Aboriginal “Religion” & Ethnohistory

While having lunch with a friend yesterday, he asked what I had been doing this summer. I had to confess that other than a wondrous trip to Bear Butte and lands of the Lakota, the most exciting thing was an effort to fill some significant gaps in my knowledge of Australian Aborigines. I have a hypothesis about the evolution of cognition and animist worldviews, but the hypothesis needs to be tested with larger samples: it can’t stand on a hunter-gatherer Record limited to Native Americans, Siberians, and Bushmen.

While I’ve done a fair amount of reading about Aborigines, most of it has been derivative and interested. For nearly 150 years, anthropologists and sociologists have mistakenly viewed Aborigines as pristine exemplars of the evolutionary past and used Aboriginal materials to advance their pet theories. This use and abuse of materials has been most egregious when it comes to theories of religion. Emile Durkheim and Mircea Eliade are the prime offenders (though there are others, such as the God-monotheism obsessed Wilhelm Schimdt). These are not reliable sources for Aboriginal ethnohistory or “religion.”

With these considerations in mind, I told my friend that I’ve embarked on an Aborigine reading program, beginning with these books:

Hiatt’s book may be too technical and dry for most but it superbly documents the ways in which Aboriginal ethnohistory has developed (and been distorted) in conjunction with the history of anthropology-sociology. Though I’ve just started the others and will report on them over the coming weeks, I’m particularly excited about the Blainey and Swain books. Contrary to standard narratives about “primitives,” Blainey treats Aborigines as superbly adapted people rather than groups that somehow stalled during the fictitious course of cultural evolution. Swain’s book, which treats Aboriginal worldviews, is routinely cited and mentioned by scholars who are expert in Aboriginal ethnohistory.

One thing that stands out thus far is that “Aborigines” is (like “Native Americans”) a misleading term. There are no singular or essential Aborigines. There were and are many diverse groups of Aborigines. They were spread widely across an enormous and ecologically diverse continent, making their livings in different ways, and speaking over 600 different languages. Given this diversity, we should not expect there to be a singular or essential Aboriginal worldview or “religion.” Any scholar who claims to have parsed such a singularity (i.e., “totemic” or “Dreaming”) is probably doing so for interested reasons.


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One thought on “Aboriginal “Religion” & Ethnohistory

  1. Sabio Lantz

    Aborigines: ab origine, literally “from the beginning.”

    Interesting — never thought about it.
    But “Native American” always seemed a ridiculous political word to me. But “Indian” is a misnomer — funny. How about American Tribals.

    All terms will be taken poorly by some. But some are worse than others, eh?

    I look forward to your story.

    Your comment of “limited” data of NA, Siberians and Bushman — made me laugh. That is a hell of a lot bigger than others.

    My experience with “Tribals” was the Munda tribe in India. Are you aware of the Pre-Dravidian Tribals in India? I’ve read very little about them. One was a personal friend for 4 years — he was the teacher of my Tribal Dance Troupe when I was at the University of Minnesota. I was a drummer for the group (and played a little flute). We toured to bring up the issue of tribals in American academia where only Sanskrit held high prestige.

    I then visited his tribal homeland and drummed with him out in the jungle — lots of stories. He moved back to start tribal schools in India. I will have to write about him sometime.

    But I’d love to see how you think about Indian Tribals.

    Ah yes, the Taiwan Tribals (prior to the Northern invasion and the Yuan Dynasty invasion) and the Japanese aborigines are in my experiences too.

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