Travels in ceremony country

Some claim our society is too materialistic and lacks spiritual values. But what would it be like to live in a society that rejects materialism?

Arnhem Land in tropical Australia has a curious status. Although the government has overall responsibility, the indigenous inhabitants are considered to be in control over the area where they live. Outsiders must seek permission to enter a tribal area and a permit is issued on payment of a fee. Twenty years ago the tourist fee was relatively modest, but for a mining concession the fee is substantial as one might expect. We paid $65 for two of us per day on our first visit, although fees have risen greatly over time.

Very few tourists visit because the fee is for entry only and there are no hotels, restaurants, shops or similar facilities. There are very few roads, or even tracks for four-wheel drive vehicles. However it is possible to fly in and stay at the small mining town of Nhulunbuy within Arnhem Land where there is accommodation, shops and restaurants. No permit is needed provided one stays within the town perimeter.

A tiny number of operators in Nhulunbuy will offer tours with a vehicle and guide, and assistance in obtaining the necessary permits. The tribespeople are generally not unfriendly but shy, and few will attempt much of a conversation even if they have sufficient English. As Australian citizens they are eligible for benefits so individuals have some income though very few have jobs (and those who do are nearly all women). A good deal of their income is spent on alcohol. Getting drunk is not frowned upon within the tribal system. Religion puts a high value on a trance-like state and it is not clear how inebriation differs from this (even to me). Violence when drunk can be punished, especially if somebody is harmed.

On one of our visits, a chief’s drunken son had just beaten a woman to death. A meeting of elders had decided that the spearing would take place immediately and that the official trial (that would presumably result in a conviction for manslaughter) would occur when he got out of hospital. On some previous occasions, the spearing took place when the offender got out of prison and this was thought to be unfair.

Some but not all children go to school. On one tiny island in the Gulf of Carpentaria I met a group of young boys living on their own to prepare for the ‘circumcision’ ceremony that would admit them to full tribal membership. They had spears and knives (but no clothes), and were living on fish and other seafood that they could catch or collect. Water was in short supply and the gifts of cold cans of soft drink were more than welcome. These boys (around 12 years old at my guess) could speak some English. But they could not reach a consensus as to how long they had been on the island, how long since they had seen an adult, how long they expected to stay or even whether they had ever been to school. I got the impression that they were not supposed to have any contact with me, but soft drinks overwhelmed any moral inhibitions.

Anthropologists have described this island sequestration of pre-initiates, but I doubt they interviewed the boys on an island. The written descriptions simply add to my scepticism of anthropologists. What I observed differed from the anthropological accounts in a number of important ways.

I have become friendly with one (white) Australian who had been initiated into one tribe and could act as interpreter. However my friendship has not progressed to the stage where I felt able to ask him if he had undergone the severe penile mutilation that the young boys are supposed to endure. The ceremony involves more than simple circumcision as understood by us.

On one trip my friend had recently taken a guy on an eco-tour. They first visited the tribe for permission and found a man apparently completing a painting on bark. In some parts of Australia paintings are made to sell to tourists but these are of variable quality. The tourist was excited at finding an authentic work of art, which he thought beautiful. The artist showed little reluctance to sell, and little interest in a price. But his work was not complete and he insisted it had to be finished. It was agreed that the tourist would return at the end of his visit.

Some days later the guide and tourist returned and the artist produced his now-complete painting. It was nothing like the one that had been admired and the tourist did not like it. But, explained the artist, the one he had liked was still there, it was just underneath. In fact there were four layers of painting; none of these were intended to be viewed by human eyes. Painting is done to satisfy the artist and please the spirits who are not limited by human sense organs. The artist had some understanding that the tourist might wish to own something that pleased the spirits. He could not understand why the new owner might want to view the painting.

There are many rock paintings across the tropical North. However the access to some sites has been restricted or stopped altogether. This is not because the tribes think the paintings may be damaged by tourists, in fact they paint over some old examples. This does not ‘damage’ them as they are still there for the spirits. But viewing by non-initiates desecrates the site. Actually photography and video desecrates them even more but we were not aware of this on our earliest trips!

Most tribes are small; one we encountered consisted of about 40 individuals. All receive some assistance from the government and those whose lands contain valuable minerals get money from their leases. In fact the amounts from leases can be enormous when considered against the standard of the material possessions of the tribe, apart from its land.

A giant aluminium company built a village for one tiny tribe on the edge of a huge lagoon called Bradshaw Harbour. There were vast resources for fishing and gathering of food, but after a few years when the senior elder had died, the tribe abandoned their houses and moved to the edge of Nhulunbuy where they could camp within easy access to alcohol.

Of course there are outsiders with a mission to help the local people, medics, teachers, social workers and religious enthusiasts, but the curious status of the place allows the locals to determine what kind of help they will accept. These are tribal societies, so it is the elders, ie the older men, who decide.

Most outsiders would like to see the available money spent on material things like housing, hygiene, education, medicine, etc. That is, those things upon which our society puts great value. But the elders put the greatest value on their religion. This involves complex and lengthy ‘ceremonies’, when a tribe invites its neighbours to a session of feasting and ritual generally lasting many days. In earlier times this presumably had the practical result of reducing tension and the risk of intertribal war.

Initiated men are called ‘warriors’ in English translation, even though they may be young teenagers. I have been on a fishing/hunting trip with a ‘warrior’ whose grandmother told me was 13. He carried two spears and a ‘throwing stick’ (his term) sometimes called an atlatl or woomera by outsiders. However it was a sacred object, no uninitiated person could touch it or even learn its proper name and he did not know any other western names for the object.

We went fishing in one spot; part of our concession was to take along a tribal member. A woman agreed; she would spend her time gathering food on a sacred beach. But she wanted to also take her daughter who she thought had just become fertile. It was necessary also to take a warrior, because a girl not so accompanied would become pregnant by walking on this sacred beach. This had happened to her as a teenager so she was certain it was true. Our guide (in the woman’s hearing), explained that the tribespeople were perfectly aware of the connection between sex and pregnancy but they had sex all the time and pregnancy did not always result so some other factor must be involved. I decided this was similar to attitudes in rural Ireland where prayers to the Virgin are thought important in such matters.

Before money was introduced, the cost in resources of putting on a ceremony was considerable relative to the economic status of a tribe. However the number of people who could attend was limited to those tribes in the vicinity: within walking distance. Generally it is estimated most tribes held a ceremony only once a year, while they probably attended between two and four more, held by their neighbours.

Mining royalties mean that the tribes (though not the individual) have considerable discretionary income and a very large percentage of this is spent on travel costs, to allow the people to attend distant ceremonies and on catering for the greatly enlarged numbers who attend the local ceremony. If sufficient funds allow they may also increase the number of ceremonies held. These days food is purchased as well as gathered, in fact close to a supermarket in Nhulunbuy very little is gathered, while very large amounts of alcoholic drink will be needed.

At first the travel range was increased by four-wheel drive transport, but with unskilled drivers and a complete lack of mechanics for maintenance, these had only a brief useful life. Where mining roads have been installed, ground vehicles may still be of use, but road maintenance is costly and without upkeep no road is likely to survive even a single wet season.

Travel by air is more feasible and tribes now often hire air transport. This makes the whole of Arnhem Land within the range of any tribe living within one day’s walk of a bush airstrip.

Outside Arnhem Land, in Western Australia, taxpayers provide subsidy for tribal transport where there are no mining concessions. In 2007 we were at a small, isolated fishing camp (four anglers) in an uninhabited area when we had a visit from the ‘traditional owners’ plus social workers and government officials. They came supposedly to see that the region was being looked after properly. There is never any litter around at fishing camps in the Kimberley, so after this group had left one of the guides went round to pick up all the litter they had dropped – mainly cigarette butts.

There was no road access and no place for a landing strip. A helicopter was kept on the ground while the party was visiting. When it came time for them to leave it had developed a fault. Another chopper with a mechanic had to come to examine it, while a third very large machine came to pick up the party (they all had to travel at once instead of being ferried, as night was approaching). None of the visitors had been there before – it is actually Government land – ie public land and it could not support a permanent settlement now or in the recent past.

The main concern of the traditional owners was to ensure that tourist operators did not take people to visit ancient sites and in particular did not photograph, or even view, ancient rock art. Such visitors offended against the traditional spiritual values, but these people expressed no interest in charging fees to allow tourists to do these touristy things.

Further reading: Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages. M Abley, 2003. The Elements of the Aborigine Tradition. James G Cowan, 1992.

Ethnic fundamentalism in New Zealand

Ethnic fundamentalism is a form of ‘secular religion’, an oxymoron that resists criticism. This article, originally presented at the NZ Skeptics conference in Auckland, September 2006, interrogates the beliefs of those who insist that ethnicity plays the primary and determining in creating the person. Are such beliefs merely old-fashioned and discredited racism in a new guise?

I describe ethnic fundamentalism or culturalism as a ‘secular religion’ because this particular way of understanding what ethnicity means shares a number of important features with religion. First, it is a set of beliefs about human nature. Second, those beliefs are unchallenged and unchallengeable. Third, ethnic fundamentalism rejects doubt and has a difficult relationship with reason.

The need to keep beliefs that are not exposed to the challenges of doubt, reason and judgement away from politics is the reason why the separation of church and state, the separation of science and religion are at the heart of democracy. Democracy is peaceful battle. It can work only if its battles are fought with reason, and not with blind faith. Reason is the democratic method. Those forces that enter the political arena without a commitment to reason are deeply subversive of democracy. One such is ethnic fundamentalism.

I want to describe five beliefs of ethnic fundamentalism in order to show how the politicisation of ethnicity is subverting democracy in New Zealand. But before I do I need to clarify my terms. ‘Ethnicity’ refers to a combination of culture-what we do and how we understand ourselves-and genetic inheritance (or race). Ethnicity became popular in the social sciences in the late 1960s and spread rapidly into common usage. It was an attempt to ‘edit out’ the increasingly discredited term ‘race’ from our vocabularies. However changing a word does not change the concept. Ethnicity does not mean culture only. It has a genetic, biological, ie race, component that does not go away simply because it is an uncomfortable notion for the social constructivists amongst us.

The confusion which dogs these words was vividly demonstrated in the responses by Pita Sharples and Willie Jackson to Don Brash’s musings on the complexity of identity. According to Pita Sharples, as quoted in the New Zealand Herald when describing what it is to be Maori: “Culture is not about the amount of blood you have, it is about beliefs, customs and aspirations.” Well, that it true, but to be eligible for the Maori electoral roll and to claim tertiary Maori scholarships, one does in fact need the blood. It is disingenuous of Pita Sharples to ignore this fact. Willie Jackson, on the other hand, did refer to “whakapapa” as “what determined being Maori, the ability to link genetically to a Maori ancestor”. Put both these explanations together and we have a more complete understanding of ethnicity. It is about identifying with a particular social group in order to live a certain way-ie culture-and it is also about genetic or racial inheritance being the means to classifying oneself with that particular group.

Interestingly I have noticed in recent months that the softer term ‘diversity’ is increasingly favoured in light of the inability of ‘ethnicity’ to shrug off its genetic or race component. However, softening the words, first by replacing ‘race’ with ‘ethnicity’, then by replacing ethnicity with diversity doesn’t change the concept itself-the idea of identifying with a social group on the basis of genetic ancestry. Not that there is anything wrong with that in itself.

The primacy of racial identity

Before turning to what the problem really is I first need to describe the five main beliefs of ethnic fundamentalists or culturalists. The first belief holds that our ethnic or racial identity is our primary and determining personal identity. This denies the fact that identity in the modern democratic world is individual identity. The modern person is the autonomous, self-creating, self-directed, independent individual who makes choices (even the choice not to exercise choice and not to be independent). This privilege of choice was not available to our ancestors who were locked into the birth-ascribed identities of traditional cultures. It is not available today to the millions who live under neotraditionalist elites-these are theocracies and oligarchies (such as the Tongan elite) who use traditional beliefs as political controls on others while themselves enjoying the fruits of modernity.

We modern individuals make choices about which identity matters the most to us-which identity is the one that we will invest with enormous subjective meaning. An example is the well-educated professional class of the 1980s who chose to identify in ethnic terms, and referred to themselves with considerable pride as ‘pakeha’. Not all settler-descendants chose to do so. The interesting question, and one I don’t have time to discuss here, is why a particular group within the post-war new middle class chose an ethnic identity. Previously of course, the term ‘pakeha’ was one used in the main by Maori to describe those who arrived from Britain and their descendants. It is unusual to find a group, particularly a relatively privileged middle class group, who take on an ethnicised identity as the identity of choice. It does appear, however, that since the early 1990s there has been a silent retreat from that process.

For many people, the meaning of who they are is intimately tied to the idea of ethnic belonging. There are those who choose their primary social identity to be pakeha. Others, with Maori ancestry, choose Maori identity as their defining subjectivity. From a democratic point of view the right to choose a determining identity, including an ethnicised one, must be supported. It is the same for those who wish to define themselves in religious terms. As long as such identities remain private choices, practised in association with others of like minds, there is no problem however much one may dislike the emphasis on a primary identity that is genetically based. It is the right of an individual in a democratic country to make that choice.

Primordial racial groups

The second belief is that the ethnic or racial group is primordial-existing from the beginning of time and known through the mythologies that are regarded as histories-that the group is distinctive and separate. This denies the universal human reality of migration, genetic mixing and social mixing. It certainly denies the New Zealand reality.

Cultural determinism

Third is the belief that how people live and understand their lives (culture) is caused by who they are (their ancestral descent or ethnicity/race). Who we are in terms of the ancestral genetic group causes what we do and the meaning we give to our actions (ie culture). It is a belief that has taken on its own life in education. Such cultural determinism is behind the idea of kaupapa Maori research, ‘Maori maths’, ‘Maori pedagogy’, ‘Maori research’ and so on. It is currently being extended to the idea of a Pasifika pedagogy. The equivalent in India is the idea of Vedic science, the Hindutva fundamentalism that made huge inroads in India during the 1990s and is roundly criticised by the philosopher, Meera Nanda. According to this belief the way a person thinks, behaves and relates to others is caused by ‘blood’ or in more acceptable terms, by ‘spirit’. It is biological determinism or racism dressed in intellectual garb.


The fourth belief is that an ethnic group indigenous to an area is autochthonous, that is, the group is ‘of the land’ in a way that is qualitatively different from those who arrive later. The important point here is that-as a consequence of this fact-the first group claims a particular political status with entitlements not available to others. It is ‘blood and soil’ ideology, located in mythological origins and seductive in its mystical appeal. By separating those who are ‘indigenous’ from those who are not-in terms of political recognition, a fundamental categorisation occurs which then becomes built into political institutions. Such a categorisation principle can be extended-why not have a number of ‘classes’ of citizens-those who arrived first, those who came a little later, while those who have only just arrived would be a most unfortunate class indeed. In time it is quite possible that these ‘classes’ could become rigid caste divisions.

Ethnic rights

The fifth belief is that because of the claim of the primacy of ethnicity as the mechanism for classifying social groups, individuals should be classified as members of ethnic categories and that these groups should be the bearers of political rights and be recognised in the public and political sphere. This means that membership of an ethnic category takes precedence over citizenship as a person’s primary political status. This is perhaps the most serious of all the beliefs in this racial ideology because of its implications for national cohesion and democratic government. It is where ethnic fundamentalism becomes a major problem for us all.

The politicisation of ethnicity

Since the 1970s, the world-wide shift to identity politics has led to the politicisation of ethnicity. This means officially classifying and categorising people according to their ethnic or racial heritage. It is now pervasive in all areas of state and public activity in this country, particularly and most dangerously in education, including those places which should be the bastions of disinterested science, the universities. New Zealand is not alone of course. In fact I have chosen a UK example of how ridiculous the process of ethnic classification can be because it is an extreme version-though we are not far behind.

The example is taken from the United Kingdom’s Department for Education and Skills’ Race Equality Scheme. The document makes use of a plethora of terms. Within the space of a few pages the reader can find: ethnic groups; Asian backgrounds; Chinese and Indian (in the UK); White British; ethnic minority groups; Black Caribbean pupils; Black and Asian students; Black British; Asian British (all on the same page); minority ethnic groups; pupils from Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds; BME (which is explained in a Glossary at the end of the document as meaning Black and Minority Ethnic); BEMG (which is said to refer to Black Ethnic Minority Group); Traveller; Irish heritage; Gypsy/Roma; individual minority ethnic groups; Black young people; White British young people; Black young males; and Ethnic Minority and ethnic diversity; Black, Asian and people of mixed ethnic origin.

I need add here that I am talking about politicising ethnicity. I am not talking about the social reality-that we do have diverse communities where we meet as Maori, as Irish, as Hindu, as Muslims, as Rotarians, as Anglicans, as inline hockey players, as Plunket parents, as alienated youth, as Skeptics and so on. For some people, ethnic identity is extremely important and for these, associating with others of the same ethnicity to practise the culture of the group is necessary for their well-being. For others, such identification is much less so. Like religion, like lifestyle identities, maintaining close ties with others whom we regard as ‘like us’ can provide psychological security and stability in a complex world. I have no quarrel with this and fully support the wonderfully vibrant celebrations of diverse cultures (some ethnic based, some religious, some lifestyle) that occur throughout the country. This includes Maori television, Chinese New Year celebrations, theatre and music which has its origins in Europe, contemporary youth culture, and so on.

Why have a nation?

What I do consider a serious problem is politicising these forms of social classification so that ethnic categories become a means for the public recognition of people. Individuals are treated by government and its agencies, including schools and hospitals, as members of their ethnic group. This is so serious because the democratic political arena is where we meet as New Zealanders, as equal citizens of a united nation. That public arena is textured by the contributing communities certainly, but it is the place where we unite – as a social group that is also a political entity. Because if we don’t, why have a nation? The New Zealand nation exists because it has both a site-the state-and a subject-the citizen.

Obviously we want to recognise the social reality that New Zealanders are descended from a range of ethnic ancestries and, as a result, contain groups who do wish to maintain a range of different cultural values, beliefs and practices. That is their democratic right. However, while retaining those links with our various histories we also need to identity with the larger New Zealand social group that is present and future oriented. The past does matter but so too does the future.

Since the 1970s, we have worked systematically, particularly in education, to demolish the political and symbolic structures of nationhood. These are the tangible and intangible forces that create and maintain social cohesion and a sense of belonging to the nation ‘New Zealand’. Without a common national identity what is to stop New Zealand going the way of other fragmenting nations?

That there is considerable uncertainty about how to classify ‘New Zealander’ is demonstrated by the response to the census last year. Here a number of people insisted on recording ‘New Zealander’ as their ethnicity. Of course this exacerbated the problem. It turned a term that refers to national identity into one that refers to ethnic identity-reducing ‘New Zealander’ to just one of a number of ethnic categories in the process. However it did show that there is considerable frustration about politicising ethnic categories when the political category of a democracy is citizenship of the nation.

The problem is that when we politicise ethnicity-by classifying, categorising and institutionalising people on the basis of ethnicity-we establish the platform for ethno-nationalism. There are sufficient examples of ethno-nationalism in contemporary times, let alone horrific examples from history, for us to be very wary of a path that replaces the individual citizen with the ethnic person as the political subject. Interestingly the process of ethnic politicisation is one driven by small well-educated elites. In Rwanda for example, the ethnic doctrine ‘the Mahutu Manifesto’ of 1953 was written and promulgated by 11 highly educated individuals identifying politically as Hutu. Even the killing weapons in the 1994 genocide, the machetes and scythes, were deliberately chosen and imported in their tens of thousands to represent the glorious new peasant ethnic republic that was about to dawn (once its ‘enemies’ had been eliminated). The raw material of the ethnic ideologies that fuelled the violence in Bosnia and Serbia was supplied by intellectuals. Pol Pot began his killing campaigns immediately on his return from study in Paris.

In New Zealand we are obviously not far down the track towards ethno-nationalism. However we need to recognise that the ideas which fuel ethnic politics are well established and naturalised in this country and that the politicisation of ethnicity is underway. The idea that people should be recognised in government institutions, such as schools and universities, by their ethnic category, is part of such racial ideology, part of the ethnic fundamentalism that is so difficult to challenge because if one does so one is labeled racist or anti-Maori (despite the opposite being the case). However ethnic fundamentalism must be challenged, not only because of its potential threat to democracy but because the challenge itself is democracy in action. All ideas, all movements should be required to account for themselves through rational debate.

My main purpose has been to contribute to such a debate, to identity the beliefs of ethnic fundamentalism and to ask why ethnic identity should be more fundamental, more primary, more determining of our lives, than national identity? This is a decision we make for ourselves. We choose what matters to us. Yet for several decades, the decision has been, under the bicultural banner, to prioritise ethnicity. The problem with that approach is that we can’t change who our ancestors are.

Ethno-nationalism is the antithesis of democratic nationalism because the former creates its political categories from the past while democratic nationalism has one political category-that of citizenship, a category that quite rightly looks more to the future than to the past in order to include individuals of all ethnicities, religions and lifestyles.

Ethnic fundamentalism is no better and no worse than the myriad of other fundamentalisms that some individuals impose upon themselves (or have imposed upon them) to give their lives meaning. It becomes a danger to liberal societies regulated by democratic politics when ethnicity is politicised. By politicising ethnicity, by basing this man-made system of classification and categorisation on historical rather than contemporary group membership, we set ourselves on the path to ethno-nationalism. We shall reap as we have sown.