Cover of book: The Passion of Private White

Don Watson
The Passion of Private White

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this review contains the names of deceased persons.

This is a tale of two tribes – one ancient, one modern, both wounded and alienated – and how they came together. It’s a story of complicated and generous friendships between the Yolŋu community on the homeland of Donydji in Arnhem Land and a group of PTSD-stricken Vietnam vets, especially between the senior man, Tom Gunaminy Bidingal, and the anthropologist Neville White.

Gunaminy was among “the last of the nomadic hunter-gatherers”, devoted to the continuation of his culture and the preservation of his land. White was the son of a boxer of poor Irish descent who first travelled to Donydji for research in 1974, and who became Gunaminy’s dedicated ally, student, translator and occasional scribe.

The focus of The Passion of Private White is White himself, in all his ardent, battle-scarred complexity. White developed deep ties with the community in Donydji, learning language and eventually shedding the anthropological pretence of being a neutral observer to become a helpmate and advocate. It was with the community’s consent that he brought in fellow vets to work with the younger men to help build the infrastructure that chronically incompetent and heedless government agencies failed to provide, while teaching them valuable mechanical and other skills. It is not, thankfully, a white saviour story: in many ways, it’s Donydji who saves the vets. But it’s also a tale far messier and more interesting than that.

Gunaminy left a wealth of cultural teachings and his moral example to Donydji’s increasingly restless young generations. White, who is still alive, left oral, visual and written records that are among the community’s “vital defences” against future mining and other outsider claims on the land.

Don Watson first met White 50 years ago and travelled with him to Donydji for the first time in 2005, meeting Gunaminy on that trip. The author of Keating’s Redfern speech and an astute observer of political, linguistic and social change and dysfunction, Watson is fascinated by White and the worlds in which he moved. There are, unsurprisingly, no weasel words here: the “early missions”, Watson states, “were essentially concentration camps” and the first miners “crept across the land like a guerrilla army”. The book is an intimate portrait of both White and Donydji, a cultural history and a critical examination of the purposes and practices of anthropology. It is also about tenacity, commitment, listening – and humanity itself.

Scribner, 336pp, $49.99

This piece was updated on February 4, 2023, to make clear that Neville White is still alive.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 4, 2023 as "The Passion of Private White, Don Watson".

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