Friday, May 12, 2006

This is Why I Went to Bed Angry Last Night

This is one of two entries I'm writing about my experiences over the past few days. I felt like I needed to write two: one about the tourist-y aspects and one ranting about some things I've been thinking about lately. This is the rant :)

One of the bigger regrets I have about this trip so far is that I have not spent much time learning about the indigenous cultures here, either the modern or ancient aspects. I was hoping that in coming to Alice Springs I would be able to work on this, both because of the high Aboriginal population here and the cultural significance of the Red Centre's main attractions. I was hoping that in touring Uluru (AKA Ayers Rock) and the surrounding attractions that I would be able to book a tour that had an Aboriginal guide, both to support the economics of the indigenous people and also so my tour would not have the colonial history of the area as the main focus (I just don't care who "Ayers Rock" was named after). Unfortunately the tours run by Aboriginal guides all operate out of Yulara (the resort town by Uluru), and I needed to find something that would leave out of Alice Springs. So instead I got to see how a white Australian guide explained the cultural aspects of the sights. Let's just say that I was not impressed.

On the other hand, I guess I was not that surprised either. It reminded me of the way that white American tour guides (and other people) often talk about Native Americans. To begin with, the tour guide took to describing indigenous beliefs as "myths" and "legends," as though the culture is something so ridiculous that it can only be thought of as a fictional story. The guide would say things like, "The Aboriginals believe that the hill over there was the mother dingo and the other hills were her pups. But to me it looks like a bunch of hills." Oh, those crazy Aborigines, believing that rocks are dingoes! It would never happen that a tour guide in a church would explain communion by saying, "Christians believe that they're actually drinking the blood of a dead guy who they thought was the son of God, but to me it just seems like cheap red wine." Completely disrespectful, no?

Along those lines, I also noticed the tour guide saying things like, "Aborigines believe ABC, but Australians think XYZ." Since when are Aborigines not Australian? This subtle "othering" of indigenous Australians seems to be just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the segregation I've noticed between white Australians and the natives.

Finally, it drove me crazy that the tour guide kept referring to "the Aborigines" as if all indigenous people of Australia are the same. I feel like I always see this when people talk about Native Americans at home. When you're talking about things like how "the Aborigines" traditionally lived, there is no way that you can group those who lived in the desert regions like this and, for example, those who lived up in the tropics. Why was it so hard for the tour guide to talk about "the Anangu," the name of the people in this area? You wouldn't talk about all Europeans as having the same culture, so again, what's the difference?

Unfortunately, the tour guide was not the first Australian I've met who spoke of the indigenous people with a sort of disrespect. And unfortunately, I have met a number of tourists who have adopted these same negative views. Most of my conversations about Aborigines have consisted of someone else talking about how they're "all drunks." Great. This leads me to a question I've been thinking about for awhile. My first instinct is to argue that (1) not all Aborigines are alcoholics and (2) alcoholism is not a problem confined to Aborigines. But this seems somewhat unproductive as well because it ignores seems implies that the causes and effects of alcoholism are exactly the same for Aboriginal communities as they are for white communities. It's a fact that alcoholism rates are high in the Aboriginal communities, so how can we talk about that in a productive way? I feel like most of the people I've discussed this with would say "Alcoholism is a big problem for Aboriginal communities," with the implication that this is the result of some inherent failure among Aborigines themselves. This completely ignores the role that, say, colonization has played in creating this problem. And more importantly, to attribute it to some inherent flaw implies that either there is no solution to the problem, or at the very least, the sole responsibility for fixing this problem lies within individuals and/or the Aborigines themselves. (This same kind of rhetoric comes into play when people discuss problems like high crime rates among African Americans or low test scores among Latinos.) So how do I, especially as someone who is not part of the Aboriginal community and who knows very little about the issues, talk about the problems in a way that accounts for the complex and multi-faceted factors that led to them? And how do I create a conversation about these problems, especially with foreign travelers and white Australians I meet, that looks for a solution instead of a place to lay blame? How do I strike the balance between having a casual conversation with fellow travelers and flying into a rage where I end up calling them racist?

I'm disappointed that so many people I've met so far have been so ignorant, but I guess I wouldn't expect much better traveling in the United States.


Adrian said...

You would try to change the country that you are vacationing in. Good work.

You need to tell these people how you feel, cause it is not like you are going to live with them forever. Plus, maybe no one had ever mentioned those things to them. Might open their minds a little.

Linda L said...

Well, no matter how far away you go, somethings never change. I don't think that we will ever find a solution to that colonial attitude that we "wonderful Westerners" we cherish as our God-given right. That right being to think of ourselves as far superior and more intelligent than anyone else. I agree with Adrian that you have every right to speak up, but remember that they probably won't listen and best will write you off as a crazy American. Some minds just don't want to be opened--but you alreay knew that. While you should do what you can, it is certainly not worthy getting into a huge argument--not the way to win friends and influence people.
Stand up for your ideals.

Peter said...

Hey, cousin. I think that a certain misunderstanding happens whereever you go. Indeed you are correct that American Indians (as the AP style guide claims is the correct term now for the multitude of indigenous cultures of North America) are similarly viewed in many parts of Montana.

I've met a good number of otherwise liberal, enlightened, educated Russians who have told me, in all seriousness, that they believe Chechens to be sub-human.

Hickish racism transcends culture, it would appear.

I don't want to give you too rosy a picture of New Zealand, but in general, I think attitudes toward the Maori here are much healthier. Maori is an official language here. There is a public access Maori television station. In general, Maori culture seems to be generally more respected here without resorting to misty eyed sanctification—Maori were tough on the land too.

Good on 'yer for wanting to spend more time in NZ! Have some fun in Auckland, and when you get ready to come down to the cultural, creative, education, (okay, and political) capital, give us a ring!

Eric said...

The thing that you have to remember when you speak truth to power is that the message is often lost on those that you are speaking to, but those that are also listening get the benefit of what you are saying.
So you speak out when you hear tour guides spouting the nonsense you mentioned. The tour guides will dismiss you as a spoiled american, maybe even tell you to zip it. But the other people on the tour will hear what you are saying, and might take it to heart.

Fight the power, Geetha!

jen said...

I think I'd second Eric here... the points your mom made are well-taken, too, but speaking up can redirect people in their thinking. Remember, too, that Australia had the equivalent of race riots just a few short months ago, although the issues were immigrants, weren't they?