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Trepans: Translating Indigenous Performative Traditions Into Contemporary Inter-Cultural Performance

Darwin, Australia, September 1999. The town reveals itself for the military staging post it was always destined to be; soldiers from around the world and UN personnel are everywhere. East Timor, only an hour's flight away, is in flames. Indonesian performers from Makassar, South Sulawesi, are worried on account of false reports by the Indonesian media of street violence against Indonesians in Australia. Darwin, with a large percentage of residents from many nearby southeast Asian countries, is free from adverse reaction to anyone who might look Indonesian, but the Macassarese performers don't know this and rarely venture out on their own.

The first night of performance begins with a welcome, especially for the visitors from Makassar and Arnhem Land, from an elder of the traditional owners of Darwin. He recounts the history of contact between Macassans(1) and his own people and relates how even the name of his tribe, Larrikiya, is a Macassan-derived word. Other Aboriginal speakers dedicate the performance to the East Timorese people in their suffering. The performance is a reminder of the lengthy and peaceful relationship between seafaring Macassan traders and the indigenous people of the region. Dozens of songs and associated dances deal with this history of generations-long seasonal contact. Against the violent disintegration of societies along cultural, religious, and ethnic lines, Macassan stories in northeast Arnhem Land present many tales of friendship and trade.

The Performance

An indigenous opera exploring pre-colonial contact between Macassan seafarers and the Yolngu people of the Arnhem Land coast in Australia, Trepang is based on an indigenous history of pre-colonial foreign contact with fishermen from the once prominent trading port of Makassar, the capital of the kingdom of Gowa, in what is now east Indonesia.

At the peak of its power, Gowa was important maritime state; Galileo sent one of his new inventions, the telescope, to the king. Before the Macassan arrival in northern Australia, there was no significant Aboriginal contact with non-Aboriginals. Centuries of contact with the Macassans later prompted the development of what are now regarded as traditional ceremonies. Sung in Yolngu Matha and Macassarese, Trepang presents the story of a stormy voyage from Makassar to Australia on the north-west monsoon, of contact with Yolngu,(2) and of the relationships that developed.

Every wet season between the late 1600s and 1906, Macassan sailing praus (traditional wooden seagoing vessels) worked the Arnhem Land coast collecting the sea slug trepang, prized by the Chinese as an aphrodisiac and culinary delicacy. Yolngu people, employed to collect and cure the trepang, were paid in goods such as knives, cloth, rice, and tobacco. In many cases, familial bonds, developed between these two cultures over hundreds of years, became stable and strong. Over 400 words of Macassarese have been incorporated into the Yolngu Matha group of languages. Flags denoting the sails of the departing praus are still common in Yolngu ritual.(3) The Macassans are a part of Yolngu oral history and of the ceremonial songs and dances performed at Yolngu funerals.

Trepang was woven around a dozen of these songs about the time of the Macassans. The songs about the Macassan era might be read as a pre-literate encyclopaedia about the commodities and practices introduced by the Macassans, but the mix is considerably richer than this. The traditional songs and dances were themselves the product of a deep inter-cultural experience, and gave rise to new forms of performance. Yolngu traditional songs and dances are combined with Macasarese performance in a narrative work, inspiring Yolngu and Macassans to celebrate their common heritage and revitalize the history and iconography of relationship.

Contemporary Indigenous Performance

What mainstream audiences understand and appreciate of indigenous performance will always be contentious. How can a performance like Trepang be accepted when so many people remonstrate against the use of traditional images of indigenous people singing and dancing? These images may perpetuate negative stereotypes about the backwardness of minority and marginalized indigenous people in the contemporary world and rob mixed-descent peoples of the authenticity of their indigenous identity. Many observers now judge the image of the painted-up warrior to be hopelessly compromised and degraded by the stereotype of the noble savage.

In the highly politicized atmosphere of indigenous rights in Australia, cultural appropriation of indigenous designs is a live issue. Some feel that culture should stay private, even if it does not involve the secret-sacred, or that traditional performance should not be divorced from its customary context and geography. Many would rather have these traditions disappear than have them survive as a product for the tourism market. The trauma of colonization and subsequent marginalization of indigenous peoples is real -- there will inevitably be grounds for suspicion regarding the uses of traditional culture in mainstream contexts.

A work like Trepang, involving indigenous performers and their cultures, immediately brings up a tangle of post-colonial issues. Despite the fact that these traditions are only a few hundred years old and concern the coming of foreigners among the Yolngu, the fear persists that cultural presentations like this one might also demean tradition.

Trepang undeniably challenges the traditional status quo on several counts. The effect of such an intrusion on traditional understanding of occasion and place is considerable. When people from remote communities are presented at a city festival event, culture shock inevitably results. Yet for the overwhelming number of marginalized and barefoot indigenous spectators, as well as for their fewer, more advantaged relations who have found a way to participate in the economic life of the town, Trepang provided a shot of pride. The blend of personal motivations and community benefits as expressed by the participants included declaring pride in culture, a desire to educate the Other, a cultural maintenance agenda in the face of young people forgetting, and so on. Participants expressed their motivation as a yearning for better times in a pre-colonial past free of degradation. Many from northeast Arnhem Land attach significant emotional value to these historic connections through stories of contact, which, on the Aboriginal side, are laced with broken family ties and lost relationships with the Macassans.

Observing the complex protocols surrounding traditional ceremony and carrying out best practice in terms of the encouragement of indigenous ownership and control over the processes of creation and production are only the conditions of fairness and respect under which work can begin. It is up to traditional owners and other stake-holders, whose cultures are involved, to make the decision and take the journey.

Present Identities

The Macassans's annual visits were halted by the Australian Government in 1906, breaking family ties and long-standing relationships. It has never been acknowledged that the choking off of Macassan trade was a tragic blow to the prosperity, and indeed welfare, of many of the indigenous peoples of the northern coasts in Australia. Not only did the centuries of steady trade have material benefits; they also gave rise to an entire iconography, subsequently broken by the depredations of more savage arrivals (the Japanese and the Europeans) who came to stay.

In a contemporary world, perhaps only in drawn-out and violent conflicts can we most readily delineate the essentially theatrical quality of the plots and representations that speak across cultural and language barriers, revealing the ancient language of convictions in which identities are the currency of survival. This is the subtext of the production -- the staging of Trepang is about framing the reading of traditional representations as valid within the cultural dialogue about our identities in the present. In performing Macassan songs and dances, the Yolngu share in and pass down their own history and identity. Trepang is a vision of a people who take for granted the knowledge that peoples are formed by what has befallen them.

Two hundred years after the colonists landed, the wealth and beauty of indigenous cultural heritage is only superficially familiar to the majority of the Australian population. Indigenous performance for "outsiders" arose almost as soon as the colonists had landed, but was slandered and banned as dangerous by the colonial and church authorities except when it benefited them. The ploy has worked all too well and the continuing lack of recognition of indigenous entrepreneurial abilities has contributed to the catastrophe of marginalization. Traditional indigenous cultures are disappearing, leaving a social vacuum filled, in part, with misery and dysfunction. Capacity-building in cultural performance is one small way through which healing and reconciliation can progress.

(1). The term is used here in the Aboriginal sense, Where all people who came on trepang voyages that generally originated from Makassar, including Bugis, Bajo and other ethnic groups, were and are referred to as "Macassans" or "Manggatharra" as pronounced by the Yolngu.

(2). Yolngu is an inclusive name for the various clans and language groups who inhabit the northeast coast of Arnhem Land and nearby islands.

(3). And also the spirit of the deceased. (Editor's note)

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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