What we can learn from Indigenous Australians about living in harmony with the country
The Indigenous concept that rocks, trees and animals all have consciousness is a difficult one for Westerners to accept, and a barrier to adopting ‘kincentric’ ways of thinking.
Reading is not the same as knowing. This was one of the first lessons 19-year-old John Bradley learned when he travelled to Borroloola near the Gulf of Carpentaria to teach at a Yanyuwa primary school.
It was 1979. In those days, Bradley had conventional ideas about what learning entailed – if you read about an animal in a book, for instance, you knew about the animal. When he told a Yanyuwa man that he knew about dugong, the man made no comment. Then one day, while hunting with Yanyuwa friends, a dugong broke Bradley’s arm. His companion remarked: “Now you know about dugong.”
The Yanyuwa fascinated Bradley. As they introduced him to their country, his understanding of the natural world, and the place of humans within it, began to shift. He was also starting to learn the Yanyuwa language, which involved assimilating the Yanyuwa point of view – gradually he was able to “grow ears”, as the Yanyuwa put it. He came to realise this involved “growing some kind of intelligence”.
“There was a completely different way of thinking,” he recalls. “I remember being on savanna plains surrounded 360 degrees by fire, and my immediate reaction was, ‘Where’s the CFA?’ But these were fires that everyone had lit, and people were really happy. For them, this was how it should be. It’s the white fella who hasn't got it now, he’s not understanding a thing … So you learn actually to grow into another skin, which is still a part of your own skin.”
Bradley says he was, fortunately, not blinkered by presumptions that his knowledge was superior.
“I was prepared to see the logic of Indigenous people as having some sense,” he says. “If you look at a history of Indigenous people in Australia, now that goes back at least 65,000 years, so they did pretty well at multiple levels,” he says.
“At the level of sustaining themselves, and at the level of understanding what their environment was actually saying and doing ...”
But he was ostracised by the white people at Borroloola for wanting to learn from the Yanyuwa – one shopkeeper offered him a tin of shoe polish to paint his skin black, and refused to allow him to withdraw money from his bank account.
Barriers to hearing the Indigenous point of view are still with us, he says.
“We often talk about Aboriginal people living at one with their country, but what does this mean? The reality is based on deep, deep pragmatism, and deep, deep practical knowledge, interfused with what we in the West might call spirituality.
“We often talk about Aboriginal people living at one with their country, but what does this mean? The reality is based on deep, deep pragmatism, and deep, deep practical knowledge, interfused with what we in the West might call spirituality."
“But one issue today is that at universities, for instance, we make these little compartments of knowledge, and try to take the bits that suit our world view, and to leave the rest. And yet for the Yanyuwa, all of those things that we study here – religion, ecology, sustainability, anthropology and so on – are one thing.”
The Yanyuwa language reflects the Yanyuwa kinship structure that includes other Yanyuwa-speaking humans, but also fish, birds, plants, and even landscape features such as rocks.
A Yanyuwa man or woman belongs to a network of spiritual and physical entities – when they learn how to speak Yanyuwa, they also learn where they stand in relation to seagrass, or a brolga, or a dugong.
Bradley calls this kincentric ecology. He says that for Westerners steeped in a world view that does not allow that rocks, trees and animals have consciousness, this is one of the “the most difficult” Indigenous concepts to accept.
“So often we want to jump to, ‘Oh, that's just a metaphor for spirituality’ – but it’s not. I’ve been around this long enough now, and I know how to speak about it in a language that’s not English, and it's real.”
If you believe animals and plants are kin, you treat them differently. An Indigenous person who hunts a dugong, for instance, has “a whole lot of social responsibilities, if you like, that must take place before the hunt, during the hunt, after the hunt, even at the point when you eat it … it’s surrounded by this understanding that this is kin that you have killed.”
The same sense of relationship and responsibility is invoked when burning country, which he calls a “profoundly political act” because it involves negotiating multiple relationships.
“You learn very quickly when you're travelling with Indigenous people in their country, that experts make things look really easy because you see them just doing it. But then it dawns on you – this is generations upon generations of knowledge, empirical data gathering and teaching.”
When you begin to perceive country in this way, “you find yourself in this immense web of being”, he says.
“You might be at the centre of it, but it's spreading out and everything is getting incorporated into it, and your memory has to stretch to remember how it works if you don't want to offend people. And that's really how you grow ears to listen to what people tell you.”
Kincentric ecology is “a common thread” among Australia’s Indigenous people, he says, although it may function differently around the nation.
Before European contact, Australia had more linguistic diversity than Europe. The continent was home to 275 Indigenous languages and 600 dialects. Now only 20 languages are considered strong. An immense body of knowledge has been destroyed. When Bradley first arrived at Borroloola, children were punished for speaking Yanyuwa.
Three fluent Yanyuwa speakers remain today – two old women, who taught Bradley, and Bradley himself, who has learned the “male” Yanyuwa dialect during the 40 years he's spent in the community (Yanyuwa is one of the few languages in the world where men and women speak separate dialects.)
Kincentric ecology is not people-centric, but in this world view humans do have a special responsibility “to help keep order whether it be by burning, or by the simple act of calling out to a place so that the spirits of deceased people or the country itself can hear”.
“And I think that raises this whole spectre that people find a bit difficult to understand. Even what we would call the land, essentially it can hear, it can respond ...”
So what happens to the land when language is lost, and this sense of kinship and responsibility dies away?
Bradley hopes it's not too late for Australians to “grow ears”.
John Bradley’s latest book is "Reflexive Ethnographic Practice – Three Generations of Social Researchers in One Place, edited by Amanda Kearney and John Bradley, and published by Palgrave Macmillan.
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