An Encounter with a Modern-Day Cultural Man

Bennelong: One Man, Two Worlds

flagonbrickwallI have a (dear) friend who grew up as a young boy learning many of the Indigenous Australian ways – bushcraft, stories, hunting, and so forth. I had the opportunity to interview him as part of an anthropology assignment, and in the process I became his student.

For some cursory background on the 18th Century Bennelong, see this article from the ABC. His story is one of extraordinary courage, and no small degree of tragedy.


 

Here is an excerpt from the article:

In 1792 Phillip took Bennelong and another Aboriginal man Yemmerrawani to England.
John Paul Janke says it would have been like aliens taking humans today into outer space.

 

Summary

I interviewed a man who identifies not only as Indigenous, but as a “cultural man”, and who is a Christian, and who lives in a modern Australian suburban setting.

This man’s cultural background is a fascinating and painful collision of cultures. My conversations with him, across a friendship of many years, are always powerfully educational for me and this one was no different.

Assigning him the name, “Bennelong” in this essay reflects my friend’s important thematic parallels with the story of that great and heroic ambassador of Aboriginal Australia: He set out courageously to learn about us, and in the process has become a timeless teacher to us, about himself and his people, at great personal expense.

My modern-day friend stands as a similar signpost to a changing world. The Traditions he grew up with, in many ways will die with him. His children are growing up as modern Australians. I think there is a tragedy in this.

The Story

Why “Bennelong”?

A portrait of the  18th Century Bennelong

A portrait of the
18th Century Bennelong

I chose to interview a man I have come to know well over several years. He is an Indigenous Australian who grew up being taught traditional cultural ways until the age of seven, but was also taught Christianity with the same level of emphasis. Subsequently he lived “in the city”.[1] Rather than use his real name I will call him Bennelong. I have long been fascinated by Bennelong’s self-identity both as a Christian and as a “cultural man”,[2] and by his heroic and sometimes tragic sojourn through the dominant Australian cultural setting. Despite his namesake of the 18th Century being a Koori, rather than my friend’s Murri ethnicity, I invoke the name Bennelong in honour of that historic Aboriginal man’s incredibly courageous, tragic and archetypal journey into the heart of the White Man’s world of his day, only to return a stranger to both to this new people and his kindred.[3]
It seems appropriate here to acknowledge that this work owes a grave debt to all Indigenous people of Australia, and seeks to pay honour to elders past and present. My earnest prayer is that this work should not treat the modern Bennelong as his namesake was treated: “with the distinction and favour which the fashionable world lavishes on every novelty”,[4] but instead that it may reflect both his dignity, and my respect for him.

Where my education in Indigenous culture began

This is a story of one world passing away, and a new one taking over, not a story of “intersection”.

I began directly encountering Indigenous Australians about four years ago when I moved to the Ipswich area and began running Bible study groups on behalf of the Salvation Army. I immediately began to appreciate some of the significant cultural issues at play among these people, even those who have spent all their lives in an ostensibly western setting. The first such issue was the realisation that self-identity for my Indigenous friends was substantially corporate, rather than primarily individual. While at prayer I was instructed by God that focusing on individual salvation was not going to be appropriate: a whole community needed to be addressed corporately. I complained that I, a white westerner, can not have any substantial leadership role to play in such a venture. I was told to wait.

God Moves

Within a few months a young man informed me that his older brother, at God’s explicit instruction, was starting a youth group for Indigenous kids. I went to see, and the older brother was Bennelong. I placed myself in his service and we have been in partnership ever since, including the establishment of an Indigenous Incorporation called “Men of Biami”[5] with other men of his mob.[6] For my part, the process has been a continual education in the fascinating worldview of these men, and by extension that of their people.

The Interview setting

“Right and wrong”, he says … are defined by what the elders teach

I arranged to spend a whole day with Bennelong for this interview. Even though I outlined my specific agenda of seeking to learn about his culture for the purpose of writing an essay, I knew that the majority of the day would be conversation on other topics and that I would be telling as many stories as he. A more formal interview setting would be entirely inappropriate. I also made certain that he knew that I was “hosting” him for the day including any food he wanted, which was also gesture based on appropriateness.[7]
Bennelong was pleased to have the opportunity to spend the day together, as was I, and we talked on as old friends, but with the exception that I sometimes took notes. We spoke about many things, spending less than a quarter of our time together on the question of “culture”.

My Preparation

I had prepared Sire’s “Seven Basic Questions” about worldview,[8] notes on Kraft’s discussion about worldviews,[9] and a list of questions relating to Indigenous community obligations, traditional spirituality, gender roles, fictive relations, and other matters that I would have loved to discuss. However, I referred to my agenda only once or twice, preferring to allow the conversation to flow because our discussion was so fruitful. We covered only a relatively small number of the questions I had prepared.

Overall

I was delighted with the interview. It affirmed and strengthened Bennelong both in his faith and in his identity as a “cultural man”, both of which outcomes I consider important. I also learned a lot, as always happens when I spend time with him. My only regret, which I highlighted at the time, was that when I posed a question about Bennelong’s experience both of the traditional Indigenous life and of the dominant Australian culture, I used an expression which contained potentially invalid assumptions. I described his experience as “an intersection” between two worlds. I suddenly realised as I said it, however, that Bennelong’s grandfather, “Pop”, had used different expressions when he was teaching young Bennelong. He had described the traditional ways as “the old ways”, and had predicted that few of them would be useful in Bennelong’s life. This is a story of one world passing away, and a new one taking over, not a story of “intersection”. Pop, in turn, grew up in missions where he “was flogged for speaking the lingo”,[10] and was similarly brutalised for other cultural expressions, whilst being indoctrinated with Christianity and the European worldview.

If he lives, he lives. If he dies, so be it… He has paid the price

I had actually anticipated more difficulty in this interview, because in my relationship with Bennelong my role is significantly one of imparting worldview as a teacher, counsellor or mentor. I was concerned that the interview would fail because Bennelong might, in an effort to please me, tell me what he thought I wanted to hear. My fears were unfounded. Our relationship is sufficiently deep and strong that Bennelong is comfortable speaking his mind, and in any case Bennelong knows that I do not find the Indigenous traditions to be intrinsically opposed to the Christian message, in the way others have from time to time.[11]

How my findings are arranged

By allowing the conversation to flow, and by delving into some areas that were brought to light, I discovered insights about Bennelong’s views on several topics along a single, reasonably integrated thread: the nature of morality, the role of violence in teaching morality, the nature of respect afforded by that violence, and the true essence of respect which lies behind it, all in the Indigenous community setting. The conversation did not develop precisely in that order but this is a logical way to arrange what I learned.

The conversation

Right and Wrong

Their view of the authority of the elders’ teachings is very closely paralleled by the early church’s notion of apostolic authority and succession

In a discussion about “common sense”, I stumbled on an important aspect of Bennelong’s worldview which derives from his traditional upbringing: “Right and wrong”, he says, are not in any way self-evident, and perhaps are not even objective at all, but instead they are defined by what the elders teach. I recognised this as Sire’s Basic Question, “How do we know what is right and wrong?”[12] Bennelong’s answer differs from what I would answer as a Christian, and also differs from what most would answer as dominant-culture Australians. It thematically relates to Kraft’s discussion of the “person-group”, or “ingroup”,[13] and the interpretation of rules in that context. Bennelong says that “right and wrong” are relative to the community within which they are taught.

This revelation provides a poignant backdrop to Bennelong’s journey from his boyhood, equipped only with a seven year-old’s exposure to what his grandfather had taught him, into his adolescence and manhood in a cultural setting devoid of such teachers. His anecdotes of life on the street and juvenile detention as a teenager, and in prison as a young man, are told explicitly in the context of seeking acceptance, and a community in which he could belong. In the context of this cultural presupposition about “right and wrong”, it is not surprising that he relied on protector- and patron-figures in the criminal street and prison subcultures to define his moral compass. The other thing this revelation provides is a ministry vector for me to employ with my Indigenous friends: Their view of the authority of the elders’ teachings is very closely paralleled by the early church’s notion of apostolic authority and succession, providing a culturally comprehensible doctrine of Biblical authority.

Violence in Discipline

an elder would pray for the animal in our language

This conversation came out of a discussion of violence, used traditionally to underscore the moral teachings of the elder. Bennelong reflected on the tradition of spearing a man for a transgression, a practice which sometimes resulted in death but was carefully designed not to. Captain Arthur Phillip was speared in the shoulder in such a practice as part of his dealings with the historical Bennelong, and refused to instruct his men to retaliate because he recognised the gesture as disciplinary, even if his companions did not.[14] Their failure to do so is remarkable considering that they were outnumbered and unarmed, facing dozens of armed men who hunt efficiently with spears daily and would obviously have had no trouble delivering a mortal wound at such close range. My friend, the modern Bennelong, described the intended outcome of this ancient penal practice as “if he lives, he lives. If he dies, so be it.” This is not a “trial by ordeal” where guilt is being established, but rather a disciplinary measure which restores the community to wholeness: “He has paid the price”.

Respect comes from knowledge

He went on to tell me a dreaming story about how the porcupine came about: a man “who did wrong by a young girl” was disciplined by spearing, fell on his stomach, and received many spears but did not die, and thus became the porcupine we see today. He went on say, “Now, we eat the porcupine, see?” I will readily confess that I didn’t “see” the connection immediately, but nodded anyway. He continued, “… but we don’t kill the porcupine for no reason”; the point was that this punishment is a complete dealing with transgression, after which no further punishment is necessary.

What is Prayer?

In a tantalising aside which I didn’t manage to explore, Bennelong went on to talk about how an elder might react to an animal being “killed for no reason”. He reflected on his ancestors witnessing pastoralists culling animals and not eating them, asking themselves “Why?”. Even when an animal is hit by a car it is appropriate to “put it out of its misery, take it home and eat it”. In this case he said, “an elder would pray for the animal in our language”, before eating it. This thought represents a potential treasure trove of reflection on the nature of prayer, the relationship between hunter and beast, and the relationship between humanity and creation, but we didn’t explore it.

Respect

From the discussion of penal violence the conversation flowed into the concept of “respect”. I began to probe the link between violence and respect because I knew that the two concepts were not directly linked in quite the way that Bennelong’s descriptions had begun to imply. I pointed to a statement of his own, that he, having become a Christian, no longer has to “be violent to get respect”, and I asked, “so where does the respect come from?” Bennelong found it hard to understand what I was asking. I eventually asked, “what is the function of this respect in the community?” Bennelong paused for a long moment before replying. He thoughtfully and authoritatively said, “Well, in an Indigenous community…”, and paused again for several long seconds, “… respect comes from knowledge”. This excited me much more than Bennelong was probably anticipating. I immediately recognised this as a profound and axiomatic truth, probably to his bemusement.

Their knowledge-passing has been disrupted

That thought was then the central thought in our conversation for over an hour. For Bennelong it had been so self-evident that he had not even articulated it before, but his easy grasp of this important concept is a testament to his cultural identity. “Knowledge”, of course, is “knowledge about how to live”, which can be the difference between life and death, not only for the individual but potentially for the community. It includes musical instruments, relationships, weapons, hunting, stories, foods, places, songs, dances, etc. It is the knowledge that the community treasures up. We discussed how this knowledge begins to be imparted as part of the adolescent initiation ceremonies of both boys and girls, so that these new adults possess the answers that life will require of them. Bennelong posed a telling rhetorical question that prompted me to stop him while I took careful notes: “If you’re an elder, who’s 40, and you don’t know how to hunt, what kind of respect are you going to get from the younger generation? You have nothing to pass down. Why would they respect you? There’s no point.”

This concept is a key to understanding not only Bennelong’s worldview, but also the story of his own life and that of his people. With such an axiomatic place for the knowledge of the elders and the vital function of passing it on, and considering the concerted campaign by previous generations of westerners to remove that knowledge from indigenous communities, it is not only understandable but inevitable that chaos and social dysfunction should ensue. Trudgen extensively surveys Arnhem Land’s Indigenous community problems before identifying the cause as, “an almost total loss of control over their lives and living environment”.[15] Bennelong’s expression allows us to examine the cause in another dimension also: Their knowledge-passing has been disrupted.

The Cultural Man

St Francis Xavier is reputed to have coined the adage “Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man”. Bennelong was raised, to the age of seven, by his Pop, who in turn had endured a violent collision of cultures, and Bennelong’s self-identity was established in those early years. Pop’s teachings represent a traditional worldview about community, combined with Christian dogma and Western mores. This foundation has endured through 29 subsequent years often spent under other powerful influences.

The Way Forward

If you’re an elder, who’s 40, and you don’t know how to hunt, what kind of respect are you going to get from the younger generation? You have nothing to pass down. Why would they respect you? There’s no point.

The Bennelong of the 18th Century boldly travelled to the centre of the British Empire, and more remarkable still, he returned home. The man was changed by that experience, however, and he suffered; he was unable to re-establish his roots. I admire my contemporary Bennelong, in that his individual journey is not entirely dissimilar, albeit entirely set his own land. What such a man needs is not necessarily a “return” to purely traditional ways, and certainly not “assimilation” into the dominant culture. He needs a new kind of community: One in which there is, in the Biblical parlance, neither male nor female, blackfella nor whitefella, rich nor poor, and so forth. This is a community in which such identities are not lost, indeed they are cultivated and celebrated, but one where such identities do not impinge on belonging.

My Indigenous friends need a community in which the elders and ancestors of that community are the teachers, and where the purpose of any disciplinary actions is to restore community, rather than to inflict retribution. That was the kind of community in which their traditions were forged. The modern Australian cultural landscape is not such a community. There is such community, however, and it is the kingdom of God, as conceived in Biblical terms.

This theme has defined my ministry efforts increasingly for several years now. I create such a community around the Biblical narratives, because that is their purpose. Of course, it includes Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, because in fact, all humanity desires and needs such a community.

My Friend and my Teacher

This is a community in which such identities are not lost, indeed they are cultivated and celebrated, but one where such identities do not impinge on belonging

I enjoyed the process of this interview and benefited from it, as I always benefit from time spent with human beings. My posture is routinely one in which I am learning about human beings as God’s handiwork, who reflect his image and likeness. Consequently I learn about God and his kingdom in the process. In turn, everything I learn equips me better to include more people into God’s redemption story by using terms they can understand. Bennelong’s legacy of patiently teaching me his worldview is woven through this process in immeasurably numerous and valuable ways across several years, yet he is surprised that I call him my teacher.


 

 

 

Bibliography

Champion, George (George Annells), and Shelagh Champion. The Spearing of Governor Phillip at Collins Cove (Now Manly Cove) 7th September, 1790 / [Compiled] by Shelagh Champion and George Champion [in English]. S. and G. Champion, 1989.

Flanagan, Martin. “Wit and Wisdom from the Concrete Dreamtime.” The Age, 2004.

Fullagar, Kate. “”Savages That Are Come among Us”: Mai, Bennelong, and British Imperial Culture, 1774-1795″.” Eighteenth Century: Theory & Interpretation (Texas Tech University Press) 49, no. 3 (Fall2008 2008): 211-37.

Harris, John W. One Blood : 200 Years of Aboriginal Encounter with Christianity : A Story of Hope [in English].  Sutherland, NSW, Australia; Claremont, CA, USA: Albatross Books, 1990.

———. We Wish We’d Done More : Ninety Years of Cms and Aboriginal Issues in North Australia [in English].  Adelaide: Openbook, 1998.

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. “Bringing Them Home: National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Children from Their Families.” Commonwealth of Australia, 1997.

Hut, Janneke. “In Search of Affirmed Aboriginality as Christian: ‘If You Do Not Walk on the Tracks of Your Grandparents, You Will Get Lost . . .’.” Exchange 41, no. 1 (2012): 19-43.

Kraft, Charles H. Christianity with Power : Your Worldview and Your Experience of the Supernatural [in English].  Ann Arbor, Mich.: Vine Books, 1989.

Maher, Louise, “Treasure Trove: Bennelong’s Letter,” Accessed 26th October, 2013, 666 ABC Canberra, http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2013/08/08/3821136.htm.

McCoy, Brian F. Holding Men : Kanyirninpa and the Health of Aboriginal Men [in English].  Canberra, ACT: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2008.

Reconciliation Australia, “Share Our Pride,” Accessed 27th October, 2013,  http://shareourpride.reconciliation.org.au/.

Sire, James W. The Universe Next Door : A Basic Worldview Catalog [in English].  Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2009.

Swain, Tony Rose Deborah Bird Australian Association for the Study of Religions. Aboriginal Australians and Christian Missions : Ethnographic and Historical Studies [in English].  Bedford Park, S. Aust., Australia: Australian Association for the Study of Religions, 1988.

Trudgen, Richard. Why Warriors Lie Down & Die : Towards an Understanding of Why the Aboriginal People of Arnhem Land Face the Greatest Crisis in Health and Education since European Contact : Djambatj Mala [in English].  Darwin, NT: Aboriginal Resource & Development Services Inc, 2000.

 

 

[1] Bennelong’s term, primarily meaning “western society”, but also indicating urban or suburban life, separate from hunting and other bushcraft.

[2] A reference to Indigenous cultural self-identification.

[3]Louise Maher, “Treasure Trove: Bennelong’s Letter,” Accessed 26th October, 2013, 666 ABC Canberra, http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2013/08/08/3821136.htm.

[4]Kate Fullagar, “”Savages That Are Come among Us”: Mai, Bennelong, and British Imperial Culture, 1774-1795″,” Eighteenth Century: Theory & Interpretation (Texas Tech University Press) 49, no. 3 (2008): 229.

[5] The historical origins of the “Biami” tradition are debated. In this case “Biami” is used implicitly as a reference to the Judeo-Christian God of the Bible, in a similar context to, “Biami, creator spirit of the Wiradjuri” – Martin Flanagan, “Wit and Wisdom from the Concrete Dreamtime,” The Age 2004, http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/05/16/1084646069662.html.

[6] “Mob” can mean anything from a nuclear family (rarely), to an extended family clan (usually), through to a whole ethnicity (often). It is a term which recognises relatedness.

[7] The provision of food is a culturally significant gesture of patronage, and in our relationship it relates to the concept of “kanyirninpa” (so McCoy), as part of my mentoring role in his life. – Brian F. McCoy, Holding Men : Kanyirninpa and the Health of Aboriginal Men(Canberra, ACT: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2008), 23.

[8]James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door : A Basic Worldview Catalog(Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 22-23.

[9]Charles H. Kraft, Christianity with Power : Your Worldview and Your Experience of the Supernatural(Ann Arbor, Mich.: Vine Books, 1989), 195-205.

[10] “the lingo” is an expression referring to any or all of the traditional Indigenous languages.

[11] “When the European missionaries came they told the Aborigines that their traditions and cultures were heathen” – Janneke Hut, “In Search of Affirmed Aboriginality as Christian: ‘If You Do Not Walk on the Tracks of Your Grandparents, You Will Get Lost . . .’,” Exchange 41, no. 1 (2012): 31.

[12]Sire, The Universe Next Door : A Basic Worldview Catalog, 22.

[13]Kraft, Christianity with Power : Your Worldview and Your Experience of the Supernatural, 196.

[14]George (George Annells) Champion and Shelagh Champion, The Spearing of Governor Phillip at Collins Cove (Now Manly Cove) 7th September, 1790 / [Compiled] by Shelagh Champion and George Champion(S. and G. Champion, 1989).

[15] Italics in the original – Richard Trudgen, Why Warriors Lie Down & Die : Towards an Understanding of Why the Aboriginal People of Arnhem Land Face the Greatest Crisis in Health and Education since European Contact : Djambatj Mala(Darwin, NT: Aboriginal Resource & Development Services Inc, 2000), 281.

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