Dr John E. Stanton
Berndt Museum of Anthropology,
The University of Western Australia,
Nedlands, WA. 6907
I Have been asked to prepare this critique from a social anthropological perspective in part because of the extensive field research I have conducted among Aboriginal people of the Western Desert Cultural bloc over the past twenty years. As well as my interest and involvement in Aboriginal cultural Heritage issues.
I have approached this work with some caution, having been loaned it by a friend at Christmas. I have read the book and offer the following comments, without prejudice.
This book may be criticised on three main counts:
* First, that it alleges to be factual written after the fact and inspired by actual experience...sold as a novel to protect the small tribe of aborigines (p xii).
* Second, that it demonstrates more of the author's imagination than any first hand experience of living with and knowledge of desert Aborigines beyond that available in any popular text.
* Third, that it seriously insults the reigious beliefs of Desert Aborigines.
It is condescending in the extreme, devoid of any detailed appreciation of aboriginality, and reflects more of the author's personal preoccupation and experiences within the North American context than those of Australia. In a number of passages, factual errors intrude; they would be simply amusing if the book was not intended to represent actual experience. Perhaps the author's taken name 'Travelling Tongue' is unintendedly appropriate as she notes, I had become offensive (p 85). How true.
From the begining, the author's account of her journey is cluttered with ambiguous and distorted impressions. For examlpe, in Perth 'We drove through the street of the coastal city, past rows of veranda fronted homes, milk bars, snack shops and grassless cement parks'(p2). The account of her car trip into the Desert is equally improbable; the semantics of speech attributed to her chauffeur (p5) are contrived.
Her description of feathered armbanded and anklets (p9) is improbable in such a context. Worse was the description 'Drawings of lizards adorned their arms while snakes, Kangaroos and birds appeared on the legs and backs. (p10) One women had a garland of flowers hand-painted around her neck and ankles. It had the artist's touch, with detailed leaves and stamen portrayed in the centre of each blossom. (p10) Such body-painting designs are simply unknown in the Desert, although they maybe applied to tourist art and crafts. Her imagination is further enhanced. Describing the 'senior man', she noted 'On his head was a stunning full headdress made of bright parrot feathers...he wore a cirlar, intricately crafted chest plate made from stone and seeds. (p10) Not since Kevin Cameron launched his similarly imaginative Teaching Stones of the outcast tribe have I read this knid of thing. Perhaps she saw his book?
Regional incongruities abound. The ankle bracelets made from large pod's (p12) have more to do with the Kimberley and other regions of North Australia; certainly not the Desert. And then 'The Elder took off a long leather tube of platypus hide strapped to his waist and shook it at the sky (p12, my emphasis). We ate kangaroo, wild horse, termites, anteaters... even crocodile. (p56, my emphasis) 'I scratched myself the specific sign I used meant I had spotted a crocodile. (p84) Not bad for the Pitantjatjara and Yankuntjatjara heartland she has just refered to (p83)! She even has a didgeridoo being used at a 'gret musical concert'. (p108) and is told 'to imitate the kookaburra bird. (p147, my emphasis) one of the men recounted the events of his birth. His life began as his mother, alone after travelling many days to a specific location, hand-dug and squatted over a sandpit lined in the ultra-soft fur of rare albino koala. (p157 my emphasis) Water came from an unfamiliar-looking nonpottery vessel tied to a rope around the neck or waist.(p21) instead that 'we carried several bladder water vessels. (p52) Similarly, pthers gathered plants. Two men had been jointly sharing a load all afternoon. They had a colourless cloth draped over long spears and made into a pouch (p22). Well I never!
I was fascinated to learn how bardi grubs ('a large, white, crawling worm') are cooked wrapped in leaves in the coals; I have only ever seen them being cooked in ashes. Mythologising culturally endowed talents, she equates (or perhaps explains) Aboriginal abilities at food collection, etc. as 'the natural dowsing ability given to all humans. (p54 ) Here description of the preparation and cooking of a kangaroo is part truth, part fiction; The head was cut off...A small container of water was placed in one corner of the deep hole... the primary chef would lean throught the smoke, to blow into the long reed, and force water to be released below the surface. The steam was immediately apparent.(p62)
Popular stereotypes of Aboriginality permeate the text. Some are little different from those peddled by Ion Idress in the 1930`s for example, The native take what they truly need to eat, and quite frankly they are credited with supernatural powers of retaliation. (p36). `The Aboriginal race has long been rumored to vanish into thin air when confronted with danger...The real people also know how to perform the illusion of multiplilcation. One person can be seem to be ten or fifty (p162) `It finally dawned on me why it was quite every day as we walked. These people used mental telepathy to communicate most of the time... There was absolutely no sound to be heard, but messages were being relayed between people twenty miles apart.(p61) She fails to mention here the presence of an extraordinarily complex system of hand sign languages common throughout the Western Desert bloc, although she later refres to this in greater detail (p84). The reason, according to Ooota, that Real People can use telepathy is because above all they never tell a lie at all,not a small fabirication, not a partial trugh, nor any gross unreal statement . No lies at all, so they have nothing to hide. (p63). Are these people human?
On other occasions , her text is simply offensive-either to men (one example refers to the nature and sound of a bullroarer (p109),or to women. One sequence, describing the alleged use of menstrual blood in healing (p91-93). I will not detail here.
So called New Age imagery prevails, however , in all it`s predictable forms. `They did a lot of massaging and rubbing of each others shoulders...I saw them manipulating necks and spines. (p44) The idealised imagery of the French savage nobie is perpetuated by statements such as `I did learn that day, however, the remarkable relationship the Aborigines have with nature... These people believe everything exists on the planet for a purpose. There are no freaks, misfits, accidents. (p51) I should have known they were reading my mind and knew before i spoke what i was requesting. That night we discussed in length the connection between the physical body, the eternal part of our beingsness, and a new aspect we had touch on before, the role of feelings and emotions in health and well being. (p94).
She constantly cites the uniqueness of the `Real People`;An example according to them , every other tribe in Australia had submitted to the rule of the white government. (p45). Again,there is not another Aboriginal tribe that has any material objects left connected to their history.(p143)The elder said,`We are having no more childern.When our youngest member is gone ,that will be the last of the pure human race...You have been chosen as our Mutant messager to tell your kind we are going.We are leaving Mother earth to you.(p147-148)Apart form Ooota, her `interpreter,she does not name any of the people she is all egedly travelling with; instead they have names curiously similar to translation of Native Amercian names like Healing Woman, Time Keeper, Sewing Master-all concepts totally alien in the non-hierarchical nature of desert societies. 'She was well versed on the history of the world and even on current events, yet she did not read or write. She was creative'. (p106)
She fails to understand the complexity of aboriginal social organisation, such as the eight-skin sub section system in some Aboriginal nations they used about eight names total-more like a numbering system. (p46) Dragging Eurocentric comforts, she has these people carrying a round roll of hide or skin (p47), and use our sleeping skins to construct a shade (p50)depite the prohibition against skinning animals prior to eating commonly abserved throughout the Western Desert cultural bloc. Her Aborigines do not simply sleep on the ground in parallel ahs generations have done, a winter fire between each person, rather, several evenings we would lie on the ground in a unique circular pattern... We dug slots in the sand and put a layer of hot coals down, then some additional sand on top. Half the skins were placed under us, and half over us... Our feet were joined in the centre. (p58) Curiously, I also abserved tribal members collecting the rare piles of dung left by desert creatures, especially those of the dingo's. It proved to be powerful, odourless fuel. (p71) They use the leaves for smoking in pipes on special occasions. (p80) Until relatively, recently tobacco has not been smoked but chewed.
Her conceptualisation of 'totemic' religious beliefs and 'The Dreaming' is abysmal. Many people choose kangaroo as their totem because they feel areal kinship and recognise the necessity of learning balance over their personality.(p99 my emphasis) Dreamings are of cource, not choosen but identified through other means. Incredibly the main lesson taken from the kangaroo is that it does not step backward. It is not possible for it. It always goes forward, even when going around in cirles! It's long tail is like the trunk of a tree and bears its weight. (p99) My imagination is stretched to the limit when the author states the dolphin is very dear to the Real people Tribe, although they no longer have much access to the sea. (p100) Scaecely surprising when the Dsert heartland is at a minimun some 700 km from the sea! Similarly ignorant is her assertion that I understand them to say that the word dreaming means levels of awarness. There is ancestor dreaming when thought created the world; there is out-of-body dreaming such as deep meditation, there is sleep dreaming, and so on. (pp117-115).
Just who is Marlo Morgan? Certainly an adept buusinesswoman. I talked about the free enterprise system of Government and discussed an organization called Junior Achievement for under privileged inner-city youth. (p39) The strong American stance is an interesting counterfoil to her Mutant Message. We get only a very vague pictur of who she is. She says I have worked with hundreds of people in pain, especially in the last fifteen years as a doctor specialising in acupunctur (p12).
She is certainly not backwards in coming forward. Self congratulatory, she frequently comments on her own qualifications. That night it was explained to me that my work with the urban-dwelling aborigines had been reported.. Iwas found to have pure intent. (p45) After he came to witness the strange spectacle of the blond-haired Mutant with dark brown roots, he allowed all the others a chance to see the wonder. Their eyes seemed to light up, and each one smiled in pleasure. Ooota explained that it was because they felt I was becoming more Aboriginal.(p67)
Perhaps the author is just playing with us, her readers and with her notions of Aboriginality? Australia was full of fun things to do for entertainment.(p34) Her concluding line is perhaps, a strong hint to spend the rest of my life using the knowledge I learned in the outback. Everything! Even the magic of illusion (p187).