Oral Traditions Under Threat: The Australian Aboriginal Experience

Christine Morris
1991 Explorations in ethnic studies : the journal of the National Association of Interdisciplinary Ethnic Studies  
Many writers in Australia have written about the economic and social effects of the written tradition upon the various oral traditions of Australia, but few have addressed the inappropriateness of replacing the oral tradition with a written one. It is wrong to assume that the written word is a means of cultural preservation. What, in fact, is occurring is that the oral tradition in Australia is being supplanted by the written tradition. In order to argue why the written tradition in Australia
more » ... n only ever be an adjunct to an oral tradition and never a linchpin for its survival, one must examine the special relationship Aborigines have with the land. It is this special relationship that is the axiom of the environmental harmony that has persisted in Australia since time began. The crux of this relationship is that the Aborigines see themselves and everything in their worldview as being "of' the land rather than living "on" the land. To remove the oral tradition from "the land" and give it a new setting in a written text is to displace the life force of the culture. There is a resurgence in popularity of new anthologies of Australian Aboriginal myths and legends. In general, the authors of these books are predominantly non-aboriginal, compiling them under the pretext that they are bringing to the average Australian a knowledge of the Aboriginal culture. Some even go so far as to say "recording it in written form would ensure that it was never lost."2 These authors, however, are attempting to carry out an impossible task. It is a futile exercise to attempt to capture a living tradition and cut it off from its life force. In other words, to take a story from the land on which it was born and on which it is re-created in each telling demonstrates an ignorance of exactly what an Aboriginal story is, what it is connected to, and what it cannot be disconnected from. This amounts to a new form of colonialism, unwittingly being propagated by the bearers of the written word. To capture Aboriginal stories and clothe them Explorations in Ethnic Studies, No. 2 (July 1991)
doi:10.1525/ees.1991.14.2.33 fatcat:kyyoshdbkjbudkjkyeklqvw7eu