The Enigmatic Aborigine In Alice Springs: Bumping Into The Other Australia

Nearly getting your ass kicked has a way of making you notice somebody. Trust me on that one, even as you let the hyperbole go - not a hand was laid on me. In that (non-)event, nevertheless, it was (almost) by the kind of man who doesn't get noticed too often in Australia. An Aborigine. Well, sure, Aborigines show up plenty in Aussie papers and (traditional, older) literature, but in everyday life - particularly in the cities? Invisible. This would not be the case when I made my way into Alice Springs, though, a town in the heart of the country. But that experience would not be a particularly uplifting one. More on that in a bit.

First I had to get there. After several months of travel in the generally most-populated areas, including a couple by bicycle, now I was headed to where almost no one wanted to live. I intended a stay of upwards toward two weeks, long enough to get more than a knee-jerk reaction, I figured. I had continuously seen and read local historical signs along roadsides up until this point, often alluding to previous inhabitants of the areas - Aborigines - but that came without seeing practically any whatsoever. No more. I boarded a train in Adelaide to convey me to Alice Springs, on a route romantically named The Ghan, and we chugged our way out of the station. Finally I was making the plunge into the (in)famous Red Centre! Indeed, in a short matter of hours, the ground became more orange and, well, kinda red. Yup.

Yet this wouldn't be the first "western" town I'd seen in a desert. No, when I arrived some 24 hours later, within moments I observed that Alice Springs might as well have been a small town in Arizona. More precisely, it would have been surrounded by something akin to Red Canyon - found just across the border in Utah. Swap out the cactus and wildlife - of which there wasn't much to notice in either place, nor that often - and bring on the heat. Yeah, this dry furnace felt familiar enough. Yet Alice Springs, hosting a settlement of some 25,000 souls, would prove to be something else, too. By the force of its culture, it'd show itself to be an anomaly however similarly carved out of the raw, desert bush which envelops it - even if it felt similarly consumed by the midday sun which put the pot on the boil.

Right off, I noticed the meaningful distinction between the two distance lands, though. Where'd all these folks come from? And why were they all hanging out in the blast zone (i.e. outside)? Moreover, as I trundled over to my hostel, I noticed that most of the others walking more than a block or so were distinctly... Aboriginal. Ah ha! Well, okay, seeing an Aborigine wasn't a surprise, but I had nonetheless been wondering by this time where any were IN NUMBER. I had gotten all too used to only seeing the odd (as in few) Aborigines walking by in the cities. No longer. Still, it would take a little time to understand that even this wasn't a fair sampling.

I quickly took stock of Alice Springs. Well... that didn't take long. It appeared that tourism here dictated a plethora of low modern buildings to cluster the town's center, souvenir malls serving as the accoutrements of the trade... and not much more to see otherwise. Stepping inside one, though, I found that these citadels of schlock would provide perhaps the greatest illustration of how Alice Springs was two worlds uncomfortably colliding. I watched as Aborigines and non-Aboriginal locals (and tourists, whom I'll ignore here) alike passed through these icons of western culture. Hmm.

Well, one thing was obvious after not long. The interaction between the two groups of peoples was negligible, about non-existent. Neither group spared scarcely an eye for the other, as if they didn't exist. The non-Aboriginal folk were dedicated to their mission at hand, bypassing the purchase of Aboriginally-tinged trinkets to get to food and drug stores. (I'd nevertheless notice that paintings of serpents, suns, didgeridoos and the like moved out of Alice Springs at a steady rate.) Simultaneously, meanwhile, the Aborigines seemed to glide through these same air-conditioned spaces, rarely stopping to buy or even sit for a bite to eat. They flitted noiselessly through the soulless shopping boxes like fleshy ghosts, each bearing witness to the bizarre transfiguration of their own land into such mausaleums of commerce. It was eerie... and it'd be the same thing outside.

No, these two worlds were together while being apart, an unknown white vs black thing for me to unravel. Frankly it was an altogether unwelcoming situation to intrude on. Then again, I knew it wasn't a coincidence that Alice Springs was the site of such transgressions of cultural harmony. Nowhere was there a greater meeting ("clash" might be the more appropriate word) point in 2009 of Aboriginal and western culture, and interests, than in Alice Springs.

That had to do strictly with two things. One was The (Ayer's) Rock (Uluru to the indigenous Aborigines, a name gaining universal acceptance), the other the centrality of the location for communications and transport. If it wasn't for those exceptional things, the harsh environment of the reddest of the Red Centre would likely have been left to the native Aborigines and their own devices. Until gold or some such was discovered, anyway (see "History Of Western Expansion, U.S." for inspiration). With water at a premium, and land unforgiving to hoof and plow (requiring extensive importation for supplementing western-styled culture), this area being a ghastly fireball for a good chunk of the year was just (melted) icing on the cake. There was no handy Colorado River to bleed, allowing for a Phoenix, Las Vegas, or anything far more humble, either.

Perhaps, with the symbolic assertion of the name Uluru, the Aborigines were beginning to reclaim this land. In a way, it sure seemed so. Virtually every park bench in Alice Springs was at least being physically claimed as Aboriginal territory, including most of the prominent patches of grass in the center of town. Many Aborigines sat or stood around in that inimitably erect stature they employed, something belied by seemingly being without a care in the world - and no show of intention of getting a move on. Figuratively, they were just watching the rest of the world go by - but the rest of the world almost didn't seem to exist to them, anyway. For all that, some were laughing, some were arguing, and some were quiet among themselves. There was just nobody getting up to walk around, that was all. Well, okay, that made sense - it was pretty fucking hot out. I'd later think of the vicious-looking thorny lizard, all barking sharp points with no bite of any locomotion whatsoever.

Upon further spying on my part, when one of the DID walk somewhere, I couldn't help but notice the odd, sashayed gait many walked with. They were usually empty-handed, barefoot with mangled feet, and wore clothes in various versions of tatters. Some wore the garb of wranglers, while others rather incongruously pushed prams, too. There'd also be a short-lived mystery - as to why so many Aborigines in Alice Springs were missing teeth - but that would come to seem somewhat attributable to violence (see below). If it wasn't, rot and decay were finishing them off regardless - something I'd soon observe repeatedly up close. I made the observation that gravity seemingly pulled at their faces, too, making children often look much older and serious than they probably were.

They spoke their own language, mostly - so I had no idea what they were saying. Maybe they were wondering why some idiot was walking around with a trumpet and reading books on (apparently) their park benches. Who knew? All the while almost all embodied an odd calmness, one that seemed to allow me - or anyone - to pass them by unnoticed. Indeed, I (and from what I could tell, almost all others) soon stopped actively noticing them after the initial surprise of the situation. But, if one sat in a place for periods of time as I did (busking, writing, and drawing being rather stationary activities), one couldn't but begin to notice that they WERE in motion - if only chiefly to and from these spots.

The broad faces, meanwhile, struck me as similar to the look often used for European Neanderthals in exhibits. I knew there was no relation, of course, but the comparison repeatedly struck me involuntarily. However, even prior to reading Jared Diamond's seminal work Guns, Germs, and Steel, I had a strong notion of how mankind had stretched across the continents over time. Plate tectonics, the breaking up of Gondwana and Pandagea, rising and falling seas - these were hardly mysteries. No link, just a look. To my eye, too, the faces didn't look either typically Polynesian or African - although they were called black. The skin was unquestionably pretty brown, however often they might be called "blackfellas". I'd never quite learn what level that word took as a pejorative - I'd hear both Aborigines and non-Aboriginal locals using it.

Meanwhile, I HAD done some homework with regard to Aboriginal culture and history. I knew that, traditionally-speaking anyway, this was a primitive culture, if an impressive one in terms of survival skills. There were at least 200 languages in use, each not necessarily overlapping another due to possible isolation from any nearby peoples. They had to be tough, too, living (at least in the Outback) in extreme heat and aridity. In the Outback - most of the continent - they had to be able to survive on grubs or bark at times, digging for scarce water. I'd last a day out there, tops.

They were - are - considered the oldest continuous culture, too, of some 20,000, 30,000, or 100,000 years. Holy shit - they had the Chinese (the other widely-regarded ancient culture) by some, well, 17,000, 27,000, or 97,000 years. That's a lot, and perhaps a good time to enthusiastically plug the Diamond book while I'm at it - if I didn't already. (Read it and understand the human diaspora, how and why civilizations have successfully imposed themselves on others since the dawn of history. Oh - THAT trifling story! Yes.)

In any event, here these folks were. Mostly, they kept to themselves, no challenge in speaking a language out of reach to most outsiders, making jokes of which virtually no one else had an idea. Most tourists in town probably had similar initial experiences as I, too. The most likely interaction would, oddly, come while sitting at a cafe or in a restaurant, an unannounced contact where you'd be approached silently. Artwork would be offered most unobtrusively, sometimes raised - or not - for inspection, invariably done without the slightest gesture or indication of a salespitch. Buy or not, it didn't seem to matter - then they'd walk away. That felt odd. Well, given typical western proclivities in tourism - and the constant hawking that goes with it - it WAS.

Relatedly, every once in a while I spotted Aborigines inside one of the ubiquitous galleries dedicated to their cultural offerings. There were far more galleries per capita of Aboriginal art in Alice Springs than anywhere else. Regarding their PRESENCE within these venues, though, it didn't look like they were there for any appreciation of their output. There was no walking from one work to the next with hands clasped behind backs, in tranced appraisal (or faking it as, fair enough, many folks seem to do). Given that this was the local art, that shouldn't have been surprising, of course. Instead they invariably sat on a bench, or perhaps huddled in a small group, but invariably and seemingly out of place.

Was it the air conditioning? I hazarded to guess possibly so, but that wouldn't explain the vast majority that was content to stay outside. Anyway, in these situations neither did they rummage through the stacks of prints littering floors, nor did they thumb through racks of carvings, jewelry, or whatever else. They merely sat amidst the commerce of their own culture, frankly looking lost and confused - while remaining silent and watching. I hadn't a clue what to make of such weird scenes.

It seemed like the art dealers knew not what to make of them, either, but perhaps they were in an uncomfortable position. They obviously knew that these folks were both the unwitting source (by good measure) of their profit... while not being potential customers, either. Making the situation more glaring, it seemed every gallery owner was decidedly white. Sometimes I wondered, thus, if they were embarrassed in some sense, the obvious beneficiaries of most of the money generated. I further wondered how many were cynically out to make a buck, or how many were truly and emotionally drawn to this artistic output. This wasn't the kind of question I could put to them, so I'd have to let it rest as an observation without clarity.

In any event I wasn't into any of the art, but that was just a personal taste. I'm fine with allowing it to be my own shortcoming, an inability to appreciate abstract art. It'd be visually easy to describe, however, almost all artwork of Aboriginal creation or inspiration seeming to be massive landscapes of earthtones, collections of lines and dots usually in geometric patterns. And, aversions to aesthetics excepted, I COULD respect what the works represented, typically allusions to "The Dreaming" as it is called. I knew that some or nearly all of these works purportedly referenced - however obliquely - traditional stories or concepts. None specifically did, though: exact stories were all held within the culture, a secret not for sharing with the unitiated. That seemed fair enough, allowing the tourist to buy into the taste without knowing how the tree bearing the fruit was rooted. Here was a new form of caveat emptor.

Meanwhile, with more time than the usual tourist in town, I got to see a bit more of what was going down in Alice Springs. For the Aborigines I witnessed - from my perspective - it didn't seem good. A daytime of hanging out in the shade, existing in a world of calm, was evidently only part of the story. Come night, another reality descended on Alice Springs. I'd be told to not wander about, even by Aborigines; taking a cab for anywhere more than a block or so was deemed a good idea, too. The reason was shortly made clear, a case of alcohol rearing the nastier side of its temperament even as the bush called its children home. One by one various Aborigines would begin making tracks for the nearby Todd River, an area that delimited one side of town..

This river - typically just a dry river bed most of the year - lies alongside Alice Springs Central Business District. To the Chamber of Commerce - or whatever their counterpart is in Australia (the City Council?) - this must have been a sore issue indeed. For starters, during the day it was nothing to look at. Lacking water, it was just a dusty littering of beer cans and bottles sighing under the desert's heat. Come evening, though, when the Aborigines returned in number to its banks, it was a place for them to lay blankets in familial clusters - and everyone else to stay away. They'd do this often in the most inhospitable-seeming places, almost anywhere on the light flyaway dirt (while generally at the bases of trees), but the nightly ritual was long established.

Then, in spite of numerous No Camping and No Alcohol signs tracing the contours of the river, such admonitions were left well alone after sundown and until the morning. Like the Viet Cong of Alice Springs, the Aborigines ruled the night - and especially the bush - and the police would assume most control during the day. Increased police patrols appeared mostly concerned with the shops in town, by all appearances - nothing new there, like most places in the world that understand what greases what.

At the same time, with the glistening litterings of broken glass so visible during the day obviously coming from SOMEwhere, the disturbances to the quiet of the night offered sufficient clues as to where. I'd sit near the iron fencing of my hostel's periphery, just by the road sidling the river, listening uncomprehendingly - by curious choice as often as not - to the night's conversation across the way. I basked in the sultry remnants of April's heat as shouts eventually rained back and forth through a goodly portion of the evening. They'd often crescendo into harsh, staccatoed climaxes - before a short silence reigned as a respite. At some late hour it ceased for good.

Walking by the same area in the daytime, various bits of wreckage - and even some remaining, slumbering bodies - were in evidence. Not culturally bereft, I was easily aware of the rich photographic possibilities of such urban decay - but it wouldn't feel right to shoot away at this graphic display. I knew well and good about the drinking problem - all Australians and probably most other tourists even did - but the idea of playing voyeur to that level didn't feel right. I just could wonder if there were answers to the obvious questions of why.

No one else seemed to have a concise answer, either. The legacy of handouts from the Australian Government, and the rejection of them in various forms, was well known. It had been preceeded by some heavy-handed, nasty stuff back in the day - also well known by 2009. It was the Aussie version of the White Guilt found in Europe and in the U.S. writ again, fairly so, but no no better results. Probably worse, it seemed. In the meantime movies were plugging away at the theme, from Rabbit-Proof Fence to Australia, so awareness was no longer the problem. The Rudd Government, too, had even offered an official apology to the notion of terra nulla, a watershed event. Terra nulla was the convenient concept that Australian land was free for the taking when Great Britain arrived - a terra nulla, an empty land - so they legally could begin taking it away from the people who were somehow not considered there.

In Alice Springs, meanwhile, I'd be told that the local Aborigines I was seeing were a poor sampling. These were the drunks who were forced off of the dry (alcohol-free) homelands, a status they endeavored to keep BECAUSE of the problem of alcohol. I was also told about the conundrum of the handouts, too, where food and some amount of services and housing were available to Aborigines just for the asking. Sometimes a house would be accepted, then trashed and abandoned only some months later. To many this was unfathomable. Thus there was a feeling of ingratitude on one side, injury on the other, and only perplexion in between.

It was time for some other interpretations, obviously, and some were forthcoming, too. Here was one that seemed the most intriguing: most of the traditional Aboriginal day of old (not that long ago, really, only tens of years in many cases) had been spent extracting food from the capricious whims of nature's meager bounty here. Now, suddenly, there was this modern, easy access to food via handouts (if not merely the ability to go to a grocery store). A people that for eons had had to use up almost all of their waking hours to stay alive now had a huge amount of time to fill. Yet they had no tradition of having to do so in the least, a sudden change after a way of life measured in the tens of thousands of years. Their customs were passed down from generation to generation orally, intact and sacred in many cases. This explanation seemed readily plausible. Wow.

Liquor, meanwhile, was legally available (like for any adult Australian) and an aggravator without measure. It didn't pay the least respect to how Aborigines genetically had but a poor means to process it in any quantity (much like many of Asian descent). Add in alcoholism as a difficult pattern to break, a lack of necessary responsibility from handouts/services to cover at least the basics to survival, and, well, ergo, you had a problem. The Aboriginal cultures were in the midst of determining how to adapt to this only very recent reality.

At the same time, cultural identities WERE being forged. Racism WAS being challenged more often, and on both sides. No longer did Aborigines have to disappear from the streets of town at dusk, for example. That restriction had not been removed in Alice Springs, however, until as recently as the early 1950s. In certain places in Queensland (under "The Act") it even happened later than that, some restrictions lasting until the late 1970s. Aborigines all too often were considered wards of the state, like children - even as adults. Even now, in 2009. This was going to be a long road.

Still, there had been some successes. As evidence, Uluru was an illustrative instance of the degree to which new bounds were tested. As part of an agreement to return the lands to the local community, though, they had to agree to a 99-year lease. That kept the land around The Rock to be used as a national park of sorts while the local Aborigines exerted a good deal of day-to-day control. What happened after that - who knew? For now it was an interesting experiment of sorts.

The Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara peoples determined which days tourists were allowed to climb on top of the monolith, for example. This was a popular, even traditional thing to do for Australian whites who came to Alice Springs - as much as it was a form of blasphemy to the Aborigines. It was handled in a way that might serve as a template - or a warning, too, to upcoming changes. In a curious technicality, these peoples were allowed to daily close the climb on account of inclement, rainy weather. It didn't take much to notice that this apparently happened far more often than the weather demanded it - we were in a desert with little to no rain, after all - but this compromise seemed to be accepted.

Visiting the nearby cultural center and museum was further illustrative. While given wholly over to the Aboriginal experience in the area, it was only manned by white rangers. Huh? Anyway, videos played from numerous corners within, each showing or literally describing the locals as uniformly happy before the white man came. That was obviously - and unbelievably - simplistic, as (last I checked) Aboriginal people were human, too. There were fables (my interpretation), too, to explain the universe - where my eyes glazed over. I'm not good with mythologies. But there were also displays that showed the ingenuity of the people to survive in such an intensely demanding environment. THAT held my attention.

In any event, this was the story being told the way they - the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara - wanted to tell it. It came complete with evidently was an apology book where non-Aboriginal Aussies (I assumed) could comment and say "I'm sorry!" Fair enough, there was historical reason to do so, but comments by younger people still struck me as odd. This was White Guilt asserting itself in a new way, I thought.

On another tack, the way of describing the original Aborigines to an area was increasingly changing to "the traditional owners of the land". This didn't seem to be helping life expectancy, infant mortality, disease, or education in the short run, but it was something. Over time I'd hear more about the stolen generations debate, too, where children were removed from Aboriginal families. Were they taken from from loving homes in some kind of misbegotten eugenics? Were they removed from hostile environments because of mixed ancestry? Aboriginal features mostly breed out in 2-3 generations due to recessive genetics, I heard - but that could well be in the eye of the beholder. It was touchy territory I didn't want to enter, either. No, I wouldn't learn an adequate answer to those questions, but I strongly guessed that the debate was now far more public than previous.

Which brings me to almost getting my ass kicked. Right away, "almost" kinda admits this is an anticlimax. Although this happened after a few days in town, I suppose I had already been asking for it the moment I arrived. I was busking a bit, you see, pulling out the trumpet for some tunes while dropping my opened case with a dollar in it or two. In short order I got to meet some folks, one of the side benefits to the trade (such as it is), and this included Aboriginal folks as well.

In all likelihood I wouldn't have much otherwise in Alice Springs, and it didn't happen immediately. Some shy looks as kids went by, then one or two people slowed down, then... a drunk lady sat next to me. Then another. They wanted to sing songs; I shortly gave up on trying to accompany them. Instead I quickly learned that it was best to just ask for more. They warbled away, but this at least began some conversations - I was deemed approachable.

The chats with the drunk ladies went nowhere, of course, but when they begged me for tenner, or a fiver, or a two-coin, or... whatever, it was done sometimes with what looked to be an almost missionary-like, rote style of assuming a praying stance. I almost thought I was watching Rabbit-Proof Fence again. But it beat the off-key singing for a moment or two. And soon others were sitting down next to me, kids wanting to play the trumpet and even a man who knew when I was playing Cuban or Mexican music. I thought I was making some headway; I probably was.

The drunk guy would suspend these festivities for a moment, however. I played a little too late toward sundown, and an arguing couple approached. They were oblivious to the world, it seemed, so I continued playing... until things got quiet. Gestures by the man to hit the woman hadn't come to fruition when she had taken to crying, so he stopped the barrage long enough to notice that someone else was around. Me. Not entirely clueless, I decided it was a good time to stop, so I gathered up my scattered things from the park bench.

Too late. Sensing a victim that he COULD get a proper reaction from, perhaps, he stood up and came walking toward me. I picked up the pace of my gathering, accordingly, getting up with a final swoop when he neared with 15 feet or so. I quickly began to walk away - "No worries, mate!" - but that did little to placate the bully. When he broke into a jog, I broke into a run. Fortunately I was sober, approaching whatever speed was necessary for escape velocity before he could likewise. "FUCK YOU!" he yelled after me; I jumped inside my nearby hostel. Whew.

I soon texted my Aussie friends the briefest jot of my misadventure. "Be careful, Dave, but don't let this overcast your impressions of a magical place" zipped back Deb. "Don't put your swag in the bush alone, mate" chimed Mick. "Doesn't anyone in Oz have a multi-syllabic name?" I thought. (Inappropriate digression is my nature. In point of fact, anyway, some Aussies might do (as they say). Witness Natalie. But - wait a sec... - I DID hear her called "Nat"! Sigh.)

Anyway, long story short, I DID go back out and play over the next days. But I was wary - and should have been. I wouldn't let it overcast my impressions, either - of Aboriginal people. But it would show how touchy relations could be, even if it was just one incident. Fortunately, I'd soon have proof of how unrepresentative it could be, too, when I had excellent experiences in Cooktown, just ahead in my travels after Alice Springs. I play with a mostly Aboriginal band, join an entirely Aboriginal work party to remove exotic plants, and visit a homeland.

In other words, there was more to the story than met the eye. Alice Springs was a microcosm, but real, too. As real as Cooktown. As real as the folks out at Uluru. As real as any people with varied histories and cultures spread out over a continent should be. And are. With that, I'll close this ramble - the only way to learn more will be to go back.

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