Bill Paley (mycroftca) wrote,
Bill Paley

next essay for World Music

In Western civilization, many aspects of culture have already been commodified, and so the people within that civilization are inured to it. Icons such as Santa Claus began as a religious subject, but is now part of the season's atmosphere, losing nearly all of the original meaning. To a Sikh, or a Jew, there is no deep meaning to this symbol, though even to a Christian, St. Nick can be viewed as a marketing tool rather than a call to their religion. The accoutrements of Christianity have been abducted by the vast machinery of free trade aiming to acquire more money.

The arts of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia bring a fresh viewpoint of the world, giving those who can market it properly another means of acquiring wealth. Stores in my neighborhood sell a large selection of digeridoos, while offering classes in their use. Recordings are also rather easy to find, for a price. Stories of the Dreaming are made into art books, and they are spread far beyond the Outback. There are no Elders who can explain the stories; they do not teach a child of Harlem, or the son of a Duke of England how to live off the lands from whence they came. Instead, these stories are treated in the same way as tales from non-Western cultures worldwide, as an amusement, not as a life-giving instruction. A person of European antecedents is expected to understand who Zeus was; an American should recognize Johnny Appleseed...these are the ones who fill the tales of our heritage, and their presence in a story gives us a context to understand the underlying meaning. Without the cultural context, such works from the Aboriginal tribes are only pretty stories.

Does commodization harm the culture that birthed the tales? Not in itself. However, the old tendency to view such stories as childish and of no import by the paternalistic colonial powers did not give the folk wisdom its due. I doubt many Australian citizens would be willing to go walking through the Outback with a book of such tales in hand, and expect to survive without carrying a large amount of modern gear. In fact, if my memory serves, there were expeditions into the Australian interior that were wiped out, or nearly so, in the early years of colonization because they didn't use Aboriginal guides or the instruction of the Elders to learn what they needed for survival.

In American history there were serious issues when the pioneers conflicted with the native tribes present, which was violently ended with the ethnic cleansing of the continent. This lead to severe effects on the people, and was attempted by the swallowing up of Native American culture. Many of the same methods were used in the United States as were done in Australia, with such things as forced adoption of Native American children, leading to the loss of generational lore. This leads to the sale of kachina dolls, teepees, feathered headdresses, musical stylings, drums, peace pipes, and even sweat lodges which have been turned into commodities, sometimes by the tribes, but more often by their imitators. This has had profound effects on their people, with problems of despair and anger.

It is difficult for me to say whether or not the sale of a people's heritage is right or wrong. Many things are truly art, in all senses, and can and should be enjoyed as such. However, in the context of a particular tribe or nation, the item has a much deeper meaning and lesson to tell those who can read it. I would say that sharing the context, and not just the item, is vital for proper appreciation of the fruits of Aboriginal (or any other peoples') art.

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