Tjukurpa Versus the Tourist

To climb, or not to climb: that is the question. At least that’s the question my tour group recently faced while standing before this giant red rock at the centre of my country: Uluru.  We were in a bind.  In 1985 the Australian Government handed this land back to the Anangu (‘arn-ang-oo’) Indigenous people.  But there were conditions.  Being such a drawcard for tourists, ‘joint management’ required that the precarious climb up and over the rock remain open for those with summit fever.  Money talks.  So each year, around 400,000 tourists trek to Ayers Rock, and about half celebrate their secular pilgrimage by capturing it on film and conquering the climb.[1]

uluru australia

No big deal, right?  It’s just a rock!  Well, not quite.  For this rock runs deeper than the clash of tectonic plates.  Uluru is the site of conflicting cultures.  And the more our tour guide talked, the wider our eyes became.  “They really believe this?”  Our Western skepticism has labelled the Aboriginal stories as ‘Dreamtime’.  But for the Anangu, this is no fleeting fancy.  Tjukurpa is real.  Tjukurpa (‘chook-orr-pa’) is the foundation of their culture, a traditional system guiding life even today.  Tjukurpa is an inseparable complex of law, land, people, and ceremony.  It answers foundational questions of how to live in the land with harmony.  The land breathes with spirit, and Uluru’s scarred surface offer a physical reminder of the activities of ancestral beings before them who shaped this land.  Through stories, song and dance, the Anangu remind themselves of who they are, and how people, plants, animals, and this giant rock are related.  Special rituals held at physical locations around the site offer a rite of passage where boys and girls become men and women.  And no marker was more important than the ‘men’ making the spiritual trek to the top.  To respect Tjukurpa is the mark of ninti—the knowledgeable.

Thus the clash, and our conundrum.  Our mental landscape has long been swept clean of any spirit.  For we are not ninti. Instead, we are minga.  In Anangu understanding, we are ants. Always rushing, never settling.  Like Jacob at Bethel, we are totally unaware that we stand on sacred ground; a different kind of ladder marks the ascent to the ‘top’.  Cameras in hand, a long line of tourists dot the ridge—a shrinking silhouette of ants against a stark sky.  Sure, we read the warnings: such a climb is risky, and every year a distraught family member hears how their loved one fell and died while trying to conquer a red rock.  And while in this age of tolerance we don’t want to disrespect the traditional owners, clearly these beliefs are crap—progress is progress, so onward and upward.  At least that’s how half the tourists reason.

Our group was divided.  Which voice should we heed?  In the words of one traditional elder, “That’s a really important sacred thing that you are climbing.  … You shouldn’t climb.  It’s not the real thing about this place.  The real thing is listening to everything.  And maybe that makes you a bit sad.  But that’s what we are obliged by Tjukurpa to say.”

In Philip Yancey’s book, Rumours of Another World, he explores our Western tendency toward reductionism.  We take the world apart, breaking the solar system into constituent parts to understand how things work.  Uluru is reduced to “just a rock”.  Yet as science’s light illuminates the mechanics underlying the physical world, “its shadows further obscure the invisible world beyond.”[2] We pulled the planet apart, but we haven’t yet learned to connect and put it back together, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  Even so, “encounter trumps reduction.”  Even an unsuspecting skeptic can be taken by surprise while watching the sun set on Uluru:

“Even with our bus tours and our fully automatic cameras and our cries of ‘Oh, wow!’, we still couldn’t belittle it. I had come expecting nothing much, but by the power of the thing itself I had, like some ancient tribesman wandering through the desert and confronting the phenomenon, been turned into a worshipper. Nobody was more surprised than I.”[3]

Following Celtic spirituality, Yancey would call this a “‘thin place’ where the natural and supernatural worlds come together at their narrowest, with only a thin veil between them.”  Have you ever experienced this?  Where? Can you recall the sights, sounds, smell, and the feel of the place?   In your mind’s eye, capture a 360 degree panorama at your personal ‘Uluru’.  Whether on a mountain peak in the Andes, a gaping gorge like the Grand Canyon, or watching a fledgling eagle set out for its first flight, we’ve all experienced thin places of exquisite beauty.  And whilst our framing of the facts may not fit with Aboriginal spirituality, no person can consistently live as minga.  Amidst our frenetic activity, the spirit of a place reaches through our lens and past our pretensions to be ninti, and takes us by surprise.  “There must be something more than this.” And in this something more, we live, we move, and we have our being.

I’m pleased to say that on this occasion, our group didn’t conquer the rock.  Admittedly the climb was closed for excessive wind and heat!  But I’d like to think we all felt the pull of something beyond mere deference for Dreamtime.  At this thin place we sensed the physical and spiritual reunite in a Corroboree.  And this dance, which Anangu believe once marked the land, served to shake the mindset of minga tourists otherwise oblivious to the Great Creator God in whose presence we all dwell.  Tjukurpa had conquered the tourist.

Dave Benson


[1] See http://www.aicomos.com/wp-content/uploads/Tourism-tracks-and-sacred-places-Pashupatinath-and-Uluru.-Case-studies-from-Nepal-and-Australia.pdf for an intriguing critique of clashing cultures at Uluru.

[2] Philip Yancey, Rumours of Another World: What on Earth are We Missing? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 15, 18, 45.

[3] Quote from Geoff Nicholson, Day Trips to the Desert, in The Rough Guide (www.roughguides.com).

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7 responses to “Tjukurpa Versus the Tourist

    • Thanks Sandra :) … strangely, even as an Australian, I know very little of Aboriginal beliefs and spirituality … I learned more that one weekend than all my life prior. Engaging any culture and religion, there is always something to commend, and challenge, barriers to remove, and bridges to build at the point of closest contact. Tjukurpa seems like a good place to start, in reaching–and learning from–the first Australians.

      The foundational connection to law, family, ritual, and land, reminded me of the basic structure of Judaism (torah, Jewish lineage, circumcision/sabbath, and Temple/Jerusalem/Israel). The connection was permanently fractured with the fall of Jerusalem ~AD 70. Apart from the Jews who saw Christ as the reframing and fulfilment of all their covenant hopes, the Jewish people as a whole lost their ‘spirit’ and became a kind of walking dead … some of the outward forms remained, but their ‘Tjukurpa’ was no longer a living, active, driving force at the centre of their identity.

      Our tour-guide described how modernisation and the stolen generation had combined to destroy Tjukurpa for most Aboriginals–there are no truly nomadic Aboriginal tribes in Australia anymore. The process was almost a 21st century version of the Jewish experience. (And, from what I hear, this story has repeated countless times with Indigenous peoples worldwide.) He recalled how one Aborigine described his people nowadays as the ‘walking dead’.

      This got me thinking, though. Our western, individualistic, consumeristic, and secularized ‘culture’ seems to have ‘won’ out over these ancient varieties of Tjukurpa. Yet we have no deep seated sense of how our lives connect to an absolute moral law; we use rather than respect the land; our families are fracturing; and our only ‘ritual’ is rifling through the ‘sale items’ rack at our favourite clothing store, or fanatically barracking for our chosen sporting team at the stadium.

      Perhaps we are really the walking dead … just we’re too satiated to realize. Again, we are not ninti. We are minga.

  1. While I appreciate your sentiments I am afraid you may need to do a bit more research on Aboriginal culture and belief – and there I suggest you bypass the sentimentalist lefty clap trap version as well. For example, there is no such thing as stolen generation – if there ever was a fabrication of a myth, that was it. There were also many aspects of traditional Aboriginal culture and belief which were, and still are abhorrent (payback, child exposure, child brides etc). Yes you may be able to find connections, points of contact but don’t fall into the trap of romanticising what is, in effect, just a different expression of human fallenness and idolatry or worse still, mistaking it for some semblance of true spirituality.

  2. Hi J,

    thanks for your comments. The intersection of Christianity with other belief systems–especially Indigenous ones, in a politically correct milieu–is highly contentious. You raise some solid points. Perhaps this is a good time to clarify a few things which is impossible in a tight-knit article, as I suspect our views are not so different as might initially seem.

    First, as regards my understanding of Aboriginal culture. As my first reply (to Sandra Berry, above) indicated, even as an Australian, Aboriginal spirituality is very new to me. So, yes, I do need to continue my research. (Is this a field you have studied?–a couple of top-line references would be appreciated to continue learning.) The basic gist of my article, however, still remains, and from the little I do know, is uncontested by any informed anthropologist:
    Tjukurpa interrelates law, land, family, ceremony/ritual, and spirit, in one complex which traditionally guided and directed the daily lives of tribal Aborigines. This interrelated structure–whilst greatly varying in the details, which is significant–is common to most ancient worldviews, including Judaism (and Christianity, as argued by N. T. Wright in New Testament and the People of God). Furthermore, this kind of connection has been broken for most moderns, compartmentalizing natural/physical/material and spiritual, or even altogether doing away with the spiritual significance of the land.
    … this is the central point that I was trying–and perhaps failing–to make. In doing this, I was in no way wanting to imply that the details and actual beliefs of Aboriginal spirituality are on par with Judaism, or Christianity, or essentially true and without fault. But I am saying that in this regard to an integrated life and awareness of how God can reveal Himself through nature, we are the poorer.

    As I responded to Sarah, I agree that there are many things to challenge when it comes to all spiritualities/religions … aspects which truly are expressions of human fallenness and idolatry. And I am aware of payback, infanticide for mixed-bloods, and the like. The devilish and the human are clearly at work through sin.

    But I am not convinced that is the end of the story. We are each made in the image of God, with eternity hidden in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11), such that each person and culture in some sense seeks the “unknown God” (Acts 17). Christ is the true light giving light to all people (John 1:9), such that anything genuinely true, good, and beautiful, derives from God, whether these people are aware of its true source or not. We, too–even as redeemed Christians–are finite and fallen, limited and biased, and see through a glass darkly (1 Corinthians 13). As such, I am convinced that we can genuinely learn from non-believers, and even from other religions and spiritualities. To say this is not to undermine that only Christ can truly save–the scandal of particularity (Acts 4:12). But it is to keep a humble and open posture to others with whom we dialogue. Beyond romanticising, our neighbours really do have good gifts and expressions of true spirituality to offer the world–discipline from the Muslim, celebration from the Hindu, calm from the Daoist via Wu-Wei, and connectedness to the land and awareness of ‘thin places’ from Aboriginals. (I’ve found Gerald McDermott’s 2000 book “Can Evangelicals Learn from World Religions” very helpful toward this end.)

    I don’t see anything in the Bible that requires me to read every aspect of non-Christian religion and spirituality as purely different expressions of human fallenness and idolatry. (Though, granted, much is precisely this. The devil’s in the details.) Indeed, Jesus subversively used numerous examples of faithful foreigners to teach his own people a thing or two. This stance is not romantic, or false humility, but a genuine platform from which we can, like Paul, direct the other toward the true identity of the unknown God, even as we challenge the times of ignorance and idolatry.

    One last thing, in terms of history. As I said to Sandra, the spiel on the “stolen generation” and Aboriginal spirituality was via the Tour Guide. And I agree that some of what was said was “sentimentalist left clap trap”. The PC police are out in full force in Australia, such that there is an official line which you cross at your own risk. In using the phrase “stolen generation”–a bit like “dark ages” or “deep history”–I’m not intending to endorse the party line. I am using words that are taken for granted in Australia, from which we can then converse.

    So a word on the historicity of the “stolen generation”. To say there is “no such thing as [the] stolen generation” would be news to every academic in the field. There is no question that for roughly a century (ending ~1970), indigenous children were removed from their families by government and Christian missions, under parliamentary ruling. What is debated is the extent of the removal of children, and the reasoning behind their removal. (And regardless of the reason behind the removal, this process was undoubtedly part of why Aboriginal people as a whole have become disconnected from the land and Tjukurpa has dissolved.)

    Noel Pearson is arguably Australia’s foremost and fairest Indigenous academic and spokesperson. Can I encourage you to read his address delivered the day before Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered his “Sorry” speech to Australian Aborigines. It’s entitled “When Words Aren’t Enough” (http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/features/when-words-arent-enough/story-e6frg6z6-1111115528371).

    I personally have family members who dedicated decades as Christian missionaries to working with Aboriginal children who the media refer to as “stolen”. Noel Pearson says that what was most “stolen” from the Aboriginals is their history … that revisionist attempts from both the left and the right respectively ‘blackwash’ and ‘whitewash’ colonial and Christian actions to fit their paradigm.

    Pearson writes,
    “The truth is the removal of Aboriginal children and the breaking up of Aboriginal families is a history of complexity and great variety. People were stolen, people were rescued; people were brought in chains, people were brought by their parents; mixed-blood children were in danger from their tribal stepfathers, while others were loved and treated as their own; people were in danger from whites, and people were protected by whites. The motivations and actions of those whites involved in this history — governments and missions — ranged from cruel to caring, malign to loving, well-intentioned to evil.”

    Pearson then acknowledges the “unrepayable debt to [Lutheran missionary] Georg Heinrich Schwartz and the white people who supported my grandparents and others to rebuild their lives after they arrived at the mission as young children in 1910.”

    Please forgive the essay, but it’s too simplistic to write off the “stolen generation” as “a fabrication of a myth”, though I agree that it is equally wrong to subscribe to the PC version as though each and every child removed was forcibly extracted for racist and ideological reasons to the detriment of the Indigenous people.

    Again, thanks J for your comments … hopefully some of the above has cleared up where I’m coming from, both for you, and the readers of Wondering Fair as a whole.

  3. Thanks for your long and detailed response. I don’t have time to respond in detail to each point just now and hope to return later to do so.

    Two quick comments:

    Noel Pearson is a personal hero. But even he is continuously torn between mutually contradictory views, although to his great credit, he has the intellectual virtue to change his mind when the facts compel him to do so. And he is fighting a war on several fronts.

    The Stolen Generations (upon which the sorry Sorry Day and all its empty rhetoric and worthless accoutrements was based) is a myth – fabricated and perpetuated mostly by academics – lefty academics of course, of which Australia has a full and fulsomely stupid complement. It has been aided and abetted by the Aboriginal welfare industry (whose members are very often if not mostly, wholly integrated Aborigines of mixed descent) and assorted useful idiots and compassion junkies. One of the few academics who HAS done some homework, has actually trawled through archives and records has found no such evidence. None of the academics, not even Noel Pearson himself or anyone in the “industry” can name ten “stolen” Aboriginal children. None were identified in the “Bringing them home” report – a national travesty and a disgrace. Even Lowitja (Lois) O’Donoghue had to admit that she was not “stolen” but essentially rescued BECAUSE ‘traditional’ Aboriginal people abhorred half-caste children like her. Yes, fancy Aboriginal people were -and some still are – racist (and good for Lois, hasn’t she done nicely for herself, more than her parents wildest dreams I would suggest).

    While I understand Pearson’s point of view this idea of ‘stolen history’ is about as useful as ‘stolen generations’ and just as misleading and potentially damaging. How can one steal history? And WHO exactly stole it? And who is continuing to deny Aboriginals opportunities now? Nanny state goverments, environmentalists, greenies, assorted do-gooders who won’t let Aboriginals take responsibility for themselves, even when they want to!

    Over 70% of Aboriginal Australians self identify as Christian The rest are more likely to identify with no spiritual belief whatsoever although there is a growing number in urban areas who are being targetted by Muslims for proselytisation (mostly in jails). In which case, while the traditional integrated belief system is all well and fascinating, few if any hold to it today, even in ‘traditional’ communities, and certainly not fully. Thank God for that (yes you can insert the personal deity of your choice if you like). Aspects of it are not just illegal and immoral but also evil. Many aspects are just a form of enslavement – to land, to kin, to whatever – particularly for women and children. A wonderful, fascinating, integrated world view that offered no advancement either materially or for the perfection of one’s soul.

    Did tens of thousands of years of Aboriginal culture and belief invent a wheel? Cultivate crops? Did Aboriginals ever rise above mere subsistence and survival? Do you think any sane Aboriginal today – not least those in the industry but right through to those in remote communities – would want to go back to a traditional Aborignal way of life? Give up their homes and their 4WDs, their mobility, their freedom, even white man’s education and justice system or sense of morality and fairness? No way.

    Me I would have tipped my hat to my Aboriginal guides, and I would have climbed Uluru, and invited them to do so with me.

  4. Hi my 10 yo son heard a male child voice say the word Tjukurpa to him whilst sitting in our lounge room…. 1 & 1/2 weeks later we went on a trip to uluru. This trip was not planned at the time. We have just gotten back and started reading about uluru and come across the word. Can anyone please shed some light on this or give us more info that may help us to understand what the word means what may be behind it spiritually or why he may have heard it. Thanks

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