The title page of my copy of this book has “W. Holloway, Form 5B” written in faint biro, indicating that it is almost 40 years since I last read it, though I don’t remember that reading nor any discussion following from it (I did change schools after term 1 so that may be the reason). By that year, 1967, the book had been through 6 impressions plus a schools edition so it must have been pretty widely disseminated.
I, the Aboriginal (1962) takes the form of the autobiography of an Alawa (Roper River, NT) man, Waipuldanya, also known by the ‘white-feller’ name Phillip Roberts, as dictated to the journalist Douglas Lockwood (1918-1980). And is similar in its style, and to some extent its content, to other books about the Outback at that time by author/journalists such as Ernestine Hill, Frank Clune and Ion Idriess.
I had expected to find on the web some academic discussion of the authenticity of this form of autobiography, perhaps in the vein of the outrage in some quarters following John O’Grady’s They’re a Weird Mob (1957) which was for a while held out to have been written by a northern Italian (of acceptably Aryan appearance), Nino Culotta, but what I could find was largely favourable. Arnold R Pilling, a US anthropologist, wrote in 1963, “I would place I, the Aboriginal in that small group of books which … any anthropologist may recommend to a non-anthropologist acquaintance who wishes a painless and fascinating introduction to our field.” (Reference here).
A 2004 article by Tim Rowse (here) is fascinating for its discussion of problems in the area of indigenous autobiography. For instance, Rowse says that an early critic, Professor A.P. Elkin of Sydney U, who was otherwise supportive of the book, “found it ‘jarring’ that Waipuldanya is represented as using words and alluding to situations that he was extremely unlikely to have known or known of.” That is, that Lockwood while purporting to be writing as Waipuldanya was actually using his (Lockwood’s) own words and constructions.
In Elkin’s view, Lockwood violated the tact that literary realism requires. And yet, for Elkin, the absence of the tactics of realism does not falsify the book. As he wrote in his review’s opening sentence: ‘This is a grand story, and all the more captivating because it is a true story’ (1963, 294). So what might that truth be?
Waipuldanya was born, in 1922, into the Alawa, a tribe which had only recently come into White contact through the establishment of The Roper River mission and the takeover of tribal lands for cattle grazing. He describes his love of the land, his (limited) schooling at the mission, circumcision and initiation, his apprenticeship as a hunter. He is frank about his commitment to his own religion and his conditional acceptance of Christianity.
… Kunapipi goes on and on, every night and every day, often until dawn, for six months. During that time the Songmen, to the clack of the boomerang beat, tell their endless, ageless stories in the chants handed down to us orally by the Generations of Men.
Kunapipi is a ritual, a cult which belongs to the Alawa, the Mara, the Mangari, and other tribes along the Roper. It spreads north to Yirrkalla and Millingimbi on the Arafura Sea, east to Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria, west to the Kimberleys, and south across the desert to the fringes of Warramunga and Wailbri country in north-central Australia. It has penetrated the barriers of language and culture, survived white infiltration, and today is as virile as ever…
It would be idle for me to attempt a detailed description of what is, perhaps, the most sacred of all aboriginal corroborees… It is enough to say that through Kunapipi songs and dancing we honour The Earth Mother – a mother goddess whom we believe was the source of all life, our language, our culture, our food, our laws, our children, our very creation.
We are also given a detailed discussion of kinship relationships, so that for instance the man to whom he is apprenticed as a hunter has that responsibility because kinship determines that Waipuldanya should be married to his sister. Though as it happens that sister was not ready when Waipuldanya was and he is given another suitable girl.
Waipuldanya enters manhood as a hunter and stockman but demonstrates a proficiency as a mechanic and driver and is taken on by a white doctor to drive him around the Roper River area, seeking out cases of leprosy and tuberculosis, which required isolation, and conducting medical clinics. So Wailpuldanya becomes a medical orderly, attends a conference in Noumea on indigenous medicine, and eventually conducts clinics throughout Arnhem Land, and finally, is offered and reluctantly accepts full citizenship.
Even if we don’t go there, and we mostly don’t although one of my daughters worked for a year on Groote Eylandt assisting Indigenous teachers’ aides, this area is now firmly part of our culture. I can think of movies such as Yolngu Boy (2001), Ten Canoes (2006) and Charlie’s Country (2013), there are the great musicians of Elcho Island Dr M. Yunupingu, and Gurumul Yunupingu, and Lisa at ANZLL has just reviewed Old Man’s Story, a photographic biography of a man from the Kakadu region. Though we must bear in mind that Waipaldanya himself expresses surprise at the diversity and separateness of tribal cultures across Arnhem Land and the adjacent islands.
What do I think? Read it. It is a very optimistic account of one man’s contact with an alien culture, more optimistic maybe than present circumstances seem to warrant, but nor does it gloss over the atrocities of first contact:
Multiply this [deaths from introduced diseases] by all the tribes in Australia, add the cruelties and the lead-poisoning, and the punitive expeditions against my people who killed cattle or drank Squatters’ Water, holier than Holy Water, and it is possible to understand why the aboriginal population of more than three hundred thousand at the First Coming of the White Man is now less than fifty thousand.
Douglas Lockwood, I, the Aboriginal, Rigby Limited, Adelaide, 1962
References: If you haven’t come to this post from ANZ Lit Lovers’ Indigenous Literature Week then this is the place to start.
Douglas Lockwood Wikipedia entry here.
Arnold R Pilling, Wayne State University, 1963 here
Richard Pascal, Taylor & Francis Online, Vol.3, Issue 2, 2006. Audible in the Silence: Douglas Lockwood, Waipuldanya, and the postwar Aboriginal life narrative here
Tim Rowse, Australian Humanities Review, Issue 33, Aug-Oct 2004. Indigenous Autobiography in Australia and the United States here