display | more...

In the fifteen years or so since the first explosion of e2 writeups, the average Australian has undergone a shift in their understanding of and attitude towards Australia’s indigenous people. I am not indigenous, and I am certainly not an expert, so what I would like to share is not privileged knowledge but simply the perspective of a white person in 2017 trying to better understand Aboriginal Australia.

Acknowledgement of Country

One of the most obvious changes since the turn of the century has been the widespread adoption of a courtesy known as acknowledgement of, or welcome to, country. At any meeting, gathering or opening, it is now common practise. An acknowledgement of country is what a non-indigenous person, such as myself, would use. I’ll do one now, for this writeup, to show you an example:

‘I wish to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land I am writing from, the Ngunnawal people. I acknowledge and respect their continuing culture and the contribution they make to the life of Canberra and this region. I would also like to welcome Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who read this.’

A Welcome to Country is done by an indigenous person, ideally an elder, from the local area. Traditionally, when visiting the territory of another group, a person would request permission to visit or travel through, and permission would be given in a formal way by the local people according to the context.

A Welcome to Country might be as simple as the acknowledgement I made above. It might be a more formal speech including some of the history of the local people, perhaps making a connection to the purpose of the event. Or it might include some traditional ceremonial process.

At its core, a Welcome to Country is a form of border control. You are being given permission to enter somebody’s home, the rules of the area are explained, and the terms of your visit agreed to. Unlike being checked at the Customs desk, however, a Welcome to Country will generally have a lot more heart involved. You are not just being let in the door so you can fix the plumbing. You are being invited to join the family, be offered the hospitality of the area, and take your part in caring for the land and the people around you.

Country

When we say ‘land’ or ‘country’ in this context, we are not talking about Australia as a whole, but the local area we are in. Australia’s indigenous population was divided into a huge number of distinct groups. They were bigger than simply a ‘tribe’, because there might be hundreds of tribes belonging to a particular group. They are sometimes called ‘nations’ but a ‘nation’ is a specific term for a political and geographical entity, so I’m not happy using that either. ‘Country’ is a great choice of word, because in Australia a person’s identity was and is very much connected to the local area. Rather than owning land, indigenous people across the country had an understanding of themselves as ‘custodians’, being responsible for the care and management of the land, protecting it from harm, and in some ways belonging to it. This is not unique to indigenous Australians: anybody who loves their home, who feels deeply moved when gazing on the local mountain range or river, who feels deeply connected to the ground under their feet, understands this love of country. This is the love that Indigenous Australians have formalised as part of their many and varied cultures.

Civilisation Means Cities

One of the enduring concepts of the West is that of Civilisation. This word, which carries ideas of order, structure, intellect, sophistication and progress, is etymologically and ideologically connected to City. From the ancient world to today, the West has associated the establishment of towns as a sign of progress and order. Ancient Roman writers, medieval chroniclers, Victorian statesmen, have all been incapable of seeing ‘civilisation’ without ‘cities’.

One of the enduring myths about Australia’s indigenous peoples is that they were nomadic hunter gatherers, with none of the ‘cities’ that ‘civilisation’ requires.

There are a couple of huge problems with this. The first is the obvious one: people without cities have societies that are as sophisticated, intellectual, ordered and progressive as anyone else. Their societies are structured differently, the knowledge of their people is recorded and transmitted differently, and the sophistication of their society has had just as long to develop as any other.

The other problem is this: Australia did have both agriculture and settled societies. White people destroyed most of it, and neglected to mention it to other white people, so most of us are only learning about it recently. I stress that I am not an expert. Fifteen years ago when I read Orpheum’s wu I would not have known any differently myself.

First, agriculture. Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel explains far better than me how the plants and animals available in an area will determine the degree to which agriculture is practised. He sets out tables, for example, that list the species of large seeded grasses (you know – wheat, oats, barley, etc.) that are suitable for large scale agriculture, and where they originated. Not one species is native to Australia. He sets out tables showing the domesticated animals that are useful for work like riding, carrying heavy loads, or pulling ploughs. How many species does Australia have? None. So of course Australians didn’t develop the sort of farming as practiced in the Fertile Crescent, which had multiple species of large seeded grass, plus a couple of good pack animals.

Australians did practise their own agriculture, though. For example, in the temperate climates of south eastern Australia, there are huge fish traps and weirs built and maintained over millennia, for farming fish. These areas also have farming of food crops, usually root vegetables. I recently learned that large areas in Western Australia had huge farms of a perennial root vegetable crop. Plenty of other places in Australia had similar farms or aquaculture.

In the wider sense, we (the non-indigenous people) are gradually coming to understand that indigenous people managed the whole of this continent as a giant estate with no fences. Indigenous people have had literally millennia to develop and refine their land management and food production methods, and they played a long game. It has long been known that they used fire as a form of land management, burning off small areas at a time. Early white settlers sometimes thought this was a short-sighted and primitive method of ‘hunting’ where the ‘primitive’ people would simply set fire to an area then wait for animals to run towards them to be killed and eaten. Uh – no. Regular controlled burns allowed indigenous people to do a lot of things. Like regulate the fire risk in the hottest, driest continent on earth. Like encourage regrowth of particular plant species in a particular way (Australia has a lot of plant species that actually require a good fire to germinate, for example).

White people, for a long time, also had the idea that Aboriginal hunters simply wandered around the bush looking for animals and birds to hunt, hoping something would pop up from behind a tree I suppose. Also no. For example, indigenous people created clear ‘paths’ through areas of managed bushland that were ideal for grazers such as kangaroos and wallabies to use (and incidentally made good fire breaks). It’s probably better to think of indigenous hunters as being closer to herders with very free range flocks. It’s pretty hard to build a fence to keep a roo enclosed, so rather than try, indigenous people developed ways to encourage mobs to graze in certain places, and then ways to make ‘hunting’ easy and controlled.

One of the really remarkable things about these methods is that when you look at the cleared areas, people who know about how trees grow will tell you that these places will have been managed and cleared for, at a minimum, five or six centuries, with regular work – on a decade-to-decade basis – performed consistently through that time.

Managing food production on a massive scale in time and space means that western ideas of agriculture are too simplistic to cover it. The ‘tribal’ nature of indigenous societies also led to radically different ways of producing and managing food supplies. Nearby where I live are some hills that are the breeding grounds of the bogong moth, a large and fat-bodied species that taste pretty good barbecued. People travelled from near and far, from several different cultural groups, to partake of annual feasting in the area. This was not only a great excuse for a party, but an opportunity for a bunch of other important things that need to happen when people get together. You might discuss trade agreements, review laws, exchange news and ideas, deal with problems that have popped up, catch up with your rellies and sort out some marriages. For most indigenous Australians – and the non-indigenous ones, come to think of it! – the idea that there are people in Europe who spend their whole lives not travelling beyond the next village is just crazy. Here, we cover huge distances to see family, go to a party, or just to get to know some more of the country.

But don’t get the idea that indigenous people were just wandering aimlessly from one food source to the next, either. When you are living in a country that has limited options for large scale food production, you need to manage your resources carefully and deliberately. In some places, that meant being constantly on the move, not only to avoid exhausting the local resources, but to do the kind of land management described above: clearing land, maintaining plantations, choosing the best time of year for ‘hunting’ those free range herds.

In other parts of the country, people led a much more settled lifestyle. In south eastern Australia there were what we would call villages, where people lived year round in the same place. These are people who didn’t have to cover such large areas to manage their food production, like the people who lived near the fish farms. They needed to be onsite to manage and maintain the complex aquaculture systems they developed over thousands of years. The ‘custodianship’ culture, as well as the available resources, meant that these people weren’t building streets and shops, and frankly in a country with such great weather it’s nice to be outside, but they were building places to live and raise a family.

Non-Literate is not Illiterate

Western culture has developed with books. For the past couple of centuries in particular, we expect everyone to learn to read and write, and we expect all our knowledge to be written down. We have forgotten a lot about how different societies are when stuff isn’t written down.

I’ve been reading (ha) a bit about this lately, especially in Lynne Kelly’s amazing new book The Memory Code.

When a literate society comes up with a new law, they write it down. It doesn’t have to be remembered, or even memorable. It is enough remember which Act, and maybe which Section, you need to refer to. If you need the exact wording, you read it. When I worked in Workers Compensation, for example, I remembered that section 9 addressed where a compensable injury took place, but I didn’t remember wording. It was too boring:

9. (1) A worker who has received an injury (and, in the case of the death of the worker, his or her dependants) shall receive compensation from the worker's employer in accordance with this Act.

When it is suggested that a non-literate society, that is one without books or writing, would have their laws memorised, anybody familiar with this western method of writing boring acts would rightly think this sounds crazy.

A westerner familiar with the works of Tolstoy will also be suspicious of the idea that a whole society simply memorises their great stories, songs, poems, epics, sagas, dramas, comedies and tragedies. You can’t memorise Tolstoy. It’s hard enough to memorise one play by Shakespeare!

But non-literate societies don’t construct their ‘literature’ in the way that ‘literate’ societies do. I find it helpful to think of a group of rappers performing and improvising live: they don’t memorise and perform exactly the same way every time, but neither do they actually just make it all up on the spot. A rapper will have memorised certain elements: maybe a particular pair of words that rhyme, a few verses you can use as a sort of chorus, some ‘standardised’ phrases that help you quickly describe an idea or person or place.

Or think of a great storyteller you know, someone who is great at telling anecdotes. They might tell the same story regularly, about the time they were in the wrong train station in Paris and had to run to a different station to catch a train. Elements of the story will stay the same but the emphasis will change for the audience. One time, the focus might be on how they swore like a shearer, in English, in a carriage full of what turned out to be very impressed English footballers. Another time, the focus might be on how capable the children were in a crisis, running across town without complaining at the heavy luggage they were carrying. Or there might be a message about how the best adventures happen when you are backpacking, rather than on a tour.

The laws and knowledge of a non-literate society are usually constructed more like stories that have embedded information about multiple different topics all at once, and can sometimes only be understood when you have a particular context.

One idea I found really radical and new (to me) when I read The Memory Code was the idea of restricted knowledge. I instinctively felt, as you probably do, that if you need people to memorise something, you need to spread it widely so that as many people as possible are remembering it. But what happens when a story is spread widely? It changes! Just look at internet memes that transform almost overnight through an organic sort of process as people adapt and change them. The most important information, the stuff your society really relies on, needs to be kept safe from uncontrolled changes. So actually, you want to make sure that before people learn this knowledge, they understand how important it is to protect it.

Suddenly it makes sense why most Aboriginal groups have some kind of restricted knowledge, why they will not share all their laws and customs with people outside their group, or even with people inside their group who have not met certain requirements to be trusted with the knowledge. There is so much that I would love to know that indigenous people are not prepared to share, and sometimes it is written off as ‘sacred’ or ‘religious’ when really, it’s a lot more than that.

I find it really frustrating, personally, that there is so much I am not permitted to know. I’m fascinated by names, for example. I am the sort of person who will read books about the origins of different names. But very little about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander names and naming conventions is public knowledge. Names are one of the aspects of their cultures that are protected and restricted. What they can and do share only makes it more fascinating, and therefore more frustrating! For example, many indigenous groups will not use a person’s name after they die. When someone is just a local person, with a family and friends, that may not be too difficult. You would not always refer, yourself, to somebody by name. It’s not hard to simply say, ‘your grandma’ or ‘my old neighbour’ or whatever. But in the modern world, and as more indigenous people become public figures, some flexibility is required by everyone to be sensitive and respectful, but also be able to be part of the public life of our country. For example, a few years ago an indigenous singer, very famous in Australia as an activist and musician, died. His family asked that he now be referred to not by his first name, but his surname as “Mr Yunupingu”. This allowed the country to be respectful, but still able to talk about a person whose life and work continue to be important – not to mention making it possible for radio announcers to tell us who is singing that song they just played!

Names are so important. Another custom, in some indigenous cultures, is that a person’s name is not even shared with everyone even in their small family-based tribe or clan. In some places, for example, a woman’s name must not be shared with men, and vice versa. A nickname might be used, or simply descriptions – again, ‘your grandma’, ‘Bob’s niece’, ‘my friend the singer’. For this reason, very few indigenous names are included in name dictionaries or considered appropriate for general use. A few names become ‘public property’ because a person is particularly famous, but that is rare. It is more common for non-indigenous Australians wanting to have an indigenous name for their child to use a place name or a general vocabulary word.

A Nation for a Continent, and a Continent for a Nation

Possibly because Australia is one huge continent and one huge nation, we forget that the indigenous people in Australia were not one homogenous mass, but hundreds of distinct groups, with their own customs, languages, climates, cultures, laws, and so on. Superimposing a map of Australia over a map of Europe shows you why: if the far west of Australia is shown over Ireland, the far east is in Turkey, the north in Finland and Sweden, and Tasmania is in Egypt. When I learn some words in the Ngunnawal language, they might be understood by the neighbouring Wiradjuri people, just like a person from Spain might understand some French. But I wouldn’t expect people in Finland to understand Spanish.

So although I have put all these ideas and stories together under one heading, please bear in mind that ‘Indigenous Australians’ are as diverse and different as ‘Europeans’.

Prepare to be Assimilated

Around the world westerners have spent the past few centuries trying to ‘civilise’ and ‘assimilate’ and ‘westernise’ and ‘christianise’ everyone else, and so it is in Australia. Even when the white west started to realise that they should stop being racist, indigenous Australians continue to be treated differently. Australia is one of the most privileged countries in the world. We have a whole continent of our own, our standard of living is fantastic, and we have a pretty good social safety net that covers education, health care, welfare, workers’ rights, and so on. Yet Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have shorter lives, lower education, greater poverty and unemployment, and suffer diseases that have been eradicated in every other part of the developed world. Indigenous people are grossly overrepresented in our prisons. Someone like me – a white, educated, middle class city dweller – is probably horrified by this, and would desperately like to fix it. But someone like me also doesn’t understand how we’ve ended up here, or how to help.

In the past few years I have been lucky enough to get to know some more indigenous people as friends and colleagues, and I have learnt a lot; I wouldn’t say I know very much, but I have a better class of ignorance.

I learned, for example, that there are places where people still believe that illness is caused by evil spirits, perhaps through bad luck or because of your transgressions. So it is incredibly hard to educate people about preventing and treating illnesses in these places.

I learned that in some remote Aboriginal communities, people expect to be treated badly. When I worked for the electricity company, I was shocked when some remote elders contacted me to say thanks for getting their powerlines fixed the same day they reported it. Most infrastructure took weeks or months, they said.

I learned about some of the everyday racism experienced by my friends. One friend is my age, our kids are in the same class. Her family is so similar to mine: we enjoy the same activities, have similar education and career choices, do the same things at Christmas, make similar parenting choices. Except that she is brown, and Aboriginal. One time her Dad drove her to hospital when she was in labor. He went to park the car, and when he came back the nursing staff discussed, in front of my friend, whether they should call security because a black man was ringing the doorbell. A midwife lectured her on how she had to look after her baby, not expect help, when her tailbone was fractured and she couldn’t stand up. People she meets after speaking on the phone tell her she ‘doesn’t sound black’.

And there are the stolen generations. These are people who were removed from perfectly good families to be raised either in white families or white institutions. It happened all over the world, and right up until pretty recently. I have another friend, the same age as my parents, who was removed from her family and brought up in an institution. This isn’t the past, it’s real people who are living all over Australia today, continuing to struggle with the problems this has created for themselves and their communities. How could they trust the government or authorities? How do they reconcile their different upbringing in different cultures? How can they ensure this doesn’t happen again.

One of the most heartbreaking things I’ve experienced was my son’s friend, aged 6, learning about the stolen generations and being terrified that somebody would come and take her away from her loving family. My son has never worried about that, but for his friend it is all too real a possibility.

My Island Home

I have mentioned Torres Strait Islanders a few times. In the far north of Australia, between the northern tip of Queensland and the island that is shared by Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, is the Torres Strait. There are lots of islands dotted about here, and the people of the area had a very different culture to most of mainland Australia, much more connected with the Pacific Islands. It has become customary in recent years to acknowledge that the people of the Torres Strait are separate, but also Australian. They have their own flag, and their own very different customs.

The Future

I am a white person with very little knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. My understanding of my own privilege and ignorance has changed over the years, and I trust that will continue. I try, in the best way I know how, to not be racist, offensive, or insensitive. I try, in the best way I know how, to learn what I can and to support positive change in our country. Sometimes I get it wrong. Hopefully I get it right more often as I learn.

My personal experience with indigenous people, individually and collectively, is overwhelmingly positive. I am excited that my son has an indigenous elder at his school who teaches the kids through art and language about the oldest civilisation in the world, and helps them learn the respect for country that characterises indigenous cultures right across Australia.

We have a long way to go to give indigenous people the same standard of living and the same opportunities as everyone else. I believe we will only do that by having all Australians better understand and proudly share the oldest human cultures in the world.