At the beginning of the new millennium, there are two issues that best frame the interface of indigenous and non-indigenous Australia – reconciliation and native title. These issues have had a roller coaster ride through the front line of Australian culture and politics over the last decade and, I believe, reflect the current state of relations between indigenous and non indigenous Australians better than any other issues or rhetoric.
Practically speaking, Australian Reconciliation represents the acknowledgement of past injustices suffered by Indigenous Australians at the hands of European invaders (colonisers, convicts and settlers), and the initiation of the healing process.
Symbolically, it should represent a unified Australian future – a future free of the fears and phobias currently compounding and repeating those injustices. Paradoxically, it is the “neo-assimilist” attitudes of Howardism and Hansonism that have stalled this process.
Their proponents consider the acknowledgement of the past, and any subsequent apology or amends, as being diversive. Assimilist philosophy reeks of the enforced integration policies of the past.
There are many still alive today who remember Dr Cecil Cook, Northern Territory Chief Protector of Aborigines from 1927 to 1939, say, “The problem of our half-castes will quickly be eliminated by the complete disappearance of the black race, and the swift submergence of their progeny in the white.” (SMH, 04/04/00)
Such components of Howardism are so offensive to Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians that the Prime Minister’s possibly genuine desires for “practical reconciliation” (Neill, 2002) are intrinsically flawed and will fail. Reconciliation Australia, (the former Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation) defines reconciliation as “a united Australia which respects this land of ours, values the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage and provides justice and equity for all”.
(www. rec, 2000)
Native title, as a physical manifestation of Reconciliation, is the token of that future. The High Court legitimised the legal concept in 1992 by stating, “the common law of this country recognises a form of native title which, in the cases where it has not been extinguished, reflects the entitlement of the indigenous inhabitants, in accordance with their laws or customs, to their traditional lands”. (www. nntt, 2002). “The past informs the present” at the philosophical and spiritual heart of the Reconciliation and Native Title movements.
It is here Aboriginal identity directly draws on traditional societies and culture in an attempt to survive and redress the effects and consequences of European invasion. Traditional Indigenous notions of ownership and relationship are intrinsic elements of that identity and subsequently, both movements. “Ownership” in an Aboriginal sense differs dramatically from its western counterpart. Where it suggests control and dominion in a European understanding, Aboriginal ownership suggests responsibility, custodianship and identity. Rather than land belonging to them, Indigenous Australians see themselves as “belonging to the land”.(Parbury, 1988 p. 14)
Indigenous artist Jimmy Pike articulated the essence of Aboriginal ownership and the absurdity of “Crown Land” when he asked how the Queen could own his Walmajarri land when “she doesn’t even know where the waterholes are”. (SMH, 02/06/01 Spectrum p. 4) “Relationship” (to people, land and spirit), in traditional Indigenous societies, follows a complex matrix of customs and cultural pretexts embodied in The Dreaming (Myers, 1991 p. 47) and although Western notions may sometimes reflect similar characteristics, all too often Western pretexts are arbitrary and subject to negotiation.(Danaher et al, 2000 p. 31)
This is confusing to Indigenous people. Their culture has no such ambiguity. The Dreaming, underpins traditional Indigenous societies, creating a “sophisticated network of relationships, rights and obligations [where] everyone is related and all relationships are respected – kinship is the fabric of Aboriginal society” (Parbury, 1988 p. 15) Even after two hundred years of exposure to such Indigenous notions, the collective psyche of non-indigenous Australia seems entirely unable to grasp these concepts.
The apparent alien-ness of these notions, when juxtaposed with their western equivalents, epitomises the current discord and conflict in the relationship between non-indigenous Australia and its original inhabitants. Aboriginal notions of “relationship” hinge directly on the complex cultural pretexts of a pre-invasion society. How Indigenous Australian social structures operated for example, led Levi Strauss to observe back in 1956 that such structures were “so far ahead of the rest of mankind that to understand the careful and deliberate systems of rules they have elaborated [would require] all the refinements of modern mathematics”.(Rowley, 1971 p. 188)
This fairly crude though accurate assumption demonstrates the difficulty explaining these notions in a western framework. That we might need mathematics for example, to comprehend complex human inter-relationships is somewhat sad really. Language further highlights cultural incongruities between New Australians and Old Australians – the concept of “sorry” for example is problematic in the sense that there is no Aboriginal word for it (Parbury, 1988 p.22), and there appears no need for it – traditional Aboriginal law is clear, as is its amends process. LR Hiatt explains the traditional system (in the first person).
All my rights, privileges and obligations are defined on the basis of kinship, either actual or classificatory; and as I grow up, I also learn rules of etiquette which constrain or shape my behavior towards others according to my predetermined relationship with them. In short, kinship rules provide a total framework for social interaction”.(Hiatt, 1987 pp. 175-176)
“Sorry” in Indigenous culture appears to be a culturally intrinsic action, rather than a word, and relatively devoid of the western values of (often false) virtue assigned to it. The Native Title movement began with the Land Rights movement in the 1970’s. Native title is the “traditional Aboriginal right of access, use or occupation of land… based on traditional laws and customs and can include any combination of living, hunting, gathering, fishing, and ceremonial rights of access”.
Professor Marcia Langton, chairwomen of Indigenous studies at the University of Melbourne, explains the historical precedent. “After the US war of independence, chief justice (John) Marshall of the US Supreme Court explored the dilemma of the conflicting rights of settlers and indigenous people and adopted the compromise known as “native title at common law”. (The Age, 01/06/02 p. 4) This legal notion heralded an age of negotiation between imperial powers and indigenous people throughout the “new world”.
Unfortunately (and ironically) for Indigenous Australians, Great Britain no longer controlled Australia. The world’s newest federation was becoming the working man’s paradise – freed from the oppressive shadows of British and European class structures. In a strange perversion of Marxist philosophy, the New Australians adopted a xenophobic national attitude reflected in publications of the day. The Lone Hand ‘s inaugural issue in the early 1900’s, proclaimed an “Honest, Clean, White Australia” and The Bulletin constantly referred to “The Asiatic Menace” (Plate, 2001).
In a disturbingly familiar timeline of events, the general political ambivalence and apathy that existed throughout the 1890’s, prior to Federation, was overcome by an active political agenda that incited racist fears of supplantation and invasion and resulted in a successful vote for an independent Commonwealth, who’s first two legislative acts were The Alien Immigration Act, 1901 (The White Australia Policy) and the Pacific Islanders Labourers Act, 1901 – designed to force second generations out of Australia.(AFR, 07/12/01 p. 4)
In a paper presented to the International Conference on Postcolonial Studies last year, the UTS’s Cassi Plate suggests such origins indicate a more sinister underbelly to the current national consciousness than simple ignorance, or resistance to a “black armband view of history” (Frost, 1997 pp. 23-24). She proposes that “Australian nationalism holds assumptions of white supremacy at its core” as seen in the “outbreaks of white panic” at the end of the last two centuries.
She suggests “Our dirty secret of stolen land [is breeding] fears of new waves of theft from new invaders from the north”. (Plate, 2001) One could suggest that White Australia is not so much informed by its past as trapped by it. It is this past, driven by fear, that continues to dispossess an entire culture. (Wright, 1985 p. 20)