Friday, 30 September 2011
Wednesday, 28 September 2011
Saturday, 3 September 2011
I have come to North-East Arnhem Land, on my first field trip into saltwater country. It really does feel like a totally different nation to the desert country I’ve spent so much time in.
I am staying at Nhulunbuy, but my work each day is based in nearby Yirrkala and surrounding homelands and communities.
This is the home of the famous 1963 “Bark Petition”, and act of protest by the Yolŋu people of this area that led to the first native title litigation in Australia’s history.
The protest action was an attempt by the Yolŋu people to force legal recognition of their land ownership rights – of course, their legal system had recognised their rights since time immemorial, but it became apparent to the land owners that Balanda didn’t respect the law of the land. In March 1963 the government had sold part of Arnhem Land to Nabalco, a bauxite mining company.
The “Bark Petition” was presented to federal parliament in August of the same year. It was, for the Yolŋu, a diplomatic move, an attempt to communicate, in legal terms, sovereign to sovereign.
It didn’t work of course. Even we on the left talk about the “Bark Petition” as some kind of artistic, symbolic “stunt”- and certainly the federal parliament didn’t see that what the Yolŋu were sharing was a sacred piece of high law that was never meant to be shared – outlining the property ownership laws for this area. The Yolŋu leaders even made it easy, Balanda-friendly: they wrote out aspects of their law in English, under the Gumatj, and stuck it on the bark. To no avail.
The Yolŋu went on in 1968 to take Nabalco to the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory, once again trying to prove their legal claim to the land. Perhaps it had dawned on them that they would have to play by the now-dominant Balanda law, having failed in their attempt to use their own legal instruments to protect their rights.
The court challenge failed, although in a confidential memo to the government and opposition, Justice Blackburn noted that some sort of systematic recognition of Aboriginal land rights would be “morally right and socially expedient”.
The court case led to the establishment of the Woodward Royal Commission, which in turn eventually led to the 1976 Aboriginal Land Rights Act, diluted though it was by the Fraser Liberal government.
Today, Rio Tinto Alcan is all over North East Arnhem Land. It’s hard to put into words just how insidious it is, how bizarre staying in a mining town is. It’s like Rio Tinto is part of the cultural landscape now: the annual Garma Festival of traditional culture has Rio as a major sponsor, all the seats in the forum tent have mining company logos on them and the food is provided by a mob that usually do mining camps.
In May this year, the was much media, government and corporate bru-ha-ha over an agreement signed by Rio Tinto Alcan and Traditional Owners, ensuring the continuation of local bauxite mines and alumina refineries. It took this long for TOs to be even involved in any sort of discussion about whether or not mining can take place on their lands.
It’s a bit hard to know how easy it would have been for them to say “no”, when mining is so entrenched in the local economy and service provision: would saying “no” have really made Rio go away, close down the Nhulun township, the nearby mines, and just leave? Or would it simply have meant the TOs and families wouldn’t have had access to the “ range of financial, contractual, asset and employment benefits for Aboriginal traditional owners” Aboriginal affairs minister Jenny Macklin crowed so loudly about?
(As an aside, certainly not everybody celebrated the agreement. Previously recognised Traditional Owners from the area were not properly consulted and are considering legal action: http://blog.whywarriors.com.au/2011/dhurili-nation-challenges-lease-agreement-in-court/)
We have done some work sessions on various beaches, in absolutely stunning locations, but if we walk along the sand and over the dunes, we'd see refineries a few hundred metres away.
For many of the older Yolŋu of Yirrkala, the scars still remain from how burnt they were, when they took the calculated risk of sharing such important legal documents, sacred information, with the Balanda world, only to have it misunderstood and dismissed.
This happens again and again. From the point of view of whichever landowning clan participates, they perform a legal action representing an important aspect of their law – which has remained strong and served its purpose harmoniously for thousands of years. Because they get that Balanda society is not a very oral one, and Balanda have short memories, they back up their important ceremony with tangible evidence, represented in a painting or maybe a bathi depicting the given aspect of the law.
From the Balanda perspective, in the interests of “reconciliation” and maybe a bit of cultural colour, ceremonies are organised and hosted at parliament houses, some nice Aboriginal songs and dances are performed, a painting is handed over and the government can tick some boxes viz a viz acknowledging cultural heritage.
The Balanda go home satisfied, if not a bit bored at having to sit through something they didn’t understand, and the Yolŋu go home feeling a bit empty and ashamed, as they realise the Balanda who witnessed something they never really should have seen just thought they were watching a nice performance. For the Yolŋu it is further evidence that Balanda society has no respect for the law. It leaves them feeling powerless.
I think about this every time I go to an art gallery and go to the “Aboriginal culture” section. The paintings are invariably described as representing “Dreamtime Stories”, and I can’t help but wonder what information they really hold: historical documents relating to population movement, legal documents outlining terms of trade, family histories.
It is only a small thing, but sometimes I wonder if a tiny to step to breaking down racism in this country could be that when Balanda look at artefacts from Aboriginal clan estates, they are told what they are looking at, rather than everything being reduced to “art” – whether being told that such and such a ceremony or message stick or painting is the equivalent of a few volumes legal statues, if they might begin to appreciate – if not understand – the completeness and complexity of the legal, social and economic systems that existed here before colonisation, that we risk losing all record of if we don’t make some drastic changes fast.
Of course, Balanda Australia government's have no interest in recognising the legal customs of the pre-invasion populations- the implications would be huge: treaties would need to be made, rent and retribution paid... and that would just be the start.
But capitalism has allowed- you might even say "encouraged"- a few select aspects of the original culture to find expression: those with a profit aspect. Aboriginal "art" is a huge commercial enterprise in Australia - and many of the millions made do not reach the artists.
Art, of course, is an important form of expression and can itself be a source of political struggle. And Aboriginal art can be beautiful! But next time you attend a conference or event that begins with a traditional "ceremony" of some description, or enjoy "art" at the gallery, consider that what you're looking at, while you can't hope to understand it, may be more than something on which to feast your eyes: it may be an assertion , legally binding, that the land under your feet is owned by, and the responsibility of, Aboriginal people, whether they are there to assert their rights and care for their country or not.