By Rich Figel
Tell the truth: if you came upon a bin of dolls like the ones above in Hawaii at an open market, what would your reaction be? When my wife and I saw these at a visitor destination in Australia, we were a bit stunned. The sign above the dolls says they originated in the late 1800's when Egyptian laborers worked under British supervision. Children of the Egyptian workers played with black handmade dolls, and then British soldiers bought them or were given Golliwogs as gifts to bring home to England. What they have to do with Australia, I have no idea.
But it did bring to mind this image of an Aborigine man we met on our Blue Mountain bus tour...
It was a somewhat awkward encounter. To begin with, we had been told earlier that Aborigines used to forbid taking of photographs of them because they felt it was stealing their souls or something like that. I've heard of other native tribes in different cultures that had similar beliefs. But before this fellow hopped on our bus, the driver announced that we would be given a special opportunity to watch authentic Aborigine dance -- and we might be able to take pictures of them too. For a price. The fellow above in the white face paint was quite charming. He spoke in a perfect Aussie accent and told us how he danced for Queen Elizabeth at David Bowie's estate in England, and also performed for Justin Timberlake recently.
He asked if we had any questions before we stopped at the center where his troupe was going to perform for us. So I asked him why the Aborigine chose to live in the Outback when Australia had so many lush, beautiful lands near the ocean, where it seemed game and fish were plentiful. I thought he might talk about the genocide that occurred when British settlers arrived or how they moved further inland out of necessity. But he smiled and tactfully explained that where we see nothing but barren desert land, the Aborigine saw ample resources, which they knew through their songs. It reminded me of how Native Hawaiians talk about hula. So I asked if the British also tried to eliminate their language and songs, the way missionaries in Hawaii originally tried to put an end to hula. Again, he smiled -- a little sadder -- and said there were "misunderstandings," but the Aborigine were still here. Which is true, sort of... it depends on your definition of Aborigine. In Australia, in the late 1800's they passed the Half-Caste Act, which was meant to "assimilate" Aborigine of mixed races by forcing them to relocate or taking children with mixed blood from their natural parents.
It really was an effort to isolate full-blooded Aborigine with the idea that they would eventually die off, and mixed Aborigine would eventually just blend into modern Australian society. In the 1960's the Aborigine and progressive-minded whites pushed for equal rights, much the same way as African-Americans did during the civil rights movement in the U.S. With that came a resurgence of Aborigine pride -- similar to what happened in Hawaii, with more people who were part Hawaiian taking ownership of their heritage. Just as we have many Hawaiians who don't look like the idealized version of Native Hawaiians, there are many Aborigine who actually look white. Here's the photo we paid for (when I first saw the "No Photos" sign, I naively thought it was for cultural reasons):
Not quite the image you probably had in mind when you think of Aborigines, am I right?
As it turns out, there are increasing numbers of white-looking Aborigines who are staking claim to their bloodline. While we were there, on Australia Day I read a piece by a conservative newspaper columnist who asserted that they were doing it mainly because of the generous government benefits that are available to Aborigines. He felt Australia had already done enough to make up for the genocide, the deaths from diseases introduced by the settlers, and abject racism they were subjected to for decades, and the pendulum had swung too far to the left. While I disagree with his blanket assessment, I do think there are people with very little Aborigine blood who are cashing in on it for monetary gain. But so what? If they are keeping the culture alive and helping preserve Aborigine traditions or art/music, does it matter what their motive is? Isn't that what we do in Hawaii with our tourism marketing efforts?
Eventually I'll get back to blogging about career stuff -- got some ideas for business opportunities in Australia I want to share in my next post! Until then, don't forget to tune in to see the February episode of Career Changers TV on OC16. For daily viewing times, please visit our website. You can also watch low res video segments from past and current shows on the CCTV YouTube Channel.