The Primacy of Place in Cultural Identity

 

In her essay “Mapping Memories: Oral History for Aboriginal Cultural Heritage in New South Wales, Australia,” Maria Nugent described a project she and her colleagues undertook to understand the importance of place in the individual and collective memories among Aborigines along the eastern coast of Australia.[1] I was intrigued by this particular essay because of the way in which the spatial experiences of Nugent’s interviewees corresponded to the primacy of place and homeland within the cultural memories of many Native American tribes. As Vine Deloria, Jr. has pointed out, his own “Sioux people cherished their lands and treated them as if they were people who shared a common history with humans.”[2] The Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday, in recounting the oral histories that detail his tribe’s migration across the Great Plains, meditated on the ways in which the journeys of a people through space and time are collective examples of the individual journeys we all undertake as human beings.[3]

Nugent began her essay by noting the way in which the Australian government has privileged the memories of its white citizens in choosing which sites are deserving of recognition, preservation, and interpretation. The study of Aboriginal historical locations, by contrast, has largely been confined to pre-contact archaeological sites. Nugent’s goal was to record the stories and memories of contemporary Aborigines in order to demonstrate the continuing vitality of Aboriginal cultural identity. The predominance of white historical sites in Australia could easily lead one to believe “that Aboriginal people had simply left the scene the moment ‘whites’ arrived. But in many parts of…Australia, Aboriginal people have remained a vital local presence, albeit one that has been diminished through frontier violence, disease and starvation, dispossession from land, forced dispersals from one place to another, and the removal of children from families.”[4] In exploring the memories of Aborigines about segregated movie theaters, favorite fishing spots, and secluded beaches and campsites, Nugent revealed that the dominant narrative in Australian cultural heritage is not “as complete or as certain as professional practices and bureaucratic processes suggest.”[5] The stories told to Nugent and her colleagues reveal a marginalized but continuing Aboriginal presence in a land “owned” by white newcomers.

In many ways, contemporary Westerners have abandoned a sense of attachment to place. The ease with which we are able to undertake intercontinental travel, the globalization of culture and economies, and the relentless quest for material gain have reduced our sense of belonging to a particular people in space and time. For many indigenous cultures, this idea of belonging to their community and to the land they inhabit is central to their shared identity. Oral history is exquisitely positioned to explore the memories and shared identity of a community through its collection of stories, myths, and legends. Traditional documentary history is undoubtedly better at producing incontrovertible facts and figures and at narrating the broad sweep of history. But individual human identity, and its connection to a shared community identity, is about much more than historical facts. There is an overarching spiritual component to these connections, a history that can only be gleaned from the legends of a tribe and the stories of its people.

[1] Maria Nugent, “Mapping Memories: Oral History for Aboriginal Cultural Heritage in New South Wales, Australia,” in Paula Hamilton and Linda Shopes, ed., Oral History and Public Memory (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008), 47-63.

[2] Vine Deloria, Jr., God Is Red: A Native View of Religion (Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 1994), 1.

[3] N. Scott Momaday, The Way to Rainy Mountain (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1969), 4.

[4] Nugent, “Mapping Memories,” 48-9, quote on 49.

[5] Ibid., 61.

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