Toward the end of the 19th century, metal tools began to filter into the territory of the Yir Yoront, a tribe of the Australian Aborigines. Of particular significance to the Yir Yorontwas the introduction of the steel ax.
While the Aborigines themselves could not manufacture steel ax heads, a steady supply came from missionaries. Tribal members who attended mission festivals were presented with steel axes, but older members of the Yir Yoront shied away from such gatherings because of their earlier experience or knowledge of White people’s harshness. Therefore, women and younger men were more likely to own a steel ax.
Ownership of a steel ax emerged as a measure of status. This was especially significant because the stone ax had generally been possessed by elder males and thus was a symbol of authority. Other tribal members would have to come to an elder if they wanted to use a stone ax, but the possession of the superior steel axes by women and younger men changed all that. A wife or a young son, still uninitiated into adulthood, no longer needed to bow to the husband or father. Instead, the elder, confused and insecure, might have to borrow a steel ax from them. For the woman and boy, the steel ax helped establish a new degree of freedom that was readily accepted as they moved away from traditional values. Also, women, by virtue of ownership of this artifact of outside culture, had a trading power denied to older men.
By the mid-1930s, the Yir Yoront had maintained some of their Aboriginal identity amidst the increasing acceptance of European inventions and values, but the general passing of their culture led Lauristan Sharp to conclude that the Yir Yoront “has passed beyond the reach of any outsider who might wish to do him well or ill . . .” See L. Sharp, “Steel Axes for Stone-Age Australians,” in Technological Change. New York: Russell Sage, 1952, pp. 69–90.
Discuss the changes in the Yir Yoront due to the steel axe. Are there any other cultures that you know of that have hardened themselves against outside influence?
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