Monday, November 23, 2009

Friday, November 20, 2009

Sport as a Polytheistic Religion in Australia

By Michael R. Astle

This essay aims to detail how there is popular polytheistic religion in Australia named Sport. Whilst focussing upon the case study of Australian Football, and at times narrowly upon the Geelong Football Club, it touches upon numerous other sports in order to support the theory that this religion of Sport is not confined to only one specific code, nor is it limited to the geographical area of Australia, but rather has devotees around the world. The argument begins by debunking the fallacy that traditional religions are more popular than sport in Australia by drawing to the attention of the reader the significance of television broadcasts. Afterwards it discusses the role of symbolism within faithful communities. The concept of the Sporting Pantheon is then introduced with a few notes on the role of the feminine. The essay subsequently validates the possibility of poly-religious devotees prior to expounding some of the answers Sport provides to ultimate questions.

It is erroneous to presume that Australians are more interested in traditional religions than sport. Bouma (2000) asserts that Australians are more likely to attend traditional religious places of worship than major sporting venues (pp. 386-387). However he readily admits the importance of time in relation to how people order their priorities (Bouma, 2000, p. 394). So it is worth remembering that most traditional religious services are shorter in duration than the majority of sporting events and few people pray more hours each week than they spend engaged in informal sports (Bouma & Lennon, 2003, p. 111). Indeed, studies show that Australians engage in excerise, informal sport and walking activities roughly six times as frequently as all religious activity combined (Bouma & Lennon, 2003, p. 111). A more significant statistic though is that watching television is the forth most frequently reported activity in the everyday lives of Australians after attending to personal hygiene, eating and sleeping (Bouma & Lennon, 2003, p. 110). This begs the question, are Australians more likely to watch programmes related to sports or traditional religions?

Clearly Australians prefer to watch sports on televison rather than programmes related to traditional religions. The Australian Broadcasting Corperation transmits more than three times as many hours of sports programmes as it does religious ones (Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, 2009, pp. 10-28). During the 2005 ratings season, four of the top five most watched television programmes were sporting events (Dale, 2005). To begin the case study, notably, the Grand Final of the Australian Football League that year was by far the highest rating event and yet it was between two teams based outside of Victoria, where the majority of the most avid fans of the code reside (Dale, 2005). In 2008, 19 of the 20 highest rating television programmes were related to sports (Free TV Australia, 2008, p. 27). Returning to the case study, that year the Victorian team of Hawthorn defeated Geelong, another Victorian team, in the Grand Final which had slipped to being only the sixth most popularly viewed television event of the year (Free TV Australia, 2008, p. 27). Yet the code appears to have since recovered a few thousand viewers as ratings for the first 40 weeks of 2009 ranked the Grand Final of this year, where Geelong returned to defeat St Kilda, as the third most popular programme of the year to date (Free TV Australia, 2009, p. 1). So far this year, seven of the top ten and 11 of the top 20 highest rating free to air programmes in Australia have been sporting events (Free TV Australia, 2009, p. 1). Conversely, religious programmes are considered so insignificant by Australians that there appears to be no collection of statistical data related to them. But how do these figures compare with those of Australians who watch pay to view television?

Australians who subscribe to cable and satellite television networks are even more likely to watch sports than traditional religious programmes than their free to view watching conterparts. Although the highest rating free to air televsion programmes in 2008 were ten times more popular than those on pay to view networks, it is not insignificant that all 20 of the highest rating pay to view television events were sports of one kind of football code or another (Free TV Australia, 2008, p. 28). Sporting events comprise over 8% of what Australians watch on satellite television stations whilst traditional religious programmes rate so poorly they are not even reported in a category of their own (OzTAM, 2009, pp. 1-2). Surely though there is more evidence than just television statistics to support the belief that Sport is a legitmate religion.

Baker (2007) states that sport and religion are “the image of each other” (p. 2). After all, it is the role of religion to bind society together and link the fleeting with the enduring (Bouma, 2000, p. 388). As such religion requires “structure, organisation” and “differentiated roles” (Bouma, 2000, p. 397). Mewett (2000) confirms that sport has “specialised roles”, “organisation” and “structure” (p. 406-421). (How Sport links the fleeting with the enduring shall be addressed towards the end of this work.) Social arrangements provide the masses with the feeling of belonging they desire (Atkin, 2004, p. 95). But in order to belong, the individual must share in the experiences of the group (Atkin, 2004, p. 81ff.). As such, it may be observed that sport directs behaviour in the same way traditional religions do.

This statement is not intended simply to refer to the honourific behaviours which occur at a place of worship. Obviously there is “patterned behaviour” within sporting events (Mewett, 2000, p. 406). Bouma (2000) states in the realm of religion “it is impossible to be regularly spontaneous” and so patterns must exist in any form of regularly occuring worship (p. 389). Whether it is a whole crowd bowing or performing a Mexican wave; facing towards the east, Mecca, Jerusalem or centre field; silencing itself for communion or a vital kick, there are most definitely actions in the religion of Sport which mirror those of other religions. But it is in the behaviour of devotees beyond their respective places of worship where more salient examples can be found.

Religion and sport both influence the way people dress. Often members of a clergy and umpires wear set apparel to perform their duties but the discussion must extend far beyond this point. It is not uncommon for religions to have some form of acceptable standard for attire (Bouma, 2000, p. 397). Some cults have been known to employ uniforms (Atkin, 2004, p. 28). To paraphrase Atkin (2004), what a shiver there would be if “Tom wore the wrong clothes” to Kardinia Park, home stadium of the Geelong Football Club (p. 65). When attending a place of worship, it is most necessary to be correctly attired. More sincere devotees often choose to wear religious symbols elsewhere as well. Rather than a cross, hijab or skull cap, a sporting devotee may wear a scarf of the team colours, a replica of the jersey of a favourite player or a cap decorated with the logo of a team (Atkin, 2004, p. 28; Bouma, 2000, p. 397).

As with traditional religions, most sporting teams have a symbol or logo of one kind or another. Sikhism has the symbol of a khanda. Geelong Football Club has the symbol of a cat. Ironically, this symbol was adopted in 1923 when a satirist suggested a black cat would improve the luck of the then frequently defeated club (Geelong Football Club, 2009b). Nonetheless, today icons of “The Cats” adorn practically every form of memorabilia sold by the club (Geelong Football Club, 2009c). Why is it that followers of all religions seem drawn to use of symbolism?

Atkin (2004) believes that people love symbols because of what they represent (p. 111). Symbols represent a shared understanding. The ability to identify other followers within a likeminded community who will corroborate the truth of the beliefs of the individual provides a sense of certainty (Atkin, 2004, pp. 102-126). They may also assist in the process of marketing to converts for whenever a potentional devotee sees a symbol he or she is immediately reminded of all that is stands for (Atkin, 2004, p. 72). The ability to identify those of other persuasions “who have to be reached… who have to be saved” from another brand, religion or club is valuable to current practioners as well (Atkin, 2004, p. 200). Not unsurprisingly, the precise intent of these sorts of expressions varies depending on who is talking and who is listening.

Religion forms the language of a devotee, not only in regards to music but also ordinary, everyday speech. Sport does the same thing. Certain words or phrases are either promoted or discouraged by both. For example, at the majority of Australian Football matches, it would be unadvisable to declare the superiority of Rugby League over the event which the crowd has come to see. It would be akin to swearing in a chapel, totally unappreciated and viewed as a contemptuous sign of disrespect. From another angle, how a person speaks conveys his or her prior experiences and the influence of religion within the sphere of socialisation of that person. Does one speak of a David and Goliath battle or of a “level playing field” (Mewett, 2000, p. 404)? Such adages are also obtained from the materials one reads. Just as only a minority of professing Christians have read The Holy Bible, so too few sporting devotees have read the official rule book of any branch of their religion. The necessary knowledge is instead provided by the community and through the explanations and interpretations of priests or referees with study guides or magazines assisting those who seek a less superficial understanding of the way things are or should be and what all the grandeur means (Atkins, 2004, p. 192).

Clearly then there are many ways in which sport can fulfil the social roles of religion even without touching upon roles of food, drinks, smells and their respective senses. However Milton (1972) believes that the ability of sport to act as “a functional equivalent of religion does not imply that sport is religion” for in his view that “would be stretching the analogy too far” (pp. 126-127). Nonetheless, he admits that his study was a “functional examination” rather than a “phenomenological analysis” and as such it is “limited in its scope” (Milton, 1972, p. 127). If then the world of sport were to be viewed phenomenologically, as this essay has already begun to do, how would it compare to established traditional religions? Well, all major extant and historical religions attest to the existence of some form of supernatural, divine or hallowed being or beings, and so does Sport.

It has been incorrectly asserted that the issue of theology in the religion of Sport could be troublesome (Prebish, 1992, p. 52). Novak (1992) contends that sport provides a “pagan sense of godliness” (p. 36). This may be similar to what Prebish (1992) describes as “primitive polytheism” (p. 52). Indeed, this essay makes quite a comparison between the pantheon of the ancient Greek mythology and the zealous devotion directed towards sports, codes, teams and players. The exact correlation between the Greek Pantheon and the Sporting Pantheon is most easily understood with the assistance of a visual guide (see charts 1 and 2); however it may also be comprehended by analysis, beginning with the individual deity.

An individual sporting figure may be a deity. Meares (2003) discusses the lives of many sporting dignitaries who are deemed “legends” by their fans. A fan may habitually direct his or her devotion towards such a renowned icon. Prebish (1992) describes how “legends offer the faithful… a leader… to worship” (p. 50). Although this worship may be transiant and directed towards different deities at different times, it is no less sincere than that of the Hindu who may attend to the shrines of multiple deities in the course of his or her life (British Broadcasting Corporation, 2005). In some cases people are even worshipped against their own will. The most striking example of such a figure in Australian Football is the original Gary Robert Ablett who is otherwise known as “God” (Haigh, 2003, p. 2). His first begotten son, who has also played for Geelong Football Club, was named in the image of his father. Consequently, Gary Ablett, Junior is called by his most ardent admirers the “Son of God” (Stevens, 2009, p. 30). The elder Ablett also has two brothers, a younger son, three nephews and a brother-in-law who have all played Australian Football professionally and were all recently united in grief at the passing of another nephew of Ablett, who had been listed as rookie, after the young man died from a heart condition (Horan, 2009). Clearly, multiple divines may form a sporting dynasty such as the Ablett Dynasty which, through marriage, extended itself to include members of the Tuck family (Hinds, 2005). In ancient Egypt each king in a Pharaonic dynasty was added to their pantheon and in modern North Korea the worship once directed towards their late head of state is now being directed towards his son also (Asia News, 2005). Whether there are devotees who direct their love towards such family dynasties in the religion of Sport is unknown. Nonetheless, there is another kind of dynasty to which fans do offer their allegiance.

A club or team may be a deity. Statements such as those of club president Frank Costa who exclaimed, “I worship the Geelong Football Club” are not unique (Sporting Pulse Pty Ltd., 2008, p. 7). Whereas papal dynasties are known to a certain religion, in the religion of Sport a club may fulfil the role of a dynasty. Some traditional Christian worshippers have been known to sing of the glory of their enduring church (Net Hymnal, 2007). Likewise from one generation to the next other faithful souls sing, “We are Geelong, the greatest team of all” as an expression of their solidarity and confident unwavering loyalty though players change with the seasons (Geelong Football Club, 2009a). But wherever there is solidarity, there will undoubtedly also be rivalry. Some rivalries are more intense than others. The 1989 Victorian Football League Grand Final provides an example of such rivalry. That year Gary Ablett was playing for Geelong against his former club of Hawthorn and almost won the match after kicking nine goals; however unfortunately for Geelong that was one too few and so Hawthorn finally revenged their Grand Final loss to Geelong 26 years earlier (Clark, 2009). Similar rivalries existed between the ancient Greek deities and are not unknown in Indian religions either (Gupt, 2009). Then of course there is the god who is simply despised by all expect his own worshippers. In Australia that position must undoubtably be awarded to the Rugby League club named the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles. Although the bitterness directed towards this club may have subsided during their periods of poor performance, the antagonism of many remains and is expressed most poignantly in the secondary support many fans offer to whichever team is playing against the one called Manly (Maxwell, 2008). Still, some sporting parishioners seek a more overarching divinity.

A particular sporting code may be a deity, although others might consider such to be a divine household. Some devotees truly “worship at the altar of Aussie Rules” (Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2000, p. 1). This endearing reference to Australian Football is not uncommon amongst sporting fanatics. Gittins (2009) states, “my love of rugby league is either worship… or merely a blatant form of idolatry” (p. 7). Masters (2007) lauds the preference of Australian pay to view television watchers for the National Rugby League over Australian Football in a model example of rivalry between these two houses within the Sporting Pantheon. Rudd (2003) declares plainly, “football is a religion” (p. 1). Although he intended his statement in relation to soccer, it is nonetheless an apt sentiment which would explain the contention felt across the various codes of football towards the others. So whilst Byrnes (2009) is also amongst those who might like to think that the Grand Final of the National Rugby League outrated that of the Australian Football League this year, the final statistics appear to have proved otherwise (Free TV Australia, 2009). However there is still a greater divinity than the code in the minds of some diciples of the religion of Sport.

A particular sporting game or activity may be a deity. When the Roman Catholic Pope encouraged followers of like faith to attend Mass rather than attend sport on Sunday, one newspaper columnist outrightly condemned this “attack on the only true religion” of football (Clarke, 2004, p. 5). Likewise a columnist for the Indiana Daily Student has openly stated, “Basketball is a religion in this state” (Chen, 2009, p. 27). One religious studies lecturer has authored a book about his devotion to the religion of Motor Car Racing (Russell, 2007). There is even an internet website where devoted hikers can buy shirts for their dogs emblazoned with the words “Hiking Is My Religion” (Zazzle, 2009). These latter examples should assist the reader to realise how vast a diagramme would be required to display the full breath of the Sporting Pantheon.

Nonetheless, there are those worshipful fans who are not particularly devoted to any lesser deity but simply choose to honour a multitude of deities within the Sporting Pantheon. Patterns may be found in the choices of some devotees. One such faithful believer has even composed a song about his adoration of all sporting deities related to the city of Boston (Ingber, 2009). Curiously, in an example of how the religon of Sport perpetuates social inequity, just as Marx (as cited in Bouma, 2000) claimed religion does, Ingber ignores the significance of females in his song.

Yet just as in the ancient Greek pantheon there were many roles for females, so too there are in the religion of Sport. There are female sporting goddesses who are worshipped in a similar way to their male counterparts although often by fewer devotees (Murry, 2008). In regards to the case study, there have been parralell competitions for female players of Australian Football since 1981 (SportingPulse Pty Ltd, 2007). But when television coverage only comes with a charity game against a male team there is clearly still an attitude of male superiority being conveyed at least by the media if not the Australian public in general (McClure, 2007). Former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett has expressed his desire to see females play generally on mixed gender teams in a combined competition with males (News Ltd, 2009). However Mewett (2000) suggests that because society does not expect females in sport to reach the same standards as males, they in turn feel unmotivated to achieve lofty goals which society then perceives as a general disinterest and so spends little time concentrating on female sporting figures. Essentially this is in keeping with the timeless economic law of supply and demand, the cycle of which can not be broken until the public mind determines that it is ready for change. In other words, the goddesses of Sport may remain in the arenas of netball, volleyball and may even be permitted in the realms of golf and tennis but they should not attempt to encrouch upon the more mascular sports lest the wrath of their gods fall upon them. Still, a woman who is not considered divine may nonetheless satisfy herself as the wife of a sporting god (Cox, 2008). However should such a relationship sour, the bitterness which may result on either side usually leads the Sporting Pantheon to eject the outsider who had been received only because of marriage (Cox, 2008). Again the role of female cheerleaders may also be likened to that of the beautiful nymphs and sirens of the ancient Greek mythology. Whilst never considered divine, even so they fulfil an important function within the religion of Sport just as the lowly and sometimes despised male figures of umpires and sponsors fulfil theirs. Yet can a person be a devotee of the Sporting deities if he or she is already a practitioner of a traditonal religion?

Is it possible to religiously follow Sport whilst remaining devoted to another religion? The Apostle Matthew records Jesus Christ as saying, “No man can serve two masters” (Mat 6:24 King James Version). This may be true in regards to the highest allegiance of an individual yet allegiances may not be fixed from one day to the next. For many believers of traditional religions such an assertion would be idolatrous (Carmody, 1992). However devotees of Abrahamic religions must keep in mind that the command reads, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Ex 20:3). The use of the word “before” is significant. In one sense everyone who eats is a devotee of the god of food. But who would condemn a fellow believer simply for eating? For gluttony perhaps a person may condemned another yet surely not simply for eating. In this sense all people serve more than one god whether wittingly or unwittingly. The command only prohibits the believer from exalting a lesser deity above the one who gave the command. So long as one is able to serve both without transgression there is no need to live in fear of damnation. As such, Prebish is mistaken in declaring that it is not possible to be faithful to both sport and another religion (p. 52). After all, if a devotee can be polytheistic, why is it not possible to be poly-religious? If not divine commands, what else could prevent a person from faithfully following more than one religion? History shows that the faithful masses have an intuitive understanding of this reasoning. In 1966, when St Kilda defeated Collingwood by one point, the Grand Final of the Victorian Football League was held on the Jewish Day of Atonement; however “many religious Jews forgave Ian Synman for being at centre half back rather than in the synagogue, while the transistor radio allowed the good news to be brought to the doubly faithful” (Alomes, 1994, p. 47). However if devotion to Sport as a religion is not heretical, how might it answer those important religious questions relating to ultimate matters?

To put this question in perspective, it must be remembered that not everyone considers life and death to be the most important questions religion has to answer. Soccer coach Bill Shankly once declared, "Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that" (Liverpool Football Club, 2009, p. 1). The casual observer can easily see the pervasiveness of this sentiment across the various football codes. However surely there are devotees of all religions who consider each present moment to be of the utmost importance and so focus on nothing else. Still, undoubtedly there are people who seek answers to such questions and thus they must be addressed.

Chandler (1992) is incorrect in saying that sport does “not disturb us with questions about our destiny” (p. 59). To begin with, there are people who were “destined to play AFL football” (Pavlich, 2009, p. 3). Then there are clubs whose final result in a season is deemed to have been determined by destiny (Freeman, 2006). So too, many fans of the Australian Football club St Kilda sincerely believed that their club was “fated to lose” the 2009 premiership (Niall, 2009, p. 4). The notion of historical curses in the religion of Sport has been known for many decades (CBC Sports Online, 2004). This is part of how the religion of Sport reminds its devotees of where they came from despite the attempts of Chandler (1992) to deny this fact. Yet for many people, questions of the future and death are more significant than questions about the past and origins.

Within the religion of Sport there are numerous myths regarding death and many ways in which a departed deity may live on. Numerous Australian Football playing “legends” have been “immortalised” into the Halls of Fame of their respective clubs (Carlton Football Club, 2008, p. 1). Alternatively, this sect of the Sporting Religion, as with many other football codes, also permits a former player who is no longer actively worshipped to the same degree as during his or her most glorious years to be “immortalised in song” (Sydney Swans Football Club, 2009, p. 3). Perhaps some fans may believe that only the worthiest of names should live on in forms such as these whilst lesser names vanish into oblivion; however annihilationism shall be discussed shortly. There are numerous other connotations relating to the concept of life after death in the religion of Sport which must first be considered.

In a variety of ways the metaphorical model of reincarnation is perpetuated throughout Sport. Novak (1992) observes how sports “recreate symbols of cosmic struggle, in which human survival and moral courage are not assured” (p. 36). If a team loses a game it may be as disheartening as death for a fan, yet the team may rise again in another game. If a team misses the finals series, there is always another year. If a player is overlooked for an award, perhaps the judges may have a change of heart next season. Then there are former players who take roles such as that of former Australian Football player Wayne Jackson who, although no longer an actively playing hero on the field, reawakened to a new life as a club executive and then after his retirement still returns again and again as a sagely commentator (Vaughan, 2009). Nonetheless, the question still remains as to what the fate of the spirit or soul of the physically deceased devotee of the Sporting Religion might be.

One should bear in mind that it may not be necessary to answer such a question. Aristotle believed that the soul was not immortal and could not exist without the body, arguing as much in his work De Anima. Today, there are bodies of people which believe that the soul is not necessarily immortal (Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, 2002). There have also existed individuals within organisations which do believe in the immortality of the soul who have nonetheless objected to this doctrine personally (Beet, 1901). As such, the simplest answer the religion of Sport could give to the question of what happens to the soul after physical death would be to say that it ceases to exist. This would in no way challenge the status of Sport as a religion. Despite this, some have dreamt of places such as “football heaven” (Fitzpatrick, 2008, p. 7). Perhaps it would not be too dissimilar to the Valhalla of the Vikings where departed legendary warriors could feast and fight in “the final battle” for Odin (Philip, 2007, p. 11). So if there are individuals who choose to sincerely believe in paradises such as football heaven, who is able to disprove the existence of such places? What is more important to the purpose of this essay is how folk who irregularly and perhaps casually enjoy some degree of entertainment through sports but do not consider themselves to be worshippers are to be considered.

One of the purposes of religion is to provide meaning (Bouma, 2000, p. 390). The meaning sport holds for different people varies from person to person (Mewett, 2000, p. 413). So whilst Sport may be the religion of one faithful soul, another who may not have been “baptized into the sport” [sic] may find no religious meaning in the exact same activities (Lert, 1996, p. 35). Not only is this true of traditional religions but indeed of all activities as well, simply because different people find meaning in different ways. Unless meaning is found, it can not be expected that everyone who sets foot in a mosque will become a Muslim anymore than it should be expected that everyone who enters a grandstand will become a disciple within the religion of Sport. Some people choose to convert and some do not.

The purpose of this essay has not been to convert the reader to the religion of Sport. Rather, it seeks to convince the reader that Sport should be acknowledged as a religion equally as valid as any other perspective which may be held. Admittedly there are many aspects of traditional religion which it has not addressed to which further comparisons ought to be made. Nonetheless if it has refuted misguided notions about sport being “trivial in Australia” then it has achieved its first aim (Bouma & Lennon, 2003, p. 111). The second aim of the essay was fulfilled by confirming the ability of Sport to provide social cohension through various means and so act as other religions within the broader community in a functional sense. It is hoped that the novel theoretical model of the Sporting Pantheon may be further developed by future scholars as it greatly strengthens the claim that Sport is a religion. Finally, the brief exploration of how Sport answers ultimate questions within this article has only begun to expound the underlying philosophical concepts present within the religion. Wherefore, should any remain unconvinced that Sport is a religion, there are bound to be many forthcoming treatises on the subject in years to come.

Alomes, S. (1994). Tales of a Dreamtime: Australian football as a secular religion. In I. Craven (Ed.), Australian Popular Culture (pp. 46-55). Cambridge, UK: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge.
Asia News. (2005, February 16). 'Dear Leader' worship as the one religion. Retrieved October 31, 2009, from
Atkin, D. (2004). The Culting of Brands: when customers become true believers . New York: Portfolio.
Australian Broadcasting Corporation. (2000, September 1). AFL's ultimate prize - fans worship at the altar of Aussie Rules. Retrieved October 30, 2009, from Australian Broadcasting Corporation:
Baker, W. J. (2007). Playing with God: religion and modern sport. Cambridge, MA, USA: Harvard University Press.
Beet, J. A. (1901, August 25). The Immortality of the Soul: A Protest. Retrieved October 30, 2009, from Seventh Day Baptist library:
Bouma, G. D. (2000). Religion and spirituality. In R. Jureidini, M. Poole, & S. Kenny, Sociology: Australian connections (pp. 386-401). St Leonards: Allen & Unwin.
Bouma, G. D., & Lennon, D. (2003). Estimating the Extent of Religious and Spiritual Activity in Australia Using Time-Budget Data. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion , 42 (1), 107-112.
British Broadcasting Corporation. (2005, September 27). Religion & Ethics - Hindu Worship. Retrieved October 30, 2009, from British Broadcasting Corporation:
Byrnes, H. (2009, October 5). More people watched NRL grand final on television than watched AFL grand final. Retrieved October 31, 2009, from Queensland Newspapers:,26746,26171235-5016286,00.html
Carlton Football Club. (2008, May 8). Jezza is a Legend of the Game. Retrieved October 30, 2009, from Official AFL Website of the Carlton Football Club:
Carmody, D. L. (1992). Big-Time Spectator Sports: A feminist Christian perspective. In S. J. Hoffman (Ed.), Sport and Religion (pp. 105-109). Champaign, IL, USA: Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc.
CBC Sports Online. (2004, October 27). Bye-bye Bambino. Retrieved October 30, 2009, from CBC Sports Online:
Chandler, J. M. (1992). Sport is Not a Religion. In S. J. Hoffman (Ed.), Sport and Religion (pp. 55-60). Champaign, IL, USA: Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc.
Chen, S. (2009, March 31). Great college basketball towns to visit. Retrieved October 31, 2009, from
Clark, J. (2009, September 25). AFL grand final countdown No.1: Hawthorn v Geelong, 1989. Retrieved October 31, 2009, from Fox Sports:,8659,26120618-5018851,00.html
Clarke, G. (2004, April 2). Sunday sport's a religion, mate. Retrieved October 31, 2009, from Sydney Morning Herald:
Cox, N. (2008, October 20). Heath Black's ex-wife slams AFL star worship. Retrieved October 31, 2009, from Perth Now:,26633,24522241-5016215,00.html
Dale, D. (2005, December 2). The top TV of 2005. Retrieved October 31, 2009, from Sydney Morning Herald:
Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. (2009). Statistical Snapshot. Retrieved October 31, 2009, from Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy:
Fitzpatrick, M. (2008, July 20). NCAA Football '09 game gives excitement, anticipation to season. , Retrieved 30 October, 2009 from
Free TV Australia. (2009). Top 50 Programs - Combined. Retrieved October 31, 2009, from Think TV:
Free TV Australia. (2008). Year in Review. Retrieved October 31, 2009, from Think TV:
Freeman, M. (2006, November 17). Ohio State destined to win this one, and the next one, too. Retrieved October 30, 2009, from CBS Sports Columns:
Geelong Football Club. (2009). 2009 Premiership Merchandise. Retrieved October 31, 2009, from The Cats Shop Online:
Geelong Football Club. (2009). Club Song. Retrieved October 31, 2009, from Official AFL Website of the Geelong Football Club:
Geelong Football Club. (2009). Detailed History. Retrieved October 30, 2009, from Official AFL Website of the Geelong Football Club:
Gittins, B. (2009, October 13). I was a teenage fundamentalist - part two. Retrieved October 30, 2009, from The Rubicon:
Gupt, B. (2009). Indo-European Beliefs in Classical Greek and Indian Drama. Retrieved October 31, 2009, from SVAbhinava:
Haigh, G. (2003, July 19). Playing God: The Rise and Fall of Gary Ablett. Sydney Morning Herald , Retrieved October 30, 2009 from
Hinds, R. (2005, August 24). Name game breeds success. Sydney Morning Herald , Retrieved October 30, 2009 from
Horan, M. (2009, April 2). Tuck, Ablett families unite for Ryan Ablett's funeral. Herald Sun , Retrieved October 30, 2009 from
Ingber, D. (2009, June 14). "Sports is My Religion" from Fantasy Football: The Musical? Retrieved October 30, 2009, from YouTube:
Lert, W. (1996). The Finish Line: Hans Hagemeister brought us good things to ski with. Skiing Heritage , 8 (3), 34-42.
Liverpool Football Club. (2009). Quotes. Retrieved October 30, 2009, from
Masters, R. (2007, February 14). TV pays top-rating NRL half as much as AFL. Retrieved October 31, 2009, from Sydney Morning Herald:
Maxwell, C. (2008, October 4). Dear Sydney, your love is such bitter fruit: Manly fans. Sydney Morning Herald , Retrieved November 1, 2009 from
McClure, G. (2007, June 8). Men v women: ratings winner. Age , Retrieved October 31, 2009 from
Meares, P. (2003). Legends of Australian sport: the inside story. St Lucia, QLD, Australia: University of Queensland Press.
Mewett, P. (2000). Sport. In R. Jureidini, M. Poole, & S. Kenny, Sociology: Australian connections (2nd ed., pp. 403-423). St Leonards, NSW, Australia: Allen & Unwin.
Milton, B. G. (1972). Sport as a Functional Equivalent of Religion. Madison, WI, USA: University of Wisconsin.
Murry, S. J. (2008). Lisa Eagen Interview. Retrieved October 31, 2009, from Women's Sports Foundation:
Net Hymnal. (2007, August 8). A Glorious Church. Retrieved October 31, 2009, from Net Hymnal:
News Ltd. (2009, September 7). Jeff Kennett hopes Hawthorn has first female player. Daily Telegraph , Retrieved October 31, 2009 from
Niall, J. (2009, September 10). History won't stop Saints from marching. Retrieved October 30, 2009, from Real Footy News:
Novak, M. (1992). The Natural Religion. In S. J. Hoffman (Ed.), Sport and Religion (pp. 35-42). Champaign, IL, USA: Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc.
OzTAM. (2009, October 10). Metropolitan Total TV Share of All Viewing - All Homes (A1): 5 City Share Report. Retrieved October 31, 2009, from OzTAM:
Pavlich, M. (2009, May 14). The rebirth of Haze. Retrieved October 30, 2009, from
Philip, N. (2007). Myths & Legends Explained (Revised ed.). New York: DK Publishing.
Prebish, C. S. (1992). "Heavenly Father, Divine Goalie": Sport and Religion. In S. J. Hoffman (Ed.), Sport and Religion (pp. 43-53). Champaign, IL, USA: Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc.
Rudd, A. (2003, April 7). Anfield's book of worship. Retrieved October 31, 2009, from Times Online:
Russell, L. D. (2007). Godspeed: Racing Is My Religion. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.
Sporting Pulse Pty Ltd. (2008, June 24). AFL Today: Rocca Set to go Punting. Retrieved October 30, 2009, from Sporting Pulse:
SportingPulse Pty Ltd. (2007). About Female Football. Retrieved October 31, 2009, from AFL Victoria:
Stevens, M. (2009, September 21). Geelong's Gary Ablett wins 2009 Brownlow Medal, lists award as third in his list of career highlights. Herald Sun , Retrieved October 30, 2009 from
Sydney Swans Football Club. (2009). Third era: Roy Cazaly. Retrieved October 30, 2009, from Official AFL Website of the Sydney Swans Football Club:
Vaughan, R. (2009, May 7). Dreaded topic of AFL club mergers raised. Retrieved October 30, 2009, from The Roar:
Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania. (2002, July 15). What Has Happened to Hellfire? The Watchtower , Retrieved October 30, 2009 from
Zazzle. (2009). Hiking Is My Religion Dog T-shirt. Retrieved October 31, 2009, from, Inc:

{The charts are saved in Publisher sorry so not sure how to upload them here.}

Monday, November 9, 2009

Contemporary Christian Music Revolutionizing Religion

Kate Sundberg

WWJD? What Would Jesus Do? This question has adorned bumper stickers, t-shirts, doormats, coffee mugs and bracelets since the 1990s (Collins 2005). However, perhaps the more important question companies are asking themselves is, “What Would Jesus Buy?” To some, Jesus has become nothing more than a commodity—a “homeboy” helping to sell products around the world. While companies are using Jesus to endorse clothing, decorations and even candy, some may say that musicians are using Jesus to sell their music. The Christian music industry has exploded since the 1980s, with Christian artists selling out shows and records to people hungry for unconventional religion. From hip-hop to rock to heavy metal, Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) has become a billion dollar marketing industry catering to popular culture that is changing the way people view religion—with mixed results. “I just find it hard to believe that Christ wants to be in a market. Didn’t He turn over those tables?” (Powell 2002).

Contemporary Christian Music evolved from a desire to make religion “hip.” The Jesus Movement began sweeping the United States in the early 1970s and had a strong influence on the development of early Contemporary Christian Music. The Jesus People (participants in the Jesus Movement) were predominantly young adults who “suddenly returned to values against which they had earlier rebelled” (Gordon 159). They upheld biblical, pure morals and demonstrated both passion and enthusiasm for God. However, the Jesus People were not typical worshippers; they participated in “revivals, rallies, Bible studies, street witnessing, speaking engagements, marches, and the use of mass media,” all while maintaining their “contemporary youth culture” (Gordon 160). Suddenly it was acceptable to praise Jesus and wear their hair long, to study the Bible and buy trendy clothing, and to witness in the streets while listening to rock music. A small group of Jesus People were renamed Jesus Freaks: “a bunch of young, radical kids turned on for Jesus” (Gordon 161). They participated in revivals, where Christian rock music was introduced as a way of praising Jesus. This revolutionary notion—that rock could correlate with celebrating God—started small and quickly turned into a massive commercial industry churning out music videos and hit singles (Horton 2).
Today, Contemporary Christian Music’s popularity is continuously growing, especially amongst young adults and people in their 40s and 50s. In 2003, Arbitron, an international media and marketing research firm, conducted a study that showed that 71% of the Contemporary Christian Music consumers were between the ages of 21-54 (Kelly 2003). As early as 1985, Contemporary Christian Music accounted for more than 25% of sales in bookstores (Howard & Streck 40). In 2001, sales of music classified as Contemporary Christian Music reached over $1 billion (Powell 2002). Due to Contemporary Christian Music covering a multiplicity of genres-rock, hip-hop, rap, pop-the industry has continued to thrive. The genre does not matter in the classification of Contemporary Christian Music. Instead, focus is placed on the lyrics, artists and record label (Moberg 2007). Typically, songs aim to go beyond sheer entertainment and instead, evangelize and “save” lost souls (Howard 124). The songs seek to give honor to Jesus and demonstrate pure morals. The sounds of Christian artists are frequently compared to that of mainstream artists: Third Day to Hootie and the Blowfish, Rebecca St. James to Alanis Morissette, Steven Curtis Chapman to Billy Joel or Paul Simon (Powell 2002). Some artists have even managed cross over success, with inexplicitly Christian songs finding their way onto top 40 charts. These songs are usually still accepted and enjoyed by Christian music fans who simply “find a Christian viewpoint presented in their lyrics” (Howard & Streck 49).

Advances in technology have helped to make Contemporary Christian Music accessible to individuals around the world and have led to a growth in the industry. Technology has shifted from print-based to audiovisual, leading to a greater sense of being connected, despite space and time boundaries. The ability of communication to transcend geographical boundaries has led to a greater connection between a “sense of God, spirit, [and] a sense of meaning that is larger than ourselves” (Teusner 1998). Religion is no longer a private ritual. Celebrities can now Twitter about Jesus while college students join faith-based Facebook groups. Political figures state “God Bless America,” celebrities and athletes consistently thank God for success, and secular musicians occasionally weave religiously themed lyrics into their work (Hulsether 127). File sharing programs and music downloading sites allow people throughout the world to put Hillsong albums and gospel tunes on their MP3 players. People are also able to stream Christian radio stations on their computers. The Internet, chat-rooms, online worship, email lists and television expose the public to the newest spiritual practices, Contemporary Christian artists, and upcoming “cool” churches they can attend (York 361). Worshippers no longer have a need or desire to sit on a hard wooden pew to get a traditional fix of religion.

Some may find it surprising that religion can turn up in everything from rock to rap to heavy metal—most would find these genres at odds with the values and morals religion tends to convey. However, even before Contemporary Christian Music became a legitimate industry, religiously themed rock songs occasionally found success on mainstream pop charts (Howard 123). Mainstream rap artist Tupac Shakur has had his lyrics described as “creative and rather clear[ly] theologizing” (Pinn 100). Religious rap music, or rap music with underlying religious tones, is particularly enticing to African American religion. It “rescue[s] [African American religion] from what appears to be a crisis of relevance” (Pinn 99). Although hip hop usually condones violence, drugs and promiscuous behavior, artists like Nas, Mase and Kanye West have found tremendous success in songs with explicit references to spirituality and Jesus (Marchant 15). Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” was nominated for 2004’s Song of the Year (Marchant 22). Christian metal music has been one of the most controversial genres within Contemporary Christian Music. Because heavy metal is loud and aggressive, many churches and conservatives have been unaccepting of Christian metal. Johannes Jonsson, a project coordinator for the Metal Bible explains that Christian metal actually brings worshippers closer to Jesus. “Christian metal is a complement to other ways of spreading the Christian message. Through this music it is possible to reach out to many who would never take the message to themselves served in a more traditional way” (Moberg 2007). Despite skeptics criticizing these unconventionally Christian genres, consumers are continuing to purchase music and worship alongside bands of all kinds.

Churches around the world are recognizing the mass appeal Contemporary Christian Music has on congregations and are integrating it into services as a means of drawing in more members. The use of upbeat, non-traditional music is enticing intrigued youth into worship. At Christ Tabernacle Church in Queens, New York, the church holds weekly rap church services (Marchant 27). In fact, a booking agent for Christian rap groups estimated that there are 150 churches integrating hip-hop into services in New York City alone (Marchant 27). Churches are very deliberately using Contemporary Christian Music to influence emotions and actions within church walls. At Breakfree Church in Perth, Australia, “music is one of the best ways to create atmosphere” (Jennings 164). This atmosphere is hip, inviting and intentionally directed towards facilitating detachment from the outside world. Churches recognize the need to “sell” themselves to the public and to package them in a manner that is commercial and entertaining (Hulsether 128, 133).

The epitome of Contemporary Christian Music being used as a marketable commodity can be found at Hillsong, a Sydney-based megachurch. Hillsong has been extremely successful in selling themselves to a predominantly youthful but immense congregation. The original massive church sits on a 21-acre property and already had 200 employees by 2004 (Connell 319, 320). The church scarcely resembles a traditional church—over $25 million AUD were spent to insure that this was the case. The auditorium can hold 3500 members, while the youth meeting hall alone can hold 800. There is a daycare center, play areas, and a state of the art sound and lighting system (Connell 320). Within Hillsong, there are 40 television screens and a $40 million sound system (Connell 321). The church rakes in revenue through a Gloria Jeans coffee shop on campus, a hot dog, soda and popcorn stand, and most importantly, a Hillsong store selling books, CDs and DVDs (Connell 325). One of Hillsong’s most valuable assets can be found within their own music industry. The worship band has recorded albums that have enjoyed worldwide success, with more than 6 million CDs sold. Recordings of Hillsong can even be purchased for cell phone ring tones. It has been estimated that Hillsong’s Contemporary Christian Music recordings brought in $8 million for the church in 2002. One of the pastors at the church, Darlene Zschech, has sold 5 million Contemporary Christian albums throughout the world (Connell 326). This “McChurch” has been fashioned to entice, to persuade, and to sell. It has gained worldwide recognition as a successful megachurch, due in large part to its commoditization of the Christian religion.

This secularization and mainstreaming of Contemporary Christian Music has led to questioning as to whether the industry contradicts the message. Ironically, while Christian artists are singing about leaving behind worldly possessions, they are also enjoying monetary success due to record sales. Many “have noticed that the more separate from the world the CCM industry seeks to be, the more worldly it seems to become” (Powell 2002). John Fischer, a columnist for Contemporary Christian Music magazine, dramatically stated that “Christianity has so identified with mainstream culture that it has ‘rolled over and died’ with respect to the radical, confronting nature of faith and the cross” (Howard & Streck 40).

Max Horkheimer expressed the belief that religion has redemptive possibilities and qualities in society, while Theodor Adorno believed that the artistic realm also provided society with these qualities (Howard 124). Theoretically, the unification of Christianity and music would redeem and improve society. However, the fact that the music has become so secular, so mainstream, so generic may lead to the argument that Contemporary Christian Music is in fact doing the exact opposite. Adorno and Horkheimer argue that hit music no longer invokes meaning or creativity, due to the mass produced nature of popular culture (3). Popular music has become clich√© and generic, while the entertainment industry as a whole has become monotonous and predictable; “Every detail is so firmly stamped with sameness that nothing can appear which is not marked at birth, or does not meet approval at first sight” (Adorno & Horkheimer 5). Adorno and Horkheimer deem the culture industry as having clumsily turned legitimate art into nothing more than a naive commodity and something to be consumed by the market (8). Culture within mainstream entertainment has ceased to exist, as the two seem to defy one another. People are more concerned with trends and consumption than being cultured and refined. The arts have turned business into their ideology (Adorno & Horkheimer 9). As many Contemporary Christian artists sound immensely similar to mainstream artists, these viewpoints are entirely justifiable. They seem to follow a formula for successful singles or music videos; the only difference is within the meaning of the lyrics. It is difficult at times to distinguish between Contemporary Christian and secular rock, hip-hop and heavy metal.

It cannot be denied that Contemporary Christian Music has altered and shaped religion over the past 40 years. From its use in contemporary, untraditional worship services, to its marketability in megachurches, to its streaming live on the internet, Contemporary Christian Music has molded a new generation of Christians. No longer content with organs and hymnals, young adults are recognizing that top 40 hits and Christianity are not mutually exclusive. While the joining of heavy metal and Jesus may make some uncomfortable, Contemporary Christian Music is successfully drawing in individuals who might not feel comfortable worshipping in other, more traditional, ways. This contribution to the Christian religion cannot be overlooked. Contemporary Christian Music may not be as cultured as classical music or the theater, but it is enticing, exciting and easily sold to millions around the world.

Adorno, Theodor & Horkheimer, Max 1976, ‘The culture industry: enlightenment as mass deception,’ Continuum International Publishing group, viewed November 1, 2009,

Clark LS, Ed., 2006. ‘Introduction. Special Issue on Religion, Globalization, and Popular Music,’ Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 45, 4, Via catalogue.

Collins, Clayton 2005, “Now they’re wearing religion on their sleeves,’ The Christian Science Monitor, viewed November 3, 2009,

Connell, John 2005, ‘Hillsong: a megachurch in the Sydney suburbs,’ Australian Geographer, pp. 315-332

Gordon, David F 1974, ‘The Jesus people: an identity synthesis,’ Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, pp.159-178

Jennings M, 2008, 'Won't you break free?' An Ethnography of Music and the Divine-Human Encounter at an Australian Pentecostal Church, Culture and Religion, 9, 2, 161-174.

Horton, Shaun 2007, ‘Redemptive media: the professionalization of the contemporary Christian music industry,’ viewed November 1, 2009,

Howard, Jay R 2004, ‘Contemporary Christian music: where rock meets religion,’ The Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 26, no. 1, pp. 123-130

Howard, Jay R & Streck, John M 1996, ‘The splintered art world of contemporary Christian music,’ Cambridge University Press, vol. 15, no. 1, pp. 37-53

Hulsether, Mark, ‘Interpreting the ‘popular’ in popular religion,’ Review Symposium on American Religion, pp. 127-136

Kelly, Brad 2003, ‘Christian radio: not just a ‘niche format’ anymore,’ National Religious Broadcasters, viewed November 2, 2009,

Marchant, Cameron, ‘The emergence of religion in mainstream hip-hop,’ viewed November 3, 2009,

Moberg M, 2007. The Transnational Christian Metal Scene Expressing Alternative Christian Identity through a Form of Popular Music, Paper from the Conference “INTER: A European Cultural Studies Conference in Sweden”, Advanced Cultural Studies Institute of Sweden (ACSIS) in Norrk√∂ping 11-13 June 2007.

Pinn, Anthony B. 2009, ‘Rap music, culture and religion: concluding thoughts,’ Culture and Religion, vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 97-108.

Powell, Mark Allan 2002, ‘Jesus climbs the charts: the business of contemporary Christian music,’ The Christian Century, pp. 20-26

Teusner, Paul 1998, ‘Electronic media, popular culture and spirituality,’ viewed November 2, 2009,

York, Michael 2001, ‘New age commodification and appropriation of spirituality,’ Journal of Contemporary Religion, vol. 16, no. 3, pp. 361-372

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Fundamentalist Christianity and media potential

Phil Helliwell

Since the 1980s, fundamentalist Christians in the United States of America have utilised a wide range of modern media and technologies to further their own religious intent. This has created, in part, what is largely known today in America as the Christian media. This predominantly private media enterprise sports many characteristics, though two major ones will be briefly discussed here; the maintaining of cultural adherence and the displaying of solidarity to the secular Other.

Leaders of fundamentalist Christian movements willingly use their media to propagate their ideology and bring about measured change in the larger fundamentalist community. A key example of this is Jerry Falwell’s monthly periodical, The Fundamentalist Journal, begun in 1982 and designed to be a major mouthpiece of the fundamentalist movement (Mathisen and Mathisen, 1988). But the important factor of a publication like Falwell’s lies in the aims used to formulate the desired cultural adherence and action against the secular community. These aims include the use of the rhetoric of legitimation and change, the redefinition of traditional fundamentalist terms and symbols, and a reorientation toward the world (Mathisen and Mathisen, 1988).

Falwell’s aims were to allow change in behaviour and policy without any loss in credibility or commitment in his followers (Mathisen and Mathisen, 1988). He remained true to fundamentalist tradition while influencing the stance taken by the community as a whole, as well as appropriate core values, such as liberty, to encompass a wider conceptual horizon. These aims, in order to adjust the fundamentalist community to the challenges of the modern age, Falwell had to consciously compromise “…on the levels of consciousness between traditional and modern patterns” (Berger, Berger and Kellner, 1973), fusing together “… elements of the tradition that are deemed to be incompatible with the cognitive assumptions of modernity” (Berger, 1979).

Falwell’s periodical is indicative of the actions taken by media savvy fundamentalist Christians. Generally, they are motivated by “deeply reactionary tendencies”, “animated by bad news, by that which they stand against” (Clapp, 2009). Reasons outside of this perceived defensive position might not allow for such thorough action to have been taken by Falwell in his publication, or indeed others seeking to maintain similar aims.


Berger, Peter L., The Heretical Imperative
Doubleday Anchor, New York, 1979

Berger, Peter L., Brigitte Berger, Hansfried Kellner, The Homeless Mind
Random House, New York, 1973

Clap, Rodney, Bad news evangelicals, The Christian Century
March 10, 2009, 126, 5, p53

Mathisen G.S, Mathisen J.A, The New Fundamentalism: A Sociorhetorical Approach to Understanding Theological Change, Review of Religious Research
Vol. 30, No. 1 Sep., 1988, p18-32

Friday, November 6, 2009

Indigenous Cultural and Spiritual Survival: Utilising the Net in a Global Society

"[Globalization] can be incredibly empowering and incredibly coercive. It can democratize opportunity and democratize panic. It makes the whales bigger and the minnows stronger. It leaves you behind faster and faster, and it catches up to you faster and faster. While it is homogenizing cultures, it is also enabling people to share their unique individuality farther and wider.”

Since the term ‘globalisation’ swept into our consciousness over twenty years ago, it has been a hotly debated phenomenon, its impact in the economic, cultural and political sphere sparking both controversy and consensus. Typically, it has been associated with Western (more specifically the United States) neoliberalism which enables large institutional investors and transnational firms to impose their economic and political principles, control and influence upon the world’s markets (Gill, 1995, p. 405). In this view of globalisation, market civilisation has created a consumer culture which has become universalised, westernised, homogenised and ‘McDonalised’(Pieterse, 2004, p. 49) Critics argue, with good reason, that because of globalisation , cultural identities of weaker nations and sub-sets are being destroyed, poorer nations subordinated, participatory democracy and national sovereignty undermined and the environment ruthlessly exploited. Longchar (2007, p. 2) agrees with this assertion, claiming that Indigenous people, who have already suffered immense injustices, marginalisation and subjugation historically, are facing even graver threats of displacement and suppression with faster emerging globalisation. In the name of development, they have become victims of mines, industries, mega projects, reservoirs and tourism. Many have been forcibly evicted off their ancestral lands which hold immense spiritual significance. The Loss of land, the loss of culture, the loss of language and the loss of autonomy , first through colonisation then continued with globalisation has significantly contributed to the neglect, and in some cases the disappearance of, Indigenous people’s spirituality (Longchar, 2007, p. 4)

There is, however, another contradictory story - globalisation, is not only creating and proliferating cultural identity (Tomlinson, p. 270), it is also providing the technology for unrestricted acts of resistance socially, culturally and politically. The rapid growth and development of Information Communication Technologies (ICTs), the impetus to the current wave of globalisation, has opened up new and unlimited possibilities for Indigenous communities to challenge protect, maintain, revitalise and reaffirm their cultural and spiritual identitie. In light of this, this essay will explore how Information Communication Technologies (ICTs), especially the internet, are being utilised by Indigenous communities in protecting and revitalising their cultural and spiritual identity. Two examples will be given. The first reveals the effectiveness of internet activism in protecting the traditional land of South American Indians from mining exploitation; the latter explores the importance of preventing the disappearance of cultural and spiritual identity through digital language revitalisation projects. To place it in context it is necessary to proceed first with an explanation of what Indigenous spirituality is, why it is important to Indigenous identity and how globalisation and ICTs are empowering Indigenous people to prevent its loss. This essay will not cover crucial aspects of the digital divide that also limits access to technology due to literacy, poverty and cost, as this is the topic that requires an essay in itself.

Indigenous Concepts of Spirituall

Indigenous culture and spirituality cannot be separated from the land. Their knowledge systems, ceremonies, rituals, songs, stories, festivals and dances are all deeply rooted in it. Muecke and Shoemaker (2004, p. 31) describe the ceremonies of Indigenous people as making “life rise up from the land, travel along it, and go down into the soil again.” Regardless of whether a person belongs to a traditional treble or is in varying degrees westernised, their identity is strongly defined by their relationships to land, to other people and to nature and all living things (Graham, p. 2). Many indigenous people perceive the land as their mother, nurturing and sustaining them. It is not only sacred it is the co-creator with the Creator: it owns the people and gives them identity (Longchar, 2007, p. 3). The inherited rights and responsibilities, such as being caretakers of their land, cannot be bought or sold as it has been established thousands of years ago in the ancestral past and repeated through conceptualisations of spirituality in the here and now (Smith & Ward, 2000, p. 5). This latter point is important because, as Arnold (2002, p 337) points out, Indigenous people rarely have public discussion about their ‘religion’. as it is not separate from their every day actions. Rather their discussions and activities in contemporary society are more political and economic, directed around issues of survival that affect their lives – environmental devastation, land claims, revitalizing languages, treaties etc. Ultimately, all these things impact on the spiritual dimensions of Indigenous lives.

ICTs and Indigenous Empowermen

Politically, Indigenous people have been the most marginalised groups in all aspects of life (Longchar, 2007, p. 1). Their position of powerlessness has been radically changed with the phenomenal growth of ICTs, especially the internet, and the corresponding enthusiasm for its use as tool for change. The number and diversity of sites, or sites pertaining to Indigenous issues is extremely encouraging. Dyson (2003, p. 1) lists a number of reasons for this. Firstly, it is free of cultural baggage, free of prejudice and does not recognise colour (p.11). Secondly, Indigenous people are traditionally an oral culture. The use of graphics, audio files and streaming videos on the internet is closer to indigenous ways of understanding (p. 1). Finally, the non –hierarchical nature of the internet provides indigenous individuals and communities with a platform that they have created to challenge the cultural, political and social hegemony of the dominant society. Their empowerment to act is a result of their ability to produce, access, adapt and apply knowledge without being filtered by Western anthropologists, missionaries, historians, government officials or other intermediaries. As Levy (as cited in Dyson, 2003, p. 8) so eloquently states:

"Spirally backwards, as it were, to the oral culture of a bygone age, knowledge might again be placed in the hands of living human groups, rather than being conveyed on various types of material support through interpreters or scientists."

Ginsberg (2002, p. 40) takes it further claiming that without control of ‘the archive’, if not the memory, there is no political power. After all, the fundamental battle here is over the minds of the people because if majority views are different from the prevailing values of those in power, then ultimately the system will change (Castells, 2007, p. 238). The key issue then, is for Indigenous people to have control over their land, over their history and over their past, present and future (Smith et al, 2000, p. 3). After a long history of dislocation through colonisation, Indigenous people have been in a constant state of ‘transmission and transformation’(p. 4). The use of the internet as a tool for change will be evident in the following examples of an internet campaign to save the ancestral lands of the U’wa, and Indigenous language projects that are digitally revitalised. Both have adapted the internet for their cultural and spiritual survival.
The Internet – Protecting the land, Preserving Spirituality

"...representatives of the indigenous Yanomamo people in Brazil travelled to the World Bank in the 1980s and argued before Bank officials that “development can have many meanings. Your interpretation is material. Ours is spiritual."

In the globalised world, capitalism, industrialisation and modernisation have increasingly alienated Indigenous people from their lands. The greedy grab and unchecked resource exploitation of their sacred and traditional lands to build roads, dams, energy plants, mines and tourist resorts is a result of technological advances and the imperatives of pleasing global financial markets. It is also the driving force behind the actions of governments, global corporations and the military to exterminate or disempower Indigenous communities that stand in their way. Loss of traditional sovereignty over hunting and gathering rights, loss of access to important sacred and cultural ceremonial sites and lack of consultation has had serious implications for Indigenous people. The impact has been even greater for indigenous communities who have had little contact with outsiders. According to Wilmer (as cited in Setton, 1999, p.14),’the act of development instils terror, causes psychological and somatic trauma and produces death either as a result of direct combat or as consequence of destroyed habitat.” He goes on to argue that many indigenous suffer a form of posttraumatic stress disorder when they are unable to locate themselves ‘within a cultural universe of meaning and continuity.’ Indigenous people across the world, face the challenges of extinction or survival and renewal in a globalized world. Although Indigenous people of Latin America were constitutionally given “the right to exist with their own social and economic organisation, their culture, and traditions, and their language and religion” (Gorman, 2003, p. 184) in the 1990s, the reality was they had not won the ability to exercise them. Regardless of the negotiations and agreements on paper, their voices were silenced and their protests largely ignored (Gorman, 2003, p. 184). Globalisation for Indigenous people is not just a question of racism, marginalization and ecological destruction: it is an ongoing attack on the very foundation of their cultural and spiritual identity.

The U’wa is an example of one Indigenous community who rose up as a counterpower to protect their spiritual home, their land, from destruction. Known in their language as ‘the thinking people’, the U’wa reside in the cloudforests of the Columbian Amazon and number approximately 5 000. They believe that the Earth granted them life and as such their ancestral lands and the resources it possesses are all sacred (Gorman, 2003, p. 172). They are also one of the few indigenous groups is Columbia who have managed to maintain their ancestral culture. In 1995 they posed a horrifying ultimatum: either Occidental Petroleum (Oxy), an American multinational oil company, abandon the drilling for oil on their ancestral lands or they would commit mass suicide by hurling themselves off a steep precipice. This was, they claimed, was what their ancestors had done in the 17th Century to avoid colonisation by the Spanish missionaries and what they would do to avoid their land being exploited and destroyed. This action was to begin an epic five year battle between the U’wa, Oxy, and the Columbian government, each bringing a different perspective. Landzelius (2006, p. 119) explains that the U’wa argued that they were a continuum of the past that began long before white man arrived. The stewardship of their traditional land was their ancestral right and responsibility: to drill for oil would severely wound Mother Earth as oil is her ‘blood’.

The provocative sensationalism of the U’wa mass suicide threat ensured that their internet crusade would appeal to what Guy Debord (as cited in Landzelius, 2006, p. 116) describes as a ‘society of the spectacle. Through the commitment and dedication of several environmental groups, among them the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) and Project Underground, the cause of the U’wa was to gain momentum. Within a year of contact, the U’wa protest to save their forest from degradation was orbiting in cyberspace with hyperlinks to a dozen or more human rights and environmental grassroots organisations. Landzelius (2006, p. 117) describes RAN’s website, one of many sites involved in the battle, as providing up-to-date bulletins of latest developments, scanned newspaper reports (translated if needed) , documents relating to Oxy, open letters, background history to familiarise those new to the site and discussion papers debating ethical issues such as exploitation of pristine areas, obscene profits from oil. There were links to other relevant sites and to the U’wa themselves. For Landzelius, the rich and captivating imagery of the U’wa in traditional dress living amongst the lush forest and exotic plants probably held the most emotional appeal, connecting the people to the U’wa. What is interesting is that these representations conjured up images of the idealised and stereotypical depiction of ‘noble savage’, in harmony with nature but ready to die to protect their homeland (p. 18). It was one of the reasons, she claims, that the campaign was so successful.

Organised support began from the moment an ‘action alert’ was placed on the internet by the Amazon Alliance for Indigenous and Traditional Peoples of the Amazon Basin addressing the claims that Oxy was violating the rights of the U’wa (Gorman, 2003, p. 179) Growing awareness in the US followed after Columbian citizens, NGOs, international journalist, environmentalist, and 3000 students marched to the Ministry of Environment in Bogota to show their support of the U’wa. From that point on a transnational advocacy campaign on the internet began in earnest.(Gorman, 2003, p. 179) resulting in important actions being taken in1999. Hundreds of activists, along with U’wa leaders, descended on Occidental’s headquarters in Los Angeles to protest. .Around the World, protests were staged outside Columbian consulates in support of the U’wa. Shareholders representing eight hundred million dollars worth of stock, voted in favour of Occidental revaluating the project at their Annual General. Several months later another show of grassroots support took place in over twenty cities spanning ten countries. As a result of international and national support the U’wa won a critical victory in their battle to reclaim and protect their traditional lands and culture. In May 1998, after protests by U'wa activists in Los Angeles, Occidental Petroleum announced it would not explore for oil on lands claimed by the U'wa. In August 1999,the U’wa were granted legal title to the 543,000-acre, marking it as the first time in 500 years that the U’wa had gained rather than lost land.

Landzelius (2006, p. 129) makes an interesting observation, that even though the U’wa were prepared to sacrifice their bodies to protect their traditional lands from oil development, it was their virtual bodies that proved to be the decisive weapon in gaining international support. The success of the U’wa battle for the rights to their land challenged the notion that transnational corporations are invincible and untouchable. As Gorman points out (2003, p 188), transnational corporations may be becoming more powerful politically and economically than the nation-states across whose geographical and cultural borders they operate, but they must still deal with social movements that also operate across the same space. The very nature of the internet is creating new forms of organisation by connecting individuals and communities across time and space to form new networks of communication. There is truth in Manuel Castells' (1997, p. 1) assertions that these ‘new forms of organisation, in its pervasive globality, is diffusing the world......shaking institutions, transforming cultures, creating wealth and inducing poverty.”. There is also truth in his assertion that the technological revolution is alternately creating ‘a surge of powerful expressions of collective identity that challenge globalisation......on behalf of cultural singularity and people’s control over their lives and environment” (p. 2). The World Wide Web has provided the U’wa with a virtual platform to create their collective identity of resistance and articulate their message to the global community, a message that Landzelius sums up as ‘”think local, act global” (2006, p. 129)

The Internet -Revitalising Language, Strengthening Spirituality

“Language is our unique relationship to the Creator, our attitudes, beliefs, values and fundamental notions of what is truth. Our languages are the cornerstones of who we are as people. Without our languages our cultures cannot survive.”
“Language, as the direct expression of culture, becomes the trench of cultural resistance, the last bastion of self-control, the refuge of identifiable meaning.”

Language is at the core of identity. It is the most fundamental aspect of culture for it is through language that cultural information is accumulated, shared and passed on from generation to generation (Settee, 2008). Castells (1997, p. 49) argues that it is through language that certain events, rituals, the laws, myths and legends, the social institutions and other symbols of culture are symbolically shared, expressed, and lived. Nations are created from linguistic communities, he explains, ‘through the labours of shared history, and then spoken in the images of communal languages whose first word is we, the second is us,’ (p. 52) Meaning cannot be divorced from the interrelationships that exist between people and their environment. If language is lost, culture it lost. According to the Enduring Voices Project, there are at present, at least 300 million indigenous people worldwide who make up 6% of the world's total population. Of the nearly 7000 oral languages existing globally, 4000 to 5000 are spoken by Indigenous people. However, every 14 days a language dies. By 2100, they predict more than half of the 7,000 languages spoken on Earth—many of them not yet recorded—may disappear, taking with them a wealth of knowledge about history, culture, the natural environment, and the human brain.

For Indigenous people the impact of this loss is being felt today. The languages of many Indigenous communities globally have long been endangered for a number of reasons. Government policies of colonial powers were of removal, relocation, and the termination of indigenous populations. Dixon (1990, p. 5) reveals that in a few places in Australia there were massacres of such severity that no speakers were left to pass a language on to the next generation. It was common practice for the colonisers to impose their language on the colonized, often refusing the colonised the right to speak their native tongue. in an attempt to assimilate Indigenous people into their dominant and hegemonic society As a result, the cultural knowledge that has sustained different group of peoples from the time of creation is at risk, some, such as Australia, severely threatened. Language deprivation and devaluation of Indigenous ways of knowing, their culture and their spirituality has had an enormous impact on the physical and psychological wellbeing of many individuals and communities (Wilmer, as cited in Setton, 1999, p. 14) It is from this deeply felt sense of loss that Indigenous nations have begun to dig their ‘trench of resistance’. As Warschauer (2000, p.166) points out the “defence of language means defence of community, autonomy, and power....People will struggle to maintain their language when they see it as not only an important part of their grandparents past, but also of their own future.” Campaigns for minority languages, more specifically indigenous languages, are therefore, responses to the activities of nation states rather than global change (Hourigan, p. 6).

Today, high-state-of-the-art ICTs are keenly embraced by many Indigenous groups to establish their identity. From the Samis in Norway to the Maoris in New Zealand, from the Aborigines of Australia to the Inupiat of Alaska, indigenous communities are imaginatively implementing initiatives to promote and protect their languages, customs and knowledge and also for community building. Powerful archives of the elders telling their stories are created by community members using films, cameras and audio equipment and placing them in cyberspace. Indigenous language databases and online dictionaries are easily accessed on the World Wide Web by Indigenous individuals and communities. Wiki, blogs, discussion boards, online tutorials and emails on the internet are creating more authentic ways to communicate and interact using the language. There are many notable examples of ICT language and culture revitalization projects that are ‘knitting together’ indigenous communities across local and national borders and bolstering their agendas for self-determination and autonomy. SameNet , an indigenous electronic network has been electronically catering to about 80, 000 indigenous Sami people. Samis were scattered across Finland, Norway and Sweden, and the Arctic regions of Russia when their lands were arbitrarily divided up by the aforementioned powers. SameNet is host to two projects: 1) Project@stoaphha which is devoted to online distance learning of their languages, culture and traditional occupation of reindeer herding. 2) Samasta-Project, a pedagogical initiative, to promote the Lule Sapmi language. It is a large web space of tutorials, texts, sounds and images that is accessed by 5 000 Samis. Cherokees are also digitally preserving and invigorating their language and traditions by circulating stories and recitations of tribal elders as source material. In addition they are reaching out to tourists by providing practical tips on hiking on their traditional land alongside alternative history lessons that are aimed at redressing the cultural degradation that has occurred as a result of colonisation. The Dena'ina Qenaga of Alaska is a web-based resource designed solely to provide information about the Dena'ina language. It includes information about language structure (grammar, pronunciation, spelling, etc.); information about learning the Dena'ina language (phrases and conversations, stories, etc.); and information about community language revitalization programs. Wangka Maya in Australia is one of 65 web-based language centres that record, and preserve the languages of the Pilbara region on a digital lexical database. There are 25 languages listed, all with information attached about the people who speak it, and number (if any) who still speak the language, the resources and recordings they have available and the traditional land it belongs to. Care is taken to ensure that non-Indigenous people who are working within the Indigenous community are provided with cultural awareness training addition, A number of community building initiatives reconnect those who may have lost contact due to Stolen Generation issues, migration, settlement issues and fostering. In addition, they also undertake partnerships or projects across a broad range of the community with the aim of fostering and developing cross cultural relationships, understanding and interest in Indigenous languages, culture and history. Both Maoris and Hawaiians immerse their students from preschool in ‘language nests’ that continue through to university. Use of the internet and all other ICTs have been crucial in engaging and immersing students, who are all products of the 21st century technology generation, in their language.

It has become of paramount importance to Indigenous communities globally, that their knowledge is passed along to the younger generation. Without speaking the language or understanding of the words of stories that the elders speak, and their ancestors spoke before them, the language dies. And when the language dies the culture dies. Yet how successful these programs are is difficult to say. As language revitalization programs using ICTs are a relatively new initiative, there is as yet an insufficient body of data to thoroughly measure and compare the long term success in terms of number of speakers and well-being of individuals and communities. .Buszard-Welcher (2001, p. 342) makes a valid point when she states that if the goal of these sites is to create new speakers, then they need to be more than virtual libraries, a repository of cultural information’. There needs to be a push towards creating more virtual speech communities’, where people meet, interact and communicate in their native tongue. After all, success or failure depends on whether the young language speakers of this generation will speak it to their children.


Language and land is at the core of the cultural and spiritual identity of Indigenous people. Both interact with each other to project their community’s history in the songs and stories they tell. Both hold the key to kinship systems and to the intricacies of knowledge systems including tribal law, customs, sacred objects and rites. Language and the connection to land are both a major factor in retaining cultural and spiritual identity. The goal of protecting ancestral lands and the goal of revitalising language is to ensure that future generations will understand the central part they have played in their culture. To use the language, and to connect to land in their everyday activities, even when they are no longer leading a traditional lifestyle, or living on their land is vital to cultural and spiritual survival. Through the creative and vigorous utilisation of ICTs, especially the internet, Indigenous people are creating another space that gives them a voice to protect their land, revitalize their language, fortify their ‘identity of resistance’ and strengthen their spirituality as Indigenous nations.


Arnold, P. P. (2002). Determining the Place of Religion: Native American Traditions and the WWW. Religion, 32, 337-341.

Australian First Nations (1990). Towards Linguistic Justice for First Nations, Assembly of First Nations: Principles for Revitalization of First Nations Languages Retrieved 25 October, 2009, from

Buszard-Welcher, L. (2001). Can technology save my language? In L. Hinton & K. L. Hale (Eds.), The green book of language revitalization (pp. 331-345). San Diego: Academic Press.

Castells, M. (1997). The information age. Vol. 2: The power of identity. Oxford: Blackwell.

Castells, M. (2007). Communication, Power and Counter-power in the Network Society. International Journal of Communication, 1, 238-288.
Croteau, D. (2003). Media society: Industries, images and audiences. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Pine Forge Press.

Dixon, R., Ramson, W., & Thomas, M. (1990). Australian aboriginal words in english: their origin and meaning. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Dockery, A. M. (2001). Culture and wellbeing: The case of indigenous australians. Centre for Labour Market Research & School of Economics and Finance

Dyson, L. E. (2003). Indigenous australians in the information age: Exploring issues of neutrality in information technology. Paper presented at the New Paradigms in Organizations, Markets and Society: Proceedings of the 11th European Conference on Information Systems (ECIS). from

Gill, S. (1995). Globalisation, market civilisation, and disciplinary neoliberalism. Journal of International Studies, 24(3), 399-423.

Ginsberg, F. (2002). Screening memories: Resignifying the traditional in indigenous media. In F. Ginsberg, L. Agu-Loughod & B. Larkin (Eds.), Media worlds: Anthropology on new terrain (pp. 39-57). London: University of California Press

Gorman, L. B. (2003). Indigenous people, development megaprojects, and Internet resistance. In J. Roberts & N. Thanos (Eds.), Trouble in paradise: Globalisation and environmental crises in latin america (pp. 165-200). London: Routledge.

Hourigan, N. (N/A, 6 October, 2009). Minority language media, globalisation and protest, from

Indigenous Peoples Issues and Resources (2009). Safeguarding Indigenous Peoples Language Retrieved 15 October, from

Kahn, R., & Kellner, D. (2006). Oppositional politics and the internet: A critical/reconstructive approach. In M. Durham & D. Kellner (Eds.), Media and Cultural Studies (pp. 703-706). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Landzelius, K. (2006). The meta-native and the militant activist; virtually saving the rainforest. In K. Landzelius (Ed.), Native on the net : Indigenous and diasporic peoples in the virtual age (pp. 112-132). Abingdon, Oxon; New York: Routledge.

Lee, H. (2006). Debating Language and identity online. In K. Landzelius (Ed.), Native on the Net (pp. 152-169). New York: Routledge.

Longchar, W. (2007). Traditions and cultures of indigenous people: continuity of indigenous people in asia. "Indigenous People -Spirituality and Peace", Asia Pacific Alliance of YMCAs and Interfaith Cooperation Forum Retrieved 16 October, 2009, from

Meikle, G. (2004). Networks of influence: Internet activism in australian and beyond. In G. Goggin (Ed.), Virtual nation: the internet in Australia (pp. 83-102). Sydney: UNSW Press.

Muecke, S., & Shoemaker, A. (2004). Aboriginal australians: First nations of an ancient land. London: Thames and Hudson.

N/A (2009). October 2009 Web Server Survey Retrieved 26 October, 2009, from

National Geographic (2009). Disappearing Languages: About the Project. Retrieved 25 October, 2009, from

Reuters (1997, 26 October). Australia tops list for vanishing languages. Podcast retrieved from

Settee, P. (2008). Native languages supporting indigenous knowledge. Permanent forum on Indigenous Issues, 2009.

Smith, C., Burke, H. & Ward, G. K. (2000). Globalisation and indigenous people: Threat or empowerment. In C. Smith & G. Ward (Eds.), Indigenous cultures in an interconnected world (pp. 1-27). St Leonards, N.S.W: Allen & Unwin.

Tomlinson, J. (N/A). Globalization and cultural identity. Retrieved 18 October, 2009, from

Warschauer, M. (2000). Language, identity, and the internet. In B. Kolko, L. Nakamura & G. Rodman (Eds.), Race in cyberspace (pp. 151-170). New York: Routlege.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Cross-Cultural Collaboration and Representation in ‘Indigenous’ Film: An analysis of collaborative outcomes in Ten Canoes

This essay will discuss the potential of cross-cultural collaborative film in defining and or challenging hegemonic representations of Indigenous peoples; the focus being primarily towards Australian Aboriginal peoples. Using the recent film Ten Canoes, (Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr, 2006) made in collaboration between the non-Indigenous director Rolf de Heer and the Yolngu people of Ramingining, this essay will discuss whether cross-collaborative film projects can practically and effectively empower Indigenous peoples as a method of resistance to cultural domination and exploitation and also as a new form of cultural memory and renewal, what Eric Michaels (1987) has called a ‘cultural future’.

A History of Misrepresentation

Representations of Aboriginal peoples in Australian film have historically been both informed by racist ideologies and conducive to the strengthening of these ideologies in mainstream Australian culture (Turner 1988, 135). Films ‘about’ (made without the collaboration of Aboriginal peoples) Aboriginal peoples in Australia continue to reinforce the hegemonic structures of cultural domination and marginalisation of Aboriginal people from the Australian mainstream. (Langton 1983). Leading Aboriginal academic Marcia Langton (1983) argues that forms of media communication in Australia have been and continue to be one of the most powerful means of defining ‘Aboriginality’. This concept of Aboriginality, Langton explains, is not solely a label to do with skin colour or the ‘ideas a person carries around in his/her head which might be labelled Aboriginal’ (e.g. kinship, language). It is understood in the same sense as the sociologist Emile Durkheim, a social thing which is constructed by both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. Importantly, the construction of Aboriginality in Australia has been largely informed, not by dialogue with Aboriginal people, but by the imagined representations of white Australia. Put simply in Langton’s (1983, 33) evocative and powerful words, ‘Australians do not know and relate to Aboriginal people, they relate to stories told by former colonists’.

Changing representations of Aboriginal people in Australian films have historically been subject to the particular agendas of white filmmakers and the hegemonic ideologies which inform and support their work (Turner 1988). Much of the post-colonial criticism of films about Aboriginal people is focused upon the more easily definable racist ideologies which underpin these popular representations (Turner 1988, 136). A synopsis of these criticisms has been outlined by Graeme Turner (1988, 136);

Most discussions of the representation of Aborigines in Australian films argue that they patronise the Aboriginal as a confused primitive; or represent them as limited and constrained by their race (or their ‘blood’) in ways not experienced by whites; or see them as a disappearing, anachronistic species for whom we should accept responsibility and feel sympathy.

The most obvious critique (and the most popular) of the continual production and re-production of racist representations, formed in lieu of cross-cultural dialogue, is that they naturalise racist assumptions within the symbols and mythology of dominant Australian culture (Turner 1988, 136, Langton 2003, 115). Turner, (1988, 136-137) however, goes a step further than most critics by questioning the ideological underpinnings of the critical calls for corrective intervention, which tend to define representation as ‘the work of accurately capturing, rather than ideologically constituting the real’. In other words, the theoretical intervention of white academics who seek to remedy the racist ideologies of mainstream Australian culture are subject to the same tendency (as the mainstream audiences) to disregard their own subjectivity, ‘to look into the mirror’ as the proverbial saying goes.

What is needed then is the construction of ‘Aboriginalities’ in actual dialogue between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in order to effectively dissolve racist representations of Aboriginal people. This need is echoed in Faye Ginsberg’s (1994, 2002) call for the creation of a ‘new discursive space’ to situate Aboriginal media in Australia; as a ‘discourse’ between Aboriginal peoples and dominant societal forces. The particular meaning of discourse in this context is explained by Marcia Langton (1987, 36);

The term discourse is the sense meant by Michel Foucault as a system of power. The subject speaks back, and the dominant culture is informed by Aboriginal cultural practices, particularly practices of resistance.

In this sense, self-representation is a powerful tool for ‘speaking back’ to the dominant ideologies which have historically been deaf to Aboriginal voices. However, if taken as the only avenue for Aboriginal representation in Australia, self-representation can become a trap which essentialises Aboriginal people (Davis 2007, 6). In relation to this problem, Marcia Langton (1983, 27) argues that;

There is a naive belief that Aboriginal people will make ‘better’ representations of us, [Aboriginal peoples] simply because being Aboriginal gives ‘greater‘ understanding. This belief is based on an ancient and universal feature of racism: the assumption of the undifferentiated Other. More specifically, the assumption that all Aborigines are alike and equally understand each other, without regard to cultural variation, history, gender, sexual preference and so on. It is a demand for censorship: there is a ‘right’ way to be Aboriginal, and any Aboriginal film or video producer will necessarily make a ‘true’ representation of ‘Aboriginality’.

Accordingly, the problem of Aboriginal representations in Australia is not simply an Aboriginal problem to be addressed by superficial processes of self-representation. In order to avoid a history of misrepresentation what is required of non-Aboriginal filmmakers is an acknowledgement of the role of white Australia in defining and perpetuating Aboriginal representations in Australia. Only from this position of self-awareness will non-Aboriginal people involved in cross-cultural collaboration with Aboriginal peoples be able to avoid the more subtle elements of racist representations.

Protocols and Guidelines: Theory Vs. Practice

As recognition of the history of colonial exploitation of Aboriginal peoples has become more prevalent in Australia, there has been an institutional response in the form of ethical protocols and guidelines for non-Indigenous filmmakers working with Aboriginal peoples (Davis 2007, 6). Protocols and guidelines such as the SBS Independent Guidelines (Bostock 1990, Johnson 2000) were introduced with the intention of making formal recognition that;

Development, production and dissemination of films involving Aboriginal issues and stories are subject to ethics common to media practice in all their works. And issues of appropriation, of respectful cultural representation, of equity and creative control are particularly pertinent to collaborative processes in relation to Aboriginal stories. (as cited in Peters-Little 1993)

Ethical guidelines and protocols provide a framework for cross-collaborative film which ensures that non-Indigenous participants are informed by the cultural requirements of Aboriginal people and that the production of these films reflect such awareness (Janke 2009, 11). Whilst the theoretical underpinning of these guidelines and protocols promote equally beneficial cross-cultural collaboration, they are often problematic in that they are extremely difficult to practically achieve (Peters-Little 1993). The difficulties, ranging from the unfamiliarity of actors and other participants with filming procedures and techniques, to the differing intentions of Aboriginal people involved in the creative process, have led Francis Peters-Little (1993) to conclude that;

In fact the protocols are almost impossible to follow filmmakers, writers and artists are constantly faced with the demand that their work be approved by the Aboriginal community, yet this demand is almost impossible to meet.

Accordingly, the impracticability of ethical protocols and guidelines for cross-cultural collaboration in Australia means that the ultimate value of these films, for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, can be most adequately judged after their production. The challenge, argues Frances Peters-Little, (1993) ‘is for black and white filmmakers to become more courageous in their representations of Aboriginal people, as human beings deserving of justice and constructive criticism’. Thus, what is needed are cross-cultural films which celebrate both the unique differences of cultures and their interconnectedness. Accordingly, the central focus of the next section of this essay is an analysis of the collaborative project Ten Canoes (Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr 2006) in the light of such needs.

Cross-Cultural Collaboration in Ten Canoes

The critically acclaimed film Ten Canoes is a particularly significant example of cross-cultural collaboration between Aboriginal people (Yolngu people of Ramingining, North-East Arnhem Land) and a non-Indigenous Australian director (Rolf de Heer). In light of this essay, part of the significance of the project is due to the propensity of the film to facilitate the meaningful communication of a unique cultural (specifically Yolngu) story to audiences unfamiliar with such content. Because of its wide popular appeal, Ten Canoes has the capacity to add considerable substance to the development of a new discursive space within which non-Aboriginal people are given access to a powerful vision of Aboriginal culture and a rich spectrum of representations. Accordingly, the purpose of this analysis is to discover whether this film has been successful in adding to this new discursive space between cultures and further, how it enables the empowerment of the Aboriginal people who called for and made this film possible.

Bringing the two cultures together

The difficulty with cross-cultural collaboration between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in Australian is not solely a product of cultural difference, although this is certainly an important factor. Any such collaboration in Australia cannot avoid the vestiges of a history of colonial oppression; the continued legacies of exploitation and inequality and the existing structures of hegemonic dominance (Langton 1983, 24). Central to the continuation of this hegemonic dominance in film is the positioning of white filmmakers (behind the lens) as subject and Aboriginal peoples as objects (Langton 1983, 39). Accordingly, the task then for de Heer in making Ten Canoes possible, was to bring a Yolngu story into the folds of Western media paradigms whilst retaining its cultural integrity; an endeavour which requires both an acute awareness of the history of dominance and misrepresentation and a reflexive self-awareness which rejects the objectification of Aboriginal peoples. In what can be seen as a response to this awareness, de Heer carefully defines his role in the Ten Canoes project as a medium between the Yolngu people of Ramingining and the Western media forms with which he is familiar. This is evidenced by the following statements;

People talk about, what is a white director doing making an Indigenous story? But I’m not... They’re telling the story, largely, and I’m the mechanism by which they can (as quoted in Starrs 2007).

The way of storytelling that [the Yolngu people] have is different to our storytelling, and it really was a question of trying to combine these two. I wanted to make something and they wanted to make something that was authentic to them, and mostly from their point of view. That was OK without it being articulated, but I understood also that it had to work in a Western storytelling tradition. It had to combine the two. If there was one big issue for me all the time, it was how best to fuse the two things so that it’s authentic to them but it works for us. (as quoted in Davis 2007, 7).

What these two statements reveal about cross-cultural collaboration is that these kind of projects are unavoidably permeated by both cultures’ differing systems of knowledge and practice. Thus, in attempting to bring the two together, in fulfilling the needs of both cultures, the utilisation of a dynamic hybrid mode of storytelling is paramount to the success of the project.

Collaborative Outcomes in Ten Canoes

The importance of Ten Canoes for both cinema and inter-cultural relations in Australia is suitably measured by its ability to successfully live up to the intentions of the Yolngu people of Ramingining, (as represented here by the famed Aboriginal actor and collaborator in this project David Gulpilil) which was to ‘allow people in the community and around the world to know how our ancestors lived and to understand them’ (as cited in Davis 2007, 5). For ‘people around the world,’ it is exactly this exposure to knowledge, which is given directly by the Yolngu people, that can be seen as constituting a progressive step towards cultural understanding. In other words, gaining access to an ‘emic’ (coming from within the culture) Aboriginal cultural perspective, involves a more intimate understanding of those who are other, an experience which is central to the breakdown of racist stereotypes and assumptions (Headland et al. 1990).

In order to facilitate the translation of cultural knowledge into something accessible for non-Aboriginal audiences, de Heer was required to challenge conventional Western filmmaking practices (Davis 2007, 10). An example of this was in the unorthodox casting procedures of Ten Canoes which saw the final responsibility for who would act in the film ceded, largely because of their intimate knowledge of kinship systems, (the upholding of these systems is necessary in Yolngu culture as there is not the same distinction between ‘real’ and fictional realities as in Western traditions) to senior Yolngu people involved in the film (Davis 2007, 11). Similarly, Ten Canoes broke new ground in the recognition of Indigenous property rights by recognising the Ramingining community’s entitlement to ownership of all artifacts and sets made for and used in the film (Davis 2007, 7).

In many ways, Ten Canoes offers a vision of Aboriginal culture and history which challenges the hegemonic representations of Aboriginal peoples, their cultures and histories in Australia (Davis 2007, 11). The use language in the film is one important example of this, as is argued by Starrs (2007) in the following passage;

By privileging the Ganalbingu dialogue for the actors, an indigenous accent for the English voice-over by well-known Aboriginal actor Gulpilil, and an Aboriginal style of cascading repetition narration, de Heer’s film articulates as Aboriginal in three ways and serves as a rare example of cinema that elevates the marginalised Aboriginal people and their overlooked culture.

In similar fashion, Davis (2007, 11) argues that the way in which the narration (in English by David Gupilil) is used in the film, ‘acknowledge[s] the contemporaneity of the Yolngu people... by bringing the mythical past into the present, the ‘now time’ of the film’s reception’.

One of the most powerful outcomes of Ten Canoes lies in the way representations of Aboriginal people contest hegemonic representations in Australia (Davis 2007, 10). Starrs (2007) expands this point succinctly when he states that;

The “magpie goose people” of Arnhem Land are portrayed as empowered and in control of their language, their culture and their lives, rather than conforming with the frequent media presentation of Aboriginals as passive victims of colonial aggression, disrespect, and maltreatment.

The inter-cultural value of this alternative vision of Aboriginal culture is that it gives non-Aboriginal people access to positive and strong representations of Aboriginal culture. This is largely facilitated by the development of archetypal characters with a rich and diverse range of human characteristics (Davis 2007, 10).

Arguably the most significant outcome of the Ten Canoes project is in its integration of a story from the cultural past into the present, constituting, in the words of Eric Michaels, (1987) ‘a cultural future,’ within which film acts as a new medium for continuing cultural memory. Considered also the renewal of traditional practices such as the making of bark canoes and goose egg hunting, the Ten Canoes project can be seen as an empowering and uplifting experience for the Yolngu people, as evidenced by the following comment from Michael Dawu, who plays one of the ten canoeists;

Ten Canoes […] brings me my memory back and my energy. You wake me up. I have to thank you [Rolf] for it, because you was like this […] ‘Hey, come on, get up, you’ll have to bring your memory.’ But memory gone. ‘Here, you’ll have to follow like that then, like the old people, and you can make this one film and bring that memory back!’ (as quoted in Davis 2006).


The history of exploitation and misrepresentation of Aboriginal peoples in Australian film has been recurrently shown in this essay as a symptom of cultural dominance and hegemonic power. Accordingly the difficulties involved in cross-cultural collaborations in film become amplified when undertaken in a setting wherein one culture occupies a dominant position over the other. It is thus with an awareness of this imbalance and a willingness to act in subversion of hegemonic ideologies that cross-cultural collaborations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Australian can begin to turn the tide of ill informed and harmful representations of Aboriginal people as the other in Australian society. Ten Canoes does just this. Whilst being subject to the ever-present problems of history and cultural difference, the overriding effect of the film is to enrich cross-cultural relations in Australia by giving non-Aboriginal people a meaningful insight into Aboriginal culture whilst simultaneously giving Aboriginal people a voice to speak loudly for themselves. Ultimately, de Heer’s role in Ten Canoes can bee seen as a defining feature of his films in that ‘the fundamental goal of [his] films can be seen as one of providing an amplified voice for the unheard, the marginalised, the Other.’ (Starrs 2007).


Bostock, Lester. The Greater Perspective: A guideline for the production of film and television on Aborigines and Torres Straight Islanders. Sydney: Special Broadcasting Service, 1990.

Davis, T.

‘Working Together: One Film, Two Cultures, Many Canoes: A Review of Ten Canoes and Balanda and the Bark Canoes,’ Senses of Cinema, 41, (2006, October–December) html
Accessed 24 October 2009.

‘Remembering our ancestors: cross-cultural collaboration and the mediation of Aboriginal culture and history in Ten Canoes (Rolf de Heer, 2006),’ Studies in Australasian Cinema, 1: 1, (2007) pp. 5–14.

Ginsberg, F.

‘Mediating Culture: Indigenous Media, Ethnographic Film, and the Production of Identity,’ in The Anthropology of Media: A Reader, edited by Kelly Michelle Askew, Richard R. Wilk, Oxford: Blackwell Pubishers, 2002. pp. 210-236.

‘Embedded Aesthetics: Creating a Discursive Space for Indigenous Media,’ Cultural Anthropology, 9: 3, (August, 1994) pp. 365-382.

Headland, Thomas, Kenneth Pike, and Marvin Harris, eds, Emics and Etics: The Insider/Outsider Debate, Sage Publications 1990.

Janke, Terri. Pathways and Protocols: A filmmaker’s guide to working with Indigenous people, culture and concepts. Sydney: Screen Australia, 2009.

Langton, M.

Well, I Heard it on the Radio and I Saw it on the Television: an Essay for the Australian Film Commission on the Politics and Aesthetics of Filmmaking by and about Aboriginal People and Things, Sydney: Australian Film Commission, 1983.

‘Aboriginal Art and Film: The Politics of Representation,’ in Blacklines: Contemporary Critical Writing by Indigenous Australians, edited by Ian Anderson and Michele Grossman, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2003. pp. 109-121.

Michaels, Eric. ‘For a Cultural Future: Frances Jupurrurla Makes TV at Yuendumu,’ Art and Criticism Series 3, (1987) Sydney: Artspace.

Peters-Little, F. ‘The Impossibility of Pleasing Everybody: A Legitimate Role For White Filmmakers Making Black Film,’ Australian Humanities Review, (2003)
Accessed 23 November 2009.

Starrs, D.Bruno. ‘The authentic Aboriginal voice in Rolf de Heer's “Ten Canoes,” Reconstruction: Studies in contemporary culture, 7: 3, (2007)
Accessed 23 November 2009.

Turner, G. ‘Breaking the Frame: The Representation of Aborigines in Australian Film,’ in Aboriginal Culture Today, edited by A. Rutherford, Copenhagen: Dangaroo Press, 1988. pp. 135–45.