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.
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:
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.