Bennelong Papers

Whitefella, Be Gone! Landmarks and Racial Exclusion

Across Australia we are seeing greater moves by Aboriginal people to deny their fellow Australians access to certain geographical features of this wonderful country. The basis for this is to declare certain places to be ‘sacred’ to Aboriginal people and thereby deny others access to those places.

Aboriginal ‘Dreaming’ (the Tjukurpa in Pitjantjatjara) is primarily the Aboriginal peoples’ creation story of Australia. With variations across the country, to all intents and purposes it is their religion. The word ‘sacred’ is defined as ‘connected with God or a god or dedicated to a religious purpose and so deserving veneration’. Generally, the sacred is directly connected to the religious. An Aboriginal ‘sacred site’ is anywhere that is a significant Aboriginal Dreaming or cultural practice site. By definition, they are religious sites and there are literally hundreds of thousands of them across the country.

We have observed for millennia the incorporation of religious belief into everyday society, known as syncretism and defined as ‘the amalgamation or attempted amalgamation of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought’. Syncretism is seen most obviously in the incorporation of the pagan festival of Easter into the Christian calendar, and the same can be said of Christmas. In this so-called secular country, why are we now placing increasing importance and value on the religious? Is it now time for Aboriginal people to join in with their own version of syncretism?

Comparisons are often made between Aboriginal ‘sacred sites’ for example, Ayers Rock – Uluru, and whitefella ‘sacred sites’ for example, St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne. Activists and their sympathisers claim that white society will not allow Aborigines to abseil down the side of St Paul’s, so why should white people be allowed to climb Ayers Rock? Such arguments are a false dichotomy and a red herring designed to obscure the realities of the argument. Of course you cannot abseil off the side of St Paul’s; it’s not what cathedrals were built for. People go inside to worship their particular god. Furthermore, St Paul’s is not a naturally occurring geological formation – it is a constructed building with a specific purpose.

Despite the concept Tjukurpa, naturally occurring geological formations were in reality not especially constructed by a divine being, or a caterpillar, or a snake, or a dog, or an eagle, for worship, all of whom later the legends say either flew away or turned to stone. Indeed, to worship such geological formations and ideas has always been known as pantheism, and to hold dear as ‘sacred’ these beliefs, which in many cases equate to simplistic children’s stories, appears rather absurd in this enlightened and modern era.

In our age of enlightenment, less emphasis is being placed upon the religious, and more upon the observable and the scientific. Indeed, many religions, Christianity and Islam in particular, are coming under increasing scrutiny and attack as being outmoded and irrelevant. So why are we now seeing a resurgence of Aboriginal mythology (aka religion) and as a result restrictions placed upon where Australians can go and what they can do by an unelected, non-government minority group based upon childlike religious beliefs and creation stories?

How would it be if Christians proclaimed apples to be a sacred fruit and forbade their picking and eating? How is this different from halal foods, or not eating pork? Fortunately, in most cases such absurd religious regulations are not generally inflicted and enforced upon the whole population — but that could very easily change, as we are seeing now with the imposition of restrictions based upon Aboriginal religious belief affecting the whole population. Why then, when it comes to Aboriginal culture, are we retreating to the religious and placing ever greater value and significance on what are essentially made-up stories about the creation of the earth? Answer: this is nothing more than a contemporary tit-for-tat exercise of power. You took our land, so we’ll take yours. It is wholly consistent with the mantra (as monotonously repeated on the ABC, SBS and NITV) ‘Aboriginal Land – Always Was, Always Will Be’ and with Midnight Oil’s ‘Pay The Rent’.

Closing ‘sacred’ beaches in Western Australia was the first move, the ban on climbing Ayers Rock followed, then came the banishment of climbers from the Grampians. Mt Arapiles quickly followed, and now comes the latest prohibition on climbing the iconic Mt Gillen near Alice Springs. Many more areas are also slated for closure and others are sure to follow. Climbing a large naturally occurring rock or a cliff face should not offend anyone and cannot be compared to abseiling down St Paul’s.

But is there more to it than appears on the surface? Of course there is. Let’s not be deceived – as with any religion, this is all about power, control and, of course, money. For most it has nothing to do with what may or may not be sacred.

As Aboriginal people, or more correctly in this modern era, people who identify as Aboriginal, seek greater power, control, land, water, influence and money, the more we can expect to see the closure of popular areas to whitefellas on the basis that they are ‘sacred’. However, even the sacred has its price, and in many cases whitefellas will be able to have (limited) access for a fee paid to the local Aboriginal Corporation. Meanwhile, Aboriginal people themselves continue to have free access to their ‘sacred sites’ (which just happen to be the best beaches, the best rocks, the best rivers and the best cliffs) to the exclusion of whitefellas. How will a segregated form of apartheid — privileging  one group over another — help with reconciliation? Even St Paul’s does not shut its doors and ban entry, or charge you a fee to enter the cathedral and worship that particular god.

In years to come, the net result of the ‘Aboriginal Land – Always Was, Always Will Be’ and ‘Pay The Rent’ mantras, as supported by a bevy of guilt-ridden whitefellas who understand nothing of the actual history of white settlement in Australia, and worse still, have been heavily influenced by the revisionist histories of the last few decades, will be that every single person who does not identify as Aboriginal will have a lease fee attached to their property whereby they will have to pay their local Aboriginal Land and Waters Corporation money for having their home ‘on Aboriginal land’.

This is already happening on what used to be public land. Don’t believe it? Just watch this space.

Dr David Barton has been following and working in the area of Aboriginal affairs for the last five decades

11 comments
  • March

    Thanks David. Look out for Mt Warning in Northern NSW to join the list of excluded mountain peaks early in 2021. The summit walk, banned this year due to covid (because we all know that walking in the fresh air means you will instantly catch the virus and die) is subject to the usual excuses used to dispatch the Ayers Rock Climb. Apparently it’s not safe, the local Aboriginal Tribes dont want white fellas on it and a recent NPWS survey suggests no one wants to climb it except the 100000 plus that did each year till now. Time for social disobedience has come.

  • Charles

    Climbers of Mount Mary in the Flinders Ranges are similarly being discouraged from walking it due to ‘cultural reasons’. I expect a complete ban on climbing will be issued soon.

  • GG

    ‘Aboriginal Land – Always Was, Always Will Be’ is false. It ceased to be Aboriginal land when the British claim was asserted and later, confirmed as it is to this day. They had ample opportunity to oust the newcomers (as numerous peoples have in history), and they failed in that fundamental duty. If the land is believed sacred to Aboriginal people, then that implied certain obligations. They failed in those obligations. Any grievances they hold should be with their ancestors who had only one job to do, but didn’t.

  • ianl

    I agree wholeheartedly with paragraph 5. The real magic in Ayers Rock is the demonstration out in the open of deep geological time for all to see so easily. At one point, the level of the surrounding plain was the same as the top of the inselberg (and these in themselves deeply buried under overlying strata). How long did it take for wind action to erode all that out, leaving the iron-hardened inselberg in relief ?
    Not a lot to do with “a caterpillar, or a snake, or a dog, or an eagle”, I suspect. Nor even a goanna.

  • Petronius

    We hear much about ‘sacred sites’ but little about the role of indigenous shamans (those who interpret and mediate the spirit world). I am not even sure if these people still exist as much of the spirit knowledge is lost or has been recovered second hand from the records of anthropologists. To have authority in declaring ‘sacred sites’ it is reasonable to expect that the spirit mediator of the sharman still exists and they are interacting in a setting with a living spirit culture with rituals, taboos, totems and associated lore. One accepts that such a living reality might exist in those living on tribal lands but not among the bulk of town and urban dwellers, the latter who ironically appear to be the protagonists in this movement.

  • lhackett01

    David, the reality is that finding an Aborigine who truly believes in the mythical beasts that supposedly created the landscape during the dreamtime is impossible today. Any Aborigine who claims to be living and practising unadulterated traditional culture is likely lying. Nowhere in the several remote Aboriginal settlements that I have visited have I seen anything other than Aborigines living with most of the trappings associated in Australia with ‘white’ civilisation; cars, TVs, refrigerators, microwave ovens, etc, etc. They eat the same foods and dress the same way as the rest of us. Certainly, they will put on supposedly traditional dances and explain bush tucker to anyone interested, but that is as close to anything traditional I have seen. Admittedly, there are many settlements I have been unable to visit because they are closed communities where non-Aborigines are forbidden entry. So, perhaps, there are some Aborigines who are practising traditional culture, those who are hidden away. This is hard to believe because it is those communities amongst others where drug, alcohol, and other serious abuses seem to be prevalent, according to media reports. Mutitjulu, close to Ayers Rock, is a case in point.

    Australian government have kowtowed to Aboriginal and other activists over recent years to the extent, as you point out, that the rest of us are subservient to anything Aboriginal. We are being ‘sold out. Presently, Aborigines have been given some form of land ownership, exclusive title, non-exclusive, title, or State land rights, over about 47% of the Australian mainland, much of it exclusive title, with another 27% under consideration by the Federal Court.

    Activist judges of Australia’s High Court continue to make judgements about Aborigines based on their personal moral beliefs rather than apply the law as written originally; the judgements that Aboriginal blood is inextricably bound to Australia and the Mabo judgement are examples.

    Read my paper at https://www.scribd.com/document/458064355/.

  • Steve Smith

    Aboriginals have no recorded history of any description, therefore anything can be claimed as sacred without the ability to dispute it either way. My backyard could be a sacred site for all I know! Why is it sufficient to declare something as sacred without any evidence just on the say so of a few individuals? Have we learned nothing from the Hindmarsh Island bridge fiasco? In any case, being hunter-gatherers, moving from place to place to sustain their existence, I find the concept of their landownership puzzling.

  • restt

    Unless the aboriginal had exclusive title to a particular land or area – excluding white people would be a breach of the racial discrimination act. So any state that makes a site exclusive to aborigines without exclusive title would be in breach of the act.

    A Christian believes God created the heavens and the earth. Therefore all land is sacred to a Christian.

  • quaestio

    You know what. Don’t do the tourist trips to these sites! I was thinking of doing the right thing and booking a couple of tours to Uluru. I haven’t. (a) cost is prohibitive (b) I was told by neighbour to stick to the docos and professional photos as they found it a big let down. (c) evidently a lot of aboriginal art work out in the regions is done with ordinary paint.

  • DG

    Ah, Mt Warning! I hate to brag, but when young and really really fit, a couple of friends and I ran…yes, ran, down Mt Warning. Ran, jumped, leaped, with packs on. Great fun…sore hips afterwards tho.

    But to more serious matters. Section 116 of the Constitution applies here…at least it should prevent the Cwth regulating religions…such as bans on Ayers Rock climbs.

  • yofus

    I have always been Australian and always will be, and pay quite a bit of rent via taxes that help pay for our central governing authority to provide the necessary services to live a reasonably comfortable contented life.

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