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“Down Among The Wild Men”

John Greenway’s aboriginal epic

by Keith Purtell

folklorist John Greenway (Dec. 15, 1919-Oct. 15, 1991), born Johannes Groeneweg
John Greeway

“Down Among The Wild Men” is a gritty, riveting portrait of aboriginal society and folklorist John Greenway himself. He describes horrifying initiation rituals among the Pitjantjatjara, their intelligence and charm, their toughness in a brutal climate, and their religious wisdom.

Greenway’s 361-page account of 15 years among the Aborigines of Western Australia doesn’t read like a traditional anthropologist’s report.

The book is a non-fiction “Gulliver’s Travels”; a traveler’s tale into a very real twilight world where an ancient society operates by rules that don’t have anything to do with the white man’s preconceptions. Greenway tackles the narrative like the rough-and-tumble scholar he is.

The book doesn’t end in Australia but goes on (in the epilogue) to describe Greenway’s teaching at the University of Colorado. At one point, he carried a tire iron into a confrontation with college radicals who tried to disrupt his class. From liberal professor to reserve policeman and volunteer deputy sheriff, Greenway did it all. This remarkable tale brings to life decades of experience, filtered through a first-class mind and seasoned with acerbic wit.

John Greenway
At Keibara (Kaiabara1) Flint Mine, south Australia

DATWM is a journey not just to the other side of the globe, but from one end of the psychological spectrum to the other. Greenway peered deep into folkways around the globe and decided much of 20th-century Western society was irrelevant, self-indulgent malarkey.

Although Greenway (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) once referred to himself as an neofascist, he is really a no-nonsense moderate devoted to the importance of rational civil structure.

This book leaves the reader deeply respectful for the pragmatic Australian Aborigines.

And, at the conclusion, Greenway emerges as a blazing intellect with big, dirty knuckles.

Links to more of this author's books (new windows):

general Google search and “Folklore of the Great West”


Greenway’s humorous take on plagiarism.

Greenway’s scathing review of critics who reviewed the Australian film “Walkabout.”

Manfred Helfert makes a convincing argument that a folk music recording by Dr. Greenway was the inspiration for a Bob Dylan song. Related M. Helfert writing at Bob Dylan Roots


1Spelled Keiabara in the book, but contemporary online sources spell it Kaiabara. Indigenous people with this name live in both the southeast and northeast areas of Australia.