. The most immediately pressing problem of Aboriginal welfare concerns the thousands of half-castes and others who live in continual contact with white settlements.

Contrary to general conception, the passing of the aborigines meant the passing of a culture that was age-old. Mr. T. G. Strehlow, who is, perhaps, more qualified to speak with authority on the Central Australian blacks than is any other man, once informed me that the legends of the Luritcha, Aranda and other tribes are essentially similar to those of ancient Greece. I have read many such legends as set down by scholars, some of them in manuscript by Mr. Strehlow himself, and they certainly prove the fertility of the aboriginal mind in imagination and poetry based on the realities and mysteries of environment.

Here are a few lines of Aboriginal song, as translated by E. R. T. Gribble, which have more of the spirit of the enlightened poetry written in Akhnaton’s court than anything else I know:

“The bird with the pretty skin flies round and goes down, down.”
“The whale, the whale, goes deep down, and throws up the waterspout.
The big mountain far-away looks like smoke, far-away.”

The laws, the customs and the art of the Australian aborigines went to make a culture which was closely bound in every way with their environment. In spite of the complexities of their totemic, tribal and intertribal systems, their outlook on life was basically simple, and, in the finest flowerings of their arts of poetry, drama and painting, they showed themselves masters in sublimating with pristine directness and unselfconsciousness the highlights of their primaeval life. Sympathetic students will find in such flowerings intense and universal qualities of tender loveliness, vivid beauty, stirring and noble daring, moving pathos and stark tragedy. Aboriginal art, though primitive, was many-sided, and there seems to have been no limit to the fundamental human qualities which it could express.

Although such a culture has itself, for the most part, died with the tribes, something of its spirit has been preserved. Sincere students are continually investigating, and, with painstaking care, are recording and co-ordinating the results. This synthesising of sporadic observation and ideational research is, unfortunately, now that the best of the culture is dead, the only way of attempting appreciation of it. The fact that the blacks had no written language apart from a few picture signs means that by far the greater part of their culture is forever lost to our appreciation. But an assimilation of much of the spirit of it and the natural identifying of that spirit with many of our own experiences, in cultural expression, is essential to the honest development of Australian culture.

When I see wommeras, spears, bullroarers, boomerangs, dilly-bags, message sticks, tjurungas and wax figures in the aboriginal sections of our museums, and when I read scientific treatises and pioneer reminiscences dealing with aboriginal occultism, funeral rites, initiation ceremonies and so on; I am strongly conscious, often unhappily so, of much in our colonial tradition. As a people it is our duty to be familiar with these things. In them must spread the roots of our culture. Our culture must make artistic realizations of these things and the spirit permeating and engendered by them acceptable to the world.

Thoughtful introspection must lead us to serious consideration concerning the aboriginal question of the past and present and practical action of more than one kind concerning that of the present. The stage has been reached when, after a vigorous era of colonization, Australians should take stock of past and present and so give effective thought to the future.

Our traditions are twofold. Inextricably woven with the transplanted European culture are our experiences of the Australian environment. How far we and this environment have changed and reacted through contact, we owe to self-honesty to understand, and such an understanding can arise properly only through cultural expression. But to ensure imaginative truth our writers and painters must become hard-working students of aboriginal culture, something initially far-removed from the engaging and controlling factors of modern European life.

From aboriginal art and song we must learn much of our new technique; from aboriginal legend, sublimated through our thought, we must achieve something of a pristine outlook on life.

Sydney, Hobart, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane, and thousands of towns stand, where a century and a half ago, was virgin bush. Roads, railways, and telegraph lines link one part of Australia to another; homesteads, ploughed fields or fields of waving wheat and blocks of vineyards have appeared everywhere since 1788. Even the greatest rivers have been transformed by locks; and large dams and immense reservoirs have been constructed, while swamps and lagoon-lands have been reclaimed.

In so far as the white man has set his seal upon it, Australia is European. From grazing sheep and cattle, from rabbits, foxes, and prickly pears to aeroplanes, wireless, cricket matches, talking pictures and beer, Australia bears our seal. Yet we are influenced by her environment more powerfully than we know. Let us be honest about it.

Rex Ingamells, Conditional Culture, F. W. Preece, Adelaide, 1938, pp. 16-18

Editor’s notes:
Akhnaton = (also spelt “Akhenaten”) a Pharaoh of Egypt (ca. 1353 – ca. 1336 B.C. )

Arnheim’s Land = Arnhem Land, a region of the Northern Territory, situated on the northern coast of Australia

[Editor: Corrected “descedents” to “descendants”.]

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