Aboriginal History, Volume 38, 2014
Country of the Heart: An Indigenous Australian Homeland by Deborah Bird Rose with Nancy Daiyi, Kathy Deveraux, Margaret Daiyi, Linda Ford and April Bright, 161 + xiv pp, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 2011, Second Edition, ISBN 9780855757762 (pbk), $44.95.
Country of the Heart is a collaboration between anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose, eco-photographer Sharon D’Amico and five Marrithiel and Marrananggu women from the Wagait floodplain and savanna country south-west of Darwin – Nancy Daiyi, Kathy Deveraux, Margaret Daiyi, Linda Ford and April Bright. Deborah Bird Rose weaves her ethnographic, biographical and historical commentary around transcripts of texts and conversations from her five co-authors based on D’Amico’s photographs of their land, their families and a string of visits to a range of different places in their country. The meandering and alternating commentaries explore the relationships of the Mak Mak clan with their land across a number of generations. The stories about events at particular places are contextualised by ethnographic descriptions of Mak Mak society and cosmology. The network of relationships amongst people, and people and places, is presented from multiple perspectives which are all unified by accounts of how people respond affectively to these relationships. This is a distinguishing feature of this work – a dialogic approach that attempts to capture a sense of how the Mak Mak people respond emotionally to their country. The combination of anthropological commentary together with transcriptions of the voices of the Aboriginal land owners themselves is a novel and welcome collaborative format.
North Australian Indigenous people are now increasingly engaged in a growing land management movement that is part of the so-called hybrid economies. These are combinations of market and state economic activities in combination with customary practices such as hunting, food gathering and the use of fire as a culturally motivated land management practice. This is in fact what is being described in this book as food gathering trips, descriptions of hunting excursions and work in the cattle industry are presented as ways that the Mak Mak people interact with the land that sustains them emotionally as well as economically. These activities are central to the way that many Indigenous groups are now forging their own modernity whilst still sending very clear messages about retaining a sense of cultural continuity with the past. Such hybrid economic activity and the psychological health afforded by such connections are dependent on access to or continuing residence on the land of one’s heritage. One point that this book tacitly makes is that government policy based on the assumption that whole populations of remote Aboriginal people can be moved to ‘where the jobs are located’ such as into ‘Territory growth towns’ is doomed to failure if the affective dimensions of relationships with land are ignored.
The early chapters are a tour through the floodplains and riverine landscapes of ‘the Wagait’ region and the kinds of attachments the Mak Mak people have with these places. This tour is not limited to the physical features of the land, but includes the mythological significance of places and the ‘Dreaming’ beings that created them. Communication with non-human features of the landscape is frequently framed with the use of the term ‘a sentient landscape’. Whether this assumes a view of Aboriginal spirituality as a form of animism or as ancestor religion is not explored, but there is plenty of material here on this subject to incite further debate.
Chapter names and sections have a poetic ring to them – ‘action-connection’, ‘country tells you’, ‘tracks and lives’, ‘presence’ etc. Indeed, certain collaboratively authored texts which attempt to capture numinous qualities of ‘the Dreaming’ and their totemic essence in the country are presented as poetry (p. 135):
The strength of that land
You can feel it in yourself, you belong there.
It’s your country, your dust, your place.
You remember the old people.
The white eagles always greet me.
Biographies of Indigenous Australians in remote parts of Australia are rare for a number of reasons, including the more obvious explanation that these are cultures with oral not written traditions. Here we have the biography of a family detailing the love they have of their land and it is satisfying to see images of family members captioned with their actual names. This is in stark contrast to the photographs of the frequently unnamed objects of anthropologcal enquriy in ethnographies of half a century ago. In keeping with the Indigenous preference for association in forms of person reference, there are also occasional notes in the captions on how the person depicted is related to the authors or others mentioned in the text. This work, however, aims for a more general readership outside of the confines of academic discourse, and as a result there is an avoidance here of the kind of complex analytical language that often ends up removing us further from the very world that it seeks to tease apart. This is one advantage of the growing field of collaborative anthropology whereby the objective is to produce ethnographic texts with local community consultants as active collaborators and contributors in the writing process. Country of the Heart is a good example of this kind of collaborative ethnography. The result is writing in the tradition of Gary Snyder – a holistic synthesis of Indigenous environmental philosophy, religion, ethnographic description and poetry that highlights the aesthetic aspects of emotional experience.
The Australian National Univeristy