Australia and Aborigines: Dispatch 9 from Extraordinary Cultures Tour

March 26th, 2009 by Richard Kurin

Richard Kurin is the Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture here at the Smithsonian Institution. He is a cultural anthropologist specializing in the study of knowledge systems, folk arts, museums, and development. He is currently Study Leader on our Extraordinary Cultures – An Epic Journey Around the World tour, and will be blogging periodically while traveling. This post is ninth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

Dateline: Australia

Kangaroo with joey in her pouch. There are an estimated 60 million kangaroos in Australia—where they are often regarded as vermin. Photo: Richard Kurin

Kangaroo with joey in her pouch. There are an estimated 60 million kangaroos in Australia—where they are often regarded as vermin. Photo: Richard Kurin

Australia’s northeast coast is a tropical rainforest, part of the state of Queensland, and home to a number of Aboriginal peoples and those of the Torres Straits. The Smithsonian has had a strong fellowship program with Queensland and a recent history of scholarly and professional exchange. The head of the Woodford Folk Festival was a fellow at the Smithsonian, I’ve collaborated with the museum studies program at the University of Queensland, and a number of tropical biologists have gone back and forth between the Great Barrier Reef and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in an effort to understand the formation, vitality and challenges to coral reefs.

Our group meets Malcolm Turner, the director of operations for the Great Barrier Reef, who explains the ecology and conservation issues for the largest living thing on the planet. He tells the group that cyclones, fresh water run-off, and most importantly, global warming, are threatening the reef, as it heads out for a day of snorkeling, diving, and just enjoyment of this natural treasure.

Aborigines Harold Taley and Shaun Creek give our travelers a brief introduction to Aboriginal use of the natural flora. Harold has our group marvel at the soapy cleanser made from leaves; he demonstrates nut-cracking, and the use of various medicinal herbs and vines. Our folks are very impressed with the obvious knowledge embedded in aboriginal ways. Shaun then shows us how he plays the didgeridoo—typically made from eucalyptus naturally hollowed out by termites. On this wind instrument he produces a sound that resonates deeply, seems so primordial, almost mystical.

If you imagine the sound of the earth moving on its journey through space and time, this is what you would hear. But it also sounds so contemporary, thoughtful, and contemplative. He shares the sounds of Dreamtime, but also those of modern life—representing a hitchhiker and a train with its rhythms. He shows how this ancient instrument and sound can represent new experiences.

Roy Kangara talks to the group about aboriginal ways, demonstrating spear throwing. Photo: Richard Kurin

Roy Kangara talks to the group about aboriginal ways, demonstrating spear throwing. Photo: Richard Kurin

We get more of the same with a walk through the local Daintree rainforest with aboriginal guide Roy Kangara from Mossman Gorge. He points out dangerous plants, the burial place of chiefs, and demonstrates the use of spear and spear thrower, clays for body protection and adornment, and techniques for forest whistling and drumming. He turns the rainforest and its flora into a classroom for us. He makes it so clear that Aborigines survived in the forest not because they were primitive, but because they were incredibly knowledgeable about their environment. That knowledge was built up over thousands of years. Of course it is apparent that we—doctors, lawyers, business people and professors—know so little, and would hardly be able to survive a week in these environs.

Our visit to a local animal reserve brings home how close we live to nature despite our almost daily ignorance of it. Here we walk among kangaroos, sidle up to kola bears, and see an amazing variety of local bird species.

This post is ninth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

To learn about travel to Australia, click here.

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