The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Friday, December 31, 2010

Uluru, Lawsuits, and Culture Change

So, this entry is somewhat inspired by the last one, but covers somewhat different ground.

While a graduate student, I met Eve Darian-Smith, an Australian anthropologist who had, in her previous career, been an attorney in Australia. In a conversation with her, she told me about Ayer's Rock, known amongst the Pitjantjatjara people of Central Australia as Uluru. The landmark, and impressive stone monolith rising above a plain*, has been a draw for tourism for decades. It is also a sacred site to the Pitjantjatjara people, and this led to a confrontation between Aborigine groups, Aboriginal rights activists, and the Australian government, which was settled in 1985 when the title of the land on which the sandstone formation stands was deeded back to the local aborgine group, and the national park that had formed around it was leased to the Australian government for 99 years to be joint-managed by the national government and the aboriginal people.

Image from

Now, this seems like a good outcome, on the whole. One thing, though, that Dr. Darian-Smith told me left me thinking about potential problems. At some point during the legal negotiations, it was argued that the Pitjantjatjara should only have control of Uluru if they were going to use it only for activities "practiced in the traditional manner." I don't know if this became part of the final legal settlement - my web-fu is weak and I have been unable to find any confirming or disconfirming information, and I don't know enough about the Australian legal system to make much of the information that I have found. But regardless of how Uluru ended up, the fact that such a thing even entered the discussion is both fascinating and disturbing.

The problem comes from people outside of a culture arguing for what is the "traditional" patterns of that culture. I wrote in the previous entry about how Dr. Darian-Smith found in her research that people living in California often object to Native Californian-owned businesses (she focused on casinos, but it is likely that this applies to other businesses) on the grounds that running a business is not in keeping with the traditional values and practices of Native Californians. Of course, prior to the arrival Europeans, the archaeological and ethnographic evidence indicates that many Native Californian groups engaged in the production and trading of goods in a manner that showed all of the intelligence and calculation that one would expect from any European businessman of the same period. Moreover, the Native Peoples of California (and the rest of the Americas, and Australia, and Africa, and Asia, and Europe, and everywhere else that humans have wandered to) were very adaptable, and both developed new ways of coping using a mix of existing practices and technologies as well as developing new ones, and adopted new ideas, tools, and practices when they became available. While I suspect that there is a good deal of argument within Native American communities regarding casinos specifically, I doubt that there is much argument regarding the ability of people to make good in the modern world, or even that to become knowledgeable about business, law, science, etc. is somehow anathema to being a Native American, nor is the use of new tools necessarily frowned upon. While I am less knowledgeable about the anthropology of Australia, I suspect that the same is true there.

Historically, I know that the Native Californians (and the Natives Floridans) were happy to accept glass beads from the Spanish and integrate them into the bead economies that already existed. Likewise, I have spoken with members of different Native Californians who tell me about collecting acorns for the preparation of traditional foods, but smashing the acorns using a blender rather than a bedrock mortar. And I have now met several Native Californians who are getting involved in archaeology and ethnography in order to build up a history and understanding of their heritage based on these disciplines, in addition to that which they receive from oral traditions. Reading journal articles published on the anthropology of Asia, Australia, Africa, and south America, I see the same things occurring in these regions. Culture changes, but that doesn't make it somehow non-traditional: it is the nature of culture to change.

Really, this is the way that it has always been. In the archaeological record, the use of tools, residence patterns, and pretty much everything that makes up material culture are constantly in flux, changing due to the environment, the needs of the people who formed a society, and the introduction of new tools and ideas from outside. Humans have always adopted new concepts and items and incorporated them into the existing culture, changing the culture - sometimes slowly and sometimes quickly - but never losing it. The culture of London today is no less "traditional" than it was in AD 1710 or AD 1410 or AD 1110, but we assume it is because we think of the "modern" as being opposed to the "traditional". But they are not opposed, the modern is merely a continuation of the old, and even the movement of cultural traits across the world - sometimes referred to as an aspect of globalization - is nothing but a continuation of the ways that humans have always behaved. That doesn't mean it's necessarily either good or bad (I have a hard time seeing the proliferation of coal-fired power plants as good...but the use of new technology to provide clean drinking water in Africa is definitely a positive thing), but it does mean that the knee-jerk rejection of it as an attack on tradition needs to be more carefully considered. It is an attack on traditional culture when someone is currently being forced to give something up by force or threat of force (it was - past tense - an attack when it occurred in the past, what happens after the attack stops is the aftermath - which may or may not be bad - but it is not the attack itself), but when people adopt things because they want them...well, trying to stop that in the name of preservation is an unnatural act.

Which comes back to the possibility of laws or regulations being put into place which require the use of lands only in keeping with traditional use. The story of human culture is a story of change. To hold that something is only legally allowable if it conforms with traditional culture is to create an artificial (and, it should be noted, essentially modern) definition of traditional culture. And in these cases, traditional culture almost invariably is either defined by an outsider or by those within the culture group who have a particular agenda, and can not ever really reflect the truth of a culture. culture is living and dynamic, and to enshrine some version of it in regulation turns it into a stagnant parody of itself**. Regulations and laws can be, and have been, written that take the inevitability of change into account, and those are the models that need to be followed.

*Interesting bit of information - this formation is what is called a inselberg, or "island mountain", the sole remnant of a larger mountain range that has long since eroded away. So, it is the last mountain of a once standing range of them...if that example of the deep time and monumental scale of geology doesn't send a shiver down your spine, get your pulse checked.

**This also applies to non-native/aboriginal cultures. When you hear someone talk about the importance of enshrining some practice in law because it matches "traditional values", you can be certain that the person is less concerned with tradition than with pushing their own, often absurd, agenda.


Michael Duchek said...

When I was in college some years ago, some dorm mates and I were watching a documentery about a plains tribe that had started ranching bison. My dorm mates all thought it was fantastic that these indians "had got back to their roots."

Well, then they shot one. My dorm mates were shocked and then outraged. When I pointed out that killing and utilising the bison WAS part of their traditional lifestyle, my dorm mates reponded that they should be required to kill them with bows and arrows. Pointing out that a rifle was safer for the hunter and a more humane death for the bison got me nowhere.

The fact that the animal was butchered on site and the meat distributed to poorer members of the tribe made no difference at all.

Anthroslug said...

Precisely the sort of thing that I have seen. The irony, of course, is that the bow and arrow is a late-comer to North America, and replaced the spear and atl-atl/dart. So, the changeover to gun is perfectly in keeping with the usual change in weaponry.

Of course, it's funny that they took exception to the use of a firearm, but didn't have a problem with the even bigger change that was involved in this group raising bison rather than hunting them.

Michael Duchek said...

Thinking about it, to be more traditional, they should've driven the animal off a cliff.

Suzan Harden said...

Here, here! Frankly, I don't think I'd want to subsist on a "traditional" European diet either.

Anthroslug said...

@ Michael: Good point.

@ Suzan: What, stone-ground seeds and seasonal starvation not your thing?

Anonymous said...

Very well-put. I was a folklore major in undergrad and grad school, as well as an anthropologist, and we had a lot of discussions about this issue. I think my favorite summation of it, though, it a quote from (if memory serves) Gustav Mahler: "Tradition is the preservation of fire, not the worship of ashes."

Michael Duchek said...

I had another experience from the opposite side of the spectrum. One of the Native American groups on campus was outraged about white people trying to be more environmentally friendly. Living with the environment was part of the Native American culture, not the white culture, and this was another case of whites stealing the Natives culture.

In my youth I spent time on the Navajo Rez, and knew the history of forcing the Navajo kids into boarding schools that tried to erase their language and traditions, so this new definition of "stealing our culture" got me particularly angry.

Anthroslug said...

Wow...that's a new one on me. I've never heard of anyone objecting to another person living in a more thoughtful way on the grounds that this is "stealing my culture"

Diana said...

This is (as usual) an interesting post. The concept of freezing a culture in time to maintain the "traditional culture (1)" is reminiscent of a situation in biology. Many people want to preserve the native ecosystem - removing introduced plants and animals. But when do you set the time frame? Before Europeans arrived? Before Humans arrived (where are you going to get the giant ground sloths and saber-tooth tigers from?)?

When I was working with wildlife in California there was an arbitrary date (sometime around 1956). If a plant or animal was in California before that date it was considered native by the group I was working with. After that date it wasn't. Even if the animal had moved in on its own from a neighboring state.

Just like with human culture ecosystems change. Animals and plants move in or die off, sometimes with the help of man but not always. Ecosystems change as man changes the landscape and the climate. Trying to fix a given point in time as "correct" and what we biologist should be striving to recreate is an expensive folly. OK. I'll get off my soap box now.

(1) Tradition is often a spurious justification for an irritating anachronism.

Anthroslug said...

I think that "Tradition is often a spurious justification for an irritating anachronism" is my new favorite quote.