Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Hang Out With Aborigines, But Beware the Jun-Jiddy Man!

Bennelong, an aboriginal used for "show and tell" back in England

I've always been fascinated by aboriginal culture of Australia. As an American, the story is eerily familiar. The British showed up on boats. They tried to interact with the local indigenous folk, but a lack of cultural understanding always seemed to screw things up. Ultimately, much of the native population dies off from disease or get killed. The survivors are relocated to a small portion of their "native lands."

Here is one account of how things went wrong early on with the aboriginals. The story from 1790 has to do with a beached sperm whale and a group of sailors rowing to shore to investigate.

The cove was full of natives allured by the attractions of a whale feast; and it being remarked during the conference that the twenty of thirty which appeared were drawing themselves into a circle round the governor and his small unarmed party (for that was literally and most inexcusably the situation) the governor proposed retiring to the boat by degrees; but Bennillong, who had presented to him several natives by name, pointed out one, whom the governor, thinking to take particular notice of, stepped forward to meet, holding out both his hands toward him. The savage not understanding this civility, and perhaps thinking that he was going to seize him as a prisoner, lifted a spear from the grass with his foot, and fixing it on his throwing-stick, in an instant darted it at the governor. The spear entered a little above the collar bone, and had been discharged with such force, that the barb of it came through on the other side. Several other spears were thrown, but happily no further mischief was effected. The spear was with difficulty broken by Lieutenant Waterhouse, and while the governor was leading down to the boat the people landed with the arms, but of four muskets which they brought on shore one only could be fired.

Ahhh, the colonial period. And in 1790 I think European philosophers in general were hoping that at some point during their sea voyages they would encounter the "noble savage" as Rousseau called them. They had this idea that people not reared in European society might actually have a more pure, civil, civilization free from concepts of property or vice or greed or dishonesty. Yeah... that's as dreamy as El Dorado. Upon close examination it became clear that anywhere you find humanity you find assholery, and every culture has its own cocktail of fucked up beliefs and behaviors.

Here is a clip from Where the Green Ants Dream by Werner Herzog, a great film that illustrates the cultural discordance between settler and aboriginal culture:

Anyway, anytime I meet an Australian I ask about aborigines. The responses are just as varied as those you might hear if asking an American about Obama or their country's foreign policy. Many responses are sensitive and intelligent, showing a similar awareness about Australia's colonial history that many Americans have about their own. I think most Americans and Australians, and anyone with familial roots to a major European country are aware of their Midas touch for cultural annihilation!

But here are a few classy statements I've heard from non-aboriginal Australians over the years, for the sake of scoffing:

--"All they do is sit around drinking alcohol and sniffing glue."

--"We give them money and housing, and all they do is spend it on drink and then tear the house apart and sell the appliances and wiring for more drink. Then they tear the wood out of the house and use it for their cooking fires. In the end they just sit around a campfire burning on the foundation of the home our government gave them."

--"The abo' is a prehistoric man. He can't think like the modern man."

--"The government gives them so much money as an apology for what we did hundreds of years ago. When is it ever going to be enough?"

Last time I heard, only six of three hundred languages spoken by Aboriginals still exist. The rest are forgotten and lost, never to be relearned. No resources to do so. Much like our own Native Americans, much of what once existed is lost. Hell, by the mid-1800s most northeastern Native Americans had died  of disease or warfare. Those in the southwest escaped to high elevation mountain ranges to avoid us. The remaining ones were resettled on the Trail of Tears or eradicated in a number of wars out West and in the Southeast.

Before venturing to Australia, I used to ask, "Do aborigines live in the cities? Like, do they walk around and work jobs? The answers were mixed, but from what I could gather most aboriginals lived on their native lands with a few occasionally assimilating into society. But when I walked throughout Melbourne and Sydney I didn't see anyone I could identify as aboriginal. Then I got to Darwin where aboriginals hung out in the town. Unfortunately, some did sniff glue. One guy approached me offering me a didgeridoo for $15. His voice was thrashed, and his breath smelled like booze. But I didn't take the interaction with him as an indication that "they must all be this way." Unfortunately, like many Native Americans, there is an epidemic of alcoholism amongst the indigenous folk. On the tour into Kakadu National Park, we stopped at a petrol station for morning coffees. I was standing at a picnic table drinking a Farmer's Union Coffee (basically an Australian and better version of one of those chilled Starbucks drinks in the little jars) where an Aboriginal man startled me. He'd approached from behind asking, "Got a cigarette, mate?" I didn't, but our guide had one to give him. After our guide gave him a light, he disappeared into the bush just as quickly and quietly as he'd appeared. Ghostlike, really. It was pretty awesome.

In Darwin city, I was walking along the beach and saw a number of aboriginals just hanging out on the shore. I noticed that no tourists or white person, for that matter, interacted with them, approached them, or even looked at them. I was eager to talk to them, especially after hanging out with this weird French girl. I mentioned how I wanted to talk to some of the aborigines we saw around Darwin, and she condemned it, as if I was harassing the wildlife, or as if that "take only photographs, leave nothing but footprints" bullshit applied to them! It didn't make sense to me. They're human beings. Compassionate, interesting human beings. Why couldn't an American kid walk up to an aborigine and shoot the shit?

Oddly enough, a couple who were fishing with a hand reel for crabs had more to say to me than I did them. I simply asked what they'd caught for the day, and I ended up fishing with them for an hour. They were a husband and wife what had made their way from Western Australia on foot, camping each night and subsisting on a mix of store bought groceries and tucker found along the way. 

"Florida?" the man asked, "that's right up there near Canada. Right, mate?"

Of course, I can't remember their names, long aboriginal names, but that hour of hanging out and fishing for crab with them was simply a lesson of having the nerve to approach a stranger and have a friendly conversation--a rather Australian thing to do. More and more it seems like this is harder and harder for people to do in general. And, it was awesome to just hang out with aborigines. Most folks only learn about aborigines from the movies.

I remember I took a course in college called "The Australian Experience" which consisted of reading about the life in Australia from the early days of 18th century penal convicts and free settlers up to the 20th century. Our professor was visiting from Sydney, and I remember her talking about some of the complications in getting aboriginals to assimilate with today's Australia. A big issue, she explained, was the notion of walkabout. When one tries to hire an aboriginal for a job, the aboriginal might just not show up one day, having gone walkabout. This, I can imagine, is complicating and annoying. Imagine a carpenter who hires an aboriginal as his helper yet lost him to this concept of "walkabout." And what about the concept of time? Property? Money? Does an aboriginal show up on time? The fact that they don't have to, the fact that "walkabout" still exists in the world today as a real thing that happens, is beautiful. It is one example of a displaced culture biting it's thumb at the hegemony of the Western world. The "global village" merely replaced colonialism. Good on them to disregard it and not even muster the energy it would take to give it the middle finger.

It also serves as evidence that the colonial impact on aboriginals is, perhaps, slightly less devastating than it was on Native Americans. I can't think of anywhere in the United States where Native Americans can wander from one side of the country to another subsisting off of the land, and it being allowed without a hassle such as "this is my property, get out!" While some Native American tribes have had a great opportunity with casinos, they only have those casinos because their lawyers found loopholes in the law regarding their rights as "nations." Really, if I had to compare the ugly history of the United States and the Native Americans to the English settlers and the aborigines, the aborigines have faired better in a number of ways. The government declared a day of apology, many aboriginals have received reparation pay as an apology for half-casting, and tribal lands such as Arnhem land require permission before non-aboriginals can enter. This is done in an effort to preserve what is left of aboriginal culture. That's pretty impressive, considering American elementary schools still teach kids that an indian named Squanto helped the Pilgrims survive in the early days of the colonies and that they and the indians gathered around a table and all had a big Thankgiving dinner. Most people never learn that Squanto was the survivor and millions of others natives would perish.

Based on my interactions with aboriginals on my first trip to Australia, I took the opportunity to chat with two aboriginal ladies in a bar on my second trip while in Cairns. Granted, not every bar in Cairns is frequented by aboriginals. I was at a bar called the Railway Inn. Inside was a mix of aboriginals and some serious bruiser-looking men still in their hazard clothing at the end of a workday. With a camera in hand, I got a dirty look from a few of the white folk, (I would later tell some local skaters in Cairns that I hung out there only to be met with surprise, for the Railway is a bar of aboriginals, derelicts and "people that are hooked on ice". People also "get shot there!" said the kid. But why would an American fear a place where shots are fired?) but these two ladies asked where I was from.

"What ya doin' in Australia, Mister?" asked the one on the right.

"Oh, just seeing the country. First time in Cairns. I went out on the reef for a few days, and now I'm fixing to rent a car and explore. I heard there were rain forests north of here, and aboriginal lands. Are they worth driving to?"

"Indeed. You should look for my cousin. At the Albatross Hotel. He'll take you fishing," said the lady on the left.

"Do you have a phone number?"

"No number. Robbie Nelson. If you go ask for him at the Albatross, you'll find him. There he'll take you out to catch barra. You know the fish?"

"Barramundi? It's tasty. We have it in America now. At the restaurant I work, we had it."

"You've eaten barra? But have you caught one?"


"Well, Robbie will take you. Bloody strong fish. They fight you. But watch out for crocs. Keep a fire burning all night. Otherwise the crocs will eat through your eski looking for barra, and maybe eat you."

"That dangerous is it?"

"Yes, and there is another one to watch for... the Gungganydji man!" (Pronounced like "jun-jiddy")

"Who is the Gungganydji man?" I asked. 

"A small bugger. He will sneak up in the night as you sleep and take your barra. He'll take whatever he wants. And he's quick. And small."

"Small? How small?" 

"A very small man, but very strong. The Gungganydji man will wrestle you and win. They love to wrestle. He'll always beat you in a wrestling match. He lives in the forest, with no clothes. They are little ones of us. Very little, but be careful. They are powerful." 

Again, how would one have such a great experience if they couldn't get past their weird colonial-elephant-in-the-room guilt and say "What's up?" to an aborigine. What is travel without interaction with the locals? It's a lesson far too many people will never learn. 

I was intrigued enough by the story of the Gungganydji man that I researched who he was. It turns out it is not a man, but a tribe, an extinct tribe

The woman's description of small, strong men came from the fact that the Gungganydjis were pygmies. The woman I spoke to, who was most likely a child of an aboriginal half-caste or one of the stolen generation herself, must have either directly experienced the Gungganydji or grew up hearing lore about them. The tribe went extinct in the latter half of the 1900s apparently, but her story intrigued me enough to venture northwards... until I realized that I had no idea of how to find the Albatross Hotel. Nor could I spare the two or three days to go fishing when I needed to drive 1800+ km from Cairns to Brisbane in just over a week, at a max of 50 mph, and that drive pretty much sucked.

It would have been fun wrestling the Gungganydji men with you, instead, Robbie Nelson. Sorry I never made it. 


  1. Brilliant stuff! I am just like you, Mexican american from Texas. I get the stink eye by white Australians when I first asked about how to meet aboriginal folks. Couldn't understand it. Turns out I met a gang of them at a random open mic in Melbourne, and they were chill. We traded words and spoke the all talk. I too see no point in travelling if I can't meet the locals. Maybe its an american thing, we are truly of a melting pot and here in Aussie land it seems the white people kinda.. Kept to themselves and don't mix as much perhaps(?) Great blog my friend. Cheers

    1. This is the first comment on this blog ever. Nice to know someone is reading it. For a while I thought Russians were spying on me, based on the web traffic. Now that I know people actually read it, I might start posting some new stuff. I haven't been anywhere international since Norway, but I have a few travel stories to add in the meantime.