Inside Story

Ambivalent in Arnhem Land

Have a determined anthropologist and a gifted writer come to terms with how differently Yolngu do things?

Gillian Cowlishaw Books 13 December 2022 2747 words

Another country? A late-nineteenth-century mapmaker’s Arnhem Land. whitemay/iStockphoto

The title of Don Watson’s new book, The Passion of Private White, doesn’t do justice to its dense texture — and I may not either. My niggling discomfort and occasional indignation peppered its pages with question marks.

Full disclosure: like Private Neville White, I began PhD fieldwork as a mature age anthropology student in a remote Arnhem Land community in the 1970s. Unlike White, I was studying social rather than physical anthropology. White gave up his research in favour of providing financial and practical help to a Yolngu community at Donydji. I continued research with Rembarrnga people around Bulman and in the archives.

What keeps me connected to Arnhem Land are friendships that are indistinguishable from family ties, as well as an ongoing interest in the way conditions there are being “developed” by the peculiar, problematic governmental processes that also intrigue the author of this rather baffling book. Arnhem Land is indeed Another Country, as David Gulpilil says in the film of that name.

The Passion of Private White opens in 2005 with Watson’s first arrival at Nhulunbuy, a town on the Gove Peninsula, where he is met by his old friend Neville White. This, he says, is “mining, hunting, and fishing country, and Aboriginal country, so it is also Toyota HiLux country.” The cafe–store is named Captain Cook, a hint of the casual racism that pervades Australia’s remote mining towns.

Watson introduces Tom, Neville White’s main Yolngu friend, as “the senior man” at Donydji, one of many scattered outstations in the Arnhem Land bush and the main site of White’s efforts. He smiles at Watson and climbs into the HiLux beside him. Tom has “only a few words of English,” which made me wonder whether either Watson or White spoke Kriol. After several hours’ drive on the dirt track that is also the Central Arnhem Highway, they reach the outstation.

From the start Watson interweaves his own experiences with accounts of White’s past and present projects, and with fragments of history — Yolngu contact with Makassans and missionaries, the depredations of pastoralists and police — as well as more recent events and scattered quotations from anthropologists (on one page, fifteen are named). The narration is confident, as if the past is settled and known and the present readily understood, but Watson’s diary-like depiction of events and his speculations and evaluations reflect balanda (whitefella) common sense. His stories of White’s efforts are those of a surprised stranger revealing Australians’ colonising passions. The practices and priorities of the colonised remain obscure.

Chapter two provides harrowing details of Neville White’s Vietnam experiences. While critical of the war, he didn’t refuse the call-up and in Vietnam found himself engaged in hideous combat and moral dilemmas that haunt him to this day. Bitter experiences upon his return added damage to body and soul, now evident in PTSD.

White attended university after his tour of duty, eventually undertaking doctoral fieldwork using biological methods and oral histories to ascertain facts about population flows in the deep past. He collected fingerprints and blood samples from 2360 people, and “walked the country,” covering large areas with local guides and informants. His research was applauded in the academy and published extensively. Now, decades later, local rangers are able to rely on his maps.

Gradually, his academic work gave way to a passion for helping. Decades after receiving his doctorate he continues to visit Donydji, building houses, toilets, a school and a workshop, installing water pumps and solar panels and providing equipment, often using money he raises in Melbourne. We are not told of requests from the Donydji residents nor of any negotiation about what is built, or where or when.

White found the work therapeutic and recruited Vietnam vet mates who make short visits, camping separately from the community and working efficiently from dawn to dusk. When Watson first visits, a contractor is building a school with the help of Neville’s volunteers from Melbourne. A few Yolngu participate but most appear as passive observers of White’s projects. There is no mention of whether these strangers, or Watson himself, are properly introduced to Country.

When they arrive at Donydji, Watson sees half a dozen houses, an airstrip, and about eighty Yolngu whom he cannot communicate with. They unload supplies at the various camps. With Rotary funds White has built a workshop that houses vehicles and equipment to enable young men to “learn the trade and make an independent living” as mechanics, although there is no working economy here. Watson later describes the amazing skill of one Yolngu bush mechanic, but as shown in the Walpiri film Bush Mechanics, such skills are usually deployed locally and voluntarily. Donydji women garner sustenance from the bush, men shoot and butcher buffalo, and fish are caught in a distant river. Demanding and dangerous bush expeditions reveal beautiful dramatic country, but its meaning to Yolngu is touched on only briefly.

Tom is Neville White’s close friend and trusted informant at Donydji and authorises White’s activities. Tom tells White that Tom’s authority and plans are being threatened by a Yolngu man known here as Cowboy, who wants to establish a cattle station in the area. We are told that Cowboy is an illegitimate interloper whose plan is a threat to traditions rather than a possibly viable enterprise that could provide an income. Later, though, Cowboy’s presence at Donydji is treated as legitimate. White and the author appear unaware that lengthy negotiations over competing claims and plans are typical of Yolngu politics. The anthropologist Les Hiatt’s film Waiting for Harry illustrates such a process.

Arnhem Land, an area of 97,000 square kilometres, was designated an Aboriginal Reserve in 1931 after a century of intermittent, violent intrusions. Several pastoral and mining ventures had failed, and many and varied missions established. When bauxite was discovered at Gove in the 1960s, the government ignored the reserve’s status and the Yolngu protests and allowed a large mine, refinery and town to be established.

Since the 1970s the federal government has supplied modest funding for outstations to enable a “return to Country” from missions and towns. Outstations like Donydji rely on government support and services that are often appallingly unreliable and inadequate, as we see in Watson’s later chapters. One small but telling example involves the Donydji teacher, who is employed three days a week but spends two of those days travelling.

It is government incompetence that energises White’s work, along with his determination to provide what he sees as necessities. Yolngu live largely outside during the dry season, but houses have become necessary as they have accumulated possessions. In balanda eyes the buildings are the very core of community life, more important than the service and shelter they supply.

Neville White is engaged in a sort of “borderwork,” a term anthropologist Barry Morris coined for work at the interface of the cultural worlds of Indigenous people and Europeans — also known as Yolngu and balanda, natives and settlers, blackfellas and whitefellas, or “them” and “us.” Neville White is intent on improving things in this “remote Indigenous community,” a concept that was cruelly pathologised in the national imagination when the NT Intervention was launched in 2007.

I admired Don Watson’s Recollections of a Bleeding Heart (2002), a kind of ethnography of the cultural realm that politicians create and inhabit in Canberra. Watson understood that setting well and could assume readers’ knowledge of how Australia’s political system works.

He is less comfortable in Arnhem Land. His broader erudition is clear from a multitude of quotations and aphorisms from dozens of local and international anthropologists, along with citations of intellectuals from Lucretius to Simone Weil and Sontag, Sophocles to Hume and Camus, and of the Bible. I wondered if he was offering readers alternatives to his own ambivalence about White’s quixotic efforts. Or was he excusing his own bafflement, which is partly a consequence of his inability to communicate with Yolngu residents?

Watson makes several more visits to Donydji with White, describing several individual veterans and relating numerous exciting, surprising or humorous events. White’s work includes training Yolngu men in building and mechanical skills, but his efforts are up against floods, droughts, distances and wild animals. A septic tank floods, a badly installed generator fails, solar panels cease to work. Government stuff-ups cause further frustrations.

Cooperation seems to be lacking from those White believes he is helping, as evident in an apparent carelessness with the things he has supplied for community use. Expensive new tools are locked in the workshop, but returning from Melbourne White finds the lock broken and tools scattered or lost. He describes this as a break-in, ransacking and stealing. But the workshop was intended for community use, and it turns out that there was a desperate need to repair a vehicle. Most of the equipment is retrieved.

When a house is damaged White tries to shame the owner, saying the house was bought with money he collected in Melbourne. The offended owner responds, “Your money; my house.” White and Watson seem oblivious to this clue to a different system of ownership, responsibility and authority.

Bafflement is not surprising in the face of a traditional society organised in ways fundamentally at odds with those of Europeans. There are other clues to these balandas’ misunderstanding of Yolngu social structure. When Watson says White was “granted the name Balang” and, later, that balang means brother, he shows a common confusion about the everyday language of kinship. Personal names are private and not used as English names are. A “skin name” like balang refers to one of the eight categories that position everyone within a system of relationships Yolngu absorb in infancy. Because I became ngaritjan, my husband became balang, and my children gamarang and gamayn.

Everyone is enfolded within this system and everyone is family. Some are close, others distant, and their roles carry specific but not necessarily strict obligations and expectations. English terms such as brother, mother and cousin mean quite different things here. Concerns are all personal but not individualistic, meaning that an impersonal “community interest” is often absent. Moreover, one does not interfere with others, something “we” balanda do constantly with our opinions and judgements.

Watson is not to blame for misunderstanding Yolngu naming practices and interpersonal manners and protocols that are quite different from those of English speakers. Like an unfamiliar language, they can be learned only with experience.

Similarly, the frequent mention of clans, language groups and owners of Country shows understandable confusion; these are matters of multiple, cross-cutting and often disputed rights and obligations, making the term owner inappropriate. Attachment and responsibility for Country are more useful terms, and these are linked to positions in the kinship system. Shared and competing obligations — to mothers’ country or to fathers’ country — are expressed in the roles taken in the major ceremonies. These are negotiated over extensive periods, and particular individuals’ responsibilities are never settled once and for all. I claim no special expertise in these matters, but their significance and meaning in everyday social interaction becomes apparent in any sustained participation in Yolngu community life.

It was not inaccuracies in Watson’s account but the constantly implied sense of “our” normality that kept me on edge. Watson’s own view of what he is observing is both elusive and intrusive. Early in the book, while trying to describe rather than analyse what is going on, Watson notes White’s zealotry, commenting on his “characteristic short, rapid strides: the driven soul’s indifference to anyone else’s capacities or inclinations.” I was reminded of the self-important way the manager hurried around the Bulman community and the concealed mirth it evoked among Rembarrnga women. They recognised his pedagogic intent as they sat around the fire, but were far too kind to let him know. Women’s “domestic” and “social” work was invisible to him. Private White, too, appears to largely ignore the women, at least until one throws a spear at him, skilfully missing.

Watson’s comments on Yolngu character and behaviour can seem presumptuous. As such descriptions unquestioningly accrue, Watson inadvertently endorses the familiar view that traditional Yolngu practices are no longer appropriate in contemporary conditions.

Yet we can thank him for illustrating the profound contradiction within Australian public discourses; we are urged to celebrate “the oldest culture in the world” while refusing respect to those who carry its original form. In the name of “equal human rights,” Indigenous peoples are being induced to accept the authority of outsiders with their mysterious access to apparently limitless resources. The sophisticated Yolngu system of order and authority, achieved through everyday interpersonal negotiations between people related in embedded, normative ways, is invisible to colonisers.

Later in the book White announces plans for an elected council, with a general manager, an administrator and other positions. Tom accepts these strange ideas and asks White to write an agreement. Tom doesn’t speak or read English, but recognises that writing carries authority. When Watson and White return, though, they find “grass and weeds… halfway up the red, yellow, and blue plastic slide in front of the new school” and Watson says that Donydji is “slipping between Chaos and Eden.”

“Weeds”! Here we see a link between aesthetic, moral and political judgements. Watson’s renderings are morally ambiguous, but his comments on Yolngu attitudes often struck me as misperceptions, perhaps based on White’s understandable frustrations. It is difficult for balanda to respect people who appear to resist the hard work we do for them. But look closer and we see that our insistent concern interferes with Yolngu’s own ways of adjusting to colonised conditions and the strange, intrusive habits of outsiders.

Watson’s dry wit and clever, often ironic phrasing are born of his interest in Private White’s passion rather than his own experiences in Arnhem Land. He wisely limits his explanations and judgements of Yolngu; those he does offer can be disturbing. In the wake of the workshop destruction, he says: “Nothing so grieves a balanda — especially, perhaps, a balanda army veteran — as the casual anarchy and selfishness the [Yolngu] philosophy allows” (my emphasis).

What Watson and presumably White judge as “casual anarchy and selfishness” is better understood as a deeply held belief in individual autonomy, often expressed as “I am boss for myself.” Yolngu people don’t moralise, instruct or interfere with each other in ways familiar and normal among balanda. Nor do they expect interference and instruction, especially from people from elsewhere. Yolngu communal enterprises require careful suggestions and inducement rather than taken-for-granted cooperation or attention to “time constraints.”

The anthropologist Kenneth Maddock described the Aboriginal polity as “a kind of anarchy, in which it was open to active and enterprising men to obtain some degree of influence with age, but in which none were sovereign.” And Hiatt wrote that “few peoples can have placed higher value on altruism and mutual aid than the Aborigines of Australia. The genius of the Australian polity lay in its deployment of the goodwill inherent in kinship as a central principle… Government in these circumstances is otiose.”

Thus, the affront to Yolngu is profound when balanda take it upon themselves to assume authority in Yolngu country. Even as Private White tries to rectify government incompetence he embodies the common sense of the Australian state. Yolngu’s slow and subtle ways of practising politics are frequently interrupted by urgent and arrogant balanda intrusions. But balanda are unavoidable and Yolngu are dependent. The uncomfortable modus vivendi can be seen as an ongoing struggle between cultural norms.

Don Watson is a gifted writer, but his casual wit, irony and poetic style in telling of White’s heroic efforts fail to recognise that Yolngu do things very differently. Their different language and different conceptual framework are up against implacable, pervasive change that some try to embrace and others resist. Even their practical, everyday knowledge of the bush is challenged by balanda equipment and desire for comfort, arrogantly displayed as if unambiguously superior.

An anthropological maxim is relevant here: we are particular, not universal human beings. Our impulsive judgements as well as our deepest convictions are context-bound, cultural, shaped by the social world we assume to be normal, even natural. In other human worlds a different normality exists. The perceptive reader will find much to ponder in Watson’s book. •

The Passion of Private White
By Don Watson | Scribner Australia | $49.99 | 336 pages