“Let them rage,” the women told me, “because they have been wronged.” They whispered wind words in Kaurna and Kokatha. In Narrunga and Ngarandjeri the women told me “Let them rage”.
Cloud Storm, Ali Cobby Eckermann
Angas had put in place his perfectly legal method of solving the rising costs of labour: the enslavement of Australia’s Aboriginal people.
Sweet Water … Stolen Land, Philip McLaren
I am a daughter of this Land. I have the knowledge of my people. I have the power of my clan, I have the strength of my marriage, I have the love of my husband, I have the weapon of my wits. I am Medea. So come now and face me. There is a blood debt to pay and not a drop of mine shall fall upon this thirsty earth.
Black Medea, Wesley Enoch
And now, all it took was a simple flick. A flick, flick here and there with a dirt-cheap cigarette lighter, and we could have left the rich white people who owned Gurfurritt mine, destitute and dispossessed of all they owned.
Carpentaria, Alexis Wright
After the Australia Day riot, when the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader were assailed by an angry mob from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra, the protestors added insult to injury by spitting on and then burning the Australian flag at the doors of Parliament House. This led some Aboriginal public identities to disown the protestors. Human Rights Commissioner Mick Gooda condemned the disrespect to the nation’s political leaders. Former ALP president Warren Mundine said the incident was the work of a “motley crew of people” from outside the indigenous mainstream. Magistrate Sue Gordon said the Tent Embassy activists did not reflect the views of remote Australia. The front-page headline on the Australian summed it up: “Mob doesn’t speak for us, say indigenous leaders.”
Unfortunately, this is not true. The sentiments of the Tent Embassy’s political activists are precisely those now held by the Aboriginal cultural and political mainstream. By this I don’t mean the majority of people of Aboriginal descent who enjoy largely apolitical lives in the suburbs of the capital cities and large rural centres. I am referring to those active in politics, law, education, media and the arts, who present the face of Aboriginality to the wider public, and who now firmly control the agendas for debate and policy on indigenous matters.
The intimidating quotations that begin this article were not chosen by me. They are emblazoned across the front page of the Summer 2011 edition of Arts Yarnup, the magazine of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board of the Australia Council. Their message is plain. Within Aboriginal arts and literature, threats of violence and revenge for the “blood debt” owed from the past are both very common and widely admired.
Their authors are not fringe players in Aboriginal literature, they are among its leading figures. Eckermann was a finalist in the Northern Territory Literary Awards in 2005, 2006 and 2007; McLaren won the 1992 David Unaipon Award for Black Literature; Enoch won the 2005 Patrick White Playwrights’ Award, and in 2007 Wright won the nation’s top literary honour, the Miles Franklin Award.
The chief objective of most Aboriginal writers and dramatists today, and certainly of the judges who award them prizes, is to persuade their audiences that the Aborigines were robbed of their country by British invasion and they should not be satisfied until they get it back. “Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land”, chanted the children and adults as they set alight the Australian flag on Australia Day. The newly expanded Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the lawns of old Parliament House now has a campfire as centrepiece, framed by giant letters spelling out the word “SOVEREIGNTY”.
This is not what most of the more than one million Australians meant when they walked across Sydney Harbour Bridge and its counterparts in 2000 in support of reconciliation. In the ensuing decade none of this goodwill has been reciprocated. Instead, Aboriginal activists have maintained a rage that only intensifies as it gains more public attention and more public funding. This is a culture that increasingly repudiates reconciliation in favour of confrontation and menace. It hardly needs saying that the logical extension of such wrath is violence.
When the Gillard government’s panel on recognising indigenous people in the constitution presented its report in January, its co-chairs Patrick Dodson and Mark Leibler recommended inserting a clause “respecting the continuing cultures, languages and heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”. However, they did not distinguish between two very different versions of these cultures: the one that existed before British colonisation and the one that has emerged since Federation.
Traditional or pre-colonial Aboriginal culture came to an end in the south-east of the Australian continent as long ago as the late nineteenth century. For his major work The Native Tribes of South-East Australia, anthropologist A.W. Howitt recorded the last vestiges of traditional culture he found on missions and Aboriginal welfare stations before 1889. “Since then,” he wrote, “the tribal remnants have now almost lost the knowledge of the beliefs and customs of their fathers.”
In the south-west of the continent, the situation was the same. In the 1930s, the young journalist Paul Hasluck investigated living conditions of Aboriginal communities across the southern half of Western Australia. In Shades of Darkness he observed that all but a handful were of part descent and had never inhabited a society based on traditional laws, economy or culture, which had all ended long before their time.
Traditional culture lasted longer in the northern half of the continent but little of it survived beyond the Second World War. In the 1950s, the anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner found traditional laws and social hierarchy in the Northern Territory had largely broken down. In the essay “Durmugam: A Nangiomeri”, he wrote: “Many of the preconditions of the traditional culture were gone—a sufficient population, a self-sustaining economy, a discipline by elders, a confident dependency on nature—and, with the preconditions went much of the culture, including the secret male rites.” Stanner said the young of both sexes were less interested in preserving traditional Aboriginal ways. Young men openly derided the secrets of traditional culture and dared to seduce and elope with the young wives of grey-haired Aboriginal elders, escapades that would once have cost them their lives.
In Central Australia, the missionary and anthropologist T.G.H. Strehlow acknowledged the same. Young men abandoned traditional society in order to break down the marriage monopoly held by old men. Rather than being subject to “enslavement” by white pastoralists, as Philip McLaren’s novel claims, young Aboriginal men joined them freely. They acted, Strehlow wrote in Songs of Central Australia, in the hope “of gaining the girls of their personal choice—and the protection of their white masters against the wrath of their outraged elders—in return for faithful service in the white man’s employment”. In other words, no one stole their culture or their country. They walked away from it themselves.
The only Aboriginal culture that remains today, and the only version that the constitutional amendment proposed by Dodson and Leibler could possibly hope to preserve, is the post-colonial culture that emerged after Federation. This is a series of attitudes and assumptions, mostly hostile to white Australia, that emerged in the 1930s—when its principal progenitor was the Communist Party—and in the 1960s—under the influence of the American civil rights movement and the anti-imperialist theories of the New Left. Its authentic Aboriginal content is minimal, even in the remote north. Stanner described the remnants as a “Low Culture”—“some secular ceremonies, magical practices, mundane institutions, and rules-of-thumb for a prosaic life”—in contrast to the rigour and profundity of traditional society’s High Culture.
The ugly public face displayed by the proponents of this low culture on Australia Day, combined with the equally distasteful opportunism of Julia Gillard’s office in seeking to turn their rage against Tony Abbott, has probably ended any short-term prospect of the Dodson–Leibler constitutional amendments even being put to a referendum, let alone being passed.
Nonetheless, the long-term resolve of those involved should not be underestimated. In their report, Dodson and Leibler devote eleven pages to a sympathetic discussion of whether the Aboriginal demand for sovereignty should be part of the constitutional reform package. They take the Canberra Tent Embassy seriously enough to cite its founders describing themselves as “aliens in our own lands” and quote the present occupants’ submission to their inquiry: “Recognition of Aboriginal Peoples in the constitution must not usurp our continuing Sovereignty. The only resolution of the constitutional issue is by way of negotiated Sovereign Treaties under the supervision of the inter-national community.”
The panel reported a 2011 survey by the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, which found the three most important issues for its members were health, education and sovereignty. No fewer than 88 per cent of Congress members identified constitutional recognition and sovereignty as top priority. The report also quoted the National Indigenous Lawyers Corporation of Australia saying, “recognition of our sovereign status is an aspiration of Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders and an issue that will need to be confronted at some stage in the not too distant future”.
In the event, the panel decided not to recommend constitutional recognition of sovereign status at this time. But this was primarily for reasons of current political expediency since it would be a turn-off for white voters: “It would be highly contested by many Australians, and likely to jeopardise broad public support for the Panel’s recommendations.”
Nonetheless, the panel’s report clearly demonstrates that news editors and headline writers are mistaken to think Aboriginal sovereignty is an issue confined to a bunch of easily excitable political fringe dwellers. It has now become a mainstream demand of the Aboriginal political class. The Tent Embassy rioters on Australia Day were their frontline spruikers.