A history built on dishonesty is worthless, yet much of the current public discourse on Aboriginal culture and history has become based on dishonesty, exaggeration and misrepresentation. Like a person who claims credentials and qualifications he does not possess, a culture which is built upon deception or misrepresentation has little merit and is dishonourable. Many of the assertions being made by individuals who proclaim their Aboriginality are being accepted without challenge, yet to question those claims is condemned as racist. As Franklin D. Roosevelt observed, repetition does not transform a lie into a truth. Here is a brief discussion of some of the most obvious statements which are being used frequently, but which have been widely accepted without scrutiny.
Nations. This term is now being used instead of tribe. It is understandable, because the latter has a negative connotation, conveying a sense of primitiveness. The word nation and the term First Nations convey a certain grandeur and a sense of dignity, both having been copied from North America. However, the indigenous people of Australia were never nations in the sense that they comprised large, united communities. Indeed, as William Buckley (who lived for decades with indigenous families in the early 1800s) explained, the families were small in number and constantly quarrelling, the quarrels often erupting into deadly fights.
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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Unlike the indigenous people of Canada and the US, who mostly lived in large groups of hundreds or thousands, the indigenous Australians lived in small family units, occasionally gathering in larger numbers for trading or ceremonial purposes. The description of indigenous Australians as comprising nations is an example of exaggeration and misrepresentation; it has become the common term, passively accepted without challenge.
The world’s oldest living culture. This statement is patently false. All people alive today have inherited their respective cultures from unbroken lines of ancestors and so all of us represent continuous living and evolving cultures. This claim should be re-stated as “the world’s oldest unchanged culture”. Aboriginal culture remained quite static for millennia. Thirty thousand years ago, and more, all our forebear Homo sapiens were hunter-gatherers, anthropologists today categorising them as paleolithic or stone-age, wood and stone being their main sources of tools. In time, people in some regions developed technologically and culturally, archaeologists describing evolutionary phases as the iron age, bronze age and so on: consider the wheel, writing, musical instruments, houses, clothing, mathematics and forms of engineering.
In the Middle East stonemasons attained levels of skill and sophistication which still astonish us today. In contrast, indigenous Australians never accomplished any of these things. No written language, woven clothing, nor houses consisting of solid walls, a roof, and a doorway. The didgeridoo is today accepted as a musical instrument, but it is very limited in its scope; it cannot be used to play a tune, being confined to droning and barking sounds. Aboriginal numbering systems remained very simple because there was no need for anything more advanced; anyway, without any form of writing or any writing materials it was not possible to perform complicated arithmetic.
Sacred sites. The word sacred is over-used, often being applied dishonestly to describe particular features of the environment. The word has a general notion of something being spiritual or divine, yet the concept of holiness has little place in indigenous mythology. Certainly there are places that have special importance to local communities, but while they may be of cultural, historical or family interest, in no way can they be categorised as sacred in the religious sense.
To give them special status, they are often described with the over-used term significant. Caves, hills, rivers and rock formations may form parts of songlines, myths and stories, but that does not make then sacred. Similarly, rock engravings and cave art are cultural sites but that does not mean that they should all be considered divine. Too often this term is used to berate non-Aboriginal people who do things that indigenous people may not like.
Welcome to country. In recent decades it has become fashionable for public ceremonies to commence with “Welcome to country” ceremonies. But this is a modern contrivance, and many indigenous groups have no recollections of such rituals. Indeed, some describe these rites as embarrassing nonsense. The use of smoke in ceremonies has a long history, being used by many religious groups even today. But in Australia it has taken on a new role, non-indigenous Australians imagining that by tolerating it they are being respectful of Aboriginal people and customs. It has become an industry, some “elders” charging large sums to perform. But this is stone-age behaviour, men in loincloths and painted bodies stamping the dusty ground while others rhythmically clack sticks together. Do men and women of Aboriginal heritage want to be seen by the world as a primitive historical curiosity?
A technologically advanced culture. Some claims have been made (by writers such as Bruce Pascoe) that indigenous people had long understood and applied scientific methodologies. Such a claim is untrue because until very recently they lived as nomadic (or semi-nomadic) hunter-gatherers. Trial-and-error is not really a scientific method. Men fashioned wooden weapons and implements, some constructed rudimentary canoes, and stone was used for spear points and grinding stones. Similarly, the claim that the land was cultivated has little merit. Farming is physically demanding but the earliest inhabitants lacked tools capable of any form of large-scale cropping. Women used digging sticks for uprooting tubers and for excavating insect nests (such as those of ants and bees), but a single-pointed stick is of no use for gardening on a larger scale.
Writers such as Bill Gammage have drawn attention to the use of fire as a means of cultivation. Gammage, a thorough and meticulous researcher, provides considerable evidence to show that fire shaped much of Australia’s natural environment. Moreover, there are photographs and films from the early 1900s depicting indigenous men setting fire to grasslands in the tropical northern regions. However, the use of fire to remove old growth and to stimulate new growth cannot be considered evidence of a distinctively Australian form of advanced land management.
It has often been stated that indigenous people lived in harmony with the environment, but this is an idealised, rose-coloured view of the traditional lifestyle. While this is true insofar as they did not cause widespread damage to the natural features of the landscape, it was due primarily to the numerically small population and to the absence of suitable tools, especially metal tools, with which to work the land. A few traps for fish and eels remain today, but these are the simplest types of construction and did not require special tools.
Truth-telling. The use of this term has been copied mainly from various overseas bodies (such as South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission), but it is not really about people telling the truth; rather it is a term that has become politically weaponised, a means for berating white Australians. In the current discussion it entails non-indigenous people admitting the truth about our past, that the continent had been “invaded” and colonised, and that the original inhabitants had been ill-treated. That most Australians now accept that killings, cruelties and injustices occurred was evidenced by the well-attended “Sorry” marches (across Sydney Harbour Bridge and elsewhere) that accompanied the national apology in 2008. Additionally, since then a great national effort has been made to elevate the quality of life of indigenous people and to achieve reconciliation by righting past wrongs. The “Closing the Gap” programs are an example. Yet, accompanying this commitment to acknowledging historical truths it is reasonable also to require Aboriginal people to admit a fundamental truth: that theirs was a stone-age culture. Instead of misrepresenting their culture as advanced and comparable with others around the world, it would be honest to accept that at the time of the arrival of British settlers their way of life had continued substantially unchanged since the earliest periods of human migration out of Africa. As evidence of this I cite two events.
Some older readers will recall the publicity given to an event in 1957 when a very ill ten-year-old boy was rescued by a helicopter pilot who happened to be flying over the Tanami Desert. The boy (now an elderly man who lives with the nickname of Helicopter Tjungurrayi) was then living with a family of about thirty. Continuing in their traditional lifestyle, it was the first time most had encountered a white person. Later, a similar group was dubbed by the media as the “Pintupi Nine”. In 1984 a family of nine was found to be living in the west of the Northern Territory. They were described as the last people living the traditional way of life. Photos show the nine family members naked but for some hair-string belts, the men carrying spears and boomerangs, the women with wooden dishes and implements. They were nomadic, moving between waterholes and living on bush tucker, goannas and rabbits. They were testament to the traditional, unchanged paleolithic lifestyle of the Aborigines.
The terms and phrases discussed here are just a few that are being repeated in public discussions. They have become accepted without question, and indeed there are many more such claims that need to be scrutinised, such as traditional wisdom, Aborigines as a maritime people, and the validity of oral history. These are important issues because increasingly indigenous groups are making allegations, some outrageous, that are supposedly based on historical truths. All of the claims are for land or money, and many are made without any evidence; however, challenges to these claims are swiftly suppressed, branded as racist.
Dr Christopher Nance is a retired public servant and academic. For many years he supervised a training program for young indigenous men and women entering the South Australian public service