Learning From The Aborigines

Certain ancient ways may be just what the modern world needs

One of the articles in Being Global Neighbors (IC#17)
Originally published in Summer 1987 on page 40
Copyright (c)1987, 1997 by Context Institute

Helen Gould is an Australian living in New South Wales. She is an anthropologist, Quaker, feminist, peace activist, musician, wife, mother of two lively kids, (not necessarily in that order) and is currently in law school! She worked in Fiji and England, as well as Western Australia. Here she describes how her experiences with the Australian native Aborigines opened not only her eyes, but her mind and heart as well.

– Laurie Childers

These days, many of us are aware that our species and our planet are at a turning point, a moment of great danger and great opportunity. We are beset with all manner of human-made crises. We must and shall learn new skills; we must and shall change in order to survive. Ironically, the Australian aborigines, who live by the oldest culture and religion in the world today, have many of the skills we need.


John Woolman, the 18th-century American Quaker, once "ministered" in a meeting of Indians. When the interpreter offered to translate, the chief said, "No. I love to hear the place where words come from." Tribal Aborigines are generally good at "hearing the place where words come from".

A decade ago, I spent two years teaching at a remote Aboriginal outstation near the coast 400 miles east of Darwin. The nearby Government settlement has only existed since 1958, so many of these people have direct experience of whites and our culture for less than 30 years. My time with the Aborigines changed my life, and I am still learning from it. What follows is my interpretation, and some of it may be fantasy. If so, it is creative, instructive fantasy.

The yulengor (The Arnhem Land aborigines’ collective name for themselves) are justly renowned among the balandas (their name for whites) for their extra-sensory powers. However, much that balandas attribute to ESP is simply paying attention to non-verbal information that we have learned to ignore. Yulengor pay more attention to non-verbal communication and to context, than to words.

For example, once the headmaster at the main settlement school called a meeting of all teachers (balandas) and teaching assistants (yulengor). The balandas all came to the meeting, but only one yulengor attended. Most of the teachers felt frustrated and angry and privately spoke about Aboriginal unreliability. (It distressed me that most new balandas simply adopted their balanda friends’ attitudes towards yulengor).

As I got to know people better, I began to understand the reasons why the yulengor had not attended the meeting. I, like them, had realized that the headmaster felt uneasy and unclear about the meeting; but unlike them, I had dismissed that as irrelevant information. They knew there was no point in making decisions if people were not clear about and happy with those decisions; hence the meeting was pointless. They were right!

Because yulengor are clear about relationships, they neither use others nor allow themselves to be used as "the meat in the sandwich". They definitely prefer face-to-face communication between the interested parties. They cannot speak for other people.

Yulengor also don’t intervene in other people’s actions. Each person has full responsibility for themselves. If a person acts in a way that hurts someone, or that does spiritual harm (e.g. to the country), then they will reap the consequences. (They must sometimes wonder when and how we will reap the consequences of our actions!) Once a man who was very depressed decided to die. He simply walked for several days, neither drinking nor eating, into "foreign" country. No yulengor took action. Vainga, the Tongan market gardener, found out what had happened, drove in a likely direction, and then tracked him. He found him and then was faced with a 12 mile walk, carrying the man, who was too weak to walk. He ran out of water, so he shot a black cockatoo and drank its blood. No balanda could have saved the man, and no yulengor would have.

Persons matter more than roles. Yulengor responded to us as the individuals we were, not as Helen the teacher or Mick the nurse. So if there was a particular problem for which they needed balanda help, they would go to a balanda they felt in good relationship with, preferably (but less importantly) one with the necessary skills for dealing with the problem.

Even in my own family, I felt that I was primarily valued for my skills, as a clever person or a musician. By contrast, the yulengor liked me for the person I was, and I was touched by their acceptance. After all, I often (in ignorance) did things that were not right, according to their values.

I also quickly learned that people are people, whatever the culture. Some are kind, some are not, some are beautiful, others ugly, some you like, and some you dislike. That’s human; that’s OK. Of course, one’s standards are in part culturally determined. One day some strangers came into the camp. "How ugly those men are," I thought. Then I realized that I was reacting negatively to their color! They were white (red, actually), and I had (unconsciously) come to accept black as the norm.


"My" * Yulengor languages are very subtle and sophisticated. I tried (and failed) to learn Pitjantjatjara and Gunadpa (the language of the people I worked with). They have many times the number of pronouns that English possesses, reflecting the great importance they attribute to human relationships and interactions. For example, where we use one possessive pronoun to speak of "my totem", "my daughter", "my spear", "my arm", "my country", Yulengor would use a different pronoun for each of these types of relationships. Their languages explicitly recognize that no one "owns" anyone else. People now say that Aborigines do not "own" land; rather, their land "owns" them. If only we could develop similar values towards the land we hold in trust for other species and for the future.

"Why" * As trainee teachers, we were told that they do not have the concept "why" and have trouble with questions about causes and reasons. However, my teaching experience led me to believe that they are confused about "why" questions when those questions are confusing and ambiguous. Balandas often use "why" questions, not because we want to know something, but because we are uneasy or hostile. We often think we are talking about things when our language is actually loaded with meanings about feelings and relationships. I may ask my daughter, "Why are you doing that?", when I really don’t care about her reasons at all. I really mean, "I don’t like you doing that. I feel angry, and you’d better have a good explanation, or else!" That’s the message the yulengor person would respond to.

It seems to me that we often make words, spoken and written, substitute for direct experience. Yulengor use words when direct experience is not adequate. I think a lot of our writing baffles them because it seems (and is) so unnecessary.

"It’s Wrong To Say No" * Once a woman came and asked me to give her a pack of cards. (I later learned that she was in the type of kin relationship to me that entitled her to ask me for things.) Because I had, in my arrogance, decided that card playing was destructive in their community, I said, "No". She was utterly shocked, and I was shaken by her reaction. I came to understand that, in their culture, you don’t ask someone for something unless you expect it to be OK. Conversely, if someone asks you for something, you give it to them. (Kids do fine in this set-up.) If you really don’t feel comfortable about that, then you say "maybe", never "no". I quickly learned that "maybe" really meant "no". Partly because of this, yulengor women have been easy targets for balanda sexual exploitation.

It also puts yulengor people at a real disadvantage when they have to deal with people who want to prospect and mine their land. They find it very rude and difficult to say a straight "no", and even if they do, the mining companies keep coming back and asking. Some of the acculturated younger people have learned to move quite easily between yulengor and balanda culture and can say "no", but their elders (who "control" or "own" the sacred rituals for particular sites) find it almost impossible.


Yulengor people have exquisite manners. The use of "maybe" is one instance. Another is their understanding of privacy. When a balanda man sees a naked woman, he reacts sexually. In traditional yulengor society, people generally wore no clothes. (There were exceptions: fibre and grass skirts, ceremonial attire.) People simply did not "see" others in a sexual way. Diane Bell (Daughters of the Dreaming , Sydney: McPhee Gribble/George Allen and Unwin, 1983) has shown that men and women also avoid looking into each others’ eyes, so that the other person is actually off focus.

Another kind of privacy is that you don’t interrupt someone in the middle of doing something. The other person will be aware that you are there and will respond when ready. In a world which is becoming increasingly crowded, we need to develop forms of privacy to protect ourselves.

Yet our division between the public and private realms is meaningless to them. One’s actions and values are visible for all to see, and when people are so skilled at non-verbal communication, it is not possible to lie for long. Public sentimentality about children and private abuse of them would be unthinkable. They have to live what they are, wherever they are.


As a parent, I have really benefited from seeing how Aborigines and Melanesians treat their babies and children. In our culture, children are seen as inferiors, and we are often sentimental towards and protective of them. We also often abuse them, physically, sexually, and emotionally. Yulengor do not see children as inferiors, but as people at a different stage of their life process from adults. They are generally respected and treated fairly and, by our standards, indulgently. Yulengor also trust them; tiny children handle knives competently. Child abuse would horrify them. Many of Jean Leidloff’s observations about Brazilian Indian child-rearing applies to Aborigines. (Leidloff, J. 1976, The Continuum Concept, New York: Warner Books, 1977).


I have shown that, with relationships, they draw distinctions we don’t. In other instances, they don’t draw distinctions we do. Once (to my eternal shame) I struck a boy who was an extremely difficult, disruptive student. The kids were shocked. "You bin killim ‘im", they said, and a very angry man came and shouted at me about it. Only writing this have I realized that the children were not being inaccurate in their use of language; to them, hitting someone is violence, not essentially different from killing someone. Psychically, we are kin with the murderer.

Much later, the boy died, and I was involved in the funeral ceremony. Yulengor do not regard any death as accidental and often use psychic practices to discover who was responsible. In the course of the funeral, everyone who has harmed that person or been in unresolved conflict with him will have to expiate their guilt. The women did this by slashing their heads with machetes. I now realize that, because I had done the boy violence, they had to involve me in the funeral and the expiation for his death, if only to protect me from his avenging spirit. One night during the funeral, which took several days, the boy’s father knocked on my caravan door. A funny conversation ensued (he lacked his front teeth and spoke very little English) and eventually I worked out that he had seen the boy’s ghost outside my caravan and was going to frighten it away by shooting at it with his 303 rifle, and I was not to worry. I was very thankful that he had informed me before shooting! Perhaps I, too, had been expected to slash my head?

I have come to believe that there is indeed no such thing as acting "accidentally", although we often act unconsciously. That is, we are not aware of, or may even deny, subconscious motivations. Yulengor are much more aware of the subconscious than we are and better at harmonizing their being.

Yulengor recognize the murderer and wrong-doer as kin, like themselves, not (as we so often do) as some kind of inhuman "animal". So they are both more humane and more pragmatic. If someone flagrantly breaks the rules, they will be killed. If a baby is born with a disability that precludes survival in the bush, they were killed at birth. Yulengor are not pacifists and they sometimes warred.

Illness and death are still "taboo" subjects for many balandas, and we are impoverished in terms of community rituals and support for bereaved people. Yulengor are both more pragmatic about death and take it more seriously than we do. I think they are more balanced about it. To us, their practices seem hedged about with ritual and taboo, but they provide tremendous community support for the bereaved. The rituals also put the individual’s death into perspective, since the totems continue to reincarnate in a ceaseless cycle.


The children were given baby animals to play with. They responded with fascination and delight: "Nya nya! Yokoko!" ("Isn’t it cute! The little one!") They literally loved the animals to death, then cooked and ate them. We often wax sentimental about certain sorts of animals (domestic animals and cuddly animals with big eyes) while implicitly condoning very cruel treatment of other animals and ignoring the biological requirements of species.

People had several totems, often animals, and never killed or ate their personal totems. One old man whose main totem was emu was so skilled at dancing emu that you would swear he became emu. People said that he could dance as an emu among a flock of the birds. A man who killed an emu would probably have to pay old Charlie a fine for having killed his kin. Among the desert tribes, there were refuge areas from which no thing or animal could be taken for use, even if people were starving.


A psychologist has recently proven that Aboriginal children’s abilities in recognizing spatial patterns (an activity of the right side of the brain) far exceed those of their white peers.

Scholastically, the children often had a lot of trouble with "left brain" activities such as reading, writing, and arithmetic, but they were very good at art, music, dance, and drama.

However, I have long suspected that there are right-brain ways of understanding mathematics. They had a card game which depended on summing numbers by the patterns on the cards: the person with the highest number of units (after subtracting the 10s) wins. I am a good mathematician, but no way could I keep up with them. I had one girl student who was brilliant in math, and once I did some quite sophisticated algebra with boys who understood immediately. So there is more to their apparent difficulty with math than meets the eye.

For observing yulengor in the bush, I have a hunch that they habitually scan the environment by rapidly moving from short focal length to the far distance. In addition to this depth scanning, I think that they scan widely in two dimensions at the same time, a bit like looking at a series of wide-angle slides shot at different focal lengths. If I am right, this may account for difficulties with reading, since reading requires one to use a constant short focal length.


It is interesting that the spiritual techniques known as contemplation, a kind of non-rational, silent consciousness of being, is an activity which is associated with the right side of the brain. Many yulengor people are natural contemplatives, profoundly at peace in their environment much of the time, a skill which greatly helps them to cope with the heat, cold, monsoonal rains, and hunger of the "wet" season. They are centered, quite grounded in their "own country".

In contemplation, one can become aware of one’s unity with all that is. One merges with the environment. One is living in eternity, the linear time we emphasize becoming meaningless. I think that this experience is relevant to understanding the "dream-time", a concept that very few balandas, myself included, understand. The same drama is being played out endlessly in eternal time. A woman becomes pregnant with spirit, the child she bears is an incarnation of certain totems, such as black cockatoo, which will be associated with sacred places, rituals, and songs. The child receives personal names from kin, lives out his or her life, then dies. The personal names are taboo, but cockatoo goes on, reincarnating on and on in all cockatoo people. If that person acts or undergoes some experience that deeply affect the psyche of the people, then perhaps a new story will merge with the existent story of the dreamtime ancestor, cockatoo. The eternal "time" is aptly called "dreamtime", for, like Jung, yulengor know that dreams are the royal road to the unconscious, and that harmonizing unconscious and conscious, to live and to die well, is what "being" is about.

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