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November 13th 2015 print

Brian Roberts

Indigenous Identity and Inclusion

A new book makes the plea that Aborigines be allowed "to be who we are" -- an intriguing theme that, alas, the author fails to explore. If he means that Indigenous Australians want to run their own show, the similarly un-examined corollary is that conduct and culture must not be at odds with the larger society

oz dotDavid Ross of the Central Land Council in Alice Springs has published his book Every Hill Got a Story which has received several positive reviews. The story covers all facets of the history of the Indigenous Centralians, from the life of the desert myalls, through white contact, the influence of missionaries, life on reserves under the Protector, massacres by pastoralists and their agents, and finally Native Title and his people’s efforts toward self-management.

It is surprising that no reviewer has taken Ross up on his insistence that his people should be allowed to ‘be who we are’. He asks the authorities to stop trying to change Aborigines into ‘someone else’. It is at this point that Ross’s great story should be carefully analysed.

Let us agree that serious policy mistakes were made in the past and that Indigenous people have suffered as a result. The trauma of dispossession still affects the older generations and needs to be accounted for in contemporary policy, to aid the positive transition to contemporary society and well-being. At the same time, we should take Noel Pearson’s 2007 advice and ‘be done once and for all with (white) guilt and shame over past discriminatory policies. This is not easily done, but should offer a challenging aspiration for us all.

Against this conciliatory background, let us consider the implications of ‘being who we are’. This statement is of central importance in the present ‘Recognise’ debate and it pre-supposes not only that we know who we are, but that we also know what we want our offspring to be. Clarity on this matter is of particular significance for those champions of Indigenous identity. Personal identity is meaningless if it is value-free. If, for instance, a contact of mine says, ‘I’m proud Kamillaroi man’, we need to understand where that pride is founded. Is it founded simply on inherited family ties and beliefs, or is it based on a sense of values which stand up to modern humanitarian scrutiny? It behoves Indigenous leaders to come up with clear elucidation of what ‘being ourselves’ actually implies. More than that, it encourages Indigenous leaders to gain consensus among their people on the extent to which they are ready to face their children’s future and the modern realities which that focus brings.

Ross is probably not saying Aborigines can’t adapt or change, or consign some elements of culture to the past. Rather, he is most likely asserting that Aborigines really do want to run their own show. That view might be paraphrased thus: ‘We want to progress and adopt better ways and do so in our own way and in our own time.’ He is sufficiently educated and articulate to make a telling case for his people, but he will need to persuade the less empathetic mainstream that while history is both interesting and important in understanding his people’s contemporary situation, it is not sufficient to guide future policy directions. Ross and his fellow Centralians, such as Rosalie Kunoth-Monks and Tracker Tilmouth and others, vary somewhat in their emphasis on the extent to which tribal identity defines them. More importantly, they also differ in their estimation of the benefits of joining the mainstream and the extent to which this constitutes cultural genocide.

Ross’s view of the future is probably not as clear as his unusually well-informed view of the past. This applies to most of us, no doubt, but if Indigenous leaders are to genuinely benefit their coming generations, the hope of their people’s future, they will need to be somewhat less ‘precious’ about traditional matters and in insisting on the never-changing edicts of their law.

It is precisely this personal judgement of the extent to which tribal identity is allowed to define values, behaviour and relationships with outsiders which forms the crux of inclusion in the nation. Migrants of all cultures and religions have this same, deeply personal decision to make – and it is the individual’s decision and beholding to no one else.

However, inclusion has two sides to it: our readiness to accept them and their willingness to accept us. Many migrants, including myself, have been deeply hurt by being stereotyped on the basis of our people’s history. Others have been hurt by being shunned or ignored, apparently because of their appearance, their accent or faulty speech. There seems to be a fear of ‘the other’ as different, alien, untrustworthy or even threatening. Being different has its costs for all of us. I can still remember my African associates telling me, for example, that whites smell different — a sour tang, apparently.

The business of “being ourselves” that David Ross advocates captures the admirable goal of being ourselves on our own terms. What it also implies is that one community’s conduct and culture, even allowing for a broad liberality, must not be at odds with the larger society of which that community is but one segment.

Comments [10]

  1. Jody says:

    I’ve probably posted this before, but it’s relevant to the topic at hand:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iKcWu0tsiZM

  2. Bran Dee says:

    Many of us take satisfaction in improving our prospects and we often fulfill our parent’s wishes of being even more successful than they were.Usually we are better educated, live in nicer houses in better suburbs, and have less children than our parents. Do indigenous Australians value themselves in the same way?
    The answer to that must be ‘some do’. An example is pictured on the fifty dollar note where the Indigenous David Uniapon in his own handwriting claims to be ‘a full blooded member of my race’.A self educated inventive thinker, acknowledging his heritage but modern in his thinking and proud of his new Christian culture.
    Did David Unaipon succeed as an individual because he broke from collectivist thinking and would have had no truck with such a tribal slogan as ‘to be who we are’?

  3. Jody says:

    I have to say this. The aboriginal population has had over 200 years to get with the program and many thousands have been unwilling or unable to do so. Those who do have made a wonderful contribution to our society and will continue to do so. Their indigenous peers will remain in the stone age. It’s just not my problem!

  4. Patrick McCauley says:

    Unfortunately… it is ‘our’ problem … The ‘recognised’ Aboriginal Australian seems an almost unattainable goal … is Adam Goodes ‘recognised’ yet? … What does it take to be ‘recognised’ and ‘proud’ . Gary Foley reckons he is a recognised proud Aboriginal man … but he does not want to be Australian … he wants ‘soverenigty’ .. so does Jack Charles the Aboriginal Australian actor… and it seems to me that almost every Aboriginal Australian poet or writer I have ever read … also do not want to be Australian. They hate the western tradition even as they enjoy the freedoms it offers. They will not sing the National Anthem. There are many who are more Marxist than they are Aboriginal and follow a global ‘black rights’ agenda which seeks retribution more than it seeks reconciliation. Is it compulsory to believe that Australian history is a story of massacre, and stolen generations? … I cannot believe that we have been genocidal racists rather than compassionate colonisers … I have seen the evidence. How can white Australians ‘recognise’ Aboriginal Australians any more than they already have??

    • Jody says:

      Aboriginal grievances are only “our” problem if we let them. I refuse to do this. Adam Goodes was a tool and the crowds just didn’t like him because of his attitude and behaviour; Australians have a keen instinct for this kind of thing and they recognize when somebody is ‘fair dinkum’.

      Buying into the discourse over Aboriginal identity and recognition is only playing right into their hands. If you ignore it long enough and change the subject it will go away. I taught History to Year 8 and when I came across the cant about genocide I got my back up, telling the kids we’d draw three columns on the board and one would be the claims, one would be ‘other possible alternatives’ and the third column speculated on some of the reasons hostility might have existed between aboriginals and the white man. The text books were nothing short of propaganda. Well, not on my watch!!

  5. Alistair says:

    Justice Wilcox argued in the Single Noongar case in Perth that any cultural activity performed by Aborigines is by definition Aboriginal Culture, and that since it is continuous with past culture can also be called “traditional culture”, since past culture also evolved over time. This judgement means that everything is “traditional Aboriginal culture” – including the substance abuse, the child abuse, … It also means, which is what the Judge was saying, that an Aborigine who lives a totally European lifestyle, is still living “traditional Aboriginal culture.”

  6. Bill Martin says:

    Aboriginal community leaders and other prominent Aborigines, with very few exceptions, are continuously doing a great disservice to their people as well as to the Australian society as a whole. Those with limited formal education can be excused to some extent, but not the well educated amongst them. Well educated Aborigines are well aware of the simple fact that past events – often unfair and unpalatable by contemporary standards – can not be altered and only with the full acceptance of this reality is it possible to contribute to solving, or at least ameliorating current problems. It is almost embarrassing that one feels the need to express such an axiom, yet it seems very necessary. No amount of wishful thinking or righteous indignation can negate the fact that white men and women came to this continent, named it Australia and established their own society, based on the culture they brought with them. Aborigines, as the trite cliché goes, must get used to this fact and get over it. Only then can they begin to be of any use to their own people and to the rest of society.

    Instead, they drone on incessantly about the gross injustice of it all, thereby vigorously perpetrating the victim mentality holding their people captive, excusing them of any and all blame for the wretched circumstances under which so many of them live, as well as generally precluding them from being party to improving it. That is an unforgivable failure and they stand condemned for it.

    It is also worth noting that the leftist mindset, enthusiastically shared by the Aboriginal leadership, is severely critical of conservatives, accusing them of clinging to the past, refusing to accept the progressive evolution of culture. These very same leftist thinkers, including Aboriginal leaders, passionately endeavour to maintain Aboriginal culture in its original form, which, according to them, has not changed for many millennia and must not change now. Double standards and confusion, leftist thinking be thy name.

  7. LBLoveday says:

    Quote: “… whites smell different”.
    I live in Asia and can relate to that – many dogs bark at me and only me. A neighbour said it’s because I smell different to Asians, and as some bark from behind solid fences, how can I argue?

  8. bullockornis says:

    Yeah, well I think this article is an example of the problem. Too many words saying nothing that really matters.

    See if I can do better:

    REAL aboriginality had some REAL good things about it and those things were where the REAL aboriginal culture was.

    ALL of those good things are now gone, forgotten, buried, dead, even by aboriginals, elders, youngsters, theorists, artists, poets, actors, whatever.

    THESE are some of the GOOD things:

    . Every aboriginal always had a home because they belonged to the land and the land belonged to them.

    contrast our way where we are born dispossessed and must work all our lives to purchase a home and at the end of our working-slave lives rates and medical costs we inevitably rob us, alive or dead, of that home.

    . Children were allowed to be free, natural children until about 10 years old.

    contrast our children forced into scheduled indoctrination as young as 4 years old and never released from it.

    . The aim of the community was the happiness of the community.

    contrast our ‘aim’ which is simply the individual gathering of dollars – man against man, family against family.

    . The community enjoyed communal pleasures, windfalls and shared success – i.e. good hunting, say.

    contrast our ‘community’ where it doesn’t matter if you ‘hunt well’ your neighbours enjoy none of your success in fact possibly hate it.

    . The community only worked when it had to or chose to. Otherwise they played.

    contrast our world where we all have to work all the time, scheduled, no respite. we must work even if there’s no need for it but we live in a world where the need for work is constantly created more and more, never diminished.. and where ‘play’ itself is usually a neurotic expensive foolish madness like driving expensive cars too fast or roaring up and down a river in an expensive boat..

    . Every man had a say because decisions were made by consensus. If all didn’t agree nothing was done.

    contrast our system where no one has any say. our elected ‘representatives’ daily, weekly, yearly feather their own nests and let us down. where the whole system is specifically designed for people ALWAYS to be told what to do – consensus is never contemplated. and it is usually a powerful or vociferous minority does the telling. that is: selfish, self-centred, self-seeking minorities drive us all hither and thither.

    . Their life was about PEOPLE

    contrast our lives which are about financial success from the very beginning. put a child in pre school at 4 years in the hopes that they’ll gain some advantage so that eventually they’ll have a better job, when they are fully fledged wage slave, robots, artifacts of the machine, and can work their lives through in isolated comfort separate from you and I, all others.

    And so on.

    That’s the guts of it.

    The aboriginal was a natural man and lived as natural human beings should live.

    All progress should have been built on that foundation and should reflect that foundation no matter how much progress is made.

    But instead our ‘progress’ has completely left that foundation.

    And done it so utterly, so completely, that it totally convinces even the most dedicated aboriginal activist that there is nothing of value in traditional aboriginal culture. he never even thinks about those things listed above. they simply don’t matter. don’t signify. he’s already completely lost his culture even as he ‘activates’ and goes about trying to ‘preserve’ aboriginal culture by making bark paintings, weaving nets, doing dances, singing songs, recounting stories…. that’s not culture… that’s one tiny representation of it..