"Doing" Dreamtime: On Indigenous Beliefs & Postcolonial Realities

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Shamim Mazari is a PhD student at ANU. His research focuses on the anthropology of religion, and the intersection of religion, politics and law in the Muslim world. He holds a Masters in International Law and Politics from Canterbury University, and has worked in human rights and community development.

The word “fetish” originally referred to a charm or an amulet – an object with magical powers or maybe possessed by a spirit. This is rather different from what we mean by the word today, when we say, for example, “My girlfriend has a toe fetish.” In reality, however, even this example hints at the original meaning – it implies an obsessive devotion to an otherwise ordinary object.

In this article, I’m interested in another type of fetish: the cultural fetishism that often occurs in postcolonial societies around all things indigenous. As citizens in a postcolonial society, how exactly is it that we fetishise indigenous beliefs and practices, or do we at all?

When we visit a sacred place like Uluru, or go to a marae in New Zealand, do we sometimes feign belief that we don’t really feel? Is this feigned reverence somehow superficial or inauthentic? Or is it really the opposite – even if we are new migrants, can we adopt indigenous beliefs as part of our own cultural inheritance?

Let me explain this question with a story. A couple years ago, I was on a fishing trip in the sunny and beautiful seaside town of Tauranga, New Zealand. I had been invited by my cousin, who was born and grew up in California, but raised by a New Zealand mother. He had grown up hearing stories about New Zealand and was fascinated by Maori mythology. This was one of the few chances he had to visit.

As we sailed out of Tauranga harbour, we passed by a bronze statue which stood on a raised platform of stones in the middle of the water. It depicted an athletic man, crouching low and holding a taiaha – a traditional Maori weapon – in his right hand. My cousin took a small fish out of a bucket and threw it into the water.

“Why are you throwing away the bait?” I asked.

“I’m making an offering to Tangaroa.”

“An offering to who?”

“Tangaroa,” he gave me a sharp look, “the god of the sea. If you don’t make an offering you won’t catch any fish.”

Later, I wandered onto Google to find out more about this curious statue of Tangaroa, the god of the sea. It was sculpted by Frank Szirmay, a Hungarian artist who arrived to New Zealand in 1957 as a refugee. The statue was erected as a challenge, and a welcome, to ships sailing into Tauranga harbour.

My dilemma is clear: neither the statue’s sculptor, nor my cousin who threw it an offering, were Maori. Neither of the two grew up believing that Maori gods intervened in the human world, caused natural disasters, or fought cosmic battles over land and sea. Yet both were involved in preserving a Maori tradition, a sacred practice, and – in its original sense – a fetish.

Let’s pause for a moment and ask  if the word “fetish” is really as pejorative as we tend to think. If you’ve ever been given a flower by someone you love, and tried to preserve it between the pages of a book, then you’ve had a fetish. Perhaps you never take off a ring that belonged to your mother, or refuse to let go of your grandfather’s war medals. This type of fetish is very human, and very natural. But racial and cultural fetishism has a different quality. It’s a love-hate relationship, and usually involves stereotyping and prejudice.

When I was a community worker in Sydney, I remember one particular morning when my manager stormed into the office. She often showed up unexpectedly with peculiar ideas on how to turn our office into a “creative environment.” This morning was no different. “We’re going to do some team-building exercises,” she said. “I always found that Aboriginal concept of ‘Dreamtime’ to be very therapeutic. So for the first team-building exercise, we’ll be doing Dreamtime.”

I was bewildered. I knew that “Dreamtime” referred to aspects of Aboriginal cosmology, but I didn’t really understand it. I certainly had no idea what it meant to “do” Dreamtime, but apparently this was it. She threw a stack of blank paper and coloured pens on the table, and instructed us to “tap into” our “creative minds.” Fifteen minutes later we came back together as a group, stood in a circle and shared what we had learned. Then we made a pretty, colourful collage.

Let’s return for a moment to my cousin’s sacred offering to Tangaroa. Does this qualify as fetishising indigenous culture? Probably. But it’s a fetishism which, I think, is almost bound to occur. People attach sacred meaning to objects and places, and throwing that fish into the water was my cousin’s way of connecting with his mother’s side of the family. It was his way of writing himself into the stories he had grown up listening to, and the history and myths he had read about. In this way, accounts of pre-colonial history and mythology can help us ground our own unique identities. In some ways, perhaps, it is a form of escapism from the ordinary, predictable and unimaginative rhythm of modern life.

I found my manager’s appropriation of Dreamtime to be more offensive. What made it so, I think, is that she knew nothing substantial about the concept, and couldn’t explain it beyond the fact that it was “therapeutic” and “creative.” She seemed to be riding a wave of popular culture, which had appropriated Dreamtime and taken it far beyond its original meaning. But something else made this sacrilegious act unforgivable. She used something sacred to spice up the most despised, degrading event in any office bureaucracy: the team-building exercise.

What, then, should we do to avoid turning another culture’s sacred belief into a commodity? How can we transform a superficial fetish into real appreciation? The key, I think, lies in empathy and effort. It’s not about reviving the indigenous beliefs of a pre-colonial past, but appreciating how they continue to evolve and persevere in indigenous societies today. It’s about respecting their beauty while being honest about their flaws. It is to learn indigenous languages, not just a few token words to sound culturally sensitive.

I cringed when my cousin threw the fish into the water as an offering to Tangaroa, because I felt his belief was disingenuous. Now I’m thankful that he did. It encouraged me to research who Tangaroa was, how the statue was built, and reflect on the strange and unexpected ways in which sacred practices continue to change. The next time I sail through Tauranga harbour, you might catch me making an offering to Tangaroa too.

Can I do this with integrity, while not really believing that Tangaroa has power over the waves? About this, I’m not so sure.