Ten Canoes (2007)

[Ten Canoes takes place long ago. The contents of this review pertain to Aboriginal life as it was then, before any contact with non-Aboriginal peoples. I’m not an anthropologist, so the information presented here as fact may be wrong or vastly oversimplified. Take it all with a grain of salt and feel free to correct via comments.]

As I watched “10 Canoes,” I was reminded of a book I first read 40 years ago, “The Tiwi of North Australia.” The Tiwi live on Melville and Bathhurst Islands, 25 miles north across the water from Arnhem Land, where “10 Canoes” was filmed.

I’ve revisited the book from time to time over the years because of its fascinating description of Aboriginal marriage and dueling practices, both of which are on display in this movie.

Having watched “Ten Canoes,” I’m ready for a few sequels. Let me explain why.

The movie begins with a narrator describing where babies come from:

“I came from a waterhole. Looking like a little fish. Then my father came near and I asked him for my mother. I wanted to be born. My father pointed out one of his wives. That’s your mother, he told me. I waited till the right time and I went just like that into her vagina.

“Then my father had a dream. That dream let him know his wife had a little one inside her. That little one was me.

“When I die, I will go back to my waterhole. I’ll be waiting there to be born again. Like a little fish. It’s always like that for my people.”

Peculiar to the Australian Aborigine is the belief that every pregnancy is caused by a spirit. The father is not physically involved (although in the explanation above, he is given some management responsibilities). For the Tiwi, a consequence of this belief in conception via spirit is that every female not only ought to be married, as in most cultures, but in fact has to be married, or betrothed, from birth to death without exception and without gaps, so that there will always be a father on hand whenever a pregnancy should occur.

Australian Aborigine tribes practice early and age-stratified marriage. With the Tiwis, all female babies are betrothed by their fathers at birth. This practice has a considerable impact on the culture of the family group, hunting band, and tribe.

A father will not betroth the newborn girl to some newborn or very young boy – that is, to someone her own age. Far from it. Fathers betroth their girls to up-and-coming twenty-somethings who will be at the height of their powers when their brides arrive, ready for marriage, at the age of fourteen or so. The girls’ fathers will be growing old by then and will want to benefit from the goodwill and power of their new son-in-laws. Or, a newborn might be betrothed to a man currently powerful in the tribe, for some instant credit to her father.

The result of this system is that a man will be in his twenties before a first girl is betrothed to him, and then he will have to wait until he is almost forty to marry her. Furthermore, if he isn’t an up-and-comer in the tribe, no father will ever betroth a daughter to him at all.

Because young women are married to older men, they frequently became widows. In this case they must remarry immediately. Their father typically has less say in the matter this time around, if he’s still alive. The widow herself can try to exercise her own will in the matter. The brothers of her deceased husband have rights as well, as do her own sons, with regard to who will be her new husband. Bachelors in their twenties and thirties thus have a chance for a wife, albeit one usually older, perhaps much older, then they are. In one example in the literature, two twenty-somethings who are friends marry each other’s widowed mother.

In a setup like this, patience becomes the order of the day for all the young men. Every woman is married or betrothed but every man does not have a wife. Some young men have several girls promised to them; others have none. But even those with promised wives must wait for years to be married to them. The young men are forced to be bachelors, presumably celibate. This in a culture where sexual activity begins at an age that would be shocking to Western sensibilities (well, until lately, at least).

In general, the older men are always on the lookout for any encroachment on their prerogatives (and wives) by the younger men. Disputes arise. The young men never attempt assignations with the young wives at night, when each band is gathered together; but during the day, when the women are out gathering and the older wives have trouble keeping track of the younger wives every moment, young men and women can get together. In the movie, we see a younger brother (not Tiwi, but my knowledge of Tiwi customs informed my reactions to the movie) repeatedly trying to “visit” one of his older brother’s wives. At first, this sort of behavior results in prolonged back-and-forth arguments between campfires at night. If disputes remain unresolved and become serious enough, the young man in question may be required to leave and move to another band. Otherwise, matters can move on to a process of legal resolution. In the movie, the problem has not yet reached this stage and the older brother is keen to see that it doesn’t. Encroachment by the younger men threatens the whole marriage system, so it can’t be tolerated by the tribe.

Legal action, which takes the same form in all types of dispute, is also represented in the movie, where restitution by one tribe from another is demanded for an accidental killing. This action takes the following form, referred to variously as a duel, payback, or makaratta: the accused stands waiting while representatives of the offended band or tribe throw spears at him until blood is drawn. When this happens, the dispute is concluded. The accused is allowed to jump, duck, lean sideways, and otherwise dodge the spears, but his feet must remain in approximately the same place the whole time. (The North Australians hadn’t invented the spear thrower or boomerang, but did elaborate the throwing spear beyond that of the southern tribes.)

In the case of a dispute between an old man and a young man about one of the old man’s wives (the most common reason for legal action), the young man is faced by the old man and his spears. In baseball terms, the distance between the two men is about that from home plate to a spot halfway between the pitcher’s mound and second base.

Ideally, the young man will dodge a number of spears, showing off his athletic prowess and then, to keep from embarrassing the older man, will take a spear cut on the arm or leg to end the encounter. Because we’re dealing with human beings here, plenty of variation is possible with what actually happens. A badly thrown spear can bounce off the ground, come up, and break a leg. Or a proud and rebellious young man may refuse to be hit. Or he may bring a spear or throwing stick of his own, to demonstrate his anger at the old man (and use the spear or stick to block the spears thrown at him, but not ever to be thrown itself). In this case, other old men will join the first and the young man is liable to be seriously injured or killed. But the marriage system must be upheld, which means that in the end, the old man must always triumph.

In disputes between groups of men, both sides will comprise men with spears, all throwing at the other side at once. Wives are often involved, weaving in and out among the men. A woman is as likely to be hit as a man, but whomever is hit, once blood flows the matter is settled. Since most of these disputes are intratribal, there will exist a complex web of interrelationships between all the men involved, on their own side and with the men and women on the other side as well. This is because women often marry outside their clan and because young men often leave their band to follow their mothers to a new clan, or because they’re forced to leave their band after some dispute.

Now add in taboos and a belief in ghosts and other spiritual activity in everyday life, and we have the materials present for an endless series of dramatic films. Once the viewer is up to speed on the basic facts of Aboriginal culture and daily life, these can be as entertaining as anything made in Hollywood.

Include a little backstory to limn relationships, some boy/girl contact (rated G, PG, PG-13, R, or NC-17, depending upon the desired audience), a ghost or two misbehaving, and the final, essential showdown with spears, and we’ll have some interesting sequels to “Ten Canoes.” Perhaps the new film school in Ramingining will make them.

What we lose with a series of dramas like this is that sense of the human being as a strange and mysterious creature, which is often present when we’re watching members of an unfamiliar culture in action for the first time. However, (1) when watching the unfamiliar, we tend to replace the unknown with the known anyway (e.g., in the U.S., brother lusts after other brother’s wife. If she’s willing to divorce and remarry, only the jilted brother’s anger, and perhaps that of his extended family and the children, will cause repercussions. The whole community isn’t going to rise up to prevent the new union.), and (2) the more deeply we understand a new culture, the more deeply we come to appreciate the ways in which we humans are all the same, as well as the ways we can be profoundly different from each other. The tradeoff is worth it.

A side note: Watching “Ten Canoes,” I found myself looking for some hope for humanity in the future. That is, as the movie progressed, I searched for fundamental human traits in the Aborigines that Western culture might have lost on its way to destroying the world. But no. They’re like us. Would probably destroy the work just like we are. I found no hope.

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