Taking seriously Aboriginal knowledge as philosophy

Over thirty years ago, three authors embarked on a journey into Roebuck Plains, an area in the north of West Australia, just inland from Broome. The group consisted of Stephen Muecke, an emerging scholar who had just completed a PhD in linguistics, a Moroccan-born painter named Krim Benterrak and Paddy Roe, a Goolarabooloo Elder, a philosopher and storyteller, who was born in Roebuck Plains.

The three authors produced the landmark text Reading the Country: Introduction to Nomadology, which was celebrated during a three-day festival held at the University of Melbourne at the beginning of October.

Reading the Country is a free-form, highly experimental work, which combines Roe’s oral histories with Muecke’s theoretical essays and Benterrak’s arresting landscape paintings. The three authors traversed Roebuck Plains in an attempt to ‘read’ and re-imagine the stories bound up within the country. The book is an investigation of space and of place, of the way that different voices converge and contrast, and how cultures can come together, whereby multiple readings are enacted simultaneously.

‘One of a kind, sui generis, there’s no book like this anywhere,’ says Phillip Morrissey, the head of Australian Indigenous Studies department at the University of Melbourne, and the convener of the festival (the very literally-named Reading the Country: 30 Years On). The festival comprised of lectures and panel discussions delivered by some of Australia’s brightest academic minds, both Indigenous and not, on subjects as diverse as modern feminism, university funding structures and the degradation of traditional lands by the mining industry.

One of the key events was the ‘Philosopher’s Maul’, which was held on the university’s South Lawn and involved some beer and a rugby ball. In a kind of philosophical pop-quiz, prominent Australian thinkers such as Prof. Meaghan Morris and Justin Clemens and Adam Bartlett were tossed a ball and asked curly questions like ‘Is feminism dead?’

As well as attempting to dispel the conception of academics as fusty windbags, the festival was structured with the aim of recapturing the spirit of intellectual radicalism that Reading the Country was produced in, and which many believe has largely disappeared from Australian tertiary institutions.

And Reading the Country is a radical book. The palpable affinity with the Australian landscape that permeates the book is particularly pertinent now that the Roebuck Plains  – which was occupied by Aboriginal people up until roughly a century ago, before becoming a freehold cattle station – is currently under threat from fracking by a company called Buru Energy.

But perhaps more importantly, Reading the Country is radical for the primacy it gives to Aboriginal systems of knowledge, not as items of anthropological interest, but rather as philosophical ideas that are deserving of rigorous study.

‘I’m not trying to encompass Aboriginal philosophy,’ Muecke, who is now a professor at the University of New South Wales, told me on the final day of the festival, ‘I’m just trying to knock on the door of the philosophy department, and ask “when are you going to start taking seriously Aboriginal knowledge as philosophy?”’

Benterrak, Muecke and Roe’s collaboration was in part based on the idea that ‘things must go both ways’, one of the unofficial slogans of the festival. The notion was told to Muecke by Roe, who passed away in 2001, when they first started to collaborate.

Even the decision to have three co-authors was in itself radical. Previously Aboriginal philosophers who came from the tradition of oral storytelling, like Paddy Roe, were, according to Muecke, ‘called informants, and later they were sometimes called co-researchers, but co-authors, very rarely.’ The three authors shared the royalties equally, and their names were presented on the cover in alphabetical order, a means of acknowledging the spirit of collaboration and intellectual intersection that is so prevalent in Reading the Country.

‘For those that actually hear,’ Phillip Morrissey told me, ‘this book makes us think about what activism really is. Intellectual activism involves engaging with the situation you find yourself in. There’s a type of activism which is external – picket lines and protests. But activism also concerns the politics of where you are, and this is a book, that through the key figures of Paddy Roe, Krim Benterrak and Stephen Muecke, shows the meaning of living out intellectuality and theory in practical ways.’

This idea of intellectual activism was a one of the key reasons that the festival was conceived – to protest against the conservative tendencies of Australian universities, which, according to many of the speakers, have been impeding the work of radical thinkers for decades. The block letters ‘TAZ’ were stuck to the walls in each of the conference rooms, defining each room as a Temporary Autonomous Zone, a space which is outside the strictures of the university administration.

A 2011 study showed that of the 67,000 academics currently working in Australia, more than 60 per cent were casually employed – and that figure is likely even higher now. Faced with swelling class sizes, and the persistent threat of further cost-cutting measures, it seems more difficult than ever for this generation of academics to pursue the kind of radical research that created texts like Reading the Country. One of the speakers at the festival, an anthropologist named Dr Terrence Twomey said that university academics are encouraged not to risk their jobs: ‘to keep their head down, so it doesn’t get shot off’.

Many of the speakers were convinced that the site of radical thinking is happening off-campus. Morrissey pointed to the research being conducted at organisations not affiliated with universities, such as the School of Continental Philosophy, while others acknowledged the inventive, and ultimately successful, forms of protest by Kimberley locals against the James Price Point gas processing plant.

But for all the doom and gloom, there were some positives to come out of the festival, including the release of George Dyungayan’s Bulu Line: A West Kimberly Song Cycle. The book is an experimental translation of oral poetry, and was a collaboration between Dyungayan, a Nyigina lawman from the Roebuck Plains and Dr Stuart Cooke, and was heavily influenced by the methodologies of Reading the Country.

The festival also marked the premiere of a film called Three Sisters, Women of High Degree, which told the stories of Nyikina women from the Fitzroy River, one of whom was Dr Anne Poelina, a countrywoman of Paddy Roe, who travelled from Broome to attend the festival.

The small publishing house run by Justin Clemens, re.press, made a small re-print of Reading the Country specifically for the festival, and is hopeful of doing a wider print run, so that a young generation can also experience the work. It seems that the radical spirit of this important book is in safe hands.

Dom Amerena

Dominic Amerena’s work has been published widely and won or been short-listed for several prizes, most recently the 2020 Alan Marshall Short Story Award. He’s undertaking a PhD in Creative Writing and lives in Athens, Greece, with his wife, the essayist Ellena Savage.

More by Dom Amerena ›

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  1. Yep, great text, Reading the Country – Reading Country may have been the better title though – with the necessary changes having been made – principally because criticism at the time saw it that the three Authors returned indigenous people an unreadable book, shot through as it was with 60s to 70s French theory. One wonders too about the phrase “arresting landscape paintings” in this same context. Still, great text to pull down off the shelf again.
    Thanks for the report.

  2. Taking Aboriginal knowledge seriously as philosophy is just another way of appropriating it for the purposes of (Western) philosophy. Why does it have to be taken seriously as ‘philosophy’? As if to say, if it isn’t understood in western philosophical terms it is a lesser form of knowledge. What tosh! Aboriginal knowledge is cosmology is knowledge is ‘philosophy’ in its own right and doesn’t need to be appropriated into western methods of understanding, as put forward here Overland. You probably think you’re doing everyone (including indigenous people) a favour by propping up Aboriginal knowledge on the so-called ‘higher’ pedestals of ‘philosophy,’ ‘art,’ ‘literature’ or what have you, when they clearly should be seen to exist in their own cultural right and as comparative equals, enriching our world with their difference. All this ‘yours is the same as ours’ is debilitating and narrow-minded and bloody unpluralistic.

    1. Great point… What if we were to analyze the field of western philosophy and see where it fits into indigenous epistemology and methodology rather than ALWAYS and FOREVER the other way around! What a sigh of relief to see a stand against the perpetual blindness… Thank you Bobby

    2. Anti-intellectual position that belittles the contribution that Aboriginal thought, theology and philosophy can make to human civilisation. I am aboriginal and about to undertake my PhD in Aboriginal Theology and Philosophy. These positions of confrontation, conflict and non-cooperation do no-one any good, least of all Aboriginal people seeking to rediscover and preserve culture and wisdom. If we don’t have formal academic studies of these matters, our young indigenous people will have nothing to visit as elders die and have no written records to pass on. This is not theoretical…this is happening now.

  3. Bobby, fair enough no one should be claiming that inclusion in a western discourse validates Aboriginal knowledge – but I don’t think that’s what Muecke is doing. As Dominic says, “Benterrak, Muecke and Roe’s collaboration was in part based on the idea that ‘things must go both ways’”

    If we shouldn’t engage with Aboriginal knowledge in a considered, scholarly, collaborative way – how do you think it should be done?

    1. Aboriginal people were scholarly, reflective, systematic thinkers and their systems of belief and philosophies easily stand up to traditional western academic methods of historical recording, research, analysis and discussion. Indeed, such work enhances the standing and authenticity and respect for their philosophies and theologies. Many aboriginal scholars have been engaged in such work for decades.

  4. Thanks for the article. Be interested to know some thoughts on Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines within the context of this article and comments. Not much of a thinker myself but I read the book and really liked it. And I take Bobby’s point. Wonder what he would think of Chatwin’s book?

  5. Hi Dominic
    Are there any texts aside from the book you discuss here which you would recommend? I’d be particularly interested in matters relating to ethics and/or society more generally.

  6. At the risk of sounding self-promoting, I am an Aboriginal person who has done significant work in this area. Not all Aboriginal knowledge is philosophy but this knowledge springs form a common philosophical base that i have begun to sketch out in the book Aboriginal Spirituality: Aboriginal philosophy that you can down load from https://sydney.academia.edu/VictoriaGrieves
    Also you will find that Aboriginal people in Redfern hold true to this philosophy as I found when I worked with a group to establish the factors that influence their wellbeing – you will find the outcomes of this research in the report Indigenous wellbeing: a framework for governments cultural heritage activities – also to be found through the link above – I am writing about this again or an article coming up in The Conversation, online.
    And there are many other references to works written by Aboriginal people – for example, Margaret Kemarre Turner’s book Iwenhe Tyerrtye: what it means to be an Aboriginal person.
    What i have learnt about this is that it is KNOWLEDGE and this is not racially determined. many people of high degree have said how this is there for everyone. In 1972 Charles Rowley said that this is what we need “for a continent that is in real danger”. We need it more than ever now with the realisation of the Anthropocene and the danger that now exists in this age of humans. Indigenous peoples’ philosophical approaches to living life well will become more and more valuable the world over as people seek to restore human relationships with the natural world. Yaway away – VG

  7. Bobby Doobler raises a challenging question, especially for me at this point in time. I live on a small Bass Strait island off the north east of Tasmania, Cape Barren Island. This is the old Aboriginal ‘mission’ island from 1912 to 1951. I have land leased from our land council with a program in mind to establish a Aboriginal school of philosophy. My program will be built and resourced without government funding, therefore no interference. My idea is not to assume that Aboriginal knowledge is cast is based around or in a Western mindset, but rather to hold discussions on questions such as Bobby has outlined. There are many questions Aborigines must ask of ourselves concerning what is Aboriginal philosophy compared to Western views of philosophy and intellect. Whatever, to my mind we have Aboriginal philosophy, of which I have collaborated with and learned from Dr Victoria Grieves on the very breadth of what we need to do to ensure ongoing maintenance of our knowledge. Given the human engagements across the ‘modern’ world, First Nations people must now translate our knowledge to better protect it from being acquired and manipulated to suit the Western philosophy. It’s our job, and there are more like me around Australia developing similar ideas.

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