Aboriginal voices in 'the good country'

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Prime Minister Turnbull has been widely criticised for refusing a recommendation by the Referendum Council to enshrine in the Constitution a national Indigenous representative council. He argued it was 'contrary to the principles of equality and citizenship'. A recent book provides a rich perspective for reflecting on his decision.

The Good Country by Bain AttwoodIn The Good Country Monash University Professor Bain Attwood demonstrates how important are local histories that detail the variety of relationships involved in the initial contact between Indigenous Australians and white settlers. Such histories test and qualify the larger characterisations of these contacts as settlement, occupation, invasion, frontier war, and so on.

Attwood studies carefully the contacts in the Djadja Wurrung territory north west of Melbourne, and the various incidents in which some 30 Indigenous and ten settlers are known to have been killed between 1838 and 1842.

He sketches their complexity, including the earlier effects of small pox on Indigenous peoples, the hostile relationships between the Djadja Wurrung and the neighbouring and more aggressive Daung Wurrung, the fear of the settlers, the implacable hostility to Indigenous Australians evinced by some pastoralists and police who came from Tasmania contrasted with the curiosity and tolerance shown by others, and the character of convicts employed by the pastoralists.

Bain also discusses the appointment of Indigenous Protectors in the colony and the local resistance to it, focusing on the role of Edward Parker appointed to this region. He took evidence in cases where Indigenous people were killed. No one was convicted — evidence given by Indigenous people was dismissed on principle as unreliable. Parker also endeavoured to reserve land for the Djadja Wurrung where they could live in the settler economy.

In particular he sees the potential for conflict in the different understandings of gift. For the Djadja Wirrung the welcome to land, enjoyment of its fruits or the offer of a woman for sex established a mutual obligation. The failure of the settlers to reciprocate, particularly when their actions destroyed the food supply, led to the theft of food and the spearing of sheep. The settlers believed that government title discharged all responsibilities to the Indigenous people.

Bain makes it clear that the Djadja Wurrung were more than victims of settlement. They tried to adjust to it, working on stations, trading with the gold prospectors and seeking survival for their families on reservations.

 

"The equality and citizenship to which Turnbull appealed are admirable but formal qualities. The human reality is that in Australia's treatment of its Indigenous citizens these concepts have licensed humiliation."

 

Behind all these relationships is the relationship to the land. Both groups wanted access to the same land — the river banks and water holes and grasslands where the Djadja Wurrung could hunt game and find wild yams, and where the settlers could graze cattle and grow crops. By occupying the most fertile land and denying Indigenous people access to it the settlers destroyed the way of life and the livelihood of the Indigenous people.

The conflictual relationship to land fed the myths that governed subsequent relationships. The settlers regarded the Indigenous as primitive and naturally inferior, and the land as destined for themselves. As the numbers of Indigenous people diminished they saw them as a dying race whose children would best be taken and assimilated into the ways of the dominant race. These myths were enshrined in law and its administration.

The complexity of this local history cannot by caught in a single large metaphor. Warfare, invasion and dispossession catch the conflict, resistance and dislocation of the contact, but fail to do justice to all the elements, particularly to the ways in which the Djadja Wirrung adapted. We need a variety of complementary and mutually limiting metaphors.

These might include the image of replacement. In the settlement of the region one group of people lost their living space, their freedom of movement, the efficacy of their cultural relationships, the recognition of their equal humanity and of their right to continued existence. Another group of people replaced them on their land with another system of land tenure, a political and legal system to which the Djadja Wirrung had no practical recourse, and a popular anthropology in which they were museum pieces. Ultimately a people's concrete humanity was replaced by a set of prejudices and formal rights without force.

This is the background against which Turnbull's comment can usefully be set. The equality and citizenship to which he appealed are admirable but formal qualities. The human reality is that in Australia's treatment of its Indigenous citizens these concepts have licensed humiliation, prejudice and lack of respectful consultation.

Certainly the shape to be given to a representative council and its relationship to the Constitution may need further exploration. But the citing of formal concepts in order to dismiss out of hand a proposal made by a representative Indigenous body recalls uncomfortably the earlier appeal of the settlers to land title in excluding the Djadja Wirrung from their waterholes, their hunting grounds, their freedom of movement and often from their children. Is it more than the self-justification of the powerful in dealing as they will with the weak?

 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

 

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Aboriginal Australians, constitutional recognition, Bain Attwood, Malcolm Turnbull


 

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Existing comments

Two worlds collided when Europeans settled Australia. The invasion and dispossession of Indigenous peoples left a deep scar on all involved. Plenty of mistakes have been made due to lack of recognition of these scars. Indigenous peoples today, rightfully, take their place as Australians. It's a place of difficulty. Being the recipient of 'strategies' and 'determinations' has further weakened a once self-sufficient peoples. The future? I've long thought Constitutional recognition, whilst symbolic, is hugely important. But I am not an Indigenous Australian. And non-Indigenous Australians make up the vast majority of people in this country. Our PM walks a tightrope.
Pam | 23 November 2017


I agree with your comments at every level but one. The idea that aboriginal languages and other ethic ones be used to teach school subjects for qualification at exam level is not correct. The family language should be taught as a language class (not all through the school curriculum). I come from an Italian background but had a 'English based' catholic schooling which is only way to learn the legal language of the country.
maria fatarella | 23 November 2017


Andrew is right of course. But sadly Turnbull is correct too. The Same sex marriage survey/plebiscite and the Assisted death legislation in Victoria demonstrate that to legislate it change the Constitution in Australia requires a broad consensus and committed campaign from a wide range of sectors in the community. This means elected politicians have a critical role to play (an essential role) but that they require allies and a groundswell of public opinion to change deeply ingrained prejudice. Sadly Turnbull is not prepared to initiate the movement- perhaps frightened off by his failure to lead the push for a Republic. Turnbull is not secure enough to attempt a major campaign in which he has little capital and from which he will draw little benefit. A change of government, a concerted campaign and an alliance of widely ranging even disparate elements appear to be required to achieve this monumental change which is certainly worth fighting for and sadly perhaps waiting for!
Mike Bowden | 23 November 2017


That tragic clash of rational and more intuitive perceptions of reality that arrived on Australia’s doorstep in 1788 has left a legacy of great pain. I doubt that will be fixed by a few words in the constitutio0n, necessary though they are. Last week in the return of Mungo Man home to the shores of his ancient Lake Mungo, one message he carried for us all was that notion of “Connection to Country”. A deeply held concept in Aboriginal traditions, the same concept, completely articulated in our scientific evolutionary origins, offers invitation to all Australians, non-Aboriginal, city or country, to embrace that more empathetic identity with our own land. That Gondwana heritage, one we too frequently take for granted and care for so little, stands with Aboriginal cultures as a major challenge central to our own identity. The notion of white fellar “Connection to Country” might well help bridge that cross-cultural gap that Malcolm Turnbull seems not to understand. Listening to Mungo Man’s 40,000 year old message of connections offers hope for a joint journey, a cross-cultural connection to Land and People.
Jim Bowler | 23 November 2017


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