Perspectives on Indigenous Sovereignty

With discussions of Native Title due to begin in Perth soon and Kevin Rudd making plans for an upcoming “community cabinet” in Yirrkala on July 30 (“Sorry was the easy part,”Sydney Morning Herald, July 12, 2008), I have serendipitously found myself reading two quite different books that are relevant to questions being raised as the Intervention is reshaped under Labor. I didn’t plan it this way. Although I’m the type of reader who always has his nose in more than one book at a time, the happy conjunction of discovering in the library Sovereign Subjects: Indigenous sovereignty matters (Allen & Unwin, 2007), edited by Aileen Moreton-Robinson, and pulling David Day’s Claiming a Continent: a new history of Australia (Harper Collins, rev. ed., 2001) down from my bookshelf for a bit of bedtime reading was truly accidental. But the two books are nonetheless a compelling if contrasting pair, and they make for good reading at this moment in time.

As the foreword to Sovereign Subjects states:

Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s collection is the first major intervention in discussions of Indigenous sovereignty in Australia. It comes at a time that is a crossroads for the rights of Indigenous people in Australia (p. vii).

The book’s twelve essays, by as many Indigenous scholars, are divided into four thematic units: “Law matters,” Writing matters,” “History matters,” and “Policy matters.” I’ve been dipping into them randomly, and have not finished all of them yet, but those I have read reflect a diversity of approaches, tone, and interests united by the question of how Indigenous people cope with the problem of sovereignty–or more precisely the lack of it–in the 21st century. As is often true of collections like this, many of the essays were commissioned and written months or even years ago, well before the Intervention began. Indeed, some still speak of Amanda Vanstone as the Minister for Immigration, Multiculturalism and Indigenous Affairs. However, in the case of this book, the time lag between composition and publication has only served to sharpen the points that the authors make. Nothing in here seems dated or irrelevant; in fact, the opposite is often true. Since I’m still in the midst of reading the book, a few examples must suffice.

Gary Foley’s contribution, “The Australian Labor Party and the Native Title Act,” is a historical examination of the role that Labor has played over the decades since 1967. It is not a laudatory review. Readers of Quentin Beresford’s recent biography of Rob Riley (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2006) will be familiar with the position that Foley here espouses, that “both the Mabo decision and the subsequent Native Title Act 1993 have functioned to deny Aboriginal sovereignty” (p. 139). Legislating the terms under which Indigenous Australians may claim title, and adjudicating the appropriateness of such claims and the conditions under which they are heard and granted, is the ultimate rebuttal of Indigenous sovereignty, for it privileges white law over the moral considerations of occupation and prior “ownership.”

Similarly, Tony Birch examines the ways in which historians have built and bulwarked the edifice of dispossession in “‘The Invisible Fire’: Indigenous sovereignty, history and responsibility.” He begins his story with a contemporary incident concerning Olympic medalist Cathy Freeman (whose soubriquet of “our Cathy” is an uncomfortable echo of the government’s concerns about “our Aborigines” early in the 20th century.) 

In 1950, the Queensland Protector of Aborigines failed to pay the required fee of two pounds, five shillings for a pauper’s burial of Annie Sibley, a Freeman family matriarch. In 2005, Freeman’s family was forced to pay off the debt at a cost of $990 before being allowed to bury a young family member in the same family plot. 

Birch continues to examine the ways in which history haunts contemporary Aboriginal people, from the rough treatment accorded to David Gulpilil in the long grass camps of Darwin through the academic exercises of Keith Windschuttle. He ends his wide-ranging essay with a moving review of director Ivan Sen’s 1999 film Dust, in which a sudden severe dust storm brings about an intimate confrontation between generations of black and white, while physically as well as metaphorically laying bare the bones in the countryside that bear witness to hostile historical encounters.

The essay that has resonated most strongly with me so far is “Indigenous sovereignty and the Australian state: relations in a globalizing era,” by Maggie Walter. Acknowledging the already parlous state of Indigenous rights, Walter looks at the increasing threat posed by the new global order in which transnational commercial interests are beginning to supersede and jeopardize our conventional notions of national sovereignty. The rise of nationalist movements in the face of this threat and the desire of the middle class to protect themselves from their own disenfranchisement, pose even greater problems for already marginalized minorities within the state. Walter links the ascendance of business interests to an increased valorization of private property, which in turn undermines the principles of communal social organization and ownership fundamental to Indigenous societies. The barbs of the Native Title Act are felt in new and crueler ways.

Upon its first publication in 1996, Day’s Claiming a Continent was celebrated (and condemned) for the new perspective on Australian history that underlay its narrative. Day looks at the history of Australia through the lens of attempts to lay claim to the continent, to people its span, and to wrench riches from its harsh environment. Day would probably not disagree with Moreton-Robinson’s suggestion in her own contribution to Sovereign Subjects that this struggle has bred a degree of insecurity into the Australian psyche. 

More than almost any other general history of Australia, Claiming a Continent foregrounds Aboriginal loss. In his chronicle, Day makes much of the principles of British and international law of the time that “justify” such claims of possession: first discovery, conquest, physical occupation, and moral proprietorship (in which the gradual supplanting of indigenes over time gives the incomers their own links to the new “homeland.” Day is exquisitely attuned to what each of these means for both the British and the Aboriginal denizens of the Great Southern Continent.

In this way, Claiming a Continent never long loses sight of the plight of the Aboriginal people, and each chapter in the expansion of British influence, and each justification for it, Day is sensitive to the losses they suffered. Whether it is displacement by hordes of sheep or subjugation to the Christian imperative to civilize and save souls, the Indigenous occupants are inevitably the poorer for the encounter.

I was unaware of Day’s book at the time of its publication, and probably at that point would have been too ignorant to fully understand its implications. Reading it today, in light of Keith Windschuttle and Andrew Bolt on the one hand, and Henry Reynolds and Robert Manne on the other, I can imagine that if its publication didn’t result in the proverbial firestorm of criticism about “black armband history” it must certainly have stoked the fires that fed Howard’s and Windschuttle’s attacks in the decade since.

And yet the irony is that for all that Day understands his subject and counts too well the human cost of colonization, his narrative remains inescapably (and perhaps appropriately) the story of the creation of the modern Australian state in its glory and shame. And thus it is fundamentally in tune with, if not always in sympathy with, the European perspective on the re-peopling of Australia. To read such a sympathetic account from an academic historian’s perspective in tandem with the angry and defiant essays that Moreton-Robinson has collected is to understand afresh the persistent gulf between the perceptions of Indigenous Australians and those of the political heirs of the eighteenth-century colonists.

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