Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Today’s lesson in cultural imperialism


We have a couple of lovely visitors staying with us from the land down under. They were both raised on rural dairy farms and are quite down to earth.

I have been asking about the cultural relations between the Aboriginal population and those of European ancestry in Australia. Their perspective is quite honest and derived from personal experience as opposed to academic. They are not concerned with political correctness or viewing relations objectively. I find their candidness refreshing.

Last night I heard the following story: in the white farming community where our visitor *Pamela grew up, there was an Aboriginal grouping quite close by, living on what they called a ‘reserve’.

The story goes, that when one of the influential and well known Aboriginal chiefs died, the priest from Pamela’s village insisted that he officiate at the funeral, and ‘splashed out’ on a fancy, expensive coffin of hardwood and a plush interior for the chief.

After the funeral, the priest made a courtesy visit to the chief’s family some time later. What he found was that the body had been dug up and the children of the chief’s family were found in the coffin, splashing around in their makeshift bathtub.

Imagine the shock for the priest! I’m sure he was incredulous. To this date, the majority of whites assume that the people were simply ignorant, uncultured and ‘wild’…
_______________________________________________________________________________

So after Pamela’s narration of the story , I decided to investigate/research the beliefs and practices surrounding death and burial amongst Australia’s Aboriginal groups.

What I found cemented the notion I had about the blatant cultural/religious imposition.

Aboriginal groups have a completely different concept of what happens to body and soul after death and the traditional practices differ widely and wildly from the Christian conservatives who settled in these areas and proceeded to set up missions.

I found a highly detailed article online here (for those of you who might find this interesting), about the complicated funeral of an influential Aboriginal chief in 1997.

Basically, after a Christian funeral (to appease the ‘whitefellas’), the body is transported to a specially selected cave, removed from the coffin (which is simply a mode of carriage to the spot), and arranged on a high platform, protected from animals and exposed to drying wind.

After two years the bones are collected and ceremonially treated, and then presented to the family of the deceased in an elaborate ceremony of mourning and remembrance. Traditional belief sees the body being locked up in a box and sunk ‘six feet under’ as against the natural procession for body and soul.

Can’t blame them really…



Find here a very concise and well presented site on statistics regarding Aboriginal Australians.

*Any names of real people in this story have been changed to protect their identity.
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18 comments:

blunt edges said...

hmmm...different cultures and their varied customs...interesting!

Matthew said...

The indigenous Australians have a pretty raw ride I think. I don't envy them their lot and I'm not proud of our responsibility for it either.

It's a sad situation and seemingly accepted by most people here - if the underlying comments and mentality are anything to go by.

Hopefully things will change within my lifetime.

The pale observer said...

Hi blunt - in Ghana I get to see so many new and different customs from what I grew up with. I also like to learn about others...

Matthew - thanks for the Aus perspective. What do you know about Aboriginal work ethic. According to my guests it's pretty bad. I don't know the background to it so cannot comment...

TheChicGeek said...

This was very interesting. I, myself have never wanted to be buried underground...it feels unnatural to me. I believe my spirit and soul leave my body and travel on. I want to be cremated when I go and sprinkled in some beautiful place on this planet. I like the idea of that.

You have a wonderful blog! Thank you for visiting me and following today! I am glad you found me, as now I have discovered you! I look forward to reading your posts and calling you friend :D

Have a Happy Day!
Kelly aka The Chic Geek :D

Kathryn said...

Oh, wow! Very interesting! Nice to hear that they treat the bodily remains with respect....the bathing part was pretty unsettling!

Thanks for the flw & comment @ my place!

The pale observer said...

Thanks Kelly and Kathryn!!! Cremation is definitely my choice as well. I have always thought the idea of being lowered underground was creepy...

Glad to have found you both in cyberspace!

Turquoise Diaries said...

Very interesting read!!

Miss Footloose said...

Hi Holli,

I really liked this post! Having moved around our planet quite a bit I've come across all sorts of cultures and customs. It amazes me to still find -- in this supposedly tolerant and enlightened era -- people who assume that their way is the only way and feel compelled to force it onto others.

The pale observer said...

Thanks TD and MF!

MF - I sometimes cannot believe what the missionaries have gotten away with over the years in places like North America and Australia. Always imposing and always with the assumption that the indigenous way is backwards and wrong.

peregrina feminina said...

Interesting post. I don't think burial is unnatural, for many it symbolizes returning to the Earth. But I'm not sure how coffins came about and to me that's a strange idea. It would be better if they didn't let the Christian burial happen in the first place if that's not what they want, but it's nice to see that they reject what's been imposed on them. I wish Ghana could be better about rejecting ideas that imperialism brought over!

The Absence of Alternatives said...

Interesting story. It puts everything in a different perspective. This is why post-colonial scholars insist on cultural relativism. There is no one truth. And what you/I/he/she considers to be universal truth may not be so universal.

The pale observer said...

Hi Peregrina - I'm interested in the ideas you wish had not been inculturated in Ghana...

Hi AofA - yes! The priest and farmers would have assumed the worst. BUT their truth was not the only one. It's a very good life lesson.

cinnamon girl said...

Hi Holli, I enjoy your blog. I'm Australian and want to address your question about the Aboriginal work ethic.

The first thing I'd like to say though is that Aboriginal beliefs and cultural practises are rarely understood at all by white Australians. The second is that there are different backgrounds and issues in different parts of Australia; Indigenous peoples make up a very small percentage of the general population, but there are more larger and more visible numbers in some areas; in others you can live your whole life never meeting an Aboriginal person.

If your friends grew up in a farming community with Aboriginal people living nearby on a reserve, it's important to understand that context. There was a level of segregation in Australia up until recently which was extreme. Aboriginal people were forced to live on reserves, not allowed in the 'white' part of town without permission, and were subject to curfews. They were not allowed to own property or have the same rights as the colonists unless they officially renounced their culture, language and people. Then they could get a pass, like a drivers licence, to live in 'white' society.

Much of Australia, especially outside the cities, was cleared, planted and tended by Aboriginal people. They created and worked the farms but were never paid for their labour or allowed to reap the benefits of their work. They were not educated more than three years, and generally forced to work in subservient positions in labour or housekeeping, often without pay; hence they are still largely poor and marginalised.

There is an impression amongst white Aussies that Aboriginal people have never worked, and therefore don't have a work ethic. But this is wrong, and it is a lie.

In terms of Indigenous cultural work ethics, the work ethic is often tied very closely with social and ceremonial obligations. So work life isn't separated or divided from the rest of life in the same way it is for others. Similarly, obligation is understood in a different way, with individualism lower on the scale and familial and community ties much more important. The workplace is considered to be one of those community ties.

In my experience, Aboriginal employment agencies run most effectively when they take into account both the cultural norms of the workers and the expectations of the bosses, which can be quite different. Non-indigenous agencies unfortunately do not generally recognise these cultural differences.

A couple of links on the subject:

http://epress.anu.edu.au/caepr_series/no_20/mobile_devices/ch16s04.html

http://www.uq.edu.au/news/?article=12593

The pale observer said...

Cinnamon girl - thanks so much for taking the time to explain. We have a very similar history in Canada with the first nations peoples.

It is quite sad how history has dealt them a crap card, and how it becomes now quite difficult to find a positive path forward... will check out your links :)

peregrina feminina said...

Hey I just noticed your response. I think in Ghana, the biggest thing I see is how Christianity has taken over. I've found that some people reject certain traditions, such as pouring libations, because they see it as paganism. This is an issue I've seen come up at weddings and funerals. I went to a traditional wedding ceremony where they cut out several portions saying, "This is where we would traditionally do ____, but we are born again Christians, so we are not going to do that."

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Lauren said...

This was very interesting. I, myself have never wanted to be buried underground...it feels unnatural to me. I believe my spirit and soul leave my body and travel on. I want to be cremated when I go and sprinkled in some beautiful place on this planet. I like the idea of that. You have a wonderful blog! Thank you for visiting me and following today! I am glad you found me, as now I have discovered you! I look forward to reading your posts and calling you friend :D Have a Happy Day! Kelly aka The Chic Geek :D

Mariedycb said...

Thanks TD and MF! MF - I sometimes cannot believe what the missionaries have gotten away with over the years in places like North America and Australia. Always imposing and always with the assumption that the indigenous way is backwards and wrong.

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