When considering Indigenous culture and its part in shaping policy and decisions handed down from the bench, one needs to bear in mind what might best be called “neo-culture”. A good place to start would be with the insight of respected anthropologist Ronald Berndt, who was moved to comment after a judge found in favour of a Noongar native-title claim over much of southwest Western Australia, from Jurien to Esperance and including much of Perth.
In arriving at his decision, Mr Justice Wilcox observed that the action hinged on two main questions:
- Did the Noongar people in 1829, the date of sovereignty, occupy the whole area under claim and constitute a single cultural polity?
- Could the applicants demonstrate the necessary degree of continuity in acknowledgement and observance of traditional laws from 1829 until the present?
Significant questions were raised about both propositions. As Berndt put it:
“Certain aspects of the traditional language and dialects of the south west have been retained, at least by some of the older people, to become amalgamated and to emerge as Nyungar… But Nyungar, or Neo-Nyungar [Berndt’s emphasis], is far removed from the earlier languages and dialects… As far as surviving aspects of the traditional Aboriginal social organisation and culture are concerned, almost nothing remains. The Nyungar label is a rallying symbol, a device to indicate commonality and distinctiveness of interests and aims … their traditional Aboriginal heritage… is irrevocably lost to them [author’s emphasis].”
Justice Wilcox appeared sympathetic to this “neo-culture”, to the creation of the neo-Nyungar language, and even sympathetic to the creation of Berndt’s neo-Nyungar “nation”. Thus, the “single cultural polity” criterion was accepted as having been met, even though a leading expert begged to differ, seeing it as a post-settlement construction.
This Part III of a series.
Part II: Aboriginality as a Profession
Additionally, Justice Wilcox apparently deemed “neo-culture” as being of equal value with traditional culture in deciding the claim, even when inconsistent with traditional practices at the time of sovereignty. This inconsistency was clear to some:
“Nevertheless, there is clearly considerable animosity between [Mr Bodney] and some other Noongars and it will be interesting to see how the rights of Mr Bodney and his family are accommodated. His father was of African descent, and during the hearings one of the Single Noongar applicants, Richard Wilkes, seemed to deny that Corrie Bodney was a Noongar at all …. However, Justice Wilcox did not pick up on this point, and he accepted that people could be Noongar through either their father or mother (se e.g. S.770-3), even though the evidence indicated that patrilineal descent governed membership in land-owning groups under the normative system that prevailed at the time of sovereignty.”
Thus, the distinction between modern “neo-culture” and traditional culture with respect to traditional patrilineal landownership rules was, in Justice Wilcox’s mind, not significant, even though it was considered as such by at least some of the Noongar claimants themselves. In essence, Justice Wilcox accepted that a temporal continuity between traditional cultural practices and modern “neo-cultural” practices existed, and he deemed that to be sufficient.
The fact of the matter is that Wilcox had little alternative. Given the many “wrong-way” marriages since settlement and the number of part-Aborigines claiming Aboriginality via their mothers, any insistence on the continuation of the strict patrilineal land ownership rules would have doomed the land claim and almost every other nascent land claim across Australia. Communities with patrilineal landownership rules intact have largely gained legal title. In any event, the deconstruction of the patrilineal landownership rules and their replacement by investing landownership in the control of communal, centralised land councils is more in keeping with the “progressive” agenda favoured by the bureaucracy. Even when opposed by traditional Aborigines elsewhere, it has been imposed against their will. Consider this perspective, for example,
“Implications in Relation to the Proposed Legislation
(Aboriginal Landrights Bill (Northern Territory) 1976.
Aboriginal landowners already possess ‘title’ to their land, in traditional terms, through the joint principles of descent and tjurrunga (sacred objects etc.). This ‘title’ can only be held by the Pmarakutwia (actual landowners), together with their Kutungula (custodians or managers), and cannot possibly be held, even on their behalf, by anyone else. It is for this reason the concept of a Land Trust holding title to land on behalf of a land-owning group is regarded as being impossible in traditional terms. It is also highly dangerous, since it is seen as a major infringement of the traditional land-owner’s rights, possibly resulting in the application of the death penalty.”
It is noteworthy that it is white judges who not only decide who is sufficiently Indigenous to contribute to the debate, rejecting the testimony of some who self-identify as Indigenous and accepting the testimony of others, but who also decide just what “Indigenous culture” actually means. Wilcox was able to accept Berndt’s assertion that traditional culture was “irrevocably lost”, but pragmatic enough to accept a cobbled-together neo-Nyungar language and invented landownership rules in order to support the aspirations of a-culturalised Aborigines of the settled areas. Is there any wonder that the Aboriginal people of the remote north, who retain so much of their traditional culture, show so much disdain to their counterparts of the south? To Indigenous member of the Northern Territory Parliament Bess Price they are “just people”:
“The member for Stuart said welcome to country ceremonies were not particularly meaningful to traditional people anyway. “We don’t do that in communities. It’s just a recent thing,” Ms Price said. “It’s just people who are trying to grapple at something that they believe should be traditional.”
“They (urban aborigines) are regularly asked by journalists to define the ‘indigenous view’ on any issue. Unless they have studied anthropology and linguistics, their understanding of traditional law and culture will come from the half-remembered musings of aged relatives, themselves several generations removed from the traditional life,” they ( Bess and Colin Price) assert.
Regarding the implications for Constitutional recognition as viewed through the prism of Wilcox’s logic Justice Wilcox decided there was an equivalence between “traditional culture” and invented “neo-culture”. Hence, other judges could follow this precedent: that since Indigenous culture is a “living culture”, even invented culture has the same authority as traditional culture just so long as long as some Indigenous people accept it as valid. If the traditional landownership established by strict patrilineal descent — one of the cornerstones of Aboriginal culture — can be thrown out, anything can be thrown out!
In other words, evolving Indigenous culture, i.e. “neo-culture”, is just as valid as culture at the time of white settlement and by inference would command the same rights to protection under the proposed constitutional amendments. Aboriginal people are thus free to decide what constitutes “culture” and what doesn’t. Therefore, the question must be asked: What, exactly, are we proposing to recognise and award with constitutional protection?
If watching the SBS Indigenous channel, for example, one might be excused for thinking Aboriginal culture is moving ever-closer to Western culture. The station’s role models are Indigenous rock bands, country and western singers, rap dancers, contemporary dancers, football players, athletes, actors in mainstream soaps, mainstream TV personalties. On that same station recently I watched a woman described as a “leading Indigenous dancer” teaching break-dancing steps to a rap music soundtrack. Is gangsta rap, born in America’s ghettoes, really Indigenous culture? Is the constructed neo-Nyungar language a bona fide tongue and neo-Nyungar a “nation”?
Christopher Kenny recognised features of north American Indian traditions and the “New Age” movement in the invented “women’s business” of the Ngarrindjeri people of Hindmarsh Island (Kenny, 1996), and noted just how much this was at odds with genuine, traditional Ngarrindjeri “women’s business”, as recorded much earlier by respected anthropologist Catherine Berndt. More recently, the delicious expediency of the constructed “traditional War Dance” for football matches involving Indigenous players takes cultural invention to new heights. Gushed Fairfax journalist Martin Flanagan:
“First, they acquired some dance appropriate to the boomerang from an Aboriginal cultural centre in Cairns. Then they needed words to go with the dance. Four members of the team were fluent in their traditional languages and one of them offered the word ”kurrku”, meaning team or mob. Another, from the Torres Strait, volunteered, ”Ngalpa Ngiya”, meaning ”Who are we?” Then came ”dhu dhu” (strong), ”yindamala” (fast) and ”kulala” (hunting). They had the basis of a chant. Who are we? Boomerang mob. Strong, fast, hunting. ….. Dual Brownlow medallist Adam Goodes told the Boomerangs: ”This is the first traditional Aboriginal dance I’ve ever done and you fellers taught it to me.”’ (author’s emphasis)
I have heard a term for this invented neo-culture; “Toyota Dreaming”. I assume this is from the oft-heard phrase, ‘I need a four-wheel-drive to go Traditional Hunting.’
A further example; is this really the “voice” of Indigenous Australia? As Steve Hemming and Daryle Rigney put it in “Decentring the new protectors: transforming Aboriginal heritage in South Australia”:
“Disciplines such as archaeology, anthropology and history exercise a seemingly disproportionate influence on race relations in settler democracies. In South Australia, this influence has complex and unbroken genealogies linked to the beginnings of British settlement and the Protectors of Aborigines. This colonising character survives, and we argue that researchers working in Aboriginal heritage can be positioned as the new Protectors of Aborigines, reinvigorating a colonising network of power relations that remains critical in determining Indigenous interests and futures. In response Ngarrindjeri are theorising and strategising a transformative programme for decentring the new Protectors that avoids contexts where authenticity is at question or fundamental to the negotiations. Mapping actor networks revealed in everyday meetings and performances, and understanding local/global cultures of governmentality, have been necessary to safely bring Indigenous interests into Aboriginal heritage research, planning and policy, without activating the colonial archive and recycling Aboriginalist myths.”
So what is it, exactly, that some seek to alter Australia’s Constitution in order to preserve? Traditional culture? Traditional languages? Customary law? Just as rap dancing appears to have been appropriated by Aboriginal neo-culture, are we now to understand that “war” also is being appropriated from Western culture for the sake of a mere footy match? The other weekend I caught the end of a cycling, “Ride for Culture” event, complete with the mandatory Indigenous rock band to provide entertainment at the finish line. Perhaps it time to abandon the pretence of “culture” and be honest enough to name the ral issue as “identity.”
So which group will win the Constitutional battle?
Will it be Mundine/Pearson’s elites, with their end-to-dependency agenda? Will it be the back-to-classical-Indigenous? Or will it be the pursuers and purveyors of some hybrid neo-culture that still serves the entitlement lobby while remaining acceptable to Middle-Australian sensitivities and fits with the “progressive” agenda?
Will the constitutional changes reflect the growing divide between traditional Aboriginal culture of the Centre and the developing hybrid neo-culture of the coastal fringe, or will it simply pretend such divisions do not exist? Others have noted this growing division as well. The journalist Nicholas Rothwell identified this divide between two distinct “indigenous domains”, although he distinguishes them on the basis of needs and place, rather than culture.
“In fact there are two quite separate indigenous domains; these two worlds are travelling apart fast – in terms of economic profiles, educational attainments, wellbeing their well-being – – and the failure to distinguish plainly between them makes it impossible to see the full scale of the social crisis unfolding in remote Australia.”
Is there an obligation to protect traditional culture from the encroaching “neo-culture?
If, as some maintain, “assimilation” is to be avoided because it destroys traditional culture, then how can the substitution of invented “neo-culture” be represented as such a remarkable step forward. Sure, it substitutes certain practises that are perhaps deemed “unacceptable” in the modern world with practices that are more acceptable to “progressives” and more in keeping with their world view of how “traditional” societies ought to have been. But it is every bit as destructive of traditional culture as assimilation ever was, and the replacement culture lacks the very same “authentic” roots. Without authenticity, I can’t see that this warrants the prestige that constitutional recognition will bestow.
Of even greater concern are the dangers in the recognition of the classical Indigenous cultural traditions anyway. Can one “close the gap” by introducing constitutional separatism?
In a recent Quadrant Online essay, Sebastian Tombs asked and answered the big question:
“Will constitutional recognition help to advance the social and economic conditions of Indigenous peoples any more than they are being advanced now? The short answer is no. Indigenous rates of unemployment will still be extreme and remote Aboriginal communities will still struggle with Third World living conditions. Problems with grog, nutrition and family violence will still challenge and, above all, there will still be an industry of parasitic bureaucrats, consultants, activists and lobbyists whose livelihoods depend on perpetuating Indigenous victimhood on the one hand and Middle Australia’s guilt on the other. This only helps to promote and entrench expectations of entitlement, dependence and hopelessness amongst Indigenous Australians, rather than self-reliance and pride.”
Like Tombs, I am pessimistic. Like Tombs, I fear the outcome will be settled by rights’ lawyers and the “industry of parasitic bureaucrats, consultants, activists and lobbyists”, who will be the big winners. Ultimately it is their livelihoods that will be entrenched in the constitution.
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