For better or worse and for reasons beyond my control, I am a white man.
Recently I visited Central Australia. Aboriginals once inhabited all parts of Australia, but today you will find them in Central Australia and Northern Territory far more than anywhere else.
Using the term Aboriginal is a vague way to describe these people. Aboriginals are made up of a number of different nations all with their own languages, traditions and culture. To talk about Aboriginals as a whole would be like grouping Europeans as one kind of people and making generalizations about them.
With that in mind, I was given some training and told what to expect when interacting with the Aboriginal communities we were visiting. One of the things I was taught was that Aboriginals don’t place much emphasis on time. Things happen when they happen, a very different approach to life compared to our clock driven society.
Another thing I was taught is that if you are with someone, you don’t cut it short just because you have an appointment elsewhere. Your priority isn’t where you are supposed to be, your priority is where you are. You need to be somewhere? You already are somewhere!
I was also taught that in Aboriginal culture there is no such thing as an awkward silence. If you don’t have anything to say, don’t make small talk. There is nothing weird about just sitting quietly near the person you are with. I must admit, this rather appealed to me – talking only when there was something to be said.
Shaking hands means something different to Aboriginals, it is usually only done when someone has died.
You don’t ask an Aboriginal their name, you get someone else to tell you their name. My white upbringing had me in line for an Aboriginal social faux pas.
There was also the other concern. In Australia, Aboriginals are a rather political issue. The history between blackfellas and whitefellas has been a very rocky road. And even now, our cultures are very different. Finding solutions to the past and building relationships for the future is a hot potato. In meeting Aboriginals, I wasn’t sure if there would be resentment toward me for what I represent.
I found quite the opposite. Aboriginals were very polite and welcoming to me. (I can’t say the same about the street dog that urinated on my guitar.)
But in some ways, it was too polite. Blackfellas treat whitefellas with an air of formality and shyness. A local school principal informed me that Aboriginals grow up with a sense of inferiority to whitefellas. It’s an unwarranted sense of inferiority, they are talented in so many ways.
During our visit, there was a funeral in a nearby town. In these parts, everyone turns out for a funeral. So even though I was only passing through and didn’t know the deceased, I drove there with our guide. Some Aboriginals rode quietly in the back, a trip that went for a couple of hours.
The funeral was surreal. Never in my life have I heard anything like the eerie wailing coming out of the church. The Aboriginals openly mourned, unguarded. Their full humanity was on display.
On the drive back, the Aboriginals in the back forgot themselves and I quietly listened as they talked and laughed together. I had finally gotten to see them being themselves.
The funeral taught me a lesson: Aboriginals aren’t an issue, they are people.
I was a little nervous before visiting the Aboriginals, nervous that I would struggle to adapt to their social customs. In the end, I adapted easily. I was there for 10 days, but adapting back to the often trivial nature of white society was much harder. There was so much I admired about the way Aboriginals did things. And so much I liked about it too.
People have different ways of doing things. Just because it is different doesn’t make it wrong.