Ed Tywoniak's Symbols at the Edge of Time

Why the Australian outback for your sabbatical?

I went to the outback of the outback—the Balgo Hills, a remote Aboriginal community where the Christian Brothers (called the De La Salle Brothers in Australia) have had a school for more than 25 years. Recent DNA evidence shows that the Australian Aboriginals’ is the world’s longest continuous culture, spanning some 45,000 years. I wanted to learn their stories, their cosmological narratives, and how they view time.

How different is their view of time from ours?

For them, the only thing is the present—beginning and ending with the youngest child and the oldest member of the family, because they can tell you how things are. The rest—the future and the past—is called dreamtime.

How did that resonate with the Europeans who colonized Australia?

Europeans didn’t understand who the Aboriginal people were. Then they tried to make them in their own image—superimposing a western notion of time management onto a culture that has a much different view.

And, in an attempt to assimilate future generations, they took away the children and tried to superimpose a European Christian narrative onto their culture. I saw the former mission, built by German Palatine priests and nuns, where the stolen children were brought and where the mothers camped outside, wailing and crying for their children, smashing their own skulls with stones.

What became of the Aboriginals’ narrative?

If the very rigid Palatine sisters had asked Aboriginals to share their own stories, they would have discovered, wow, that’s our story, too. That’s what blew me away. The stories are the same as ours. Take away particular people, like Moses or Jesus, and you see that they are the same narratives. I think that’s why it became easy for the Aboriginals to combine their ancient customs and Christianity. I found incredible works of art by Aboriginal artists —a cross made of boomerangs, the Stations of the Cross made from their symbols—the Kookaburra, the kangaroo, boomerangs, didgeridoos.  

How have the Brothers tried to repair the damage?

They didn’t try to convert anybody to anything. That’s not what they were there for. They came to teach. What’s the Lasallian mandate? Meet the students where they are. The Brothers began translating the Aboriginal oral language into English. For 25 years they’ve phonetically transcribed Kukatja into English characters, making illustrated books of Aboriginal cosmology stories that are used to educate teachers in Aboriginal culture and language while teaching the children English.  

The De La Salle Brothers have a unique presence in Australia.

An important part of my project was getting to know the De La Salle Brothers, who are synonymous with education, social justice and the social safety net for youth there. In every respect the Brothers paved my way into the Aboriginal community in Balgo. I had to be invited in by the village elder. By the time I got to what is really a very foreign place, I felt strangely at home. The Brothers made that possible.

- Ed Tywoniak
Professor of Communication

Tywoniak, who was recently named editor of ETC, the journal of the Institute of General Semantics, is writing a book about his research on Aboriginal culture.