David 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.