Joseph Boyden, DNA testing and the tricky question of Indigineity

When I began this blog I knew I’d have to do a little promoting to actually get a readership. The “readership” still doesn’t really exist but that’s OK because I get so much out of the writing anyway as therapy. And if anyone asks what I’ve written I can just point to the blog for an understanding of what I’m interested in. And also what gets my blood boiling. Writing is a fantastic outlet for my anger. The best.

As part of the promoting I began using my Twitter account seriously. At this stage, nine months later, I have to say I am hopelessly addicted to Twitter. Not only is Twitter everything Facebook isn’t (I get to engage in topics and issues I’m interested in, instead of the latest pics of an old school friend’s new kitten) it has also opened my world up to the views of Indigenous people from around the world.

I have been privileged to discover the work of some powerful Indigenous activists from Turtle Island*, known colonially as “North America” (the word “America” for all its association with the continent is actually named for a contemporary of our old friend Christopher Columbus. Amerigo Vespucci was an Italian Invader/Explorer whose letters about the continent sparked public awareness in Europe and from this the name stuck).

It is to both Chelsea Vowel and Kim TallBear I am most drawn as their work deals with Indigenous identity in the invaded colonial/settler space. Even though the Turtle Island Indigenous cultures are largely unfamiliar to me (other than the loathsome tropes settler culture has presented to us in film and television) the fact is we share a common coloniser. We can compare invasion notes. And it is shocking how similar the outcomes of the invasion are for our occupied populations.

One of the most disturbing aspects at present is the appropriation of our identities.

It is no surprise for any Aboriginal person to learn that the rush to DNA testing by people seeking to find out if they are “Aboriginal” is going to cause trouble for our communities.

Big trouble.

Chelsea Vowel has a chapter in her book “Indigenous Writes” which deals with the issue of “blood quantum” in defining Indigenous identity. The Indigenous peoples of both North America and Australia have had to endure waves of settler policy which attempted to define exactly who and what they were based on how much “native blood” they contained.

This involved “rules” which classified Aboriginal people into neat categories such as “full blood”, “half-caste”, “quarter caste”, and “octoroon”. This was a completely arbitrary classification which had the effect, as Chelsea Vowel states, of constituting a “slow genocide”.

It is “slow genocide” because through “miscegenation” being Aboriginal becomes something other than the default. It becomes something which is easily lost. Given the way Aboriginal people live their lives, form relationships, make families and practice culture it becomes something which they almost unavoidably will lose, unless they live somewhere very remote where no other people can come and “contaminate” the gene pool. Hence the old white trope that the only “real Aborigines” live up north on the Gulf of Carpentaria or in Arnhem Land.

Us southern Kooris get judged by that standard in our cities every day.

The notion that Aboriginal people would actually change their culture (which has been around on this continent since, well, forever) to begin avoiding “outsiders” to keep their blood “pure” and not be contaminated by “miscegenation” is completely disrespectful to the struggle Aboriginal people have fought just to survive invasion.

It also places settler culture front and centre as the default. The subconscious thinking goes something like this “You don’t look Aboriginal, you look white. So you must be an Aussie”.

Yep, if you haven’t somehow historically fluked it—if your community isn’t somewhere so far away from where the invaders wanted to take your land, if your great grandmothers couldn’t avoid the “stare” of those brave frontier men so idolised in the bush ballads, then you can’t be a “real Aborigine”.

Because if you aren’t “pure” you must default back to being… an Aussie!

It is this neat assimilationist trick which is reinforced by people in mainstream Australian society every single day. They challenge your identity (“you don’t look Aboriginal”) to colonise you (by becoming “Aussies”) or eliminate you. It is a daily reproduction of the events of 26 January 1788. Namely, the taking of possession of everything on the continent in the name of the people of Great Britain.

Thankfully, Aboriginal people view things very differently. We endured the ghastly “protection” era in which many, if not most, Aboriginal families ended up being placed in the “care” of the missions. The reasoning was that Aboriginal people would “die out” soon anyway so best to make them comfortable (and get them out of the way of the commercial exploitation of the land which was taken from them) while they waited peacefully for their cultural extinction.

The history of my own family has revolved around the mission at Guriwal/La Perouse for a good part of the last century. Guriwal is located at the north head of Gamay/Botany Bay. We were the first community to endure the invasion in 1788 and have always maintained our Koori identities as distinct despite having “Sydney” build up around us. These identities, located within community are described in some wonderful books including Maria Nugent’s “Botany Bay: Where Histories Meet” and “La Perouse: the place, the people and the sea” which was written by some Guriwal community members under the guidance of Dr Nugent.

“Canada” too suffered under their own protection era and stolen generation as described in Chelsea Vowel’s book. Over the decades these genocidal government policies fragmented Indigenous identity and caused people to become disconnected from their communities and culture. And that’s not to mention everyday racism in the “mainstream” community which manifested in practices such as police brutality targeting Indigenous people. Practices which persist, ongoing colonisation and invasion.

In “Australia” as in “Canada”, over time some individuals and families faced such extremes of racism they chose to “pass” as white if they could to make life bearable for them and their families. Many of the descendants of these people have become lost to their Aboriginal communities.

In recent times however, perhaps as a result of the civil rights movements in the Western world, the assumed racial and cultural superiority of white European people has been challenged and de-legitimised. White people, the descendants of the invaders of “Australia” and Turtle Island, now (for the most part) realise that their skin colour does not automatically make them morally and culturally superior to everyone else.

(As a curious side-note, I wonder if a flow on of this is the popularity of tattooing—an Indigenous cultural practice—amongst white people today. Is it that their white skin is no longer a source of pride? or that, worse still, they are ashamed of their white skin so imprint elaborate patterns and messages upon it to de-emphasise their “race”?)

The challenge to white supremacy has finally allowed those with Indigenous ancestors to be able to share their family histories without fear of being prejudiced by the mainstream culture. It has allowed them to unlock the closet of shame imposed by invasion and colonisation.

It is into this mix of acknowledging the wrongs of invasion, genocide, racism and pride in Indigenous cultural survival that DNA testing has come galloping.

What got me thinking deeply about identity was the recent controversy in “Canada” where acclaimed author Joseph Boyden was “called out” by an in-depth investigation into his claims of Indigineity and ancestry by Aboriginal Peoples Television Network journalist Jorge Barrera.

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Boyden is an award winning author whose claims of Indigenous belonging have shifted over time from one community to the next. His most recent claim is one of distant Indigenous ancestry not connected directly to an existing Indigenous community.

Following the Boyden controversy and what it means for Indigenous identity in “Canada” reminded me of the author Mudrooroo here in “Australia”. The parallels are similar—an author who wrote books on Indigenous culture, claiming to have identity and through that the authority to speak as an Indigenous person and who, ultimately, was called out by “their” community as not being one of them.

Which brings me to the point of claiming to be Indigenous. It usually isn’t a problem for Aboriginal people because they are part of a family which is, in turn, part of a community. You just are Aboriginal. Someone will say, as they have repeatedly to Joseph Boyden, “where are you from?” or “what’s your mob?” Then you just say where your community is. In my case I say “La Perouse”. If they know “LaPa” (not everyone does) they might ask of my family and I’ll just say “I’m Aunty Beryl Page’s son”. That is where I’m placed in the community. That’s my place and my mob.

My ancestors are from the south coast of “New South Wales” so I also have connections and relatives down there (like a lot of people from LaPa) and when people (usually white) ask what my “tribe” or “nation” is I say “Yuin”, but my mob is from LaPa.

None of this is “chosen” and none can be altered by me. I’m adopted and grew up in a white family away from both La Perouse and Yuin country. But it didn’t matter when I finally returned because I was “placed” within the communal kin structure.

That’s Indigineity. That’s my Koori identity.

I don’t know what a DNA test would show if I took one. It would most like likely show connection to Yuin country going back thousands of years but it really doesn’t matter because DNA isn’t cultural and never will be. Just like for Jewish people (as an example), it doesn’t matter skin colour or DNA. It is family, community, ceremony, country and shared history.

If I’d have turned up at La Perouse and they said “we’re sorry but we don’t know who you are” then that would mean I wasn’t a Koori from their community. I could have had all the DNA paperwork in the world. It would have been hard to accept but that is how it is in Aboriginal culture.

That doesn’t mean you can’t still be part of the community. There are heaps of “gubs” which are married to Kooris, have Koori kids and live in and with the Koori community.

But they aren’t Koori because they aren’t placed within the communal Aboriginal kinship structure.

As part of researching this piece, I listened to a recent ABC radio show on DNA sampling within two Aboriginal (former mission) communities, Cherbourg in “Queensland” and Point Pearce in “South Australia”. Whilst the elders who were questioned were generally optimistic about what the project could mean for their communities, I had some strong feelings about the science.

Specifically, what exactly is the point of the whole project to start with?

The lead testing scientist, who claims “Aboriginal heritage” himself seemed to be enthusiastic to map the timelines and geographic movement of the various peoples. He was staggered that Australians were ignorant of the vast bulk of human history on the continent.

Aside from the fact that for British and other settlers it isn’t “their” history to start with, the great problem with the scientific approach is that the research is being conducted, ultimately, for the benefit of western science. And I wouldn’t trust western science ever after their sordid history with Aboriginal people.

We already know our past, our creation and our ancestors. The scientist actually said “Aboriginal people colonised Australia” 55,000 years ago.

“Colonised”?

This is at odds with our ontology. There wasn’t “colonisation”—that’s what the white people did. There was creation. Our ancestors created everything including law and culture. That’s the same culture we live with today and want to get back to fully embracing with decolonisation.

Also, creation didn’t happen that long ago, just a few generations in our thinking. We celebrate and revere our ancestors as just passed a little back from present memory. Just far enough that creation is contemporary and everything is as it should be in the present. In my understanding calling things “ancient” only undermines our culture today by suggesting it is “past” or “finished”.

DNA is going to be big trouble because it is the same old competing European world view again trying to place us within a material, atomistic universe of parts to be tinkered with, disrupted, pulled apart and recombined. They can’t help themselves.

Aboriginal people come from the land. Literally. It doesn’t matter what science says. This is what we know. Our god isn’t somewhere in “heaven” on a different plain, our ancestors are with us sharing our lives. I can look up at Uncle Coolum Mountain here where I live. He isn’t my direct ancestor because I’m not on my country but back in the time of creation all those ancestors knew each other through songlines and shared stories and events. They were powerful and knew everything. Ancestor Uncle Coolum has actually shared some wisdom with me and I have a connection with him.

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Powerful ancestor Uncle Coolum in a photo I took recently.

These creator beings are our direct recent ancestors. That’s how close the connection is for us—they are our directly physically related Uncles, Aunties, Grandparents, etc. Just out of living memory.

This is why I believe DNA is almost useless for Aboriginal culture. What can it offer beyond what we already know? It is laughably insignificant compared to the knowledge we have always held as sacred.

Finally, a further thought for those people who have descent but who are not connected to a community or those who, in the future, get DNA test results which show they have Indigenous ancestors.

Everyone has the right to decide their own identity. If their family history says that they are Aboriginal because of a distant ancestor or if a DNA test proves Indigenous ancestry then they can decide to call themselves “Aboriginal”.*I acknowledge that not all the Indigenous people of “North America” are comfortable with “Turtle Island” as a descriptor of their home.

But being within Aboriginal culture, belonging to kin and community, means that you have to have a place. You have to be accepted and you have to follow what the elders say and listen quietly. If a community doesn’t know you but you believe that is where you belong then slowly become part of it. Then maybe someone will come along who can place you, who knows? But you’ll be part of something which you’ve maybe always been looking for inside you. Something profound and connected directly to country.

The invasion called “Australia” devastated Aboriginal communities by depriving them firstly of their rightful land. Then language. Then the children were stolen. Now they want to take our identities.

But they won’t because they can’t. Our ancestors are too strong and our connection to this continent too deep.

Keep your worthless DNA results, we come from the land.

*I acknowledge that not all the Indigenous people of “North America” are comfortable with “Turtle Island” as a descriptor of their home.

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Recognise, Reclaim, Recolonise: Thoughts on Donald Trump and Indigenous sovereignty

I hadn’t spent much time thinking about Donald Trump until he was elected President of the United States. Now that he has, I feel moved to write a response to him and his “movement” as an Aboriginal person.

Since the British settlers arrived and founded the United States of America it has always been, for them and their descendants, a prosperous nation. A nation held up as a shining example of “liberty” and “democracy”.

But all over the “white” world the great liberal democratic experiment of the last 500 years is coming to an end. White people have culturally and militarily dominated the planet during that time—the colonial era. Many of them have become accustomed to affluence and the world being shaped in their own cultural image.

However, those previous certainties are vanishing and the American white working-class doesn’t seem to like it. They don’t particularly care that other groups suffer or have suffered for long periods of time—since 1788 for some of us—but now that the old colonial world model is ending they aren’t prepared to take it anymore.

They’re angry. So they are “taking back” and “reclaiming”.

“Reclaiming” what?

Well, their “country” apparently. But all the “white” countries are either colonial thefts (USA, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, etc) or have become used to an artificial national lifestyle based on colonial plunder and largesse (United Kingdom, France, etc).

Now the rest of the world is catching up and is no longer willing to be exploited anymore. The 500 year-old European colonial “party” is ending.

As it ends, some settler states such as Australia are looking toward their Indigenous population to help approve of their legitimacy as they can no longer justify appealing only to the “manifest destiny” of white superiority. These states were founded upon the racist notion that the original inhabitants would somehow vanish.

Thankfully, we didn’t. So the settler state now wishes to “reconcile”.

These ideas of reconciliation in Australia, whilst ostensibly noble in their intent, are flawed. The reason I, and many other Aboriginal people, are sceptical of them is for the simple reason that within a colonial democracy the state is made in the image of the coloniser. It continually fulfils the task of colonising the Indigenous population.

Reconciliation is also flawed because there was no initial conciliation in Australia. The colonisers just barged ahead… “discovered”, drew up plans for invasion, invaded, stole, raped, murdered, imprisoned (in missions and prisons), attempted forced assimilation, constructed a nation-state (Australia) based on all these previous things and—lately—have wanted to smooth over all these past wrongs with a quick “sorry about all that—will you please sign here that you’ve forgiven us”.

Indeed, the reconciliation movement (or what the late Chicka Dixon called the “kiss and make up mob”) starts from the basis that we should all be able to “get along”. The problem with this thinking is that it requires Aboriginal people to “get along” under a system not of our own making in which our culture is not central.

For a practical example of this, of how much Australia really cares about Aboriginal people… consider that there is not one public holiday to honour Australia’s Aboriginal culture, people or past. Not one. All the Christian festivals (culturally European) get days. ANZAC Day is a holiday, the various “foundation” days when the colonies were set up are honoured, Invasion day is “celebrated” and, most cruelly, the symbol of British rule—the chief coloniser herself—the Queen, has a Birthday set aside.

But no day for Aboriginal people. Not even NAIDOC, the great day of resistance. Nothing.

That’s Australian (white) culture for you. In practice.

But back to America for a moment.

The US election was all about race. Just as in Australia, race exposes the deep wound at the core of the American settler project. This election result was the “White Lives Matter” response to 8 years of a black president.

It split America right down the middle.

Looking at the voting map in America shows the west coast and North-East as democrat and everywhere else (pretty much) republican. As long as the union holds together this split doesn’t seem so important.

But new questions now emerge, such as: What do settler states like the United States of America, and Australia, actually stand for if not for race and the supremacy of European whiteness upon which they were founded?

If the settler states have changed markedly in the past 100 years from colonial European land grab experiments in settler white supremacy, then what have they changed to? Their institutions have not changed much in that time. They were set up in a white supremacist mindset for white people and continue largely unaltered from that period.

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This is the gap in European settler history Donald Trump has neatly entered: “Let me restore calm by reasserting the old certainties of whiteness/greatness”.

Where does this leave Indigenous people?

Without being able to change these national settler institutions themselves, looking on as outsiders, refugees in their own countries, Indigenous people must ultimately look to their own systems of governance to run their own institutions and communities.

This is ultimately the certain future for Aboriginal people on the “Australian” continent—secession and statehood.

The election of Trump, Brexit and the rise of political movements like One Nation, “Reclaim” and “Recognise” in Australia mean trusting that a just reconciliation will happen is unrealistic. The colonial state is set up for the coloniser.

In Australia the constitution was written by the very same people who wrote the White Australia policy.

This is the same constitution Aboriginal people are being told only needs a few minor tweaks to be an inclusive and culturally representative document.

It certainly does represent a culture—the colonial European Invader culture. It validates their invasion and legalises their theft.

It must be rejected at every turn by Aboriginal people. It was never in our mobs interests. In fact it was written to actively diminish us.

What, then, are Aboriginal people to do? What do we want?

We want sovereignty.

Just like we always had, have always had. It is given to us by our ancestors who created this country. And we will have it back, politically, in the future.

It is enshrined in the UNDRIP which Australia has signed:

Article 3 – Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.

Article 4 – Indigenous peoples, in exercising their right to self-determination, have the right to autonomy or self-government in matters relating to their internal and local affairs, as well as ways and means for financing their autonomous functions.

Practical sovereignty means the creation of our own institutions and our own state. Because the Australian state does not value Aboriginal culture. Never has. If it did none of our precious sacred sites would be continually desecrated. It simply is not possible for Australia to obtain Aboriginal cultural understanding because Australia is a European colonial state.

And that’s OK… as long as we don’t have to be a part of it and Australia respects our sovereignty. Better to be respected as an equal full nation state sharing a continent than be a fourth or fifth order concern to 97% of the population within a single nation state—the self-same settler majority which has just delivered the Presidency to Trump.

When Aboriginal people run our own institutions Australia will respect us in a way they don’t at the moment. Our own University, Governments, Police, Correctional Facilities (no more Don Dale), Schools, Housing, Cultural Sites, Courts, Child protection, etc. Compare this to our current institutions which are being “mainstreamed” by the white ministers in charge of them who are alien from our culture and understanding. We are ultimately not important to them because they are disconnected. Which is just another way of the colonising state invading all over again.

How do we achieve our own nation-state?

Through a condominium between us and Australia. Two equal sovereigns sharing the one continent. We finally get control of our culture and people back and they get legitimacy through our approval of their settler state, something they have never asked us for. This is the true basis for a meaningful treaty.

This is not “apartheid” as some Australians would claim. Apartheid was about one race dominating and subjugating another. Condominium means sharing a continent in peace as respectfully equal partners.

Indigenous people all around the world face a difficult time presently because of the very same recolonising forces which white Americans voted for based on racism and fear. Our sisters and brothers in America need our support. They are strong, like us they have survived invasion and genocide.

I dream of the time when Indigenous people will have control of our nations to follow what our ancestors taught us about living the right way within culture on country. For this reason I’m not thinking about Donald Trump’s recolonising madness too much, because he can’t stop us regaining our rightful sovereignty. Only we can.

My home town, where the “settlers” used the bones of Aboriginal people to build their houses

You don’t need to look hard to find proof of Australia’s brutal past. The nation was founded on inhumane acts all along the frontier and in the convict settlements. Inhumane acts which continue to this day in our “offshore processing centres.” Still, it’s a shock when the true history of your own sleepy southern home town jump out at you from the page. It allows you to conceive of that brutal era through personal geographic familiarity. History was brought to life in this way for me in a report I read recently.

I’ll start from the start.

I was born in Sydney in the suburb of Surry Hills at the old Crown Street Women’s Hospital. They closed it down in the 1970’s but the building is still there. Or at least part of it is. Now it’s an apartment complex on the corner of Crown and Albion streets, a block from the famous Oxford street. It’s a very busy, very central part of inner Sydney.

Until the mid-1970’s the hospital was the centre of child adoption in NSW. It was because of my own adoption in 1970 that I occasionally still go to one of the nice cafes in the complex and have breakfast. I like to do that because it gives me a small feeling of connection to my birthplace. It’s not much but like a lot of other adoptees feel about this sort of thing, it’s at least something. And the breakfast is pretty good too.

I used to go there a lot more before I finally found my family. I used to make a point of walking past the place every time I was in Sydney. I would often come in on the train and walk the five or six blocks from Central station up the hill to the old hospital. There used to be an old remnant sign way up the top of the building saying “The Women’s Hospital” which gave me some comfort because it was a visible link to my past (when I had virtually no other) but they covered that over at least 10 years ago. I was sad about that.

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In the 1990’s I dug around and finally obtained all my birth records. They indicate I was taken from the hospital on the 19th of November 1970 by my social parents. I call them “social parents” because I believe the late 20th century Australian model of adoption was very much a state-sponsored social experiment which severed all links from the birth family and attempted to erase biology to make the child “good-as-new” with all elements of shame (unwed mother, poverty, rape, Aboriginality) washed clean.

My social parents weren’t Koori. But my (birth) mum was. Back then I don’t think the authorities thought twice about displacement and removal from culture. Indeed, the social work records from the time say that she “reported that she was of Aboriginal heritage.” However, “it was noted she did not have Aboriginal features.”

Another document from the era noted she was “a lover of sport, her main interest being basketball and hockey, and she had a good tan.”

A good tan. I roll my eyes every time I read that.

My dislocation from community and culture, with the confusion and fear that creates in a kid is a full article for another day.

Suffice to say, I was whisked away by plane (something my poor mum could never have afforded) to the regional New South Wales city of Albury to begin, well, my life.

My social parents turned out to be salt-of-the-earth, battling, white, Aussie hardworkers who had upbringing issues of their own. Alcoholic fathers, mainly.

So I had a difficult childhood and like a lot of adoptees, I never felt I belonged. I had a long-running fantasy where I imagined my parents were aliens who had come from outer space and were playing at being human beings. I used to try to catch them out by sneaking up on them to listen in. But I never did hear them speaking any interstellar dialogue. Just plain old English.

I’ve since found out that this is one of the fantasies adoptees have. That it’s all a dream and there is an explicable reality hiding just underneath the surface.

My own unique language back then was confusion and constant withdrawal into shame. The “reality” I sought did indeed exist but no-one ever came to reveal it—fuck I waited a long time for someone to come and validate that horrible empty feeling. I still do, to some extent.

In a way I’ve been lucky because I have now found my family and had a form of resolution. But there are huge gaps in my self-confidence and I constantly battle with fear and confusion about who I really am.

It didn’t help my identity issues either that as a kid people would mistake me for being various ethnicities. I got called Chinese, Croatian even “Eskimo.”

The fearful thing was that I could never confirm if they were right or wrong. They knew as much about it as I did.

Where I grew up in Albury there was a public housing estate nearby with a few Koori families. I didn’t mix with them much. I mean, none of the white (I have fair skin) kids did. Except the ones who were really poor. Poverty is a great cultural leveller.

We were probably lower middle class. Not rich—or poor—so the words of one of my childhood favourites George Orwell really resonated:

“In the kind of shabby-genteel family that I am talking about there is far more consciousness of poverty than in any working-class family above the level of the dole.”

As soon as I could I left for University. Anything to escape and try to find “reality”. I also began to think deeply about Albury and how I belonged there. I used to wear an Aboriginal flag T-shirt around, years before I found out I was Koori. I copped a lot of grief from people for that. They’d say quizzically “Why are you wearing that?” Genuinely mystified as if to say, “you’re white and white people don’t wear those colours.”

I couldn’t answer them, I just had a feeling. Wearing that flag felt right. When I finally met mum, years later, I told her and she softly said “You knew all along.” Every Koori person I’ve mentioned this to since has said the same thing.

The other thing I had a burning need to do was find out about the true (Aboriginal) history of Albury.

Not easy. Albury is the sort of southern Australian town where dispossession and relocation happened a long, long time ago. And most locals would much prefer those stories stay in the distant past.

Certainly, we all grew up in the shadow of the “great” explorers Hume and Hovell who were the first white men to travel from what is now Sydney to Melbourne. Hence the name of the major highway which connects the two cities.

In fact, most everything of any note in Albury is named after those two men. There is a photo in the local museum of the locals having a great celebration for the centenary of them passing through in 1824.

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Of the original inhabitants there was always a great silence. I knew of nothing and never, ever heard anyone speak of them specifically.

Albury’s official history, sponsored by the City Council, wasn’t of much use either. “Border City: History of Albury” by historian William A. Bayley is a volume of some 240 pages, including an entire chapter on the “epic journey” of Hume and Hovell. First published in 1954, references to the thousands of years of human history up to the arrival of the epic journeymen consists—in its entirety—of two dismissive, typically dehumanising asides.

On Page 19 Bailey writes:

“Aborigines were numerous. They continually speared or maimed or killed the squatters’ cattle and sheep and frequently skirmished with the white newcomers who kept their huts well supplied with loaded firearms. Drovers, travellers and settlers faced constant danger, several losing their lives, their bodies being mutilated by the aborigines who carried a plentiful supply of nullah-nullahs, boomerangs and spears. As time passed the natives became fewer. Some were killed by the white settlers, others fell victims to white man’s diseases, liquor and tobacco and the remainder moved on to quieter and more peaceful hunting grounds, leaving the rich river flats and grazing lands for the white men.”

And on page 32:

“William Howitt visited Albury in 1855 and wrote in Land, Labour and Gold that he saw on the Wodonga flats blacks of the Murray tribe ‘…surrounded as they always are by great swarms of dogs’ of which they are fonder than of their children.”

Later, I found a slim document published by the local development corporation which offered a generalised description of the local Kooris, mostly focusing on archaeology in the area, all written in the past tense.

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For a long time after I found that archaeology document I stopped focusing on Albury’s Aboriginal history. This was a time of unearthing a lot of my own history, including finally connecting with my Mum and family at La Perouse in Sydney. I never stopped wondering about Albury though.

Finally this year I came across a document which sheds some much needed light on the early history of Albury before and through the traumatic invasion (Aboriginal world-view) or settlement (Australian world-view) period of the early 19th century.

The document is “Nineteenth Century Indigenous Land Use of Albury (NSW)” by Cultural Heritage Management specialist Dirk Spennemann. In his 35 page report Associate Professor Spennemann has answered many of the questions I had always wondered about regarding the early history of the town I was forced to grow up in.

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Spennemann’s research has gone some way to answering the simple question I had as a child. A question which many Australian children from towns like Albury (which seem so, well, white) have asked at one point or other, and which is never satisfactorily answered by the grown-ups. Namely:

What happened to all the Aboriginal people that lived here?

As a child my question remained unanswered, but Spennemann has filled in some of the gaps. After the initial (inevitable) period of conflict in Albury it seems several local Kooris “attached themselves as servants to white settlers and officials performing menial tasks in return for food of low quality.”

This was during the 1840’s when a certain George Augustus Robertson passed through the area.

Albury seems to have been no different to other Australian frontier towns with Spennemann noting that “relationships between ‘master and servant’ were often strained, with at least one suicide of an Indigenous person attributed to maltreatment.” Like everywhere else on the continent, the coming of the British was a catastrophe for Aboriginal people, heralding the collapse of the social structure and law handed down from the ancestors since the beginning of time.

By the 1860’s the mission and reserve system was established and an anonymous commentator “proudly commented when describing Albury, ‘the wastes that formed the hunting grounds for wandering tribes of aborigines have been converted into pastures for countless flocks and herds’.”

The report notes that the first Protector of Aborigines in 1882 stated that removals to missions were so complete to that year that “only a single Indigenous person remained as a resident in Albury.”

A most bracing section of the report concerns burial sites and uncovers a darker, hidden side of Albury’s history. I reproduce in full;

“A sand dune existed at the southern end of Olive and David Streets, Albury, which was used for Indigenous and also for early European burials (Anonymous, 1860a, 1861c, 1861d, 1861e, 1896b, 1910b; Vagabond, 1896). 34 Indigenous burial in that dune, with bodies placed between two sheets of bark, are on record for 1840 and 1841 (Bushman, 1842). As Albury grew, that dune was increasingly quarried for sand for purposes of house construction and the cemetery was in an increasingly bad shape (Anonymous, 1862). Over time, the sand delivered to the buildings sites frequently contained human remains (Anonymous, 1874).

On at least two occasions Indigenous human remains were also discovered in situ. A tibia and femur were excavated between St. Matthew’s Church and the courthouse in 1877 (Anonymous, 1877). Found 30cm below the surface, there was no indication that the bones had been carted in with sand. In late September 1878, a skeleton was encountered at the ‘new down-river road skirting Hospital Hill’ (now Monument Hill). The skeleton, which was reported as in a good state of preservation, was assumed to belong to an Indigenous person and was taken charge of by the police (Anonymous, 1878). The location suggests that the burial was located south of Monument Hill, at the edge of the flood plain.

Indicative of the sentiment at the time, the skull of an Australian Aboriginal person, presumably obtained somewhere in the Albury area, had apparently been exhibited as a talking point in the boardroom of the Albury Pastures Protection Board.” (Anonymous, 1904c)

So houses in Albury are literally built with the remains of Aboriginal people from a sacred burial site. To quote Henry Reynolds, “Why weren’t we told?”

This isn’t a shock though. Every town in Australia has its own dirty little foundation secret. The pioneering men weren’t 10 foot tall supermen. They were British colonisers on the make. Many with an unhealthy interest in phrenology.

Indeed, capitalism and phrenology seemed to have gone hand in hand on the Australian frontier. Paul Daley writes of a pioneer working in Queensland—as a butcher then hotelier—named Korah Halcomb Wills. Daley quotes Wills, from his own handwritten notes in the State Library of Queensland, gathering “specimens” for wealthy phrenologists who were presumably more than willing to pay. After participating in a massacre justified in the name of “our own white people [who] were crying out for room to stretch our legs on” he recounts his work soon after on the fallen corpses:

“I took it on my head to get a few specimens of certain limbs, and the head of a Black fellow, which was not a very delicate occupation I can tell you. I shall never forget the time when I first found the subject that I intended to anatomise, when my friends were looking on, and I commenced operations dissecting. I went to work business like to take off the head first and then the arms, and then the legs, and I gathered them together and put them into my pack saddle and one of my friends who I am sure had dispersed more than any other in the colony made the remark that if he was offered a fortune he could not do what I had done.”

I wish these histories weren’t so covered up, that the pioneers from then and Australians from now were more honest about how all that land became “available.”

The Aboriginal people of Albury didn’t “move on to quieter and more peaceful hunting grounds” as Albury’s official history states. They were murdered, raped, enslaved and herded onto missions. That is the reality of how the modern nation called “Australia” came into existence.

Daley also describes the colonial frontier logic pioneering men had toward Aboriginal women. Constable William Willshere was a frontier policeman posted to Alice Springs in 1882. In Willshere’s book titled “The Land of the Dawning” published in 1896, Willshere writes:

“Men would not remain so many years in a country like this if there were no women, and perhaps the Almighty meant them for use as He has placed them wherever the pioneers go … what I am speaking about is only natural, especially for men who are isolated away in the bush at out-stations where women of all ages and sizes are running at large.”

For now, the mainstream historical focal point in Albury is, like that of many Australian towns, the massive Monument to World War One, sitting resplendent on what is now called “Monument Hill.” It’s no coincidence that the same monument represents the city on the front cover of the official history.

Image-0001

World War One, ANZAC and that era is “safe” history for white Australia. Occurring after the British colonial period, black population diminished, the remainder out of sight and largely locked away in missions, land assumed, federation achieved, White Australia Policy in force, post-WW2 migrants yet to arrive, Phar Lap running in the Melbourne Cup and Bradman at the crease.

But there is a more important history. A creation story. The foundation of the British colonial project called “Australia.”

Thank you Associate Professor Spennemann for blowing some dust off that history and how my home town came into being. Because of your report from now on I’ll refer to Monument Hill by it’s real name “Dirremer” and I’ll call Albury “Bungambrawatha” as much as I can, in memoriam to the Koori people and their descendants of whose land it was, is and always remains.

It helps me personally as well, as a thrice displaced Aboriginal person (place, family and culture) to feel a deeper sense of belonging to, and an understanding of, my adopted home town.

Where the “settlers” used the bones of Aboriginal people to build their houses.

 

References

William A Bayley, ‘Border City: history of Albury, NSW’, 1976, Albury City Council, pp. 19,32.

Dirk HR Spennemann, ‘Nineteenth Century Indigenous Land Use of Albury (NSW)’,as reflected in the historic sources. Institute for Land, Water and Society Report nº 83, 2015, Albury, NSW: Institute for Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University.

Albury-Wodonga Development Corporation, ‘Aboriginal archaeology of the Albury-Wodonga region’, 1982, Albury-Wodonga Development Corporation.

Paul Daley, ‘Restless Indigenous Remains’, Meanjin, 2014, Vol. 73, No. 1.

George Orwell, ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’, 1937, Left Book Club, London.

Food Sovereignty and the White Cultural Steamroller’s ‘Flavour Wheel’

I’m not the biggest foodie in the world. In fact I find the whole “food” scene tedious and perhaps a little morally dubious. Spending hundreds and hundreds of dollars on a meal seems wasteful when you could just eat something simple. Even something free.

There’s also something colonial about the endless, faddish quest to find the next great taste or flavour. Viewed this way, the foodie scene seems pretty exploitative and self-interested. At least at the upper, celebrity end. The end that’s relentlessly pushed at us on TV these days.

In this endless rush toward fad and the next amazing flavour or taste (which, by the way, is no different to other forms of entertainment like the music, film or sporting industries) an important ingredient in this dish (see what I did there) is to add a moral dimension to the whole enterprise.

I suppose with so many everyday working people thinking “get a real job,” these highly paid performers must sometimes feel a need to justify their existence.

So, inevitably, in Australia, the foodie scene has turned its attention to the redemptive, if not reconciliatory properties of using bush foods.

Yep, these “pioneers” are blazing a trail across the starched linen tables of yacht clubs and hatted restaurants across inner Sydney and Melbourne. Closing the gap one serve of Flinders Island salt grass lamb with native coastal greens at a time.

They seem to have discovered – in the same way Captain Cook “discovered” – bush foods and now we all need to sit at their feet so they can impart their wisdom as to why Lemon Myrtle and Finger Limes can cure all those nagging invasion ills from a time back when everyone was still eating cured partridge.

But all is now forgiven because here comes a “food revolution that really matters!”

That’s right, the people that matter in Australia (“chefs such as Peter Gilmore, Maggie Beer and René Redzepi’s sous chef Beau Clugston”) have given their seal of approval to Koori food, the “Oldest foods on earth!”

Before I put my napkin down, ease my chair out then walk to the bathroom to throw up – lest this is good old cultural appropriation all over again – I need to dig further. Apart from the few fledgling Indigenous run restaurants and catering companies starting to spring up, how does this seeming interest in culture aid communities?

Does simply adding a sprig of lemon myrtle to a fillet of steak mean all of a sudden you’re eating “native?”

What’s in this for Aboriginal people?

A look at the “Australian” attitudes to native food over the years is instructive.

Colin Bannerman had a look at a few cookbooks featuring bushfoods and found a few broad themes as to how they are viewed in Australia.

Firstly, there are the old colonial survivalists like the Bush Tucker man. This guy represents the bush as alien but able to be survived when you had to. Enough to get you back to civilisation and a cold beer with a tale to tell your rugged mates about how you wrestled a Crocodile and ate its eggs. That sort of thing. That bloke made a fortune back then. White man as front and centre and “taming” the bush.

Then there are the ecologists which have as their central theme the idea that bush tucker is less environmentally damaging than the introduced foods so we should be eating them for that reason. This school of thought is heavy with anthropological observations about the uses of food and at least acknowledge Aboriginal people if not specifically considering them centrally. It’s still a white thing.

Next are the foodies. As mentioned, these people run the restaurants and grow the bush foods in a market which will hopefully soon take off. I don’t know how well positioned Aboriginal people are to take advantage of any boom in this area. My suspicion is that they are well on the outer and an afterthought.

These suspicions were partially confirmed upon viewing the website of the native food industry peak body, the Australian Native Food Industry Limited (ANFIL). In their statement “Marking 5 years of accomplishment” they list their key areas of research interest.

They include “securing recognition of their [bushfoods] traditional status by Food Standards of Australia and New Zealand.” Which raises the question are these people (who as far as I can make out are pretty much just white farmers and restauranteurs diversifying into a new area) authorised to claim something as “traditional” without actually belonging to the ongoing culture which created and owns these “traditions” in the first place?

If not, this is good old appropriation to make a killing.

Which, when you think about it, is pretty much the history of Australia.

I actually dined in one of these restaurants recently and took my Auntie from La Perouse. I was shocked to learn from the waiter that the place is not Indigenous owned or operated. I don’t know why but I thought it was. Maybe it was the ochre colouring used in the logo and the dot painting-style art used. More shocking still was the distinct lack of interest shown in Auntie’s own deep practical knowledge of bush tucker when she yarned to the waiter about it.

That’s not cultural. That is misunderstanding where food sits within culture. It’s disrespectful.

I’ve since read the mission statement from their restaurant which boasts the “best regional and Australian produce” and of “supporting local farmers.” They also state their “team is passionate about showcasing Advanced Australian Fare to lovers of fine food.”

Advanced Australian Fare? Really?

I couldn’t find anything on their site about Aboriginal people or culture. No acknowledgement.

Which brings me to Bannerman’s final category of bushfood cookbooks. These are the ones produced by communities themselves.

These are almost always situated within culture. They are concerned with the transfer of knowledge and the “right way” to do things. He quotes the preface from an Arrente cookbook:

“I’m making this book for the ones who are growing up now to read, so that they will be able to look at it in school and learn about what the people before them had, so that you will all know these things. And so that your teachers can see this too. I’m also doing this so that white people and people from other places can read this book and learn how things are.”

That is culture. Imparting knowledge so others can “learn how things are.”

“How things are” doesn’t seem to overly concern ANFIL who have as another research priority the “Development of a ‘flavour wheel’ by an expert panel of food tasters, to help chefs and producers describe their products with a common lexicon – just like the wine tasting guides – only more nutritious.”

What “expert panel?”, what “common lexicon?”

The expert panel is Aboriginal people. The common lexicon is our culture.

Here’s a video of my Auntie out at La Pa talking about our food. No need to develop a fucking flavour wheel… it’s already here in our communities. Has been for 50000 years.

Is it all too hard because they might have to acknowledge blackfellas for once or (god forbid) cut them in on some of this potential export boom?

And it is “our” food. Aboriginal people claim ownership. Before, as Bannerman says, “European culinary invasion sees itself as having extinguished native food title.”

Or the full realisation of the muscular Bush Tucker Man which Lesley Instone describes as being;

“Like Daniel Boon and Crocodile Dundee before him, the Bush Tucker Man represents the white man who knows ‘native’ lands and knowledge better than the Aborigines themselves.”

The ANFIL website also contains links to various federal government reports into the viability of various native plant species as export opportunities.

An example of this is a report from 2009 called “Health benefits of Australian Native Foods” produced by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, an agency of the Commonwealth government.

In a summary reading I can find no mention whatsoever of Aboriginal people in this 52 page report. Nothing which mentions usages, expertise and culture. In fact, the report states it is targeted at;

  • the Australian native food industry
  • the general food industry, and
  • health-conscious Australian consumers with an interest in diversifying their daily diet with native Australian fruits, herbs and spices.

In other words, the buyers and sellers. Of which, presumably, blackfellas don’t count because they have a long history with bushfood which views it as sacred, within culture and not just another resource to be exploited in the headlong rush to “strike it rich.”

Again, Australia is on the make. If it isn’t sheep or gold or beef or coal it’s bushfood. And Aboriginal people are of little use. Same story since 1788.

They certainly won’t be considered as owners of anything. Except maybe as “traditional owners.” The type of owners that don’t get a cut of anything or a say.

All this seems like another reason to sigh and despair. Kooris are pushed out of the way again by the Australian juggernaut.

However, out of all this I see something powerful and transformative for Blackfellas.

The issue of cultural food sovereignty is extremely important for Aboriginal people.

I feel that food is an under-utilised political and restorative tool for our mob. Especially urbanised and dispossessed Aboriginal people.

It could also be an important tool for healing many of our most intractable social and health issues.

Let me explain.

In other cultures food is a sacred part of their culture as it is in ours. Nurturing and protecting the animals and plants is central to culture. Just as, say, Jewish people keep kosher, Muslim people stay Halal and Hindu people offer prasad to the deities before meals.

For Aboriginal people it is no different.

In most parts of the continent traditional diets have been largely lost. Replaced with European foods which came with the invaders. This is part of the missionising project of the Australian state. Now Aboriginal people are almost wholly reliant on European foods and it has removed our food sovereignty and all that knowledge and expertise about our food, where to get it, how to prepare it and how to eat it.

Worse, the foods which have replaced these sacred bush foods are the very crops which were the part of the underlying dispossession of the lands themselves. Drive along a country road and see all that sacred land fenced off and what is growing there? Wheat, barley, oats, beef and sheep. All European foods which Aboriginal people continue to consume because of the past attempts to destroy culture.

Farming was the original driving force for the theft of all that land.

One nickname I have for Australia is “the spacious rapacious,” because the initial expansion across the continent wasn’t one of “we’re going to exterminate all you blackfellas solely because you’re not even human and we hate you” – although for some of the Australians I’m sure this was true – I believe it was more like, after seeing the amount of land available to exploit they thought “get out of our way, we’re on the make.”

And any Aboriginal people who didn’t get out of their way paid with their lives.

So now 200 years later I’ve been thinking of a way to clean up my diet, morally, so I don’t support and ingest these foods which aren’t spiritual, are alien and were the very foods of whose production led to so much despair and tragedy for Aboriginal people.

I’ve attempted to create a diet for myself which is 100% cultural.

All bush foods, all native. Just like the ancestors. Koori Kosher.

This is what I have attempted. Other Aboriginal people are starting to put food sovereignty/decolonisation into practise as well. And realising the importance of food sovereignty as political action. I’d love to hear from more people who are doing the same.

First, I scaled back the meat. That’s the easy part.

No fish which isn’t native. A lot is available so that’s not a problem. Seafood too. Muttonfish, Crays, Bugs, Lobster, prawns, yum.

Kangaroo, Crocodile and Emu are fine too, where you can find them.

No beef, no lamb, no chicken, no pork, no bacon, no ham. Oh well.

Fruit is virtually out. Not that the ancestors ate much which was sweet. That was one of the best things about their diet… very low sugar.

It is possible to find finger limes and Davidson’s plum. Which are fruits, but sour.

Other plants are the big problem. There’s Macadamia’s of course, but you can’t live on just them. I use the oil in my cooking when I can.

Some plants are available to grow and my Botany Bay greens are coming along nicely. Nowhere near enough to sustain me meal after meal though.

And the really, really big problem is the staples. I’d love to report I’ve tracked down a steady source of yam varieties and the seeds ready to make johnny cakes to replace my bread.

But I haven’t because they don’t exist to buy as far as I’m aware. In fact, the lady at the native nursery I went to near where I live said it would require a whole paddock just to feed one household for a year on pencil yams the same way potatoes do.

The issue there is that I don’t have a spare paddock to myself, or the time to do any cultivation, or the equipment, etc.

So for now my “Koori Kosher” dream is sitting on the backburner. It doesn’t make me less determined to finally go an entire day, or even week on traditional food. It will happen one day!

It does mean, though, that when I eat Kangaroo I give thanks. I thank the ancestors and I take my time. It is special, spiritual.

There is a far larger dimension to this as well though. One which could go a long way toward shifting the poor dietary health outcomes amongst Aboriginal people at last.

Aboriginal communities need to prioritise reconnecting with our sacred food. The food of the ancestors. It is the gateway to restoring hope, pride, health and culture. Just like language (that’s an article for another day). This is a central plank of self-determination. Especially in urban areas where it is harder to connect with culture, tradition and the bush.

For example, for the many Aboriginal kids removed or estranged from culture, not having language or ceremony, food would be an easy way of connecting directly to culture. Imagine it, the kid says to his friend “I can’t eat McDonalds or drink alcohol because I’m keeping spirit and eating cultural this week. I want to.”

I’m sure it would make people feel proud. Especially if “keeping cultural” with your diet comes from within community, maybe where they also grow and harvest cultural food for their (and other) mobs use.

There’s a fledgling industry for you. Done right. With authority. It would allow economic independence and competence, if not expertise. People in communities would be world experts in their own sacred foods. That’s connecting to country and culture.

As Instone says “food, country, ecological knowledge and care occur within a seamless web that binds people and place. There is no dissociation or division between country, food and culture.”

And for once it wouldn’t be the same old top-down crap we get from governments when it comes to fixing “problems” in communities. Current measures are so alienating. Outside experts, using outside methods to fix outside problems (colonialism) using outside products (like European food). Just the same-old assimilationism we’ve always seen.

But all this can’t be simply as an adjunct to the existing Australian/European culinary culture. Sure sales of cultural food could ensure the survival of potential Aboriginal-run farms but the central point of growing and harvesting the food is for the reclamation of culture, health, power and pride.

Sovereignty, in other words. Food sovereignty.

 

References

Lesley Instone, ‘Eating the country’, Journal of Australian Studies, No. 86, 2006, pp. 135-141

Colin Bannerman, ‘Indigenous food and cookery books: Redefining Aboriginal cuisine’, Journal of Australian Studies, No. 87, pp. 19-36.

 

North Sentinel Island and the Pemulwuy-Australia Condominium

I was engaging in a bit of “research” the other day and got sidetracked. When I say sidetracked, that’s pretty much how I do all my research these days. I’ll find something about a topic I’m interested in then I’ll come across something I didn’t know and find that interesting. Then I’ll find something else on that thread then get sidetracked again.

If you allow yourself to meander in this way it is amazing what can be unearthed. I love spending a lazy few hours “researching” like this.

And so it was I was reading about Aboriginal sovereignty when someone posted, at the bottom of a video, a link to a blog.

When I went to the blog it was all about a mysterious island in Asia inhabited by a people essentially uncontacted by “civilisation” to this day. Eschewing all contact with the outside world, any attempt to meet with these people has resulted in a volley of arrows and spears.

Huh? That’s impossible, I thought. It’s the sort of colonial, paternal, racist click-bait which usually ruins my morning.

The blogger didn’t mention where the supposed uncontacted people were but there was a satellite image of the island. Ok, I thought, let’s see. I’ll identify the island and put a comment on the blog which exposes this person for the fraud they so obviously are. Haven’t Indigenous people around the world suffered enough from the noble savage trope already?

Google Image Search is miraculous for this sort of thing and sure enough when I uploaded the image of the island it returned with a match. It was somewhere called “North Sentinel Island” in the middle of the Bay of Bengal and is politically a territory of India. Which means it was once a British “possession”. If those guys exist, I thought, there is no way the British would have left them “uncontacted”. The missionaries would have gone in quick smart and… well, game over, they’re fucked.

But upon looking up Wikipedia it all checked out!

It turns out that the “Sentinelese” people have, through a mix of being isolated, located on a small, defensible island which presumably doesn’t contain oil, gold, valuable forestries or arable cow pastures, managed to remain isolated to the point where even potential introduced diseases have not been able to enter.

One reason there has been such limited outside contact is because the Sentinelese defend their island with extreme prejudice. As soon as they detect a boat has come beyond the reef which surrounds their island out they come with volleys of spears and arrows.

The Indian government, to their eternal credit, has set up a no-go zone around the island to protect their way of life. India knows a bit themselves about being traumatised by colonialism.

An example of the Sentinelese fierce independence occurred in 2006. A boat from a group of Indian fishers strayed onto a beach after the anchor failed overnight when the sailors were drunk. The next day the Sentinelese attacked and killed the two fishermen and when an Indian army helicopter went to resume the bodies out came the Sentinelese shooting arrows at the helicopter. They had to abandon the search.

The responses of the two Indian families to the tragic event is of interest.

One father says that basically his son was trespassing and under Sentinelese law he was dealt with.

The wife of the other fisherman wants the Sentinelese who killed her husband to be brought to justice under Indian law.

Such an undertaking would lead to the destruction of Sentinelese society. There would need to be extraction of at least some islanders, which would involve bloodshed, the potential introduction of disease, the Sentinelese language, which is not spoken by anyone else – the neighbouring Indigenous peoples’ languages are not mutually intelligible – would need to be studied and learnt, involving, basically, destruction of the Sentinelese way of life.

And then there is the small question of sovereignty.

If the Sentinelese have never left their island, are unaware of any geo-politics or international law, have their own strong system of laws and justice, have been self-sustaining for 50 thousand plus years and have never ceded or signed any part of their land or sovereignty away, then why are the deaths of these fishermen not taken as just another nation’s form of justice?

That is, justice viewed the same way a public execution in Saudi Arabia or a caning in Singapore is viewed… not very nice, but it’s their law and they are exercising it.

The local Indian police chief summed up the situation as he sees it, “We have witnesses, yes, illegal poachers who won’t testify because they can be imprisoned. Then there are the language barriers; nobody speaks the Sentinelese language. This is before we think about identifying the culprits and compiling forensic evidence. We would have to arrest the entire tribe.

We are in an impossible situation. If we raided the island there would be casualties on both sides. If the tribesmen go inland we might be able to sneak back there and collect the bodies – that’s as far as this will probably go.”

Thinking of this event at North Sentinel island brings me back to those initial Australian contact days of 1788 and after. We have enough documentation from Watkin Tench and all the others which so closely parallel the description of the Sentinelese situation today.

The desire to meddle in Sentinelese affairs is the same as it was back in 1788 Australia. The difference is no-one would swallow the “terra nullius” line with the Sentinelese in the present.

And this is where sovereignty is important.

Since the start of time Aboriginal people, like the present-day Sentinelese, were police officers, lawyers, judges, premiers, prime ministers, public servants, military personnel and border control.

Then, hey presto the British arrive on the Australian continent and they call all the shots. Aboriginal people go to the bottom of the pile and – let’s not kid ourselves – have stayed there ever since.

This is the great failing of the British system in Australia. Two systems with two hierarchies and two modes of operation which back then could have attempted to come together (they chose, unlike the Indian government, not to stay away) at the very least via those shonky treaties the British were so fond of signing in the 19th century.

But… no. It was their way or the highway and Aboriginal people have been on a lonely dusty highway ever since.

So invasion happened. This isn’t North Sentinel Island. The British stayed. It is day 83,337 of the occupation. What to do about it?

The current thinking, strongly pursued by Governments in Australia, is for the inherited British system to continue on its merry way and just tinker a little with it by, say, adding some indigenous parliamentarians, maybe a constitutional preamble and, bingo, everything works fine and we’re all happy.

The problem with that is it won’t solve anything.

Whilst “mainstream” people say that “the past is the past, times have changed. I’m not guilty for what people did 200 years ago,” the thing which has not changed is the British legal system. And by that I don’t just mean the judiciary. I mean the parliaments, the executive and, most importantly, the people and culture perpetuating this power.

It’s always the same white people from the same white schools in the same white suburbs making the same white laws looking after the same white interests.

And, again, it isn’t what blackfellas want.

What do Blackfellas want? Time and time again Aboriginal people say they want sovereignty, self-determination.

We’ve been told by “experts” like Gary Johns (who seems genuinely terrified by the prospect of true Aboriginal Self-Determination) that the dream of Self-Determination has failed and now is the era of Howard’s “practical reconciliation.”

As most Aboriginal people are aware this is code for assimilation.

Unfortunately the democratic process in Australia is seen as divinely granted. It’s the rule of the(ir) people. It’s how they get out of their responsibility to us every time. The numbers are in their favour because it’s pretty much stacked with their people. It’s democracy, right? How can that ever be changed?

I’ve thought a lot about what true self-determination for Aboriginal people would look like.

I owe a debt to important essays such as Michael Mansell’s “Why Norfolk Island and not Aborigines” (2005) where Michael proposes what a sovereign Aboriginal state would look like.

Then there’s Callum Clayton-Dixon’s “Aboriginal or Australian?” (2015) where the author challenges the usefulness and legitimacy of Aboriginal people thinking of themselves as being “Australian” and all the dispossession and appropriation that comes with that term.

Irene Watson’s passionate “The future is our past: We once were sovereign and we still are” poses the question to the Australian state “by what lawful authority do you come to our lands? What authorises your efforts to dispossess us?” It is one of my favourites.

Of course, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is required reading (if not memorisation) for all Aboriginal people. Articles 3, 4 and 5 give me strength daily when thinking about what is right and just for our mob:

Article 3:
Indigenous peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.

Article 4:
Indigenous peoples, in exercising their right to self-determination, have the right to autonomy or self-government in matters relating to their internal and local affairs, as well as ways and means for financing their autonomous functions.

Article 5:
Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, legal, economic, social and cultural institutions, while retaining their rights to participate fully, if they so choose, in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the State.

I still can’t believe such a beautiful document even exists. How was it allowed? No wonder Australia (and Canada, New Zealand and the USA – what do they all share in common?) held out signing it.

But the most important work I always turn to when thinking about Aboriginal sovereignty isn’t by an Aboriginal author at all. It is by an academic named Joel H. Samuels, a law professor from the University of South Carolina.

In 2008 Professor Samuels published a little known essay titled “Condominium Arrangements in International Practice: Reviving an Abandoned Concept of International Boundary Dispute Resolution.”

The essay provides a treaty and sovereignty framework for Indigenous people which everyone else seems to have missed.

Which proceeds from a simple proposition…

Why can’t two separate states exist on one piece of land?

That is, in a radical overhaul of the status quo where nothing ever seems to change and gaps never seem to close, why not consider a Condominium arrangement between the Commonwealth of Australia and a new sovereign state which is a federation of Aboriginal nations?

Give Aboriginal people full control to come up with their own solutions. Give Aboriginal people back their ancient right to govern themselves. Give them full control of their culture, communities and future.

But first, what is a condominium?

Wikipedia gives a nice definition;

In international law, a condominium (plural either condominia, as in Latin, or condominiums) is a political territory (state or border area) in or over which multiple sovereign powers formally agree to share equally dominium (in the sense of sovereignty) and exercise their rights jointly, without dividing it up into ‘national’ zones.

The Samuels’ essay is so important is because the Professor gives the historical and theoretical underpinning, from a legal western perspective, as to how full Aboriginal sovereignty is not only possible but can in practice be implemented.

It’s all done under western law. It’s in their legal history and theory. They can’t argue that it’s unworkable and impossible because it’s been done before under their system. In fact there are a few condominia which still exist in the world today.

If one’s thinking about sovereignty, self-determination, healing, rights and dignity for Aboriginal people proceeds from the concept of condominium then the way forward for not only Aboriginal people but all Indigenous peoples around the world – except, hopefully, the Sentinelese… (but don’t hold your breath) – becomes pretty clear.

Talk about “empowered communities.”

So what would a condominium between the Commonwealth of Australia and a federation of Aboriginal (and possibly Torres Strait Island) nations look like?

Well to start with, condominium would have to be achieved through a treaty. It would be the centrepiece of a proper treaty. A treaty with substance. Not some mealy-mouthed piece of paper which does nothing but “authorise” the Australian state to carry on as usual and deliver nothing substantive to our mob. Which is what the current constitutional referendum debate is all about – white guilt-reduction.

The central basis of a condominial treaty must involve the core economic basis of the new state.

There can be no escaping… Australia must pay tribute.

“Tribute” in this sense is perpetual payment for the use of our land. Land was never granted by us and it never will be. I don’t think the Australian nation as a whole has ever understood the simple concept:

This isn’t your land!

But as the basis for treaty Aboriginal people are prepared to grant perpetual leasehold to much of the land deemed freehold, etc. today in Australia. Let this be the central plank of treaty negotiation.

How would tribute be paid?

In practice this is up for negotiation but my belief would be, say, a perpetual 1% levy on every land sale in Australia, freehold or other, to be collected and transferred by the states and the Commonwealth in perpetuity for the use of the new Aboriginal state without condition.

Australia can afford it and it would go a long way toward finally creating “practical reconciliation”.

It would mean Aboriginal people could cut the funding puppet strings the Australian state has been yanking since the end of the frontier war era.

That’s the great myth about the endless white whining about “all this money we’re spending on Aboriginal people.” In reality it keeps them firmly in charge. It’s the modern form of state coercion since the missions got closed down and the protection acts got repealed.

When I hear the old “we can’t keep throwing all this money at the blacks. What a waste!”

I respond “then don’t… give them power instead.”

Tribute would be the economic basis for the new state. It is right and just that tribute is paid. Aboriginal land will never be ceded. Ever. But tribute is an acceptable and reasonable way for both peoples to move forward in the spirit of healing and goodwill.

True and “practical” reconciliation.

Tribute would be distributed centrally on an equitable basis for the use of all mobs. Just because the Sydney Aboriginal communities would be sitting on a tribute goldmine doesn’t mean they should keep it. Aboriginal people value reciprocity. It is a core cultural value. A world-view. Those remote communities will finally have the funding they need to function with dignity. What about all the jobs flowing from running their own hospitals, schools, local councils, media organisations. Not to mention their police forces, University campuses, prisons, fisheries, mines, emergency services, etc.

Once the economic stability is established the fine-tuning could begin.

How would the laws of each state apply to individual citizens of both states?

Aboriginal people would always be tried in Aboriginal courts, have Aboriginal passports, go to Aboriginal gaols. They would be subjected to the same laws as Australians on, say, the roads and in other equivalent areas.

There would be many areas of the continent which were solely under the jurisdiction of the Aboriginal state. In others, there would be agreement as to how citizens of each nation would be policed by each separate law enforcement body.

For example, the Australian police forces may detain an Aboriginal citizen for a few hours but must instantly contact Aboriginal police and have the prisoner transferred.

Obviously the nutting out of these laws would be voluminous and beyond the scope of this article. This doesn’t mean such a complex undertaking is not possible. Of course it is possible.

What would the name of the new state be? No-one will ever agree because we were all disparate nations, fiercely independent, but if Aboriginal people can adopt a flag in common they can adopt a name.

My own belief is that it should honour Pemulwuy the great resistance leader of our people because he stood up for the maintenance of sovereignty from the start. He saw what Arthur Phillip – the most successful people smuggler in history – and what the rest of his lot had to offer and said an emphatic “no”.

Pemulwuy’s death and the cruel saga of his remains are also an insight into the ruthlessness of the British. And that ruthlessness is the direct foundation of the Australian state. It’s exactly how it all came into being, not at Gallipoli as they’d like you to believe.

Next, the location for a seat of government. A capital city would not be as important to Aboriginal people because our mobs are community based and much of their power would be retained at the local level. But you do need a supra-national body to deal with Australia, collect, distribute and maintain finances, resolve disputes between our nations and all that. So you need a location.

I believe that should be at Sydney. It is close to the important Australian centres of Sydney and Canberra for the ongoing close relationship needed between the two states. It would also be a symbol of resistance and triumph over the adversity Aboriginal people have faced since the European arrival in Sydney in 1788. Sydney is also an important centre for the evolution of the Aboriginal sovereignty movement from the 1930’s onward. Not to mention the political movement out of Redfern in the 1970’s.

The greatest value of a condominium arrangement with Australia though would be the removal of the Australian state in decision making over Aboriginal community life.

A condominium would mean the end of hundreds of years of entrenched suffering at the hands of the Australian state in many areas.

Gone would be the various state Community Departments (for example, the dreaded Department of Community Services or “DOCS” in NSW) having ultimate power to remove children. It would be Aboriginal national or regional governments with those powers.

Sure they’d make mistakes. But they would be our mistakes, which we would learn from.

That’s empowerment.

It’s also the Aboriginal gift to Australia… it would become truly legitimate as a nation state because Aboriginal people would finally recognise them as such. I think deep down Australians realise the lack of legitimacy Indigenous people regard them with. So they go all quiet on Australia Day now. Well, some do. It’s been like that since the Bicentenary in 1988, really. Finally they could have a bit of real pride about their foundation knowing some amends have been made.

And a treaty with condominium would allow Aboriginal people to well-wish them on Australia day. Why not… it would be a sign the Australian state had finally matured and been honest with itself.

Of course it will always be a day of deep mourning for Aboriginal people.

But I believe the 26 January 2038 is the perfect date for the birth of the new Pemulwuy state. Hopefully the “handover” would occur at the Australian Hall in Sydney. What a fantastic location to justify and honour those brave Kooris who organised the “Day of Mourning” in 1938, protesting the sesqui-centenary of the first-fleet landing. It’s the basis of NAIDOC week.

Or maybe at Sydney Cove itself.

The Pemulwuy state would not be perfect. Far from it. No post-colonial national government ever has been. But that is the journey Aboriginal people must take. Has any former colony ever appealed for the colonial power to come back? Not many. That’s instructive. I don’t see Timor-Leste begging Indonesia to “come back all is forgiven.”

Condominium is a radical solution to our problems. However, those problems are so profound and the trauma so deep there is practically no other way.

I hope the people of North Sentinel Island never have to face the same bloody and traumatic history we have had since the colonials arrived here in 1788. It would be nice to think they could continue living their lives as they see fit.

Aboriginal people have to exercise sovereignty in a different way. Through condominium there is hope for the future and for another 50000 years. And beyond.

Is Governor Davey running for Mayor in Maitland now?

The welcome to and acknowledgement of Country has become a highly visible part of public ceremony in Australia in the past decade or so.

For Aboriginal people it is important because it is at least some acknowledgement of the fact that even though mainstream Australian culture is pretty European in practice, people attending these ceremonies aren’t actually in Europe (anymore) and the history of the particular country stretches back many timeless generations.

In a way, it also acknowledges what an incredibly traumatic year 1788 was for Aboriginal people. A year non-Indigenous people these days aren’t much fussed to talk about or especially remember.

Of course, 1788 was the beginning of all the dispossession, sickness and death which “Welcome to Country” comes some way to at least acknowledging.

I have a metaphor I use to explain 1788 to non-Indigenous people. I say it was “the day the planes appeared in the sky and dropped their atomic bombs. Kooris are today still walking through the nuclear fallout.”

Welcome to country challenges the three cheers for Australia colonial settlement story of rugged men in Akubra-like hats with whips and a tough little white woman at home. Well we assume he had a little white woman at home, even though the population statistics show that men far outnumbered women in the early colonial days. Certainly, there is no mention in the narrative that this strong man’s resolve would ever have weakened and his gaze move over toward the black women in his midst. But that’s another story.

Thinking about 1788 also means not everyone thinks of any individual piece of land as merely having a history of previous good tenants and proximity to parks and beaches. All private property in Australia has a start date after which someone with a European background and mindset decided to “improve” the land ready for sale or production. As part of this grizzly process Aboriginal people got cast aside. With extreme prejudice.

Aboriginal people know this and feel a deep sense of loss when they think about the appropriation of their land from 1788 to the present day. The sentiment is captured by Kevin Gilbert in the poem “On the Road to Queanbeyan:”

I look at the open fields and see
The space where my people used to be
I see the scars of wounded ground
I cry as I hear the death call sound
Of curlew mourning by.

I myself have felt this same desolation growing up in southern NSW, staring at all that flattened, cleared land with wheat and sheep everywhere. This used to be Aboriginal land I thought. Of course, it still is, but if I’d decided to camp there I’d be moved on quickly by some farmer overly concerned at the “invasion” of “their” “property”.

Sensible people in Australia understand, at least in part, the hurt caused by this injustice and, in their own way, try to make some form of amends. Thus we have acknowledgement of country, the recognise movement, sea of hands, sorry days, etc. It’s all largely ceremonial (thank god it’s not John Howard’s “practical assimilation reconciliation”) but at least it’s something.

So the revelation of Maitland City Council’s official Welcome to Country policy recently was, to say the least, a bit of a jolt. Probably more like a sledgehammer to the head.

The good councillors at Maitland have decided that it is not enough to acknowledge just the Aboriginal traditional owners of the Maitland region in acknowledging country.

No, the official Maitland Welcome to Country acknowledges the early settlers as well.

According to Maitalnd’s official policy an appropriate Acknowledgement of Country would go like this:

I would like to acknowledge the Wonnarua people who are the traditional custodians of the land. I would also like to pay respect to their people both past and present and extend that respect to other Aboriginal Australians who are present. I also acknowledge the colonial heritage of Maitland and recognise the contribution of the early settlers in laying the foundations of this great and historic city.

In other words, Maitland have included the very people who did the dispossessing, killing, raping and banishing in the very thing (Acknowledgement of country) which is meant to aid reconciliation of these wrongs.

After picking my jaw up off the floor, I checked the Maitland website for the procedure around how this policy was able to become in any way ‘official’. A bit of poking around led to the agenda and minutes at the council meeting that night.

The draft of the policy itself, which includes all the settler stuff, was authored by a council worker named Calee Smith. She could not be contacted for the purposes of this article because she was on leave. As far as I could ascertain she is not an Indigenous person.

The “Responsible Officer” for the policy draft at Maitalnd City is Graeme Tolhurst who is the Executive Manager of Corporate Services. I spoke with Mr Tolhurst and he told me that as part of the policy formulation process he had gone to talk to people at Mindaribba LALC in 2012. As far as he could remember they gave their consent to the policy draft.

How could that be? Consent for the colonials, the land thieves? I asked him if the draft as presented to Mindaribba included the wording about the settlers. Mr Tolhurst said he could not remember. He did add, however, that policy can be amended on the floor of council without notice, on-the-fly. So perhaps Clr Fairweather, who moved the motion, or Clr Wethered who seconded it, did the amending.

Mr Tolhurst was quite defensive about the council’s position. When I asked him about why Maitland, of all the local councils in Australia, had decided to deviate so widely from not just their own stated guidelines for the policy but the reconciliation path the whole of Australian society is currently following he replied “council is the democratic representative for the will of the people of Maitland”.

The person I spoke to at Mindaribba Land Council, whose father is involved in performing Welcome to country said that they found out about this about a month ago and were “challenging it”. She described the whole situation as “very stressful.” When asked about her attitude to colonial settler recognition in the policy she said “isn’t that what Australia day is for?”

Notwithstanding the distress of the local Koori people at Mindaribba especially and all other Aboriginal people in the area, it seems to me this is yet another example of how the “representative government” model in Australia repeatedly fails Aboriginal people in Australia.

If it is to be assumed that the policy was researched, drafted and forwarded to council in the standard form as proscribed by the Office of local Government in NSW, Reconciliation Australia and accepted pretty much everywhere else in Australia then perhaps the policy was changed on the floor of council because a few of the councillors got their back up about the wording. Maybe it smacked of “political correctness gone mad” to them.

I contacted the Office of Local Government and received the following response:

“Thank you for your email about the “Welcome to Country” practices of Maitland City Council.

The Office of Local Government encourages councils to develop productive partnerships with local Aboriginal communities and recognises that a “Welcome to Country” is an important mark of respect for Aboriginal people.

Under the Local Government Act 1993 (the Act), councils are largely “independent” and “self-governing” bodies with rights and powers conferred by law. They are accountable to their electors for their actions.

While I acknowledge your concerns at the departure from the traditional “Welcome to Country” by Maitland City Council this is a matter for Council to deal with in its discretion.

I can only suggest that you continue to pursue the matter with Council, possibly by writing to the General Manager or your local councillors. They are responsible for bringing community concerns before the Council and, where possible, resolving those concerns.”

So, in other words, Kooris are stuck with whatever the local government thinks is appropriate for them. Again, the very instrument which facilitated the dispossession originally now reinforces it. Truly, this is racism.

The problem of governance in Australia is that since the arrival of the Europeans, the needs and desires of Aboriginal people have been an afterthought. Their cultural values are an afterthought, their history is an afterthought.

Who do the councillors of Maitland represent? In assessing the responses of all levels of government in Australia to the needs of Aboriginal people one must refer back to Governor Davey’s famous proclamation board of 1816.

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The response to my enquiries received from Mr Tolhurst of Maitland Council, namely that the Acknowledgement of country policy reflects the will of the people of Maitland, reminds me of the position of the Governor and his minions (those in red coats) in the proclamation. The red coats hold a seemingly unchallenged position above their subjects. So it goes (in panel one of the proclamation) that black and white should get along with each other in harmony. No sign of the red coats here.

In panel two the red coats go out of their way to meet Aboriginal people as equals. As Penelope Edmonds points out, the central vignette of the proclamation is the meeting of the Governor (in ceremonial headdress) with an Aboriginal negotiator (in ceremonial headdress). In this instance this supposed meeting appropriates an agreement, understanding or even treaty. I’m not sure that in Tasmania around 1830 any Aboriginal person was actually aware of any treaty being hammered out but the consequence of this meeting becomes apparent in the final 2 panels where the red coats sit as the sole authority and take it upon themselves to mete out ultimate European justice to both black and white alike.

So the problem we have, both in Governor Davey’s proclamation in Tasmania of 1829 and the Welcome to Country policy of Maitland City Council in 2012, some 186 years later, is that a discriminatory policy – disempowering, dispossessive and cruel – has been implemented without the consent of the local sovereign Aboriginal people.

In both cases the policy has been instituted through the implied agreement of the local Aboriginal people. Agreement which is actually fictitious. But that didn’t stop the red coats in both Tasmania and Maitland.

Nope, it’s the democratic will of a government no Aboriginal person has ever consented to.

Australia will never quit appropriating Aboriginal land, culture, language, law, cuisine, legend, children, sport, music, art, etc. So what has happened at Maitland should come as no shock.

My opinion? There is only one way to finally free Aboriginal people and, through this freedom, the Australian nation itself. That is self-determination – the sure right of Aboriginal people from the start of time until the end.

 

Reference

Penelope Edmonds, ‘Failing in every endeavour to conciliate’: Governor Arthur’s Proclamation Boards to the Aborigines, Australian Conciliation Narratives and their Transnational Connections’, Journal of Australian Studies, vol.35, no.2, June, 2011, pp.208-218.

The Uluru Bark Petition and The Bli Bli Thongs

Obviously the recent “Uluru bark petition” has stirred up a lot of feeling among Aboriginal people because it feels like such a betrayal.

One of the amazing things about blackfellas is that, whilst there is an extreme diversity of personal opinion, voiced confidently – stemming from traditional governance where consensus ruled, not the edict of a divine chief or a democratic process – there is also, in the main, a united respect for core Aboriginal values.

These values include things like respect for elders, centrality of community and kin, belonging to country, rejection of commercial needs above spiritual and community ones, etc.

All of which makes the Uluru bark petition so troubling. Cloaked in all the symbolism of Aboriginal cultural values, this shonky group make a solely christian statement and try to pass it off not in their own names but in the names of many diverse Aboriginal nations from around the continent.

And not just remote nations where, perhaps, the power of the Christian missionary influence may still be overpowering. No, some of the nations mentioned as supporting the Uluru bark petition include Biripi, Bundjalung, Noongar, Kamilaroi and Wiradjuri. In other words, some of the most densely populated and Urbanised Aboriginal nations and communities.

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The “Uluru Bark Petition”

Ultimately though, individual Aboriginal people are not perfect. Nor do they have some pure sense of morality (the ‘Noble Savage’ trope). Like anyone, Aboriginal people just try to do their best guided by the best aspects of the culture they come from. For someone who grew up estranged from my Koori community and culture that can be a despairing, confusing experience. But that’s another story.

So here we have a group of christian preachers pushing a religious line they believe in. Is it such a big deal? Aboriginal people have “sold out” in the past what’s the difference?

The difference is that for the first time since 1788 Aboriginality has assumed a form of mainstream moral authority. Yes, all the protests and court cases, the history wars, sorry days, apologies, wage claims, land rights battles, deaths in custody and stolen generations have seeped into the conscience of white Australia.

But only slightly. Mainly, I believe, the Australian state needs the consent of Aboriginal people to legitimise itself. Australia has looked at its past. Looked at new arrivals and said “we decide who will come here”. To achieve absolute moral authority around the “we” bit they desperately need Aboriginal people. Without First Nations people, the “we” looks pretty flimsy… They were just any other wave of boat people.

As an example, witness the Indigenous rounds of AFL and NRL, etc. It strengthens their brand. Gives it a sort of moral dimension. So putting a white proclamation on a piece of bark with a lot of Aboriginal names and nations makes their moral claim look ancient, indisputable and (they hope) authentic.

So now it’s desirable to add Aboriginality to your brand. How times have changed!

Which is why I nearly fell over when I walked into a service station in Bli Bli (Sunshine Coast) to pay for my petrol the other day.

Among the chips and biscuits I came across this display:

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Yes, Aboriginal flag thongs! Koori flip-flops!!

And under $8! Woohoo, too deadly!

Sadly, they didn’t fit me. But it got me wondering.

Twenty, even ten years ago, it would have been unthinkable for an Aboriginal flag branded item of clothing to be on sale at a suburban service station like it was just any old brand. Only, maybe, at a souvenir shop for overseas tourists.

But here they are. In Bli Bli! Who is buying these? There are plenty of Murris living in the Bli Bli area but these servo thongs are in the same numbers as the good old Aussie flag ones on the far right of the photo. Wtf?

(Ha ha, the ‘far right’)

They look great and it makes me proud and all that. But there’s an unsettling aspect.

The Aboriginal “brand” now has power. It is acceptable, even “cool”. It is authentic. It has a moral weight.

It is also useful.

It is useful to Australia. So we have to become used to an ugly new reality. Aboriginality will be used in arguments and debates to acheive non-Aboriginal outcomes. The brand will be co-opted in the pursuit of Australian goals. These goals have little to do with Aboriginal culture but that doesn’t matter. White Australia isn’t too fussed about stolen babies and black deaths in custody and all that. Only in so far as it makes them look bad. Can’t be having Australia look bad.

But what is of interest to them is a symbolism which they can appropriate to achieve their own goals.

If the imagery and moral force of the Yirrkala and Barunga bark petitions are just roadkill on the quest for white politicians to stop same sex marriage then so be it. Whatever it takes.

I will proceed by relegating the Uluru bark petition to the moral dustbin. It’s just a stunt. And it won’t achieve anything anyway. I believe it has a snowball’s chance of actually stopping same-sex marriage becoming legal in Australia.

But the appropriation of the Aboriginal “brand”? Sadly, that is here to stay. We have to remain vigilant.

These Aboriginal “elders” don’t speak for me. Or, I believe, the majority of Aboriginal people. But without a genuine political mechanism for allowing a representative Aboriginal voice we will never know.

A genuine mechanism would resolve these random individuals speaking on behalf of entire Aboriginal nations. But that’s the big battle for another day.

Until then we’ve got unelected “leaders” like Nyunggai W. Mundine speaking for us.

And those deadly thongs at the Bli Bli servo? Maybe next time I’m there they’ll have a size that fits.

Treaty yeah?… Nah.

It was with some horror a few days ago I read that the Victorian Government had begun initial consultations around the idea of a treaty with the Aboriginal inhabitants of that state.

Of course the media trumpeted it as some new high water mark for race relations in Australia and a triumph of fairness and humanity.

“Noooooo” I screamed from my laptop keyboard, “be very, very careful, they’ll divide you Koorie mob and drive through a watered down, weak as piss treaty and you mob will be essentially signing all your rights away!”

In the article it said that in researching a possible treaty, the Victorian Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Natalie Hutchins, said she “will look at treaty examples in other Commonwealth countries.”

So, in other words, she will be looking at discredited 19th century documents where basically the local First Nations peoples were deceived and bludgeoned into signing their rights and land away as being the new basis for understanding between Victoria and the Koorie nations.

Victorian Koories must hesitate. You see, a treaty, or the absence of one at least, is the most powerful political tool Aboriginal people have.

Think of it this way… the British turned up in 1788 and said the following:

“We own this island and you blackfellas are all British subjects…”

The rightful response: “We don’t agree. Show us where we agreed to that?”

“We will set up a system of laws and governance which will be for both our peoples’ mutual benefit and protection”

We don’t agree. Show us where we agreed to that?

“We will acquire and ‘improve’ land under this new system because this is a modern and productive way of doing things. You will benefit from our methods”

We don’t agree. Show us where we agreed to that?

“We will civilise you by forcing you into missions and reserves, stealing your children and assimilating them by denying their identity and culture.”

But we never agreed. Show us where we agreed to that?

But now, after everything those Koories have been through over the years, having fought to even survive, they finally come to them and say “Let’s talk nicely about this over a cup of tea and come to an agreement to legitimise our government and rubber stamp the system we have here with your seeming approval.”

I’m sorry, fuck off. The response should be something like “we’re not rubber stamping genocide without dragging you lot through the full ordeal of owning up to every injustice, written on memorials all over your state to the massacres and humiliations we endured. We want a day of mourning as a public holiday, NAIDOC day as a public holiday. Our own fully funded memorials and cultural centres at significant sites. Our own fully funded schools and hospitals. Our own fully funded University. We want our own prison to deal with our people, our way, culturally. We want affordable housing for our mob, on and off country. Offensive placenames changed. Our own placename boards in our colours in our languages. Massive funding to restore our languages for the use of us and our kids. And massive compensation, annually in perpetuity, including lots of land, for all that has been done to us in your name. And we’ll never cede any land, it’s always ours. But we’ll provide perpetual leasehold for your citizens, which is more than generous or more than your state deserves.

Why not? The power of the treaty is that Aboriginal people decide what they rightly deserve, not a court or government committee. Finally they can seek justice on their terms! And what’s the downside… the state says no, so no treaty. That’s their loss, not Aboriginal people’s. At least Aboriginal voices get heard. And the state doesn’t get its treaty.

Any treaty should demand extremely strong political rights. Basically, sovereignty. Self-determination. Starting with the ability to identify, fairly and equitably, Aboriginal political and community representatives in Aboriginal political and community representative bodies.

This is the greatest problem in Aboriginal politics to date. Not of Aboriginal people’s own making. It is the core problem with the framing and signing of any treaty… namely, which Aboriginal people sign the treaty? If we aren’t able to choose our own representatives, and I mean every single Aboriginal person in this country must have a direct say, then the piece of paper the treaty is written on will not mean a damn thing. Well, maybe as much as Captain Cook’s proclamation of “possession” of the continent in August 1770. Yeah, there’s a “consensus” document if ever I saw one. Not.

Unfortunately, present Australian governments don’t want true representative Aboriginal voices to be heard…. That’s why they abolish Indigenous representative bodies (after they have first set them up on their terms) and handpick blackfellas who they think will be closest to representing what they want. Witness Warren Mundine and Noel Pearson. I know they are fiercely proud Aboriginal men but who do they represent? Who do they speak for? Whose mob? All they represent is their own ideas. Maybe some of those are worthwhile but there’s no way if anyone like that signed any treaty they would be representing me, my needs or my voice.

No, Aboriginal people need what mainstream people in Australia get. A timely, well resourced political process. The makeup of which we will decide on ourselves. If it were to happen I believe there should be a lot more ‘consensus’ politics – which is cultural – than winner-take-all majority-rules European-style politics.

That’s just the start… and it will take a long time.

Once Aboriginal people have their own political processes in place (funded by the state… it’s the least they can do to transition Koories back to the power they’ve so cruelly denied for the past 200 odd years) then, and only then, can Aboriginal people start to think about what the demands would be for a treaty.

So, the proposed treaty negotiations in Victoria? Nice idea, but there’s some serious preconditions to sort out first.

Introduction

My name is Greg Page and this is my blog about being Koori.

My family is from Guriwal (La Perouse, Sydney) and my ancestors are Yuin people from the South Coast of NSW. I was fostered at birth and I grew up at Mungabareena (Albury) by the Millewa (Murray) river on Wiradjuri country. But I’ve reconnected with my Guriwal family and my identity as a Koori gives me strength and joy every day.

So my life focus at the moment is about my Aboriginal identity and balancing my interests within that: politics, history, writing, association football, gnu/linux and connection to community and family.

I’ve got a few ideas I want to share with mob so I hope you keep coming back and get something of interest each visit. See you!

Twitter: @boypage