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Mutant Message Down Under

Marlo Morgan's Mutant Message Down Under
An Anthropological Perspective

by Dr John P. Stanton
Berndt Museum of Anthropology,
The University of Western Australia,
Nedlands WA 6907

I have been asked to prepare this critique from a social anthropological perspective In part because of the extensive field research I have conducted among Aboriginal people of the Western Desert cultural bloc over the past twenty years, as well as my interest and involvement In Aboriginal cultural heritage issues.

I have approached this work with some caution, having originally been loaned it by a friend at Christmas. I have re-read the book and offer the following comments, without prejudice.

This book may be criticized on three main counts:

First, that it alleges to be factual "written after the fact and inspired by actual experience ... sold as a novel to protect the small tribe of Aborigines."(p.xiii)

Second, that it demonstrates more of the author's imagination than any first-hand experience of living with and knowledge of Desert Aborigines beyond that available in any popular text.

Third, that it seriously insults the religious beliefs of Desert Aborigines.

It is condescending in the extreme, devoid of any detailed appreciation of Aboriginality, and reflects more of the author's personal preoccupations and experiences within the North American context than those of Australia. In a number of passages, factual errors intrude; they would be simply amusing if the book was not intended to represent "actual experience". Perhaps the author's taken name "Travelling Tongue" is unintendedly appropriate; as she notes, "I had become offensive"(p.85). How true.

From the beginning, the author's account of her journey is cluttered with ambiguous and distorted impressions. For example, in Perth "We drove through the streets of the coastal city, past rows of veranda-fronted homes, milkbar snack shops and grassless cement parks"(p.2). The account of her car trip into the Desert is equally improbable; the -semantics of speech attributed to her chauffeur (p.5) are contrived.

Her description of feathered armbands and anklets (p.9) is improbable in such a context. Worse was the description "Drawings of lizards adorned their arms while snakes, kangaroos, and birds appeared on legs and backs."(p.10). One woman "had a garland of flowers hand-painted around her neck and ankles. It had the artist's touch, with detailed leaves and stamen portrayed in the center of each blossom."(p.10). Such body-painting designs are simply unknown in the Desert, although they may be applied to tourist art and crafts. Her imagination is further enhanced. Describing the "senior" man, she noted "On his head was a stunning full headdress made of bright parrot feathers... he wore a circular, intricately crafted chest plate made from stone and seeds."(p.10). Not since Kevin Cameron launched his similarly imaginative Teaching Stones of the Outcast Tribe have I read this kind of thing. Perhaps she saw his book?

Regional incongruities abound. The "ankle bracelets made from large pods" (p.1) have more to do with the Kimberley and other regions of Northern Australia; certainly not the Desert. And then "The Elder took off a long leather tube of platypus hide strapped to his waist and shook it at the sky."(p.12, my emphasis). "We ate kangaroo, wild horse ... termites, anteaters... even crocodile."(p.56,my emphasis). "I scratched myself ... the specific sign I used meant I had spotted a crocodile."(p.84). Not bad for the Pitjantjatjara and Yankuntjatjara heartland she has just referred to (p.83). She even has a didjeridu being used at a "great musical concert"(p.108) and is told to "imitate the kookabura bird."(p.147, my emphasis). One of the men recounted the events of his birth. "His life began as his mother, alone, after travelling many days to a specific location, hand dug and squatted over a sandpit lined in the ultra-soft fur of a rare albino koala."(p.157, my emphasis). Water came from "an unfamiliar looking nonpottery vessel tied to a rope around the neck or waist."(p.21) instead of from a coolamon. Unable to imagine Desert Peoples' ability to go without water, she insists that "We carried several bladder water vessels."(p.52). Similarly, "others gathered plants. Two men had been jointly sharing a load all afternoon. They had a colorless cloth draped over two long spears and made into a pouch."(p.22). Well I never!

I was fascinated to learn how bardi grubs ("a large, white, crawling worm"(p.43)) are cooked wrapped in leaves in the coals; I have only ever seen them being cooked in ashes. Mythologising culturally endowed talents, she equates (or perhaps explains) Aboriginal abilities at food collection, etc. as "the natural dowsing ability given to all humans."(p.54). Her description of the preparation and cooking of a kangaroo is part truth, part fiction; "The head was cut off... A small container of water was placed in one corner of the deep hole... the primary chef would lean through the smoke, to blow into the long reed, and force water to be released below the surface. The steam was immediately apparent."(p.62).

Popular stereotypes of Aboriginality permeate the text. Some are little different from those peddled by Ion Idress in the 1930s; for example, "The natives only take what they truly need to eat, and quite frankly they are credited with supernatural powers of retaliation."(p.36). "The Aboriginal race has long been rumored to varnish into thin air when confronted with danger... The Real People also know how to perform the illusion of multiplication. One person can be seen to be ten or fifty."(p.162). "It finally dawned on me why it was quiet every day as we walked. These people used mental telepathy to communicate most of the time... There was absolutely no sound to be heard, but messages were being relayed between people twenty miles apart."(p.61). She fails to mention here the presence of an extraordinarily complex system of hand sign language common throughout the Western Desert bloc, although she later refers to this in greater detail (p.84). "The reason, according to Ooota, that Real People can use telepathy is because above all they never tell a lie, not a small fabrication, not a partial truth, nor any gross unreal statement. No lies at all, so they have nothing to hide."(p.63). Are these people human?

On other occasions, her text is simply offensive either to men (one example refers to the nature and sound of a bullroarer (p.109)), or to women. One sequence, describing the alleged use of menstrual blood in healing (p.91-93), I will not detail here.

So-called New Age imagery prevails, however, in all its predictable forms. "They did a lot of massaging and rubbing of each other's shoulders... I saw them manipulating necks and spines."(p.44). The idealised imagery of the French sauvage noble is perpetuated by statements such as "I did learn that day, however, the remarkable relationship the Aborigines have with nature... These people believe everything exists on the planet for a reason. Everything has a purpose. There are no freaks, misfits, or accidents."(p.51). "I. should have known they were reading my mind and knew before I spoke what I was requesting. That night we discussed in length the connection between the physical body, the eternal part of our beingness, and a new aspect we had not touched on before, the role of feelings and emotions in health and well-being."(p.94).

She constantly cites the uniqueness of the "Real People"; an example "According to them, every other tribe in Australia had submitted to the rule of the white government."(p.45). Again "There is not another Aboriginal tribe that has any material objects left connected to their history."(p.143). The Elder said, "We are having no more children. When our youngest member is gone, that will be the last of the pure human race... You have been chosen as our Mutant messenger to tell your kind we are going. We are leaving Mother Earth to you."(pg.147-148). Apart from Ooota, her interpreter, she does not name any of the people she is allegedly travelling with; instead they have names curiously similar to translations of Native American names like Healing Woman, Time Keeper, Sewing Master -- all concepts totally alien in the non-hierarchical nature of Desert societies. "She was well versed on the history of the world and even on current events, yet she did not read or write. She was creative."(p.106).

She fails to understand the complexity of Aboriginal social organisation, such as the eight-skin sub-section system. "In some Aboriginal nations they only used about eight names total -- more like a numbering system."(p.4-6). Dragging Eurocentric comforts, she has these people carrying a "round roll of hide or skin"(p.47), and "use our sleeping skins to construct a shade" (p.50), despite the prohibition against skinning animals prior to eating commonly observed throughout the Western Desert cultural bloc. Her Aborigines do not simply sleep on the ground in parallel as generations have done, a winter fire between each person; rather, "Several evenings we would lie on the ground in a unique circular pattern... We dug slots in the sand and put a layer of hot coals down, then some additional sand on top. Half the skins were placed under us, and half over us... Our feet were joined in the centre."(p.58). Curiously, "I also observed tribal members collecting the rare piles of dung left by desert creatures, especially those of the dingos. It proved to be powerful, odorless fuel."(p.71). They use the leaves for smoking in pipes, on special occasions."(p.80). Until relatively recently, tobacco has not been smoked but chewed.

Her conceptualisation of "totemic" religious beliefs and "the Dreaming" is abysmal. "Many people choose kangaroo as their totem because they feel a real kinship and recognise the necessity of learning balance over their personality."(p.99, my emphasis). Dreamings are, of course, not chosen but identified through other means. Incredibly "The main lesson taken from the kangaroo is that it does not step backward. It is not possible for it. It always goes forward, even when going around in circles! Its long tail is like the trunk of a tree and bears its weight."(p.99). My imagination is stretched to the limit when the author states "The dolphin is very dear to the Real People tribe, although they no longer have much access to the sea."(p.100). Scarcely surprising when the Desert heartland is a minimum some 700km from the sea! Similarly ignorant is her assertion that "I understood them to say that the word dreaming means levels of awareness. There is ancestor dreaming when thought created the world; there is out-of-body dreaming such as deep meditation, there is sleep dreaming, and so on."(p.114-115).

Just who is Marlo Morgan? Certainly an adept business woman. "I talked about the free enterprise system of government and discussed an organisation called Junior Achievement for underprivileged inner-city youth."(p.39). The strong American stance is an interesting counterfoil to her Mutant Message. We get only a very vague picture of who she is. She says "I have worked with hundreds of people in pain, especially in the last fifteen years as a doctor specializing in acupuncture."(p.12)

She is certainly not backwards in coming forward. Self-congratulatory, she frequently comments on her own qualifications. "That night it was explained to me that my work with the urban-dwelling Aborigines had been reported... I was found to have pure intent."(p.45). "After he came to witness the strange spectacle of the blond-haired Mutant with dark brown roots, he allowed all the others a chance to see the wonder. Their eyes seemed to light up, and each one smiled in pleasure. Ooota explained that it was because they felt I was more Aboriginal."(p.67).

Perhaps the author is just playing with us, her readers, and with her notions of Aboriginality? "Australia was full of fun things to do for entertainment."(p.34). Her concluding line is, perhaps a strong hint. "I intend to spend the rest of my life using the knowledge I learned In the Outback. Everything! Even the magic of Illusion!"(p.187)

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