14 May, 2018

Walkabout: The Bower Bird


The Bower Bird is found in Australia and New Guinea. It is a collector of stuff. Among the bower birds found locally, the males predominantly collect blue stuff. They line their nests with blue trinkets, bits of plastic, coloured paper, flowers, feathers from other birds, anything that's blue. I'm no ornithologist, but I generally understand that this is done to lure potential mates. The more stuff collected, the more vibrant the male's nest appears to the female bower birds. It doesn't matter where the stuff comes from, I don't know if the specific shade of blue matters, but I'm sure some kind of though process goes through the male bird's head as it ccumulates the stuff.

Modern Indigenous Australian culture feels a bit like that in a lot of ways. Where the male bower bird represents the members of the Indigenous community, and the female bower bird represents government funding bodies, non-indigenous outsiders, and anyone who might have anything to say about anything Indigenous.

When local artists indicate that they might be Indigenous, they are instantly expected to produce dot paintings, because that's what "Australian Aboriginal Art" is.

Much of the folklore of various groups involves animals with distinctive character traits. These traits function as a shorthand so that listeners will know what to expect from different character's with regards to their personalities and traits. A similar tradition can be seen back as far as Aesop's fables in the Western Canon, but "primitive tribal groups" can't presume to stand at the level of the great philosophers, so they draw terminology from other tribal groups and call the animals "totems". This also fits basically with the complex system of familial moiety, and is a quick way to explain how groups are interconnected to colonial anthropologists who have no similar notion in their own culture, so it seems to work multiple ways. This gives us individuals who claim their own totem based on the character traits of animal spirits in the stories they identify with, then a family totem based on what their people can remember of the past, and finally a people linked to a specific ancestral land (where I live in Tharawal land, but most of the Indigenous elders I know identify as Wiradjuri, Gamilaroi, or Dharug...and most will go back to that land when they die).

Australian English words derived from Indigenous terms often reflect a very specific time and place. Such as the urban legend that when a colonist asked what a certain animal was, their Indigenous companion responded "Kangaroo", meaning "I don't understand you". Other terms were drawn from a specific local dialect, and they were considered "Aboriginal" by ethnocentric invaders who couldn't be bothered to learn the local ways, and didn't understand that English farming techniques weren't suitable to this part of the world. 

But there's more to the Bower Bird analogy than this.

Just as I said the word "totem" had basically been appropriated by the community, because it was a close enough fit to what they were trying to say, various Indigenous groups have no problem absorbing other concepts into their cultural melting pot. It is said that Islam came to Australia before Christianity along the northern coastline via the Malaccan traders across Malaysia and Indonesia. Some groups have added to the roster of characters in their animal fables by adding introduced species like cats and foxes (with their traditional European traits). An elder told me the appropriate procedure to curse someone by "pointing the bone", but I don't know if this was a real belief, a joke on the outsider white guy, or just him playing "the role of the mysterious elder with hidden knowledge" because that's just what he was expected to do in the type of social situation where we were talking. I've watched in more public settings when elders told cocky white student teachers that they wouldn't know how to track a goanna through light scrub, only to then explain tactics that I've seen repeated on several nature documentaries. I've seen elders tell white people things they wanted to hear, even though I'd corroborated through several other sources that something else seemed to be the more likely truth.

When so much has been systematically destroyed and lost, the only way to maintain a sense of identity is to cling onto the pieces that are left, and paste them together with anything else that can give them a bit of context. The fact that Indigenous Australian communities have been doing this for so long could easily be their greatest strength in this setting. 
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