Colonized: Two Laws

Early in the history of this blog, I posted a photograph I called “Two Laws,” which showed a lawyer crossing the mosaic of Peggy Napaljarri’s Milky Way Dreaming on the ground floor of the Supreme Court in Darwin. It struck me as an apt illustration of a dilemma. Although I’m not sure that dilemma (from the Greek di+lemma, two horns) is the right word, since it does imply choice, and when it comes to questions of white and black law, I’m not sure there is a choice…unless it’s a choice of which horn to be gored upon.In several posts since then I’ve worried the issue of “art sweatshops” in Alice Springs that seems to be so much in the air these days. If QANTAS notices, it must be a hot topic. One of the central arguments put forth by “independent” dealers of Aboriginal art is that indigenous people should be able to sell their art wherever, how ever, and to whomever they choose. If painters who have traditionally been allied with the Papunya Tula cooperative choose to work for another dealer while residing in Alice Springs, is that not their prerogative?

So far, in trying to sort out my thoughts on the matter, I’ve approached the problem from the perspective of a collector, and have decided that I will buy from community brokers–Papunya Tula, Ikuntji, etc.–for a variety a reasons including support for these long-standing organizations, and by extension, the communities (not just the artists) they represent. But I’m also troubled by the fact that artists’ independent choices may undermine the stability of these community-based organizations and their communities. Adrian Newstead asserted on ABC Radio last September “I don’t believe that Aboriginal people are stupid, far from it. I’ve had dealings with Aboriginal people all my life, and I’ve found them amongst the most canny negotiators.” But personally I worry that, to the contrary, all decisions to sell to independent dealers around Alice may not be savvy decisions on the part of the artist. Furthermore, there are the suggestions that many (OK, maybe some) of these dealers don’t exactly operate within the letter of Australian law…let’s not consider Aboriginal custom for the moment.

So if one of the issues here is the artist’s choice between two economic paradigms–selling through community-based art organizations or through independent entrepreneurs in Alice Springs–what might that choice mean? I had an insight recently upon reading about “two laws” in another context.

In 1987, Nancy Williams published the results of research she conducted at Yirrkala during 1969-70 as Two Laws: managing disputes in a contemporary aboriginal community(Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies). The first sections of the book provide accounts of typical disputes she was witness to during this period of dramatic change at Yirrkala as the Nabalco bauxite mine began operations and a significant number of whites began to reside on the peninsula at the mining town of Nhulunbuy. The disputes she describes are not overtly racial in kind, that is, they do not involve conflicts between Yolngu and whites, but are limited to members of Yolngu clans living at the mission in Yirrkala itself. In her case studies, she sets out the grievances that bring the parties into conflict, and describes the meetings that are arranged by senior Yolngu men to determine the facts that lie behind the dispute, to give all parties the opportunity to make their positions known, and to decide on an appropriate resolution to the conflict, as well as to establish a means of enforcing the decisions reached and sanctions applied.

One particularly important case that she describes involves a young woman who had been betrothed to an older man in the community. When the man died, his younger brother claimed the deceased’s first wife as his own, and also determined to marry the younger woman who had been betrothed to his older brother. The young woman resisted, unwilling to accept the younger brother as her husband. Although this might sound like a purely domestic dispute, the presence of the missionaries and of Australian legal systems in the form of police and magistrates in nearby Nhulunbuy inevitably complicated the process of achieving a resolution.

In pre-contact days, such a dispute would have been settled perhaps by admonition, by shaming, or in an extreme case, by the death of the young woman, as there are stories about disputes among ancestors that would justify such a drastic resolution. With the coming of the mission, that last and drastic outcome would most likely not be invoked. But even the mechanics of the dispute are complicated by the presence of mission and police staff as, in the case under examination, the young woman sought refuge with teachers and other mission staff, and could not be confined to the homes of her parents or her betrothed. Eventually the acting superintendent of the mission at the time proposed that the girl be sent away to relatives on Elcho Island until she completed her schooling; at that point she would return to Yirrkala and presumably be married to the younger brother.

On the face of it, this solution seems consonant with Yolngu law, and exile of the sort proposed here was a sanction of standing in the resolution of disputes for the Yolngu. Sending the offending party off to live in another community is an extreme example, but often when disputes are resolved within the community, the offender is placed in a kind of internal exile, and is careful to avoid the camp or the environs of the aggrieved party until time has passed, emotions have cooled, and hurts have resolved themselves.

But this solution did not please the Yolngu. They felt that the girl should accept her betrothal, and continue to live in the manner prescribed by Yolngu law. To some extent, it was the presence of whites, with their disapproval of arranged marriages and polygyny, that was blamed for the young woman’s intransigence in the first place. Further, mission staff had provided the girl with a haven, and in an attempt to calm emotions all around, had suggested that she remain at the superintendent’s home while the parties attempted to come to an agreement.

But most importantly, it was the intrusion of mission staff into what the Yolngu considered their own business, even in the environment at Yirrkala, that was most offensive. Over the years during which the mission exerted an influence over Yolngu life at Yirrkala, the elders had come to define two categories of dispute: big trouble and little trouble. The former were occasions where the offence was grave–murder or severe injury–and the Yolngu recognized that Australian law would be called into play no matter what their own wishes on the subject might be. Big trouble might also be matters on which Yolngu desired the intervention of white law, most particularly in relation to trouble resulting from liquor obtained at Nhulunbuy. Little trouble was precisely the kind of domestic conflict that this situation entailed, a matter involving only Yolngu people, and which ought to be settled by the Yolngu themselves.

Williams notes that in constructing these categories of big trouble and little trouble, the Yolngu elders are effectively ceding control of some aspects of their society to the dominion of Australian law. At the same time, they try to defend a sphere of influence, diminished though it may be, that they believe they must be the masters of if Yolngu society is to survive. And yet, the very presence of the mission and the police seems to tip the scales. In the situation described above the young woman makes a choice, and that choice is opposed to “proper” Yolngu tradition. The mission staff try their best to defuse the situation and to protect all parties involved. They offer the women temporary refuge in the hope that a satisfactory resolution can be achieved. Their final recommendation, that the girl be taken to Elcho Island and allowed to complete her schooling there before returning to Yirrkala, even seems consonant with the Yolngu notion of temporary exile. Yet despite their admirable intentions, they end up undermining the authority of the elders and of Yolngu law. Ultimately, Williams suggests that the ability of Yolngu leaders to retain control of the law rests on a question of scale, and that the greater the disparity in the size of the populations, the likelier that the larger population’s law will come to dominate.

In another context, P. G. Toner, attempting to define the difference between traditional and non-traditional activity suggests, “Another possibility is to examine the power relations at stake in different settings, the ‘traditional’ referring to those situations over which Yolngu may assert their autonomy and the ‘non-traditional’ to situations in which Yolngu autonomy is constrained or non-existent (“Home Among the Gum Trees,” in Landscapes of Indigenous Performance: music, song and dance of the Torres Strait and Arnhem Land, edited by Fiona Magowan and Karl Neuenfeldt (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2005) p. 31).

And that brings me back to the question of the two economic paradigms in the painting market of Alice Springs. As I continue to revisit this topic, I’m aware that I tend to set up dichotomies: traditional vs non-traditional; bush communities vs Alice Springs; free choice vs coercion; cooperatives vs entrepreneurs. It’s a bad habit, and an easy one to slip into, especially when thinking about what’s wrong vs right, as this debate is often framed. I need to remind myself that there is a continuum here.

What Williams’ book suggested to me, in describing a moment in time at Yirrkala when a balance began to tilt, was the recognition that the process of the marketplace, like law and justice in Yirrkala, continues to evolve. The Western end of the marketplace needs to remain sensitive to the questions of Aboriginal autonomy, and it’s clear that when allegations of sweatshop labor are raised, the implication is that such autonomy is being challenged. But in other cases, we may not even be sensitive to the challenge as it occurs, just as the acting superintendent failed to realize that by providing the young woman with refuge or arranging for her to spend a year at Elcho Island, he was not really providing a solution that satisfied the Yolngu in the long run. He was resolving a dispute, but he was undermining Yolngu autonomy. The dealer who provides cash in town may be meeting an individual’s immediate need but creating an environment that is ultimately counter-productive to real autonomy and threatening to the long-term survival of indigenous-determined structures of the cooperatives. The problem is that the two parties (the dealer and the artists) are not on a level playing field. The dealer has a wider choice of economic options that the artist.

Where two systems of value co-exist in Australia, the colonial one inevitably diminishes the indigenous one’s chance for success. Where unrestrained market free enterprise takes hold in Alice Springs it compromises the ability of the indigenous cooperative marketing system to succeed. I realize that Papunya Tula and Ikuntji Art Centre are to a degree–perhaps to a great degree–the creation of Anglo-Australian market forces in response to western economic market demands. But I believe that they exist also to a great degree to serve the interests of their shareholders and artists, and the communities to which they belong.

The mission at Yirrkala also existed to serve the interests of Anglo-Australian culture, particularly that of the Methodist Church and more generally that of the Christianizing forces in western society. It was also truly remarkable in its overall tolerance and respect for Aboriginal traditions and values. The Yirrkala Church panels and the Bark Petition stand as witness to that tolerance and respect.

One danger I believe that is posed by backyarders, sweatshops, and free-lancers in Alice Springs is that they will crowd out “situations over which [Aboriginal people] may assert their autonomy,” to paraphrase Toner. But the most fundamental problem I see is that ultimately the entrepreneurial motive is to produce wealth as a reward for capital investment. The artists and the communities, with only relatively limited capital, must fend for themselves in the hope of reaching a fair bargain. The issue, in brief, is the leveling of the playing field for Aboriginal interests.


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