ADELAIDE - In a recent article, ‘Do You Understand Who We Are?’, Vanessa Gordon talks about culture and what this means to her as a proud Tolai, as well as to other Papua New Guineans. Clearly, Vanessa’s cultural background is important to her as it is to virtually all humans.
As I reflected upon her writing I started to wonder about this thing we call culture and what we really mean when we talk about it.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines culture as “the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a particular time”.
It then proceeds to give examples of the use of the word culture in reference to things like ethnicity, age, gender, religion and civilisation.
It immediately struck me that culture is a very slippery concept which we routinely use in a variety of different contexts to mean very different things.
So, for example, I had a colleague of English descent who was openly gay and thus a member of a particular cultural group based upon sexual orientation, but who publicly identified himself very specifically as Jewish.
I thought to myself, I wonder what culture he believes he belongs to?
I also thought about my own cultural heritage. I identify as a fifth generation, 100% true blue, dinkum Australian. My family history, the language I speak, my accent, my way of thinking and my apparent racial characteristics are distinctively post-1788 Australian.
However, my genetics tell a rather more complicated story.
From my father’s side of the family I have inherited genes that originated in Norway some time before 1592 when the name Overland first appears in England’s official records.
My surname is distinctively Norwegian, not Dutch as many have wrongly assumed (Overlander is Dutch) and some of my very distant relatives still live in and around Telemark in Norway.
The English Overlands appear to have lived for many centuries in the villages of Outwel and Upwel in Norfolk and Hilgay in Cambridgeshire.
I have tracked them back to 1772 in Outwel (which is exactly one mile from Upwel) and have little doubt that they had been there for a long time before then. My very distant relatives still live in these villages.
On my mother’ side, I have inherited genes that, so far as I can tell, originated in Cornwall. I have been able to track my Cornish ancestors back to a specific place called Nancledra.
This is a tiny village with a current population of 150 people. For at least 200 years (but probably very much longer) it was the home of my ancestors, who engaged in mining tin.
No lords of the manor are found amongst my Cornish mob, just a long succession of poor miners, most of whom would have died relatively young from silicosis or TB contracted in the mines, assuming some other awful communicable disease didn’t get them first.
The Cornish will proudly tell you that they are definitely not English, despite being part of England. There is a good deal of historic evidence that they are right, not the least of which being that they once spoke a completely different language.
Old Cornish, as it is now known, is still spoken by a small number of people, but was widely spoken until the latter part of the 18th century.
Accordingly to Wikipedia, Cornish (Kernowek) is a Brittonic Celtic language that is native to Cornwall in south-west England. The language is considered to be an important part of Cornish identity, culture and heritage.
Sadly, I cannot speak a word of it although I am proud to say that I can make the famous Cornish pasties thanks to my Mother’s tuition in my youth.
The English long regarded the Cornish as peculiar, regarding their oddities as being derived from their ancestral connection to the ancient Britons, the remnants of whom fled from the Roman invaders in the first century and took up residence in what is now Cornwall.
They had a reputation for being suspicious of strangers and rather secretive. This was probably because they were notorious smugglers and wreckers and so engaged in constant low key warfare with the despised excise men who strove to stamp out both activities.
With this background, I have to admit that identifying a specific culture for me and my family to claim can be a bit tricky. I am proud of my Cornish, Norwegian, English and Australian heritage but completely stumped as to what this really means in a cultural context.
For example, when I visited my ancestral villages in both Cornwall and Norfolk I felt profoundly out of place. I felt no particular emotional or sentimental attachment to these places. I was just a curious tourist looking around two small and obscure villages where life still proceeds at the very placid pace I imagine it has for centuries. I had no yearning to be amongst “my people”, let alone take up Morris Dancing.
In truth, I reckon I am actually a very multicultural person, albeit cunningly disguised as a bog standard English blow-in to Australia. To my great disappointment, I cannot find any family links to Aboriginal people which would allow me to anchor myself firmly in the continent I love very much.
These days, when identity is such a hot topic, we collectively seem to have permission to define ourselves however we choose.
For example, one woman in America, despite being born into a white Anglo Saxon family, has consciously chosen to redefine herself as an African American. She has persisted with this fantasy despite her parents pointing out the blindingly obvious. She argues that her belief negates any of the more obvious signs that her cultural background may not be as she claims.
Bearing this in mind, perhaps I should self identify as, say, a Viking. There are enough Scandinavian genes in me to make this plausible, although I would probably look rather silly in a helmet decorated with cow horns and I absolutely hate snow.
Of course, more than a few Papua New Guineans may have my problem these days. There has by now been a lot of inter marriage between tribal groups, so figuring out if you are a Simbu or Tolai or Orokaiva or Goaribari or Huli or something else may be a bit tricky.
These days we know that, if you go back far enough, we are all related somehow. We all ultimately spring from the same root stock. Our collective ancestor was a small, nervous, primate who somehow contrived to survive, thrive, evolve and multiply to produce we homo sapiens sapiens.
So we are all one family really, with the annoying collective habit of insisting that we are not.
Culture is important but our collective humanity is more so. I reckon that is something we should all bear in mind.
Ever so sightly edited by Keith Jackson whose genetic make-up is 80% English (who were puzzled by the Cornish), 10% Italian, 5% Spanish and 5% Finnish