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For Undergrads, a 'Magical' Trip

By Ken Eastwood

The three-week Australian expedition with anthropology professors Doug and Rebecca Bliege Bird is one of the most popular courses in Stanford's extensive undergraduate seminar program. For this trip, the Birds had 80 applicants, and chose 15 through an unconventional process that included team games and having hopefuls meet their daughters. The group represented a range of disciplines and a diverse ethnic potpourri, including native Hawaiian islanders and native North Americans.

A course prior to the trip grounded the students in Martu culture, and the fieldwork provided a richer appreciation, Rebecca notes. "Students really can't understand what it means to share in an egalitarian society unless they've actually had to give away their last granola bar to a hungry old lady. The students immersed themselves in the daily business of life in the bush with great eagerness."

One participant, sophomore Ravi Sankar, who is studying computer science, was delighted when he was picked. "I thought it'd be interesting to see a different culture—a real contrast with Southern California. It also just sounded wild."

A typical day involved driving to a hunting location and following a goanna hunter for three to four kilometers, observing and documenting her activities. After tramping through the desert for several hours, Rebecca says, the students returned to a rendezvous point in late afternoon "tired, thirsty, sweaty, gritty with sand on their face, skin cracked and dry." The hunting party regrouped, collected wood for a fire, made tea and cooked the goanna they had caught. As night fell, they all piled into the car and headed back to camp.

The final night was especially memorable, says Rebecca. The students traded traditional songs with the locals—Hawaiian chants, mariachi songs—and Rebecca and her daughter performed "Big Rock Candy Mountain." "Then a young [Aboriginal] man from Bidyadanga, a community on the coast, pulled out his guitar and sang some contemporary Aboriginal rock pieces that he'd written. We finished the night with 'Brown Eyed Girl.' It was, in the words of one Martu, 'magical.'"

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