chapter  4
15 Pages

Making and mobilising worlds: assembling and governing the Other

Were the dream-times an invention of Western anthropology or an autochthonous aspect of Aboriginal cosmology? Patrick Wolfe, in arguing the former, attributes the primary responsibility for its fabrication to Baldwin Spencer and Frank Gillen.1 The term was first used by Gillen in the memoir he contributed to the report of the 1894 Horn Expedition into Central Australia. Discussing Arunta2 accounts of the origins of fire, Gillen reported that this was believed to have been acquired by ancestors ‘in the distant past (u-lchurringa), which really means in the dream-times’ (Gillen, cited in Wolfe 1991: 200). In his introduction to the report of the Horn Expedition, which he edited, Spencer, transforming Gillen’s spelling into alcheringa, also widened the term’s reference by describing it as a more general system of morality. Used again in their 1904 book The Northern Tribes of Central Australia, the concept was subsequently extended beyond the Arunta to encompass other tribes and, in a further step, to function as a pan-Australian marker of a generalised Aboriginal culture. Wolfe interprets this extension of the term as being ideologically motivated rather than resting on ethnographic evidence. Tracing the history of the associations that, in the natural history of the Comte de Buffon, had connected the inability to distinguish dreams from reality to animality and that subsequently, in Darwin’s work, were interpreted in evolutionary terms as a marker of the distinction between primitive and civilised humans, his contention is that the anthropological invention of ‘the Dreaming complex’ was ‘the culmination of a historical discourse which subordinated dreaming savages to the level of animal nature’ (Wolfe 1991: 206). He attributes particular significance to the differences between Spencer’s

position and that of the Lutheran missionary Carl Strehlow who, in the same year as the Horn Expedition, had been appointed to supervise the Hermannsburg Mission in Central Australia. Questioning Gillen’s translation and his orthography, Strehlow disputed the contention that the word Altjira referred to a distant past. ‘The native’, as he put it, ‘knows nothing of “dreamtime” as a designation of a certain period of their history’ (Strehlow, cited in Hill 2002: 141). Interpreting it, rather, as a reference to a god, he attributed a religious significance to it that provided the basis on which a programme of salvation evangelism could be built. By construing the alcheringa as purely a

moral code, and by insisting on the evolutionary inscription of the dreamtimes as primitive, Spencer denied the dream-times the religious potential that Strehlow’s salvation evangelism needed in order to find something within Aboriginal culture that it might latch on to. It was better, in Spencer’s view, to leave the dream-times intact especially since, from an evolutionary perspective, attempts at the spiritual-cum-cultural uplifting of the Aborigine were doomed to failure as the inexorable laws of racial competition meant that extinction was the unavoidable destiny of the Aboriginal race. When passing the Hermannsburg Mission a few months prior to Strehlow’s appointment there, Spencer had recommended that it should be closed or run by the government. He viewed the missionary endeavour as not only hopeless in attempting to teach the Arunta abstract ideas they were ‘utterly incapable of grasping’ (Spencer, cited in Hill 2002: 58) but potentially dangerous since it undermined their faith in the precepts handed down by their elders and thus threatened to undo colonial forms of rule that worked through the reinforcement of customary morality. The point at issue between Spencer and Strehlow was thus clearly by no means

a purely ethnographic one. Their different interpretations of the dream-timeswere bound up with, and functioned as operative parts of, different strategies of colonial rule that worked through the organisation of different ‘transactional realities’ – or ‘working surfaces’ – mediating the relations between white and Aboriginal populations in ways that would allow the latter to be acted on differently: absorbed into a Christian civilisational programme in the case of Strehlow, or, at this stage in his career, having their passage into extinction soothed via a benign colonial administration that managed the milieus governing the relations between racially defined bodies in the case of Spencer.3