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Dingo Makes Us Human: Life and Land in an Australian Aboriginal Culture: A Book Review

“Dingo Makes Us Human: Life and Land in an Australian Aboriginal Culture” written by Deborah Rose Bird (1990) is considered to be the first in a probable series of three books regarding the Australian aboriginal people of Lingara and Yarralin. These places are both from the Victoria River valley in the Northern Territory of Australia. Bird lived for two years in these communities.

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Bird’s work is an original ethnography that indigenous people’s experiences into conversations about disturbing issues of environmental care and social justice.

The author’s involvement with the people’s experiences and their action in the world brings her to this examination of a multi-centred poetics of land and life. The Research Bird undertook the research because she wanted to share her experiences and contemplations with the Australian aboriginal people of Lingara and Yarralin on – a two-year period, from 1980 to 1982. Theoretical/Practical Impetus to the Research Bird’s work is practically significant due to its social and environmental applications. Moreover, Bird has also discussed in detail the Dreamings.

According to Penrith (1996), the Dreaming has diverse meanings for various Aboriginal people. She asserted that Dreamings is a multifaceted system of knowledge, practices and faith that originate from stories of creation, and that controls every physical and spiritual facet of Aboriginal life. Moreover, the Dreaming embarks the rules for social behaviour, the structures of society, and the ceremonies carried out so as to preserve the life of the land (Morny, 1995). The Dreaming directed the manner people lived and how they must conduct themselves since those who defy the rules were penalized.

According to Penrith (1996), the Dreaming is frequently utilized to portray the time when the earth, humans and animals were formed or created. In addition, the Dreaming is likewise employed by people to talk about their personal dreaming or their community’s dreaming. Penrith (1996) claimed that during the Dreaming, ancestral spirits came to earth and formed the landforms, plants, and the animals. The stories portray how the ancestral spirits moved through the land forming mountains, lakes, and rivers.

Nowadays, we are already aware regarding the places where the ancestral spirits have been and where they came to rest. I think that there are reasons of how people came to Australia and the connections between the groups all over Australia. Furthermore, there are also reasons concerning how people learnt languages and dance and how they came to know regarding fire. Essentially, as what we will learn from Bird’s work, the Dreaming originates from the land. This means that in Aboriginal society people did not own the land it was part of them and it was part of their duty to esteem and take care of mother earth.

Upon reading Bird’s work, I can say that the Dreaming did not end with the arrival of Europeans but basically entered a new phase. I think that it is an influential living force that should be cared for and maintained. Approach in doing the research and presentation of the results of the study The book is not simply a typical anthropological reading for specialists. Bird wrote this account in an appealing and handy manner such that it can be read and enjoyed by scholars specializing or interested in other fields.

Apart from her anthropological studies, the author imparts knowledge and experiences from ecology and religion and provides references to the concepts of Paul Ricoeur, Stanley Diamond, and Gregory Bateson. Nevertheless, this is not to say that anthropologists themselves will not discover much interesting material here as well. In her work, the anthropologists Bird mentions as important and powerful are Marcus, Fisher, and Geertz, Tedlock, Rabinow, Fabian, and Clifford. Mainly important in Bird’s work is the figure or role of the anthropologist as the narrator.

In my opinion, Bird seems to be self-conscious regarding her role as spokesperson and interpreter for the people she has examined and with whom she has lived. I think that Bird’s general purpose that evades needless idealization or proselytizing is nevertheless to persuade the reader to contemplate on the tangled nature of ecological justice and social justices Bird depicts as reflected in the lives of these people. She believes readers can learn from this. Nevertheless, I can say that Bird is no starry-eyed romantic.

Furthermore, she is not a follower of New Age philosophies, nor does she suppose that a structure of interrelationship necessarily instills peace, harmony and caring creatures. Personally, I can say that Bird does not waver to portray the personal abuse, beatings, malign sorcery and murder that happen. In fact, Bird even narrates her personal vulnerability in one such condition. Nevertheless, Bird does not pursue in detail how far European power could have worsened such behavior. In her work, a quote from Stanner would appear to signify that Bird considers some conflict as an intrinsic part of the human situation in any quest for balance (p. 24). I also think that Bird hopes to encourage thought and reasonable discussion concerning what kind of system can best generate ecological justice. I believe that this is not merely an anthropological issue, but one of tremendous significance to all concerned life on this earth. All in all, I think that Bird’s book has a boldly direct and personal approach that is illuminating to general readers, while also of great value to knowledgeable and skilled anthropologists. Ethical Issues in the research “Dingo Makes us Human” is about concerns that are of pressing concern today.

This includes kinship between humans and other living things, customary ecological knowledge, sacred geography, environmental history, and colonising history. According to Bird (1990), the question of how I, or we, or all of us in the world, rely on Victoria River Aborigines concerns. She said that from a professional viewpoint, it matters to her for the reason that what she learn is intensely reliant on who I am. In her work, she tackled the American facet of her identity. She emphasizes that it matters more significantly, though, since these people have a great many things of importance to articulate.

Michaels (1986) claimed that eversince the year 1883 when Europeans first established the Victoria River district, a huge part of their historical conditions and environmental facts have been decided by others. Bird (1990) said in her book that their own construction of intersubjectivity, grounded in multi-centred systems, and their survival within a system of extreme domination have provided them unique understandings. Bird said that Yarralin people categorised or labeled her as an American mainly because of her accent and her personal declaration of her nationality.

She added that it took some time for her to realise that this categorisation brought an extremely exact moral valence and that in marking this characteristic of her identity they were making several determinations regarding the kind of person they expected or hoped her to be. Bird said that the confirmation was there long before she became completely aware of it. In the book, Bird said that during the first week or so of her two year residence at Yarralin one of the old men asked her to write to the President of America and tell him to send him some forty-four gallon drums of mange soap for his dogs.

When Bird said that she didn’t know the President, the man told her to write to her father. Then when she said that she didn’t know what mange soap was, the man said to her that even if she was unaware, other Americans would know how to heal or treat dog mange. Significance of the study to the community In writing the book, Bird surveyed the system in the communities and she emphasized the focal nature of relationships – cultural, spiritual, physical, and genealogical– that pervade every aspect of aboriginal life.

These intricate patterns indicate an interconnecting worldview in which time combines and the ideal is balance instead of truth or goodness. In her work, the organizing matrix upholding the concepts of knowledge, identity, and practice which are vital to this system is that of country. The standard that informs the proper relationship to country is that of “care. ” “To take care of country is to be responsible for that country. And country has an obligation in return- to nourish and sustain its people” (p. 109). In her book, it was Dreaming beings who initiated these concepts that are essential to supporting the balance of life.

In my opinion, when she talked about Dreaming, Bird is predominantly grateful to the work of Stanner, quoting with approval his terms of reference: “a kind of logos or principle of order” (p. 44); “a poetic key to reality” (p. 44); and “every when” (p. 205). These are predominantly all-inclusive terms, talking about the original beings, their excellent acts, and the period of their existence. However, this time is coterminous with the present, and access offers a synchronous corroboration of that which must endure. Aboriginal culture is nevertheless not confined to rigid replicas of an aboriginal blueprint.

The aboriginal world is not static but dynamic. There are various types of adaptations that take place. One of the most interesting discussions in this regard concerns the inroads of Christianity and the fate of the High God hypothesis, here place in the context of Otherness (pp. 229-232). Stories regarding Dreamings derive from Victoria River peoples’ experience of being invaded, conquered, and massively controlled. It is important to remember that until the 1967 referendum which allowed Aboriginal people unrestrictedly to become citizens in their own country, people on cattle stations were classed as inmates of institutions.

The institutions were the stations, and within that circumscribed world European managers and owners enforced a reign of terror through the massive and brutal excercise of power (Berndt & Berndt, 1987). It is also important to remember that millions of dollars have been ‘made’ over the years from these peoples’ land and labour, and through an indifference to government regulations and a manipulation of government subsidies which is best labelled criminal (Stevens, 1974).

According to Bird (1984), all over the Victoria River district Aboriginal people identify the source of the injustices under which they have lived, and continue to live, in the personage of Captain Cook, and more generally with English people. Yarralin people also tell stories that place the kinds of power they are seeking to understand right in Australia. Some stories indicate in passing that the Unions were here before Captain Cook ever came, and that European settlers followed the wrong book or law. The stories of Ned Kelly’s travels in the Victoria River district tell of an indigenous European passion for justice (Bird, 1988).

The power to dominate includes, and may be dependent upon, the power to construct living subjects as objects. It is a distancing that takes a dual form; people come from the outside in order to kill and steal, and they deny that this is what they are doing. And while the killing and stealing have been moderated (not eradicated) over the past two centuries, denial persists in a particularly pungent form: the successors to the invaders can and do refuse to listen. They turn stories back on the speakers, not by denying them for that would at least be a form of engagement, but more simply and with greater devastation, by not listening.

The most important of the reflexive relationships essential for life is that between people and country (Morny, 1995). The Yarralin people inherit cognatic (non-gender-specific) rights to country both by birth and by marriage. Because a person’s Dream countries come separately from both father and mother, there are thus two lines of descent that establish identity: patrilineal (kuning) and matrilineal (ngurlu). Kuning also designates Dreaming beings associated with one’s father’s country, while ngurlu indicates one or several plant species or animals.

Marriage can also confer other rights. All these relationships are played out by means of an intricate system of social categories, most specifically those of subsections (pp. 75-79) and generation moieties (pp. 79-89). Bird does not view her exploration as providing a solution to the definitional debate surrounding term kinship (p. 117)); her aim is instead to describe the purpose and meaning of families against the backdrop of the country as the “nexus of individuals, social groups, Dreamings, nourishings, relationships, birth and death” (p. 119).

In turn, country, posited as a self-enclosed system, provides a model of singular instances that are part of an interlocking process where each part is simultaneously unique and yet necessarily interconnected (p. 223). Dualism as a modality of imposing hierarchical order is thus eliminated; each part can be appreciated as both similar and different. This lack of preferential distinction is best illustrated by the relationships between men and women, which Bird depicts in various contexts. It is characterized in the rituals, laws, and Dreamings as one of “symmetrical complementarity” (p. 21).

Like the sun and rain, both men and women are vital for life. At times one will supplant the other, but the destruction of one results in the destruction of the other and, by implication, of the cosmos. Summary All in all, it is the enormous perspective that I believe represents the major interest of Bird’s study. It provides the basis of an ecological system or web of relationships that, if maintained, reinforces a state of self-sustaining, self-corrective balance. There is no omnipotent or centralized force in control. There are instead, many centers, none of which dominates.

Bird does not explicitly state her preference for this worldview, but both in her allusions to monism and monocentrism as a less than flattering Western proclivity (p. 219) and in her use of an aboriginal’s assessment that “Europeans have constructed relationships such that different types of beings, and different categories of people, live under different laws, and the laws are altered to suit the winners” (p. 221), her implications are clear. Her invocation in the final chapter, titled “This Earth,” suggests that “it is a matter of life” and leaves no doubt about where her symphaties lie.

Lastly, who is Dingo referred to in the title? Dingo is the wild dog of Australia. His primordial battle was with the moon. He lost, forfeited eternal life, and was condemned to a life that must inevitably end. We are in Dingo’s image, full of erratic desires. Yet the moon who dies but revives with each passing month is caught in a sterile pattern. Therefore, to be alive as Dingo, even if the lifespan is limited, gives access to that dynamic force which makes life worth living in all its complexity of disruptive and generative energies