Book Reviews: Readings for the Emergency

On review this month, two books that provide arguments for how white culture defines Aboriginality, how the assumptions and values that are held by anthropologists, lawmakers, and other professionals dictate the ways in which indigenous people in Australia can respond to the state, and what the consequences are if they do not react in ways that make sense within the context of Western values.

Back in May, before leaving for Australia, I picked up a book from the library’s shelves entitled Moving Anthropology: Critical Indigenous Studies (Charles Darwin University Press, 2006), edited by Tess Lea, Emma Korval, and Gillian Cowlishaw. (I referred to the first of its essays, by Franca Tamisari, in my review of Jennifer Deger’s Shimmering Screens.) I thought it would prove an interesting and timely read, especially given the opening paragraphs of the editor’s introduction, tellingly titled “Double Binds.”

The opening years of the twenty-first century have seen profound shifts in the discourse of Indigenous affairs. Ideas that would once only have been heard in the public arena from the mouths of white conservative politicians are now being produced by prominent Indigenous leaders. When an Indigenous elder calls for the welfare payments of remote community members living in the Darwin ‘long grass’ to be cut, it is not analytically adequate to dismiss this as some kind of false consciousness, even if we might cringe at the alacrity with which such opinions are gleefully reported.

Critiques of a range of policies, from income support to child protection, to education, to customary law and human rights have emerged, questioning the orthodoxes of the self-determination era, and the left-liberal discourses that have dominated at least the language of Indigenous affairs since the late 1960s. It is too easy to attribute this discursive change to a prolonged era of conservative federal government. Alternatively, it could be argued that we are at the end of another cycle of Indigenous policy. Such diagnoses tend to obviate our responsibility to analyse the history that has brought us to this point, in particular, the perceived failures of ‘progressivism.” [Black and white leaders alike] express frustration at the double-bind of ‘self-determination’: the tension between the need to maximise personal autonomy and the impetus to control destructive behaviours, which appear to have flourished in some Indigenous communities in the last thirty years.”

Although I had read only a few chapters, I put the book aside when I left for Australia, picking it up on my return, coincidentally, as the Howard government declared the state of emergency. Unfortunately, although the introduction promise a call to action in the areas of child protection, welfare, etc., I am not sure that the essays here live up to the editor’s promises. I don’t believe any of them truly engage with the crisis issues in the communities. With a few exceptions, there is little direct critique of federal policy. At best, the book uses a series of case studies to examine anthropological theory and practice regarding indigenous Australians. This isn’t lacking in political import, of course, especially in the area of land rights, where the expertise and testimony of anthropologists is often critical to the legal judgments. 

The book is ultimately more about anthropology than Aborigines; as the concluding essay makes clear, more about white people than black people. I don’t mean this assessment to denigrate the value of the essays, though, for in many ways they are quite germane to the crisis at hand. Many of the essays are written as explorations of the contrasts between indigenous and non-indigeneous views of timely subjects: repatriation of museum holdings, relations between indigenous people and mining companies, the motivations and frustrations of health care workers. 

More generally, for example, Tess Lea’s contribution looks at roads and vehicles, at the uses for which they were constructed by white men, and the uses to which they are put by indigenous people (“Cars, Corporations, Ceremonies and Cash: Hidden Co-dependencies in Australia’s North,” pp. 37-54). She examines how improvements in transportation have been made to allow for (in part) delivery of goods and services to remote communities; how that delivery is sometimes frustrated by the mobility roads and trucks have granted to Aboriginal Australians; and finally how the professional classes responsible for providing such goods and services are, in the hectic whitefella world, often even more mobile and hard to locate in space and time than their indigenous clients.

Vexed geography, movement, and varied concepts of “boundaries” are the subject of David Turnbull’s essay “Movements, Boundaries, Rationality, and the State: The Ngaanyatjarra Land Claim, the Tordesillas Line and the West Australian Border” (pp. 185-200). (The Tordesillas Line represented the demarcation and division of lands in the Western Hemisphere between the Spanish and Portuguese, established by papal proclamation in the late fifteenth century; the “anti-meridian” on the other side of the globe roughly defines the Western Australian border.) Turnbull explores the requirements for accurate, precise, and unambiguous mapping of boundaries in Western intellectual traditions, especially as they form the basis for property and by extension, much of the legal system. In the context of land rights claims, these precise boundaries have enormous implications for both mining companies and indigenous people. But boundaries viewed from an indigenous perspective are anything but precise. Boundaries in Aboriginal society are often by their very nature areas of overlap, of joint use and “possession.” There is an unresolved conflict between these two systems of thought, and the fact that Western scientific methods seem to this day unable to precisely map the Western Australian border is a sad and ironic reflection on that incompatibility.

One of the few pieces to take up directly the programs of the Howard Government is Tim Rowse’s “The Politics of Being ‘Practical’: Howard’s Fourth Term Challenge.” Written (like most of the essays in this collection) in 2005 and in the wake of the demolition of ATSIC, Rowse’s essay starts from the position that the notion of “practical reconciliation” espoused by Howard is not at all a return to a politics of mainstreaming or assimilation. Rowse argues that there are two developments in Australian politics since the decline of assimilation and the proclamation of self-management that make such a return to the ’50s impossible. 

The first of these is the number of indigenous organizations that have developed to manage, in some form or another, “indigenous sector,” broadly defined. These organizations should, at least in theory, have an ability to represent Aboriginal interests in the public sphere in a manner that was unimaginable fifty years ago. As arms of government and incarnations of bureaucracy, they should be difficult to entirely dismantle: remnants of ATSIC do survive today. The second is the stockpile of statistics regarding indigenous people that has been amassed since the 1967 referendum and which tellingly (in Rowse’s eyes) Howard has taken no action to cease compiling. 

The collection of census data on Aboriginal people since the referendum helps to constitute them as a definable subset of the population. The twist comes in Rowse’s contention that by continuing to maintain detailed information about indigenous disadvantage in the form of both accountability for the organizations of the indigenous sector and massive documentation on morbidity, disease, poverty, and the like, Howard is actually positioning “practical reconciliation” for failure. 

His words sound prophetic in the light of current events as Howard casts aside any consideration of the Aboriginal viewpoint as essentially flawed, incapable, and failed. To cite just two recent examples, the Herald Sun reported on July 1 that “Australian Bureau of Statistics figures showed at least 2,000 children in 60 remote Aboriginal communities were not attending school.” A July 5 ABC News report “New standards for Aboriginal corporations” warned of increasingly tight controls and accountability standards. 

Gillian Cowlishaw, to my mind the pre-eminent academic analyst of race relations in Australia, contributes “Collateral Damage in the History Wars.” In this essay she examines the differing but consistently negative impacts of the debate over “Aboriginal history” on the generations, old and young, of indigenous people in rural Australia who listen to representations of these history wars in the popular media. There are two sides to the debate about Aboriginal history, but neither of them takes into account the implications of their public disputations on contemporary Aboriginal lives. The older generation sees their memories of good times working on stations (for example) discredited, and their often friendly relationships with whites in those days discredited. The younger generation absorbs a message of strife, inequality, and persecution. Neither message fosters self-respect; both contribute to an understanding of Aboriginal people as passive agents, acted upon rather than acting.

Andrew Lattas concludes the volume with an examination of the anthropological profession’s harshly critical reaction to Elizabeth Povinelli’s The Cunning of Recognition (Duke University Press, 2002). Povinelli’s work was concerned with how the legal apparatus of white society in Australia effectively defines Aboriginality for indigenous people by laying out the legal and administrative definitions of “traditional” “indigenous” “ownership” of “country” in land rights claims. Lattas’s appreciation for Povinelli’s accomplishment along with his skewering of the Australian response to it provides an appropriate summation to a volume that implicitly and sometimes explicitly calls upon anthropology to re-examine its priorities and its opportunities not just for analysis but for action in indigenous affairs today.

Lattas’s call for self-examination is also a perfect set-up for the volume’s finale. Like most academic compilations of this sort, the editors use their introductory essay to summarize the subject or the argument of each chapter individually, giving readers a road map to the book’s intent. However, they also invited Aileen Moreton-Robinson, to react to the essays collected for publication in Moving Anthropology in an afterword. Moreton-Robinson is a Geonpul woman from Quandamooka, currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Australian Studies Centre at the University of Queensland in the field of “critical race and whiteness studies” (p. 221). Like the editors in their introduction, Moreton-Robinson summarizes the arguments presented in each essay. But her critical reading focuses on the ways in which anthropologists themselves have contributed to the definition of Aboriginal people in the Australian legal, political, scientific, and popular imaginations. Here is a sort of metacriticism which illuminates the common elements of race running through all of the essays in the book, and enriches the insights individually contained in them. “How White Possession Moves: After the Word,” re-read in conjunction with the editors’ introduction, prompted me to return to several of the essays for a revelatory second look.

In the end, if the book does not truly discuss “profound shifts in the discourse of Indigenous affairs,” it may prompt some academics to ask why such changes are not occurring. As Moreton-Robinson concludes, with a critical acuity,

[t]he editors acknowledge the limitations of their epistemology in undertaking the task of establishing a critical Indigenous studies but are satisfied with offering the book as pregnant with ideas from which new engagements can begin. This acknowledgement also provides fertile ground for an engagement from outside the confines of anthropology.

A different perspective informs an older work I recently re-read, and one that likewise was well worth revisiting in light of the “emergency.” Ralph Folds, a former principal of a dozen years standing at the Walungurru School (in Kintore), wrote Crossed Purposes: the Pintupi and Australia’s indigenous policy (UNSW Press, 2001) to offer an explanation for why programs of social justice aimed at reducing the statistical gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians have not been been effective despite all efforts.

For the purpose of my discussion here I am going to do an injustice to Folds’s extensively developed thesis and reduce it to a simple proposition: the gaps exists because the core values of Pintupi society differ radically from those of “mainstream” Australia. For the Pintupi, walytja, or relatedness, trumps other concerns. Whereas as Westerners place material prosperity, good health, and long life above almost all other social benefits, the Pintupi prize above all the maintenance of proper relations among themselves, even if in doing so they seem to fly in the face of benefits whose value we consider self-evident. I will quote a few examples in excerpt.

Material improvement of indigenous lives is a major platform of this social justice policy and, like many of the tenets of the West, this is exalted as essential to indigenous lives: without it they will sink into apathetic despondency. … The social justice agenda of prosperity requires that Pintupi take ‘proper’ care of their possessions. However, within extended Pintupi families each person who gains control of a possession must maximize its use while they retain control, which is always contested, and there is no incentive to take care of a resource on which there are so many demands. … While the consequences of denial seem disproportionate to outsiders, the values of sharing between walytja are fundamental to Pintupi society and the cement relationships, both through the act of sharing and also in their remembered history (pp. 70-71).

Equity measures, such as providing new houses in Pintupi settlements, allow government attempts at redressing poverty to be highlighted even though, against all expectations, overall health statistics may not improve. This is partly because the provision of new houses is seen as a visible manifestation of concern, while maintenance of those houses once built is usually ignored or underfunded. When symbols of social justice, such as houses, are provided there is an anticipation of equal outcomes in that area, and of grateful Pintupi repaying the government by living in the houses like the exemplary members of Australian society that are expected to become. Yet, what bureaucracies see as a small price to pay for government ‘generosity’, is actually an extremely difficult and complex expectation to fulfil.

Pintupi values are of far more immediate, personal and social consequence that the concept of ‘improved health’. These values include allowing children to have a high degree of personal autonomy, considered by parents and grandparents to be both their right and a prerequisite for growing up to be a good Pintupi citizen. They also include providing support to family by providing shelter to numerous relatives who visit, or come to stay for an indefinite period (p. 79).

Whether or not one finds Folds’s reasoning to be ultimately convincing, his arguments bear careful consideration. If nothing else, they should make us reassess our own certainty and attempt to step outside presuppositions that are so deeply ingrained in our own culture as to be invisible to us. (For a similar exercise, I refer you to a discussion I had with Will Stubbs at Yirrkala a couple of years ago comparing the importance of kinship to Yolngu and numbers to whitefellas. “You can’t understand the Yolngu unless you understand the importance of kinship to them,” he told us. “Try to imagine your life without numbers. That would be like life for the Yolngu without kinship.”)

And lest we dismiss the significance of walytja in Pintupi life, perhaps we should step back for a moment to see how it functions, mutatis mutandis, in our own culture. In the West we profess to believe that “blood is thicker than water” and we lament how the increasingly mobile nature of our society has torn the family fabric, scattering descending generations across continents and even the world. Looked at from the other side, how often do we compromise, at home or in the office, in order to “keep the peace”? As a manager on the job I can impose my well considered programs and priorities upon unwilling subordinates, but I do so at the risk of lowering morale, prompting rebelliion, and compromising effectiveness. Walytja requires a different strategy, one of mutual accommodation, in the workplace.

Folds is deeply indebted to the work of W. E. H. Stanner in his examination of the crossed purposes of the Pintupi and the social welfare agenda. His text is liberally sprinkled with citations from Stanner’s writings collected in White Man Got No Dreaming, and I will close today by reproducing a selection from among those that Folds included as chapter or section headings in his book. 

Policies, programs and money will not change indigenous people from what they are–a social person, tied to others by a dozen ties which are his life–into an abstract ‘individual’ in order to made the fact fit a policy.

Where we have gone most seriously wrong is … to imagine that the way to change this kind of [Aboriginal] continuity is by rational demonstration.

The trouble is that our motives are mixed. We are concerned with our own reputation as much as, if not a little more than, the Aboriginals’ position.

It is our fault as theoreticians, and their calamity as [indigenous] people, that we are not bright enough to find words for [indigenous] principles .

Suppose they do not know how to cease to be themselves? People who brush aside such a question can know very little about what it is to be an Aboriginal.

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