An Australian publishing house was forced to apologise today for a book that encourages girls to play the didgeridoo, an instrument that in Aboriginal culture is usually reserved for men.
Aboriginal academics accused HarperCollins of “extreme cultural insensitivity” over its decision to include instructions on playing the didgeridoo in an Australian edition of a British bestseller, The Daring Book for Girls.
Traditionally, women do not even handle the long, tubular instrument, which has been part of indigenous culture for thousands of years, and is played at funerals and initiation ceremonies. Some Aboriginal people believe that girls who break the taboo will be infertile.
Mark Rose, head of the Victorian Aboriginal Education Association, said that HarperCollins had committed “an extreme faux pas” by publishing a chapter on didgeridoo playing. “I wouldn’t let my daughter touch one,” he said. “I reckon it’s the equivalent of encouraging someone to play with razor blades. I would say pulp it.”
In Britain, where the activity manual and its companion volume, The Dangerous Book for Boys, were originally published, both have been bestsellers. In the US, the two books have been on the New York Times bestseller list for months.
HarperCollins Australia, which will release its version of the girls’ book next month, has replaced some of the original content with material aimed at the local market, such as the rules of netball and instructions on how to surf.
Shona Martyn, the company’s publishing director, initially defended the didgeridoo chapter, saying she was not convinced that all Aboriginal people would be offended by it. But today she bowed to pressure, issuing a statement apologising “unreservedly” for any offence caused, and saying that the chapter would be replaced when the book was reprinted.
Dr Rose , who spoke out after an advance copy of the book was circulated, told ABC radio today that the ignorance of the general public was also to blame. “I would say, from an indigenous perspective, [it was] an extreme mistake, but part of a general ignorance that mainstream Australia has about Aboriginal culture,” he said.
Dr Rose said that, in indigenous culture, there was “men’s business” and “women’s business”. He said: “The didgeridoo is definitely a men’s business ceremonial tool. We know very clearly that there’s a range of consequences for a female touching a didgeridoo. Infertility would be the start of it.”
His views were echoed by an indigenous author, Anita Heiss, who is chair of the Australian Society of Authors. “I haven’t seen the book, but that sort of stuff, had it been written by an indigenous person, or had they actually spoken to an indigenous person … clearly that chapter wouldn’t have been in there,” she said.
“It’s cultural ignorance, and it’s a slap in the face to indigenous people and to indigenous writers who are actually writing in the field.”
The didgeridoo, believed to be the world’s oldest wind instrument, is made from tree trunks and branches naturally hollowed out by termites. Traditionally made and played only in northern Australia, it is now found across much of the country, largely because of tourist demand.
While most Aboriginal cultures consider it a man’s instrument, not all believe that women should never touch or play it.