Bill Stanner and the end of Aboriginal high culture
In 2005, the Australian National University commemorated the centenary of the birth of one of its late professors of anthropology with a conference discussing the lifetime achievements of W. E. H. (Bill) Stanner. This was an uncommon honour for an Australian academic who died 24 years earlier, as was the volume of the conference papers published in 2008, An Appreciation of Difference: W. E. H. Stanner and Aboriginal Australia , edited by Melinda Hinkson and Jeremy Beckett.  More recently, to satisfy an anticipated increased interest in Stanner's works, a Melbourne publisher brought out a collection of his major works The Dreaming and Other Essays .  Apart from one additional essay and an introduction by Robert Manne, this was virtually identical to Stanner's out-of-print 1979 collection White Man Got No Dreaming: Essays 1938–1973 .
Stanner is a worthy recipient of this revival of interest since he was clearly one of Australia 's most important anthropologists and, in his writings for the general public, one of the most impressive essayists this country has ever produced.
Stanner had a varied career that also included journalism in the 1930s, military service in World War II, and political advice on colonial policy in Africa and the South Pacific in the post-war period. In 1967, following the strongly positive vote in the national referendum on Aboriginal affairs, Prime Minister Harold Holt invited Stanner to join H. C. Coombs and Barry Dexter to form the Council for Aboriginal Affairs and advise on national policy.
He held that position through successive political regimes, including the Whitlam government, which began to implement much of the program Stanner, Coombs and Dexter endorsed: land rights, the movement to outstations, increased social welfare and community-based economies.  Stanner brought to this policy package an anthropologist's sensitivity to the importance of ceremony and ritual. In particular, at the handover of the first native title grant to the Gurindji people at Wattie Creek in the Northern Territory in 1975, Stanner recommended Prime Minister Whitlam should perform the memorable symbolic act of pouring earth through the hands of Gurindji leader, Vincent Lingiari. 
Today, this policy package is identified most with Coombs and the left-wing academics and political activists who followed him. Although he had the same views on Aboriginal policy, Stanner did not share their political background. His connections were mostly on the conservative side of politics. At various times he worked for prominent conservative politicians Bertram Stevens, Percy Spender and Richard Casey, and at one stage in the 1930s had considered standing for the House of Representatives seat of Martin as a United Australia Party candidate.
Stanner was probably more influential because of this. Since 1958 he had been a public critic of the policy of assimilation pursued in federal politics by the Liberal Party's Paul Hasluck. He gave the alternative, more radical package of ‘self-determination' the respectability of apparent bipartisanship. There is little doubt he thus influenced, either directly or through their advisers, the Liberal politicians who became ministers of Aboriginal affairs in Malcolm Fraser's government — Ian Viner, Fred Chaney and Peter Baume — who continued down the same road.
Paradoxically, Stanner's most impressive single piece of writing, which Robert Manne's introduction to the 2009 collection rightly describes as his ‘masterpiece', can be read as an argument against the intellectual rationale behind the Coombs package that Stanner himself, wearing his hat as government adviser, had long supported. Titled ‘Durmugam: A Nangiomeri', the essay was written in 1960 but was based on the field work he had done in the 1930s among Aboriginal people in the Daly River district of the north-west of the Northern Territory . It undermined Coombs and his followers by disproving several of their key premises, especially the notion that Aborigines could only be satisfied living in their own country and that title to their country would give them a viable platform on which to build a life based on traditional culture. It revealed Aborigines were not as locked into their traditional ways of life as the leftist orthodoxy claimed. They could, and often wanted to, change where they lived and adapt to completely different circumstances.
By the 1930s, Daly River had experienced several failed ventures in agriculture and mining but, apart from a handful of impoverished peanut farmers, there were no white settlers left, and many of the local Aborigines still lived customary lives as hunter-gatherers. Nonetheless, the few whites in the district found themselves beleaguered by Aborigines for their provisions.
Stanner said he was soon compelled to spend part of every other day hunting because of the pressure on his food supplies. ‘Each day,' he wrote ‘was something of a battle to keep unwanted natives from settling nearby to live on me. They were peaceable but as persistent as running water.'  He explained this as a product of the ‘sound calculus' the Aborigines made of the effort required to gain daily food from the whites compared to the difficulty of getting it from their natural surroundings.
The life of a hunting and foraging nomad is very hard even in a good environment. Time and again the hunters fail, and the search for vegetable food can be just as patchy. A few failures in sequence and life in the camps can be very miserable. The small, secondary foodstuffs ? the roots, honey, grubs, ants, and the like, of which far too much has been made in the literature ? are relished tidbits, not staples. The aborigines rarely starve but they go short more often than supposed when the substantial fauna ? kangaroos, wallaby, goannas, birds, fish ? are too elusive. 
Then, in a passage subsequently quoted frequently in the anthropological literature (though rarely in history), Stanner wrote:
The blacks have grasped eagerly at any possibility of a regular and dependable food supply for a lesser effort than is involved in nomadic hunting and foraging. There is a sound calculus of cost and gain in preferring a belly regularly if only partly filled for an output of work which can be steadily scaled down. Hence the two most common characteristics of aboriginal adaptation to settlement by Europeans; a persistent and positive effort to make themselves dependent, and a squeeze-play to obtain a constant or increasing supply of food for a dwindling physical effort. I appreciated the good sense of the adaptation only after I had gone hungry from fruitless hunting with a rifle, gun, and spears in one of the best environments in Australia . 
These comments came after a 1958 paper where Stanner had given an even more outspoken account of native motives in the Fitzmaurice River district further south which, by the 1930s, was completely deserted of its once substantial Aboriginal population. They had not been dispossessed by, or even had any conflict with, pastoralists or farmers because up to that time the region remained unsettled by whites. Instead, Aborigines had begun to drift away from the district around 1900, some to cattle stations to the south, to the east and across the Western Australian border, others to the little white settlements that dotted the north-south highway, while some had gone as far afield as Darwin and Wyndham. The frontier history of this region was not a story of invasion and resistance, but one in which the Aborigines were willingly, often eagerly, seduced by the attractions of white society. Stanner wrote:
The evidence, and discussions with natives who had lived there as children, satisfied me that the aboriginal explanation is correct. They say that their appetites for tobacco and, to a lesser extent, for tea became so intense that neither man nor woman could bear to be without. Jealousy, ill will and violence arose over the small amounts which came by gift and trade. The stimulants, if I may call them such, were of course not the only, or the first, European goods to reach them: probably iron goods were the first, but it was the stimulants that precipitated the exodus. Individuals, families and parties of friends simply went away to places where the avidly desired things could be obtained. The movement had phases and fluctuations, but it was always a one-way movement. 
Stanner said voluntary movements of this kind occurred widely across Aboriginal Australia. Although in his Boyer lectures of 1968 Stanner coined the phrase ‘the Great Australian Silence' to describe the failure of historians to write Aborigines into the Australian story, in 1958 he accused them of over-dramatising the issue. ‘Our models of explanation have been based either on the dramatic secondary causes ? violence, disease, neglect, prejudice ? or on the structure of aboriginal society, or both.' In emphasising these factors, he said, historians had failed to incorporate into their explanations just how powerful a magnet white society was, and how many Aborigines had vied with one another to join it.
Eventually, for every aborigine who, so to speak, had Europeans thrust upon him, at least one other had sought them out. More would have gone to European centres sooner had it not been that their way was often barred by hostile aborigines. As late as the early 1930s I was able to see for myself the battles between the encroaching myalls and weakening, now-sedentary groups who had monopolized European sources of supply and work. The encroachers used every claim of right they had ? kinship, affinity, friendship, namesake-relationship, trade partnership ? to get and keep a toehold. 
Stanner did not recount this approvingly. He lamented what had happened, observing how the search for stimulants ‘led certain natives to their ruin', leaving them culturally impoverished — ‘a sort of Low Culture as distinct from the High Culture of tradition — and with only the vestiges of their former rich tribal lives'.  Nonetheless, he was reporting a very different kind of predicament to the one that came to be defined by historians in the 1970s.
This is what makes the endorsement by Henry Reynolds of the new collection of Stanner's essays rather strange. ‘He always had important things to say, which have not lost their relevance,' Reynolds says on the back cover, adding, ‘It is wonderful that they will now be available to a new and larger audience.'
This was not what Reynolds said of the very same essays three decades ago. Stanner's account of Aborigines ‘coming in' to white society was one of the chief barriers Reynolds had to overcome in order to have his own thesis on race relations taken seriously. Anthropologists who followed Stanner — in particular Annette Hamilton who gave a very similar account of events in central Australia in the 1930s and 1940s  — argued that, rather than Reynolds's model of invasion and resistance, race relations were more a matter of settlement and accommodation.
Instead of patriotically defending their territory and ancient way of life, the Aborigines had accommodated their behaviour and society to the white arrivals. Indeed, many had been positively seduced by the ability of the colonists not only to provide a permanent supply of food, but also the irresistible stimulants tea and tobacco.
If the Stanner/Hamilton thesis of Australian settlement — conflict was rare; ‘coming in' the norm — became widely accepted then Reynolds knew his invasion/resistance model was in big trouble. In a 1976 article in the journal Historical Studies , written as he was struggling to create a name for himself and his interpretation, Reynolds argued that the anthropologists' accounts were the exception, not the rule:
They are quite atypical of the contact situation on the moving frontier of settlement during most of the 19th century and have little relevance for Queensland in general and the pastoral frontier in particular. It is true that in a few places squatter and Aboriginal reached an accord without violence, local clans camping almost immediately near the head stations in question. But these cases were exceptional and even here interpretations can vary widely. 
Those Aborigines who came in to white settlements or pastoral stations, Reynolds wrote, only did so after suffering defeat in the allegedly omnipresent frontier warfare:
Typically, then, coming in occurred after at least a short period of violent conflict which often left tribal ranks decimated and when hunger and insecurity forced the survivors to accept conditions imposed by the settlers. 
Eventually, as his supporters steadily got the numbers within university history departments, Reynolds came to prevail. The interpretation that Stanner had once accused of over-dramatisation became the preferred model. Today, Stanner's accommodation model has long been out of favour. However, as some compensation, another of Stanner's interpretations has risen to prominence instead. This is his romantic view of traditional Aboriginal culture and his belief that in pre-contact times the Aborigines had a sophisticated High Culture worthy of intellectual respect.
This is the interpretation of traditional society now in favour among the academic Left and the reason why Stanner's works have been re-published with an introduction by Robert Manne. The loss of this High Culture gives the Left one more reason to indict modern Australian society for either outright genocide or, at the very least, for cultural genocide.
There are good reasons, however, for reading Stanner's work, especially the essay ‘Durmugam: A Nangiomeri' in quite a different way. It offers, for those with eyes to see, powerful evidence against the notion that Aboriginal society had produced a system of law and governance that was in any way the moral or legal equivalent of that of the white colonial society that had replaced it. Moreover, it proved that by the 1950s, traditional hunter-gatherer society had disintegrated to such an extent in its final northern frontier there could be no going back to it. In other words, if Stanner's essay on Durmugam was right, the whole Coombs project to preserve and revive traditional culture, law and sovereignty was doomed to failure long before it was ever put into practice.
Stanner conceptualised this essay within one of the oldest European clichés about the natives of the New World , that of the ‘noble savage'. The authors who contribute to the Hinkson and Beckett collection of conference papers skirt around this issue without naming it as such, but there is little doubt that ‘Durmugam: A Nangiomeri' is one of Australia's notable contributors to this genre. One afternoon in 1932 near the Daly River , Stanner witnessed a traditional battle between two sides totalling about 100 men. He was particularly struck by one of the warriors, a man then in his thirties, on whom he constructed his essay. Here are some fragments from his account of the fight:
The human scene had a savage, vital splendour. The pigments daubed on the men's bodies gleamed harshly in the late afternoon light. The air was filled with flying spears, each making a brief flicker of light as it sped. …
In trying to sort out the encounters of pairs, my eyes were drawn and held by an aborigine of striking physique and superb carriage who always seemed pinned down by an unremitting attack. He seemed, as far as any individual could, to dominate the battlefield. He was so tall that he stood half a head above the tallest there. His muscular power was apparent in his bulk but it was the grace and intensity of his fighting which captured my attention …His fluent movements in avoiding injury — an inclination of the head, a sway of the body, the lifting of an arm or leg, a half turn — always seemed minimal. I saw his spears strike home several times. As they did, the roars of exultation from his own side, and of rage from the other, would bring a rally to both. He himself stayed unwounded through the afternoon after a peerless display of skill and courage. 
As if this wasn't enough to set his character, Stanner gave an account of meeting this man after the battle.
His appearance at this moment was truly formidable. The glaring ochre, the tousled hair above the pipe-clay forehead band, the spears, and something opaque in his eyes made him seem the savage incarnate. He stood at least 6 feet 3 inches, and must have weighed a sinewy 180 lbs. But his voice was musical, his manner easy, and his smile disarming. I was much taken with him. I noticed particularly how smoothly contoured was his body, how small his feet, how sensitive and finely-boned his hands. Other men present were more heavily muscled but none had so large and so finely moulded a physique. His carriage was perfect, and he walked very erect, with head held high, and with quick purposeful steps. Yet there was nothing truculent or overbearing about him. 
It is not all that unusual to find an anthropologist so strongly attracted to one of his subjects. Anthropology students must be that way inclined from the start or else they could hardly bear the months and years of privation involved in living among them during the fieldwork that was once the prerequisite for joining the profession.
As well as individuals like Durmugam, Stanner was strongly drawn to the religions, ritual and ceremonial life of traditional Aboriginal society. His research in the Daly River involved a rare participation in an initiation ceremony which an adolescent boy endured through the rite of circumcision and learnt his first religious secrets. Stanner's account is light on precise detail and chronology but richly evocative of the drama of the occasion.
I was honoured even to the point of taking me within the screen which hid the act of circumcision from the throng. Durmugam too was within the screen, seated with three others — all, by rule, classificatory wife's brothers of the initiate — so that their legs made a floor between the boy and the ground.
I saw little of Durmugam, during the great events of the ceremony — the vigil of the night, after a warning spear told of the boy's return from isolation; the spectacular, serpentine rush of the boy's abductors from afar soon after dawn; the massed chanting escort to Mununuk, the camp of the hosts; the rite of sorrow as the boy was passed from kin to kin to be fondled before circumcision; and, later, the healing by fire and on the presentation of valuables and insignia. But as night came on, and the preparations for dancing and festivity were in hand, Durmugam joined me at one of the fires. 
Stanner's aim here is not just to portray an Aboriginal ceremony for curious onlookers but to capture something of the essential drama of all human society. He wants us to recognise our common humanity by experiencing the rituals of other societies and the sentiments that lie behind them. His most famous essay ‘The Dreaming', published in 1956, was partly designed to provide an over-arching explanation of the common elements of Aboriginal religious thought and experience, but also to convince white readers how much like themselves Aborigines were. Both shared an ability to think metaphysically, that is, to turn ourselves and the universe into objects of contemplation. Both also shared a drive to make sense of the human experience and to find some ‘principle' in the human situation. In ‘The Dreaming' Stanner described the different ways both approached the same agenda:
The European has a philosophic literature which expresses a largely deductive understanding of reality, truth, goodness, and beauty. The blackfellow has a mythology, a ritual, and an art which expresses an intuitive, visionary and poetic understanding of the same ultimates. In following out The Dreaming, the blackfellow ‘lives' this philosophy. It is an implicit philosophy, but nonetheless a real one. Whereas we hold (and may live) a philosophy of abstract propositions, attained by someone standing outside ‘life' and treating it as an object of contemplation and inquiry, the blackfellow holds his philosophy in mythology, attained as a social product of an indefinitely ancient past, and proceeds to live it out ‘in' life, in part through a ritual and an expressive art, and in part through non-sacred social customs. 
Establishing this point was one of the major objectives of the discipline of anthropology in the twentieth century: we should not only respect cultural differences but recognise our own selves in them. This was the basic case of the cultural relativism that anthropology bequeathed to all the humanities and social sciences and which has since come to dominate the moral and political values of the vast majority of Western intellectuals: no culture can be described as better than any other, just different.
The problem with this case is that its conclusion does not follow from the premises. We can recognise that all people share a common humanity without necessarily agreeing that every human culture has evolved an equally good set of beliefs and customs to deal with the daily problems that human nature engenders. To Stanner's credit, in ‘Durmugam: A Nangiomeri' he was honest enough to at least pose in stark relief one of the central dilemmas for this way of thinking.
For Durmogam was not only a great warrior, an accomplished performer of ceremonies, and a handsome man. He also had a reputation as a murderer. Beyond the province of warfare, he had killed in cold blood at least four known Aboriginal men, and probably several more unknown. ‘The talk among the Europeans was that six, nine, eleven, or some other good round number were this one man's work. He was supposed to have a monumental cunning in disposing of the bodies, or in otherwise concealing his crimes.'  Durmugam conceded to Stanner he had taken four lives.
In his essay, Stanner describes each of the four killings in some detail and then considers whether each was lawful homicide within the prevailing customary law. To do this, he traces Durmugam's cultural biography. Durmugam was born in 1895 on the Daly River but left Nangiomeri territory when his father went to work at a goldmine. After his father's death, he was initiated as an adolescent into the religion and secret rites of the tribes on the Victoria River to the south. As an adult, Durmugam joined a small group of men determined to revive the declining Nangiomeri High Culture that governed the organisation, descent, marriage, territory and inheritance of the Daly River people. They did this through adherence to the new religious cult of Kunabibi, a messianic movement similar to Melanesian cargo cults. In the 1930s, Durmugam lived in his territory with his four wives at a semi-permanent camp on the property of a European farmer for whom he and his wives did some seasonal work. Apart from that, he survived as a bush Aborigine.
One of his four killings was of a man Lamutji who sought to join the Kunabibi cult. He was given a sacred bullroarer after promising to make a substantial payment for it. After five years without the promised payment, Durmogam decided to kill Lamutji. He ambushed him, speared him in the back and disguised the site to make it look like the dead man had been the victim of a crocodile.
The second killing was of a man named Waluk, thought to be a warlock who stole men's kidney fat for its imagined life-giving and protective properties. One of Durmugam's tribal brothers sickened and died after a visit by Waluk, and an uncle declared he had seen Warluk with a tin containing his kidney fat. Durmogam lured him to a quiet place and speared him to death.
The third and fourth killings were of a man named Barij and his son Muri. During a camp fight, another man named Mutij had killed an old man related to Durmogam. The white authorities arrested Mutij and jailed him for seven years for the offence. However, the Nangiomeri believed Mutij was simply doing the bidding of someone else and so conducted a divination to discover who that was. The spirit of the dead man allegedly named Barij and Muri as the secret prompters. Durmugam lured the two men on an apparent kangaroo hunt and killed both.
Stanner argues each of these homicides was justified within the precepts of either traditional Nangiomeri beliefs or the principles of the Kunabibi cult. In each case, Durmugam had a duty to act as he did. However, Stanner also concedes that other Aborigines of the region did not see it that way. In the eyes of Lamutji's kin, who did not accept the Kunabibi cult, his killing was unjustifiable murder. They threatened to take Durmugam's life in revenge, but none of them ever did anything about it. Waluk's kin were similarly aggrieved and three times challenged and fought Durmugam in ritualised duels over the issue. He was only wounded once. Stanner argues the killing of Barij and Muri was justified, even though their guilt was only suggested through a mystical process of divination and despite the fact that Stanner knew other information of their innocence. All the river tribes, Stanner says, practised and acted on the outcome of divination. The custom was universal and, in any case, the relatives of the men killed were ‘few and decadent', so in this case there were no repercussions for Durmugam.
Stanner does not pretend he approves of any of these killings. His aim is to rationalise them within the terms of the prevailing tribal culture, not to argue that they could be justified to modern Western eyes. He goes out of his way to say to say each victim was not given a chance to defend himself, with either words of weapons, but was lured by deceit to an isolated location and subjected to a surprise killing. In cases of Barij and Muri, he makes it clear Durmugam had killed innocent men. He also observes that in these cases, Durmugam's tribal duty coincided too neatly with his personal interests.
To anyone familiar with the Western system of justice where an independent judge or jury hears pleas for and against the accused and arrives at an impartial verdict on the basis of the evidence alone, the notion that an aggrieved party could himself act as prosecutor, judge and executioner appears most unjust. Indeed, the latter situation is strong testimony to the absence of any civilised rule of law. Stanner goes on to describe the social consequences of such a system of ‘justice' where one party could be so dissatisfied with the outcome that its members were impelled into a terrifying, self-perpetuating cycle of revenge.
Robert Manne's introduction to The Dreaming and Other Essays avoids this chain of events to pretend that, before the white man arrived, Aborigines enjoyed an idyllic existence full of communal singing and dancing in the firelight. ‘Joy and jollity are two of the words most commonly encountered in Stanner's writing on the Aborigines,' Manne writes. Their existence, he says, was ‘in no way reminiscent' of Thomas Hobbes's portrayal of savage life as ‘nasty, brutish and short'.  It is difficult to know what might have led Manne to an interpretation so at odds with the text of this essay. For Stanner's description of the social consequences of tribal vengeance on the Daly River in 1932 remains one of the classic eyewitness accounts of nothing less than a Hobbesian state of nature:
In 1932, two intertribal coalitions existed which were in acute conflict. The surface of life was, for the most part, peaceable enough but under the surface something like a state of terror existed. All the talk was of warlockry and poison. The death of any man or man child (females did not count) was thought to be evidence of the human use of dark powers, and a divination usually followed, with a plot of talion. No one dared to walk about alone. To do so invited speculation about evil motive, or risked the assassin's spear. An unescorted woman was usually raped. …
These fears and tensions were almost exclusively between the two intertribal coalitions. Durgumam had an unconquerable hatred of the Marithiel and Maringar. So too did Melbyyerk, the most intelligent and detached Aborigine I have ever known. Neither Nangiomeri nor Mulluk Mulluk would intermarry with the hated tribes, and I am nearly sure they did not trade. They needed each other at initiations and they would then intermingle, but cautiously, and fights were always likely to occur.
… there was no effective European law interposed between the murk of fear, suspicion, and hatred that lay between the warring coalitions. The white farmers kept a minimum of discipline and in some sense the farms were sanctuaries too. At night, natives would often come out of the darkness and ask to sleep nearby, leaving when daylight came. It was unnecessary to ask for an explanation. Marabut, my main Marithiel informant, was too frightened to leave if kept inadvertently after sundown. Belweni, the Wagaman, was thrown into consternation by a footprint he could not recognise. Melbyerk, when on the southern or ‘Brinken' bank, would try to defecate at night so as to be within the glow of my campfire. A group of saltwater blacks who came to one initiation sat sleepless, under my own eyes, throughout a whole night. 
Stanner did some more field work in the region in 1934–5 when he renewed his friendship with Durmugam but then left and did not return for two decades. In the intervening years of World War II, a regiment of troops was stationed at Daly River , many Aborigines joined the labour corps, a monetary economy became established, all of which undermined traditional religious values and laws. ‘The secularisation,' Stanner wrote, ‘was far-reaching, psychically and socially.' 
By the time they met again, Durmugam was in his late fifties, grey-haired and visually-impaired, his physical decline matched by a psychological descent into pessimism and depression. By then, old men like him had lost authority. The young of both sexes were less interested in preserving traditional Aboriginal ways. Young men openly derided the secret life and dared to make overtures to his wives.
The last time Stanner saw Durmugam in 1958, his favourite wife, the youngest of four, had run off with the son of his first wife, a great humiliation to an old man still alive, and once a capital offence. Moreover, one of his married daughters had been abducted by a youth he thought was a friend, taking his favourite grand-daughter with them. His second youngest wife had been sexually abused by a number of men from the Maringar band, an insult that once would have cost them their lives too. In fact, Stanner said under traditional law and religion several people would have had to die. ‘A single killing will not expunge a great humiliation. The victims could be almost anyone — the youths, the woman, a man like Waduwiri, or even people without connection though, in native eyes, guilty of agency.'  Instead, Durmugam was reduced to complaining to a local Catholic priest and the Northern Territory welfare department to have the women and children returned and the young men banned from the region.
Stanner wrote his essay about Durmugam in 1960. By this time, he was able to see the religious and cultural revival in which his subject was involved in its longer historical perspective. He recognised that, even in Durmugam's childhood in the early 1900s, the local Aborigines were not living pristine traditional lives but were already involved in a final phase of adaptation to the white world and its attractions.
Many of the preconditions of the traditional culture were gone — a sufficient population, a self-sustaining economy, a discipline by elders, a confident dependency on nature — and, with the preconditions went much of the culture, including the secret male rites. What was left of the tradition amounted to a Low Culture — some secular ceremonies, magical practices, mundane institutions, and rules-of-thumb for a prosaic life. 
Stanner said he had found indisputable physical evidence of the then obsolete High Culture, including ovoid, circular and linear piles of man-arranged stones, deep excavations and the fragmentary memories of rites last celebrated before the turn of the century. Moreover, the High Culture had persisted longer further south in the Victorian River district when Durmugam came across it in his adolescence. But by the 1920s when Durmugam and two of his colleagues attempted to restore the High Culture of the Nangiomeri, the material preconditions for such a revival were long gone.
Stanner records that one of the motives for their attempt was disenchantment with Europeanism and the almost complete loss of European prestige as the few local white farmers sank into little more than subsistence agriculture. This was largely a consequence of the collapse of the Territory's economy, which began with the demise of gold mining in the 1910s, compounded by both drought and economic depression in the 1930s.
However, the arrival of World War II, especially the extensive construction of defence infrastructure in the Territory after the bombing of Darwin in 1942, dramatically changed the fortunes of local Europeans, Chinese and Aborigines alike. Followed by the post-war revival of economic growth, it gave the next generation of Territory Aborigines a different attitude to their prospects in the modern world. Many of the young people came to see their futures lay more in assimilation than in the religion and values of traditional society.
Stanner portrayed these developments as a tragedy, not only for the life of the individual subject of his essay but also for the last of the High Culture he represented. Stanner emphasised that this culture was dependent on the rites of initiation where the full panoply of ceremonial forms could be followed. Initiation was a traumatic process designed to create within the child a new and deeply-forged psychic direction. The isolation, terror, fatigue, pain and drama of the ceremony was designed to break forever the previous pattern of behaviour that Aboriginal culture had permitted since infancy. Before initiation, the child was left ‘virtually untrammelled' by its parents.
Its dependence on and command of both parents is maximal, their indulgence extreme. To hit a young child is for them unthinkable. A shake or a sharp word, both rare, are the most an exasperated parent will do. The behaviour patterns thus formed are rudely broken in males by the initiations (always pubertal, sometimes prepubertal as well) after a gradual softening from the fifth or sixth year, when little boys may be seen throwing stones at their mothers, or abusing them, while the women laugh. 
In contrast, initiation turned a boy into a man. ‘He did not simply reach manhood: he was given it, was made a man by men who stood for and taught him to stand for a tradition in part only revealed.' Stanner summarised what initiation into the High Culture meant and the kind of man it produced.
The initiations teach boys to be men: to know pain and ignore it; to feel fear and master it; to want, but to bear the necessary costs; to grasp that outside society they are nothing (in the isolation of initiation they are called ‘wild dogs') and, inside it, the masters; that through them The Dreaming is ‘followed up'; that the tradition is ‘the road'. The vital impulses are not crushed, but steered; the social conscience forecloses these fields only to leave those open; the male ego is beckoned to a final dominance. … The calmness, self-possession, and dignity are the marks of the well-socialised aborigine; and the aborigine following up The Dreaming is a man who has his feet on surety. 
Durmugam's decline into death in 1959 meant the circumstances that made him a man with such qualities could not be replicated and were gone forever. Stanner's essay was both a record of, and a lament for, a way of life could never come again.
In 1935, Stanner accompanied the Catholic priest Father Richard Docherty to Port Keats on the south-western coast of the Northern Territory, halfway between the mouths of the Daly and Fitzmaurice Rivers. Docherty was commissioned to establish a mission in the region and Stanner helped him choose the site. Over the next thirty years, the people of the two river valleys came in to the mission and eventually became permanent residents, dependent for their survival on the settlement. They left behind them any prospect of a revival of the High Culture. They retained no self-sustaining economy, no discipline by elders, and depended not on nature but on mission handouts of government rations.
Today, Port Keats has become one of the most notorious sites in Australia . It is the largest remote Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory , supporting a population of 2500 that contains seven different language groups. Although it has adopted its old Aboriginal name of Wadeye, it has taken very little else from Aboriginal tradition. Its inhabitants retain little of even what Stanner once disparaged as the Low Culture of secular ceremonies, institutions and magical practices. The result is a profound cultural impoverishment.
Rather than the traditional bands or kinship groups of Nangiomeri, Marimanindji, Marithiel, Maringar and Mulluk Mulluk, the young men of Wadeye today identify primarily with gangs named after white heavy metal rock groups, Judas Priest and Evil Warriors. A permanent presence of five white police, a police station and courthouse, ensure the situation is not as bad as the ‘state of terror' of 1932. Nonetheless, the following sample of reports that have reached the national press indicates one thing that has survived from the former culture is its propensity to violent, irreconcilable hatreds:
October 2002: after local elders organised fights to settle local disputes, young men turned on each other with weapons. One emerged from a house with a rifle which he fired at a rival who took to him with an axe. A police officer who intervened shot one dead and wounded the other. 
November 2002: Seeking postponement of 70 cases to be heard over four days at Wadeye, police requested court hearings be cancelled because they could not guarantee the safety of a visiting magistrate and her court party. Tensions between rival factions at Wadeye were ‘severe and likely to escalate', a police prosecutor said. Police could not even guarantee the court party could walk safely from the airport to the courthouse, a distance of 500 metres. 
May 2006: Northern Territory public servants and medical personnel, including the local president of the Australian Medical Association, called for the army to be sent to Wadeye to restore law and order after widespread damage to housing by rioters. The Wadeye Council chief executive sought to evacuate 300 people to escape the violence. One resident described community disturbances between feuding, machete-wielding members of the Evil Warriors and Judas Priest gangs as resembling ‘a civil war'. 
October 2007: Police at Wadeye described the township as being in a ‘seemingly permanent state of hostility'. Machetes, broken bottles, spears and iron bars were used in a violent attack on police. Up to 40 people confronted local officers at a basketball court. When police asked the rioters to disperse, they hurled projectiles at police cars, smashing windows, windscreens and denting side panels. An officer fired a warning short in the air when the crowd ignored requests to disperse. 
December 2007: Violent street clashes erupted at Wadeye on Christmas Day and Boxing Day when members of the gangs, the Judas Priest boys and the Evil Warriors, took to the streets against each other with rocks, spears and iron bars, trashing several houses and damaging the roof of the council building. The officer in charge of Wadeye Police Station said police had been called out to a number of ‘general disturbances' early on Christmas Day. The situation escalated on Boxing Day when large groups of people armed with metal poles were ‘banging and shouting' in the Main Street area. ‘It is no secret there are ongoing inter-family disputes in the Wadeye community,' the officer said. ‘There's nothing extraordinary about what's occurred over the Christmas break to what usually happens out here,' he said. 
Even more disturbing are the consequences of the political rejection of assimilation and their effects on the children of the settlement. There are no ‘stolen generations' at Wadeye. Child rearing remains one of the few areas still influenced by tradition. When Aboriginal people abandoned the High Culture, they did not give up all their former ways. In particular, they retained the custom of bringing up their children under a parental regime of total indulgence and absence of discipline. In the long run, the persistence of these habits left young people at odds with the behaviour required to learn to read, write and count and thereby make their way into the modern world.
Few of the children who live at Wadeye today speak English. Even fewer of them learn anything else to prepare themselves for the workforce, or indeed to pursue any living beyond welfare dependency. Nor are they required any more to endure the shock, pain and drama of initiation which, like respect for elders and the mastery of Aboriginal religion, exist only as dim memories of the very old. Instead, Aborigines are given a cultural agenda resembling a modern cargo cult, which assumes the government will provide for everything, while perversely rejecting mainstream Australian values for their alleged immersion in racism. This ideological combination has reduced Wadeye to what a teacher at the Catholic school there, Patrick McCauley ( Quadrant , December 1008), has called ‘a failed state' where ‘the hatred that the people of Wadeye now have for every white person' is on conspicuous display.
The children throw rocks into the beautiful new blue swimming pool every night, they defecate around the school and in the pool changing rooms as a kind of retribution against the pool manager and teachers, who require them to abide by minimal rules …The people of Wadeye mostly treat whitefellas as their servants. First thing in the morning, my students demand that I get their breakfast, and then throw a tantrum if I don't pick up the rubbish they throw on the ground. The settlement is covered with rubbish all the time … Any utterance of the word ‘no' to the kids at school will produce a tantrum which can go all the way to physical violence if not handled sensitively. Last week three of the ‘transition' kids I teach (average age about twelve) wrecked the library as three teachers tried to herd them, screeching with laughter, out the door …
Even though this is one of the best-funded schools in Australia, with almost endless sums of money available to it, there are no pencils in the classrooms, no paper, the computers don't work, the internet connection is the slowest I have ever seen, there is no art room, the huge ‘trade' block is closed because there are no students, and the school has ‘lost' the keys to its locks. The minute your back is turned, the kids are stealing or vandalising anything they can lay their hands on. The school is broken into every week. At night those who have been told ‘no' during the day's lessons come to defecate outside your classroom door or urinate through broken louvres in the classroom windows. All the chooks in the school's henhouse were slaughtered by children during a term break. There are no consequences for any of this vandalism. 
Wadeye is not the worst of the remote communities in northern and central Australia that resulted from the segregationist policies of Stanner and the Council for Aboriginal Affairs, but is one of the most typical. Its existence, and the lives relentlessly wasted there today, should be a greater concern than the loss of the High Culture that Stanner lamented in his essay about Durmugam. The difference is that Durgumam's tragedy was the Greek variety, caused by an inevitable and irresistible force: the intrusion into traditional society of the modern world. With its initiations, its secrets and its reason-for-being long gone, the demise of the old culture could not be halted by anyone.
In contrast, the tragedy that is Wadeye today is the product of optional polices, chosen and endorsed by white intellectuals and tertiary-educated Aboriginal activists either on the basis of political ideology, or in cases of those like Stanner, by a mistaken view of how to adapt to the outside world. Being discretionary, however, these policies can be reversed or replaced. Though they need never have happened, they can yet be undone.
Had Stanner lived to see the outcome of the policies he recommended, there is little doubt he would have looked on in horror and demanded a revaluation. His insight into Aboriginal ways would have made him one of the first to recognise the Coombs experiment as the failure it is. Unfortunately, in Aboriginal affairs today there are too few people with enough of his integrity to see why it has all gone wrong and to do what now needs to be done.
1. An Appreciation of Difference: W. E. H. Stanner and Aboriginal Australia , eds. Melinda Hinkson and Jeremy Beckett, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra , 2008
2. W. E. H. Stanner, The Dreaming and Other Essays , introduction Robert Manne, Black Inc., Melbourne , 2009
3. Jon Altman, ‘From “After the Dreaming to After Land Rights”: W.E.H. Stanner's legacy as indigenous policy intellectual', in Hinkson and Beckett, An Appreciation of Difference , pp 274–8
4. Barry Dexter, ‘Stanner: Reluctant Bureaucrat', in Hinkson and Beckett, An Appreciation of Difference , p 83
5. W. E. H. Stanner, ‘Durmugam: A Nangiomeri' in J. B. Casagrande (ed.), In the Company of Man , Harper, New York , 1960, p 69
6. Stanner, ‘Durmugam: A Nangiomeri', pp 69–70
7. Stanner, ‘Durmugam: A Nangiomeri', p 70
8. W. E. H. Stanner, ‘Continuity and Change among the Aborigines', Presidential Address, Anthropology, Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science, Report of the Thirty Third Congress , Adelaide, August 1958, p 101
9. Stanner, ‘Continuity and Change among the Aborigines', p 101
10. Stanner, ‘Continuity and Change among the Aborigines', pp 107–8
11. Annette Hamilton, ‘Blacks and whites: The Relationships of Change', Arena , 30, 1972, pp 36–7, 40–1
12. Henry Reynolds, ‘The Other Side of the Frontier: Early Aboriginal Reactions to Pastoral Settlement in Queensland and Northern New South Wales,' Historical Studies: Australia and New Zealand , 17, 66, April 1976, p 60
13. Reynolds, ‘Other Side of the Frontier', p 61
14. Stanner, ‘Durmugam: A Nangiomeri', pp 65–6
15. Stanner, ‘Durmugam: A Nangiomeri', p 66
16. Stanner, ‘Durmugam: A Nangiomeri', p 67
17. W. E. H. Stanner, ‘The Dreaming', Australian Signpost , ed. T. A. G. Hungerford, F. W. Cheshire , Melbourne , 1956, pp 55–6. The 2009 collection, The Dreaming and Other Essays , introduced by Robert Manne, wrongly records this publication as 1953.
18. Stanner, ‘Durmugam: A Nangiomeri', p 71
19. Robert Manne, ‘W.E.H. Stanner: The Anthropologist as Humanist', Introduction to The Dreaming and Other Essays, p 11
20. Stanner, ‘Durmugam: A Nangiomeri', pp 82–4
21. Stanner, ‘Durmugam: A Nangiomeri', p 94
22. Stanner, ‘Durmugam: A Nangiomeri', p 91
23. Stanner, ‘Durmugam: A Nangiomeri', p 78
24. Stanner, ‘Durmugam: A Nangiomeri', pp 94–5
25. Stanner, ‘Durmugam: A Nangiomeri', p 95 [his emphases]
26. Paul Toohey, ‘Officer Kills in Tribal Row', The Australian , 24 October 2002, p 1
27. Paul Toohey, ‘Court cancelled as Town Braces for Violence', The Australian , 8 November 2002, p 4
28. Ashleigh Wilson, ‘Call to Send Army into War Zone', The Australian , 23 May 2006, p 4
29. Ashleigh Wilson, ‘Fights Allowed by Police', The Australian , 2 October 2007, p 2; Nicola Berkovic, ‘Man Charged over Wadeye Violence', The Australian , 28 December 2007, p 3
30. Nicola Berkovic, ‘Man Charged over Wadeye Violence', The Australian , 28 December 2007, p 3
31. Patrick McCauley, ‘Wadeye: Failed State as Cultural Triumph', Quadrant , December 2008, pp 27–8, 32