The End in the Beginning:
Speech by Michael
Dodson, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner
at the Wentworth Lecture, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander Studies, 1994
don't care how hard it is. You build Aboriginality or you get nothing.
There's no choice about it. If our Aboriginal people cannot change how
it is among themselves, then the Aboriginal people will never climb
back out of hell. 1
this takes us too far ahead in the story, towards the end, "although
the end is in the beginning". 2
first contact with the colonisers of this country, Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander peoples have been the object of a continual flow of commentary
and classification. Even a fragment of the representation of and theory
about Aboriginality captures the tenor of the visions.
A Legacy of Definition
early visitors we varied from the noble savage to the pre-historic beast.
natives of New Holland....May appear to some to be the most wretched
people of earth, but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans....
They live in a tranquillity which is not disturb'd by the inequality
of condition" 3; "the poorest objects on the habitable
globe" 4; "blood thirsty, cunning, ferocious, and marked
by black ingratitude and base treachery" 5; "the Australian
nigger is the lowest type of human creature about....But having one
splendid point in which he is far ahead of the chinkie. He'll die out
and the Chinkie won't". 6
law we were defined systematically, though variably according to proportions
of black blood:
Aboriginal native of Australia or of any of the islands adjacent or
belonging thereto" 7; "any person of Aboriginal descent
whose moral intellectual and physical welfare the board was to promote
with a view to their assimilation into the general community" 8;
and then, depending on the year, variously: "a half-caste child
whose age does not apparently exceed eighteen years" 9;
"a half-caste male child whose age does not apparently exceed 21
years" 10; "every half-caste aged 34 habitually associating
and living with an Aboriginal" 11; excluding "a person
less than quadroon blood who was born prior to the thirty first day
of December, 1936". 12
"half-castes" in particular came under the scrutiny of the ethnologists.
They wrote for example:
is no biological reason for the rejection of people with a dilute strain
of Aboriginal blood. A low percentage will not introduce any aberrant
characteristics and there need be no fear of reversions to the dark
Aboriginal type" 13; classifiable into various hybrid types:
"first crosses of two types, second generation crosses of three
types, 1/8, 3/8, f3, fx, 5/8, quadroon, octoroon" 14, and
so it went on.
men of religion were also concerned to define us. According to some of
their observations, we were held to be:
as to divine things, almost on a level with a brute...In a state of
moral unfitness for heaven...,And as incapable of enjoying its pleasures
as darkness is incapable of dwelling with light" 15; "without
God in the world, entirely lost to all oral and spiritual perception".
their hopeful educators assessed our capacity for learning. On the one
hand they were certain of our inherent handicaps and defects:
perfectly infantile judgements where compass of thought is required"
17; "lacking in reflection, judgement and foresight".
other, we represented a potential for manipulation:.
interesting and present some hopeful ground to cultivate: but excessively
idle and vagrant; from the rambling naked state of these poor natives
they have generally be supposed as incapable of improvement but I am
persuaded that under the blessing of god they are as capable of instruction
as any other untutored savages" 19; "materials, which
although extremely crude are nevertheless good, the intellect buried
in augean filth, yet we may find gems of the first magnitude and brilliance".
men of science believed they could locate the definitive answers in our
brains and blood:
Aboriginal blood is remotely the same as that of the majority of the
white inhabitants of Australia, for the Australian Aboriginal is recognised
as being the forerunner of the Caucasian race" 21; showing
anatomical characters very rare in the white races of mankind, but at
the same time normal in ape types. 22
we have been an ever popular subject for portrayal in paintings or films.
Initially we appeared as the noble, well built native, heroic, bearded,
loin clothed, one foot up, vigilant with boomerang at the ready. Later,
after we had fallen from grace we appeared bent, distorted, overweight,
inebriated, with bottle in hand. And more recently we appear ochred, spiritual
and playing the didgeridoo behind the heroic travels of a black land cruiser.
found our way into poetry:
as reptiles hutted in the scrub... A band of fierce fantastic savages...Staring
like a dream of hell!" 23
one of these statements is drawn directly from the words written about
Indigenous peoples in this country.
They have had a lot to say about us.
if you are overwhelmed by this litany of statements, made with a confidence
only exceeded by their ignorance, they are but a fragment of what Indigenous
peoples have born in body and spirit since we came into the view of the
The Prison knowledge built
their first intrusive gaze, colonising cultures have had a pre-occupation
with observing, analysing, studying, classifying and labelling "Aborigines"
and Aboriginality. Under that gaze Aboriginality changed from being a
daily practice to being "a problem to be solved".
I am not talking about ancient history. In 1988 at the National Congress
of the RSL, Victorian State President, Mr Bruce Ruxton, together with
the National President, Brigadier Alf Garland, loyal disciples of the
geneticists, called on the Federal Government to "amend the definition
of Aborigine to eliminate the part-whites who are making a racket out
of being so-called Aborigines at enormous cost to taxpayers" 24,
and for some kind of genealogical examination to determine whether the
applicant for benefits was a "full blood or a half-caste or a quarter-cast
or whatever" 25.
last week we once again heard calls from certain members of the National
Party in Queensland for the Federal Government to insist that only people
with more than 50% Aboriginal blood be eligilbe to identify as Aboriginal.
26 Clearly such views have not gone away.
the theories of the ethnologists expounding the backward stages of evolution
of the Aboriginal race were vividly brought to life once again just last
year during the public debate over Native Title when we were all told
how Aboriginal people had failed to even invent the wheeled cart. 27
obsession with distinctions between the offensively named "full bloods
and "hybrids", or "real" and "inauthentic"
Aborigines continues to be imposed on us today. There would be few urban
Aboriginal people who have not been labelled as culturally bereft, "fake",
"part-Aborigines", and then expected to authenticate their Aboriginality
in terms of percentages of blood or cliched "traditional" experiences.
proclamations that Indigenous peoples are remnants of a past doomed to
extinction, that "the old Aboriginal world is now facing its final
twilight" 28, and that Aboriginal people are "powerless
to defend themselves against the final onslaught" 29 continue
to construct us as innately obsolete peoples.
in all these representations, all these supposed "truths" about
us, our voices , and our visions have been notably absent. There may be
an enlightened minority who have been willing to open their eyes and ears
to allow the space for Aboriginal people to convey our Aboriginalities.
But, as my colleague Marcia Langton so poignantly wrote: the majority
of Australians, "do not know and relate to Aboriginal people.
They relate to stories told by former colonists." 30
to even begin to speak about Aboriginality is to enter a labyrinth full
of obscure passages, ambiguous signs and trap doors. The moment you ask
the question, "who or what is Aboriginal?", You enter
a historical landscape full of absolute and timeless truths which have
been set in place by self-professed experts and authorities all to ready
to tell us, and the world the meaning of Aboriginality.
suffocated with imposed labels and structures Aboriginal peoples have
had no choice than to insist on our right to speak back. To do as the
old man said. To build and represent our own world of meaning and significance.
The Emergence of Indigenous Peoples in the International Arena
early 1970's, the situation of the world's Indigenous peoples began to
come to the attention of the international community. In 1972 the United
Nations sub-commission on discrimination and the protection of minorities
commissioned The Study on the Problem of Discrimination against Indigenous
Populations 31, looking at the situation of Indigenous peoples
throughout the world. The study explicitly took up the question of definition,
detailing all the criteria which governments have used to define Indigenous
most frequent were the so-called `objective criteria'. These were firstly,
race or anscestory and secondly "culture". The latter included
religion, living under a tribal system, membership of an Indigenous community,
dress, language, residence in certain parts of the country and
livelihood, the latter often classified in terms of development or backwardness.
Also noted were subjective criteria: group consciousness or self identification,
and acceptance by the Indigenous community.
providing any critique of the so-called "objective criteria",
I'd like to give just a few examples reported in the UN study.
criteria for being classified as Indigenous have included "not matching
up to the standards of development required by the government in accordance
with the ideals of organisation and development of Indonesian society"
or "having less ability to perform their social functions".
one of the criteria used for classifying a person as Indigenous was that
he/she is "marginalised", "backward" or "outside
of the economic realities of the country". 33
if self-identification was thought to be dubious, questions of Indigenous
dress, use of Indigenous language and non-use of footwear were used to
assist identification. 34
the national census classified people according to race, with the available
categories being: "white", "Cholo" (that is, half-caste)
and "Indian". The Cholos would include those persons of an Indian-white
mixture plus the more or less racially pure Indians who have learned to
speak spanish well, have mastered a skilled trade and have abandoned Indigenous
dress. The Indian was identified as usually being dark-skinned, illiterate,
speaking only a native tongue and providing the unskilled labour in the
is little need to argue the point that these supposedly objective definitions
are ideological tools designed to assist the State in applying its policies
of control, domination and assimilation.
UN Study itself recognised how value laden the definitions were. The defining
characteristics of "Indigenous" were frequently described in
unambiguously loaded language; Indigenous people were generally identified
not in terms of our positive attributes, but in terms of what we lack:
we were "under-developed", "primitive", unable to
speak the language of the non-Indigenous population, uneducated in the
ways of the non-Indigenous population, "backward".
where the criteria were not so obviously bias, the study rejected any
definition which relied exclusively on either descent or cultural characteristics.
respect to classifications based on blood percentages, it stated unambiguously
that the scientific theory that there is an objective biological or genetic
basis for race had been widely discredited. 36 In other
words the RSLUs dream of a genetic or blood test which would offer some
"true indication" and distinction was based on a fallacy.
respect to classification on the basis of cultural characteristics the
study recognised that it was inappropriate to define Indigenous peoples
entirely in terms of an imagined culture free from the influence of non-Indigenous
societies. The reality was that in virtually every region of the world,
the colonising culture has pervaded the Indigenous cultures, and thus
cultural borrowings and transformations are always present. Thus, the
Study concluded that while cultural considerations were important, they
could not be considered absolute.
study assessed the evidence it had gathered in terms of internationally
recognised human rights, and found that many of the processes currently
supported or perpetuated by the world's governments contravene those rights.
It concluded that: "the fundamental assertion (concerning any
definition) must be that Indigenous populations must be recognised according
to their own perception and conception of themselves in relation
to other groups. There must be no attempt to define them according
to the perception of others through the values of foreign societies or
of the dominant sectors in such societies....(And) artificial, arbitrary
or manipulatory definitions must, in any event, be rejected."
a conclusion would be more than warranted by the international history
of description, ascription, prescription which the study revealed. What
is especially powerful about the UN study is that it goes still further,
referring not merely to a just response to oppression, but to fundamental
human rights, and I quote:
(Indigenous) community has the sovereign right and power to decide
who belongs to it, without external interference. No state must take,
by legislation, regulations or other means, measures that interfere
with the power of Indigenous Nations or groups to define who are their
definition provided by the study remains the major reference point for
the international community. It states that:
communities, peoples and nations are those which, having historical
continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed
on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors
of the societies now prevailing on those territories, or parts of them.
They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined
to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral
territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued
existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns,
social institutions and legal systems." 38
was defined to include a number of options including ancestry and aspects
of culture which were common to the Indigenous people.
Asserting the right to self-identification
findings have extremely important implications in terms of the recognition
of Indigenous rights. And not because the definition captures the truth
of our identity, but rather because it recognises that identity must be
self-identity, and rejects all forms of imposed definition. While it provides
characteristics which may be present, it does not seek to establish an
exhaustive or closed definition of being "Aboriginality" but
rather to establish the process whereby definitions must be reached.
right to control one's own identity is part of the broader right to self-determination,
that is the right of a people to determine its political status and to
pursue its own economic, social and cultural development. 39
It is a right guaranteed to all peoples in international law, by the first
Articles of both the International Covenant on Civil and Political
Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and
Cultural Rights. It is also the right at the forefront of international
peoples throughout the world recognise that at the core of the violation
of our rights as peoples lies the desecration of our sovereign right to
control our lives, to live according to our own laws and determine our
futures. And at the heart of the violation has been the denial of our
control over our identity and the symbols through which we make and remake
our cultures and ourselves. 40
of a people's fundamental right to self-determination must include the
right to self-definition and to be free from the control and manipulation
of an alien people. It must include the right to inherit the collective
identity of oneUs people and to transform that identity creatively according
to the self-defined aspirations of oneUs people and oneUs own generation.
It must include the freedom to live outside the cage created by other
peoples' images and projections.
question of identity has been taken up explicitly by the United Nations
Working Group on Indigenous Populations, where, despite significant opposition
from certain of the worldUs Governments, Indigenous representatives have
consistently asserted that there can be no closed definition of "Indigenous
peoples". The relevant provision in the current Draft Declaration
on the Rights of Indigenous Peopls does not provide any objective criteria
whatsoever. It simply provides that:
peoples have the collective and individual right to maintain and develop
their distinct identities and characteristics, including the right to
identify themselves as Indigenous and be recognised as such. 41
the International Labor Organisation Convention 169, the only United
Nations human rights instrument explicitly dealing with the rights of
Indigenous peoples, provides by way of definition:
identification as Indigenous or tribal shall be regarded as a fundamental
criterion for determining the groups to which the provisions of the
Convention apply. 42
Contemporary definitions in Australia
outlined earlier, historically, we the Indigenous peoples of this country
have been legally defined in terms of proportions of blood. Luckily, in
the last 30 years, virtually all such definitions have been removed from
the legislation. In the early 1980s, largely thanks to the work of W.C.
Wentworth, the federal government adopted the following working definition:
Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander is a person of Aboriginal or Torres
Strait Islander descent, who identifies as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait
Islander and is accepted as such by the community in which he or she
is now the working definition used for establishing eligibility for Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islander specific programs, and is used in Commonwealth
legislation. It has also been accepted by the high court as the interpretation
of the expression "Aboriginal race" in the Constitution. 43
Indigenous peoples there is no doubt that self-determination and self-identification
are our inherent and inalienable rights. In both in this country and internationally
the principle of self-identification has been enshrined in the law. I
think we need to acknowledge the significant work of all those who have
brought us this far; it has been a significant achievement when you reflect
on the starting position, and even where we were just 30 years ago.
in the world of the real-politic, neither the existence, nor even the
legal recognition of a right are sufficient to guarantee its enjoyment.
does not mean that we should not vigorously assert the right, nor that
we cannot use all available means to exercise it right now. However, there
is ample evidence that Aboriginality will continue to be defined and constructed
for Aboriginal peoples regardless of the declarations of international
human rights instruments or the Australian law. Neither moral righteousness
nor legal guarantee are sufficient to prevent the actions and expressions
of a system of bigotry and oppression which continues to serve the agendas
of the worldUs power brokers.
of Aboriginality are not simply an isolated phenomena which we can eliminate.
They are both weapons and symptoms of the oppressive relationship which
exists between Indigenous peoples and colonising states.
we must acknowledge for ourselves that today the "enemy" cannot
be neatly placed on the outside, nor simply eliminated by censoring those
representations clearly imposed onto Indigenous peoples. As my colleague
Marcia Langton wrote, "both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people
create Aboriginalities". 44 These constructions,
however much we may wish to reject them, are the context in which we live.
They inform not only the way others think about and react to us, but also
the lived experience that we have of ourselves and of each other.
have also become the enemy within.
I see Indigenous peoples as having twin projects; at one level we must
understand the motivation behind the historical constructions of Aboriginality,
and understand why they have had such a grip over colonising populations;
simultaneously we must continuously subvert the hegemony with our own
representations, and allow our visions to create the world of meaning
in which we relate to ourselves, to each other, and to non-Indigenous
The Politics of Definition
to the first project, the question we are asking is: "if Aboriginality
is neither a type of blood, nor a set of cultural characteristics, why
have these definitions been so internationally pervasive?" How is
it that in one instance Aboriginal includes "half-caste children
whose age does not apparently exceed eighteen years" in another
"half-caste male children whose age does not apparently exceed
21 years" and in yet another "every half-caste aged 34
habitually associating and living with aborigines"? How is that
Aboriginal is in one historical period noble and worthy, and in another
ignoble and corrupt? Without an understanding of the basis of the pervasive
desire to define Aboriginality and control representations of indigenous
identity, the tenacity of such definitions makes little sense.
no one could contend that the definitions are objective. The most definitive
statement that one could make about them is that they are infinitely elastic.
So the questions that I would ask is: "why are particular types of
definitions created, reproduced and embraced by states and non-Indigenous
peoples at particular times?"; If the images of Aboriginality do
not actually reflect us, it is not actually about us, what purpose have
they served for those who constructed and adopted them?
short answer is that they have served to meet the various and changing
interests and aspirations of those who constructed them, the colonising
or "modern" state. Whether there is a need to create a boundary
between "primitive" and "modern man", to legitimise
"progress", to justify particular economic and political developments,
to promote a national identity for the colonial nation, or more specifically
to control, manage, or assimilate Indigenous cultures, "Aboriginality"
has been made to fit the bill.
words, "Aboriginality" becomes part of the ideology that legitimises
and supports the policies and practices of the state.
most immediate level, constructions of Aboriginality are directly linked
to the policies of the "management" and control of Indigenous
peoples. They form part of the ideology which creates the framework in
which the state can act upon and justify its treatment of Indigenous peoples,
however disrespectful or abusive of our rights it may be.
of the popular images I referred to earlier served as tools in the overall
policy of "de-Aboriginalising" Australia to establish a new
nation with a European base. Take for example the image of Aboriginality
as a timeless and unchanging culture: pristine, exotic, a relic of an
ancient past. This "true, pure blooded, traditional aborigine"
is at once posited as the arbiter of authentic Aboriginality, and as a
member of doomed race. Hence all of us whose mothers were raped by white
men, or who were forced, or chose to incorporate other elements into our
Aboriginality are "not real aborigines". By defining Aboriginality
in terms of purity of blood or purity of culture, the assimilation of
those who did not fall within the narrow ambit of the definition could
not even be considered cultural genocide, because they were seen as not
actually belonging to the culture from which they were being taken.
descendants of the original inhabitants could not be "disappeared"
and remained as continual threat to the purity and white Australia, ethnologists
provided reassurance to society with scientific evidence and elaborate
theories about "the half-caste" and the "hybrid";
theories proving that such people had a genetic leaning towards their
white parentage, and thus that their assimilation even had a biological
basis. For example one social scientist observed that: "the aborigines
(sic) not of the full blood have been all along associates of the white
man rather than the black, the patrilineal affinity superseding the matrilineal,
even though fatherhood has so frequently been unacknowledged. Regarding
his white associates as following a superior way of life to that of his
Aboriginal kin, the coloured man has clung to the outskirts of the white
community, while the Aboriginal has ostracised him..." 45
if the accepted view was that Indigenous peoples were a backward remnant,
the prehistory of European man, frozen in a distant continent while progress
transformed and refined humanity elsewhere, then accepting that Aboriginality
would naturally die out was simply a matter of acknowledging the inevitable.
Thus extermination was not a criminal act, but the expedition of nature.
Policies designed to destroy or "phase out" Indigenous cultures
were not cultural genocide, but the generous endowment of "improvement".
by representing Indigenous peoples as peoples without a social order,
without a law, with no system of ownership, the doctrine of Terra Nullius
became a logical conclusion. A people incapable of ownership cannot be
party to a contractual transfer or negotiation; to take possession of
the country was not theft, but acquisition of available goods.
poignant example of the manipulation of authentic Aboriginality is the
mythology of Trucannini as the "last Tasmanian aborigine". Having
declared the very last Aboriginal person in Tasmania dead, her descendants
could not, by definition, be Aboriginal. Aboriginality was extinct. The
past. A closed book. To all those who experience themselves as Aboriginal
peoples of Tasmania, the official word was: you simply cannot exist.
another example of the ideological power of the definition is the exemption
certificate. 46 The Aborigines' Protection Act 1909-1943
placed all Aboriginal peoples under the "protection" of the
Welfare Board, in effect, depriving them of the basic, civil, political
and economic rights which were the birthright of all other Australians.
We could not enter public places such as Government institutions or pubs,
we could not marry or move freely without permission, in many cases we
could not vote.
was however an opportunity for Aboriginal people to enjoy the general
rights. To do so they were required to apply for an exemption certificate.
Such certificates would be issued if "in the opinion of the Board
they ought no longer be subject to the provisions of the Act". 47
This required that they satisfy certain undefined criteria of the
Board and that they declare that:
they had not been convicted of drunkenness in the last 2 years; or,
Committed any offence against the Aborigines Protection Act, the
Police Offences Act, or the Crimes Act in the last two years.
words, the basic assumption was that Aboriginal people were incompetent
to look after their own affairs, degenerates, drunks and criminals unable
to fulfil their status as social subjects. To be otherwise was to be an
exception, and in effect to have moved away from "Aboriginality".
By loading the definitions with fixed and value laden characteristics,
and then attaching certain privileges or penalties to being Indigenous
or non-Indigenous, any Indigenous person wishing to go outside the limited
bounds of the definition, not to be classified as a degenerate drunk and
not to be deprived of their basic economic, social, civil, and political
rights, had to effectively give up their public Aboriginality.
United Nations study similarly observed how in various countries basic
policies of assimilation have been facilitated by systems of classification.
For example, in Indonesia, a person considered a member of an Indigenous
community could come to be considered a member of mainstream Indonesian
society by conversion to Christianity or Islam, attainment of minimal
literacy, or by the extent to which a person's economic activities were
capable of producing acceptable levels of cash surplus. 49
Always looking for an image of themselves....
more broadly, the definitions and constructions have not simply been for
the control and management of Indigenous peoples. Our constructed identities
have served a broader purpose of reflecting back to the colonising culture
what it wanted or needed to see in itself. The constructions of Aboriginality,
in all their variations, have marked the boundaries which define and evaluate
the so-called modern world. Whether Indigenous peoples have been portrayed
as "noble" or "ignoble", heroic or wretched has depended
on what the colonising culture wanted to say or think about itself.
we are used to affirm their superiority, to provide confirmation of the
value of progress. By extension the destruction or assimilation of the
Indigenous cultures becomes a necessary, and even morally correct part
of the battle to overcome "the primitive", and thereby to save
both us and them from a life that is "nasty brutish and short".
By our lack we provided proof of thier abundance and the achievements
of "progress"; by our inferiority we proved their superiority;
by our moral and intellectual poverty we proved that they were indeed
the paragon of humanity, the product of millennia of development.
times we are used to create a counterpoint against which the dominant
society can critique itself; we become living embodiments of the romantic
ideal which offers a desolate society the hope of redemption and of recapturing
what it feels it has lost in its march forward. Those who wish to present
a critique of individualism point out that Aboriginality is about community;
those who wish to highlight the detrimental effects of industrialisation
on the environment point to us as the original conservationists. We present
a remaining, though strategically distant image of what has been lost,
and what could be regained.
my point is not about whether the content of these images is true or false.
In fact they may well contain elements of accurate representation. The
critical point is that they have not been selected because they were true,
but rather because the colonising culture needed to think they were true.
In the construction of "Aboriginality" we have been objects.
Objects to be manipulated and used to further the aspirations of other
constantly defined as "other", but we are never permitted to
be genuinely independent, genuinely different. In fact, far from being
recognised in our difference, in our own terms, we are always defined
in terms of the colonising or defining culture.
could well ask, what is it about genuine difference which is so threatening
that it must always be translated and sanitised into more of the same?
One answer may be that to allow our difference and our independence would
threaten the boundaries of identity, knowledge and absolute truth which
give the subject a sense of power and control. If we are reclassified
into the established categories we are brought back into check. We may
be seen as the opposite, the under-developed version, or even the unspoiled
version. But in all cases Aboriginality is defined in terms of how it
compares with the dominant culture.
because Aboriginality has been defined as a relation, Indigenous peoples
have rarely come into a genuine relationship with non-Indigenous
peoples. Because a relationship requires two, not just one and its mirror.
subjectivities, our aspirations, our ways of seeing and our languages
have largely been excluded from the equation, as the colonising culture
"plays with itself". It is as if we have been ushered onto a
stage to play in a drama where the parts have already been written. Choose
from the part of the ancient noble spirit, the lost soul estranged from
her true nature or the aggressive drunk alternatively bucking and living
off the system. No other parts available for "real Aborigines".
like to read you some words of other peoples describing their experience
of the processes I have described. Vine delorio, a Native American Indian
1969, non-Indians began to rediscover Indians. Everyone hailed us as
their natural allies in the ancient struggle they were waging against
the "bad guys". Conservatives embraced us because we didn't
act uppity, refused to move into their neighbourhoods, and didnUt march
in their streets. Liberals loved us because we were the most oppressed
of all peoples who had been oppressed...Blacks love us because we objected
to the policies of the department of the interior .......Which indicated
that we were another group they could count on in coming to the revolution....Conservationists
sought out Indians for their mystical knowledge of the land...It has
been an exciting year." 50
somewhat more tragically, Ralph Ellison, an African American wrote:
am an invisible man.... I am invisible, understand, simply because people
refuse to see me....It is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors
of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me see only my surroundings,
themselves, or figments of their imagination - indeed everything and
anything except me. Nor is my invisibility exactly a matter of bio-chemical
accident to my epidermis. That invisibility to which I refer occurs
because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come
in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes.... 51
excruciating discovery of his invisibility is the tragedy of all who have
been deprived of the right to be seen as full independent human beings.
However, at the end of his novel, he has a crucial realisation which provides
his, and our way out of "hell". He says quite simply: "I'm
invisible, not blind". 52
Throwing away the mirror
of us have escaped the effect of false representation and invisibility.
We feel it every day when we come into contact with the dominant society.
We even feel it when we look into the mirror. Our experiences of our selves,
and of our Aboriginality has been transformed by the representations.
be the case that the dominant representations of Aboriginality have reduced
it to a relational concept. It may also be the case that Indigenous peoples
constantly feel the gaze of the other and have internalised that gaze.
However, this does not mean that we experience our Aboriginality only
as a relation to non-Aboriginality or imposed representations. We have
never totally lost ourselves within the otherUs reality. We have never
fallen into the hypnosis to believe that those representations were our
essence. We have never forgotten that we have an identity which cannot
be reduced to a relation, and cannot be destroyed by misconception. Recalling
Ellison, we may be invisible, but we are not blind.
woman of the Quiche people of Guatemala said, and I quote:
our communities, we never sat down to study or discuss issues like "look,
this is our tradition, this is our language". We have maintained
our culture not so much due to conscious effort as to daily practice.
.... However, there is a moment in our personal lives, in our community...
When we find it necessary to become conscious about who we are."
sanitised history of "settlement" it was always written that
Indigenous peoples of this country did not resist. Similarly, to say that
Aboriginality is nothing more than a relation to non-Aboriginality is
to create another representation of us as peoples who accepted and submitted
to the imposed structures.
side the colonial discourses we have always had our own Aboriginal discourses
in which we have continued to create our own representations, and to recreate
identities which escaped the policing of the authorised versions. They
are Aboriginalities which arise from our experience of ourselves and our
communities. They draw creatively from the past, including the experience
of colonisation and false representation. But they are embedded in our
entire history, a history which goes back a long time before colonisation
was even an issue.
Aboriginalities have been, and continue to be a private source of spiritual
sustenance in the face of others' attempts to control us. They are also
a political project designed to challenge and subvert the authorised versions
on who and what we are.
of Aboriginality are always also acts of freedom. The Aboriginal writer,
Moodrooru Narrogin wrote of the power of our Aboriginalities to:
the rape of the Aboriginal soul and the wound of being removed from
one's mother tongue. Aboriginality would become the emergence of an
Aboriginal voice to `sing of the sad wounds of the whole people, hundreds
of mouths forced into shaping the harsh sounds of an alien speech".
our self representations public we are aware that our different voices
may be heard once again only in the language of the alien tongue; we are
aware that we risk their appropriation and abuse and of the danger that
a selection of our representations will be used to once again to fix Aboriginality
in absolute and inflexible terms. That one character or one painting will
be picked out as the authoritative archetype of Aboriginality, now the
"real Aboriginality" because it came from an Aboriginal person.
However, without our own voices, Aboriginality will continue to be a creation
for and about us.
this is all the more reason to insist that we have control over both the
form and content of representations of our Aboriginalities. All the more
reason that the voices speak our languages.
the insistence on speaking back and retaining control are highly political
acts. They are assertions of our right to be different and to practice
our difference. They refuse the reduction of Aboriginality to an object,
they resist translation into the languages and categories of the dominant
are at times ancient, at times subversive, at times oppositional, at times
secret, at times essentialist, at times shifting.
for this very reason that I cannot stand here, even as an Aboriginal person
and say what Aboriginality is. To do so would be a violation of the right
to self-determination and the right of peoples to establish their own
identity. It would also be to fall into the trap of allowing Aboriginality
to be another fixed category. And more than enough "fixing"
has already occurred.
this does not mean that Aboriginalities are without content. Nor does
it mean that we are not intimately connected with our past. What we need
to resist is an essentialism which confines us to fixed, unchangeable
and necessary characteristics, and refuses to allow for transformation
or variation. 55 But resistance to imposed categories is
very different from forbidding us from representing our cultures and peoples
in terms of our past, or our distinct ways of being and seeing the world.
The recent trend to charge self-representations by Indigenous peoples
with the politically incorrect crime of "essentialism" is little
more than a modern extension of the politics of control over knowledge
that has been going on since colonisation - black people being told what
they can say, and how they can say it. Redfern come to academia. It is
just another form of over-policing.
right to self representation includes our right to draw on all aspects
of our sense of our Aboriginality, be that our blood, our descent, our
history, our ways of living and relating, or any element of our cultures.
Certainly the practice of fixing us to our blood or our romanticised traditions
has been a cornerstone of racist practices. But depriving us of our experienced
connection with the past is another racist practice.
relationship we draw with our past is not to be confused with the relationships
with past which have been imposed on us. One is an act of resistance the,
the other is a tool in the politics of domination and oppression. 56
we talk about an Aboriginality based on the past of our peoples, we are
not talking about fabricating an identity based on a past we have re-discovered
or dug up; rather, we, the Aboriginal peoples are already the re-telling
of the past. 57 Our memories are not chemicals in our heads but
our flesh and our voices and our ways of seeing.
past and the present and the future do not fall into distinct linear categories.
The past cannot be limiting because we are always transforming it. In
all expressions of our Aboriginality we repossess our past, and ourselves.
the past cannot be dead because it is built into the beings and bodies
of the living. We do not need to re-find the past, because our subjectivities,
our being in the world are inseparable from the past. Aboriginalities
of today are regenerations and transformations of the spirit of the past,
not literal duplications of the past; we recreate Aboriginality in the
context of all our experiences, including our pre-colonial practices,
our oppression, and our political struggles. It is only a narrowness of
vision, or a misconception of culture as a frozen state which leads people
to limit expressions of essential Aboriginality to the stereotyped pristine.
same Guatamalan woman I quoted above said of her people's identity:
can still be a Quiche although one lives in a better house or has a
video, or even goes to university......I get very disturbed when we
ourselves promote an image of the Indigenous peoples as something very
poetic, very romantic, as something ideal. No! Rather it is something
real.....There is a part which is folkloric... But it is not the base
of the culture....It's an element of our lives. It's an element which
has determined moments.... Rather, it's the daily life which you can't
see here, the daily life which isnUt represented here, which makes us
things are changing in this time. But we remain Indigenous... Although
certain things have changed in our thoughts, in our statements, in our
traditions....We did not quit being what we are. There are always these
roots that make you who you are. That make you different from the others."
roots which make us what we are the connections between the past and present.
from being dead, passive, or conservative, the past is dynamic, active
and potentially revolutionary. It has been, and continues to be a powerful
reality in which we can root our autonomy our sense of ownership of ourselves
and our resistance against assimilation.
the philosopher Marcuse "there is a liberating power in rememberance".
59 And in fact what we are re-discovering is that our past,
far from being a source of constriction, can a source freedom.
sense, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
studies is a resource of freedom. It holds many of the memories and stories
from which the contemporary and future voices of Aboriginality will emerge.
also itself been a site at which the politics and power of knowledge have
been challenged and revolutionised.
was a time when the collection of information about Aboriginal peoples
was clearly part of the politics of colonial control. When it served to
fix Aboriginality as a pristine culture rooted in a distant time and place
inaccessible to and disconnected from the majority of living Aboriginal
peoples. Collecting material on Aboriginal peoples was a project designed
to preserve the dead past and to provide future generations with the opportunity
to look back at pre-history safely bound in books and sealed behind glass.
We could be pacified by being transformed from living peoples into blocks
of intellectual real estate; reams of classifications and ethnographic
curiosities. Their knowledge gave them a feeling of ownership and allayed
the fears that we could not actually be controlled.
knowledge ensured that the past was something that was over, and that
with it had gone authentic Aboriginality. This "past Aboriginality"
was never more than a memory or a story for living people, but separate
from their lived reality.
if the past was once used as a trap for Aboriginality, we have seen a
transformation, whereby Aboriginal peoples have reclaimed the key to the
trap and have found the "liberating power of remeberance".
The control which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples now have
over the institute is both a symbol and an expression of the shift in
the politics of knowledge which we have achieved over the last 30 years.
W.C. Wentworth gave a speech entitled "Aboriginal Identity, Government
and the Law". In it he looked at the relationship which Aboriginal
peoples had with our own identity, and the pride or shame which was associated
with being an Indigenous person in a historically racist society. He looked
forward optimistically to a time when all Indigenous and non-Indigenous
Australians would value and respect Aboriginality. He noted that a significant
factor in our attitude to our Aboriginality was our relationship with
the past, and that pride in our past was a key to pride in ourselves.
repossession of our past is the repossession of ourselves.
Wentworth himself is a man who has both possessed and transformed his
past. He is of the stock of a people which colonised this country and
our people, and in fact a direct descendant of one of the founders of
the Australian Constitution, a document in which Aboriginal peoples were
invisible. It was his capacity to transform the past to which allowed
him to become a source of liberation for the future. And what we have
achieved today owes much to his courage and willingness to challenge and
transcend the stereotypes which dominated his generation.
progress and enlightenment do not always occur in a linear manner, as
indicated by the recent election of the current encumbant of W.C. Wentworth's
former seat of mackellar, the honourable mrs bishop.
the past and present work of the likes of W.C. Wentworth, and many others,
has built a ground concentrated with the resources which will allow Indigenous
peoples of the future to exercise our right to define and create ourselves
and our lives. To write and sing and paint and tell ourselves from the
past into the future.
peoples have left us deep roots which empowered us to endure the violence
of oppression. They are the roots of survival but not of constriction.
They are roots from which all growth is possible.
are the roots which protected our end from the beginning.
1. Kevin Gilbert
in Living Black: Blacks Talk to Kevin Gilbert, pp.304-305.
2. Ralph Ellison,
Invisible Man, Penguin Books, 1952, p.9.
3. James Cook
s Journal, 1770, quoted in Smith, B., European Vision and the South
Pacific 1768-1850, p.126.
Clark, 1823, Reported in the C.M.S. Missionary Registrar, London,
5. Boyd, A,
The Old Colonialists, (1882), pp218-221.
G. & Ward, R., "The Glorious Years", in Boomerang,
17 December 1887.
7. This definition
appeared in various Acts of the States and Territories from early legislation
through to the 1960s, fro example, the Aboriginals Ordinance Act 1918
Ordinance Act 1918 (NT).
Administration Ordinance 1940.
Protection Act 1886.
Amendment Act 1936.
B. Tindale, "Survey of the Half-Caste Problem in South Australia"
from the Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia,
Vol. XLII, Session 1940-41, p.67.
15. John Harper,
investigating the establishment of a mission station at Bateman s Bay,
in Woolmington, Jean, Aboriginals in Colonial Society: 1788-1850,
Cassell Australia, p.18.
Dredge, Brief Notices of the Aborigines of NSW, Geelong, 1845,
A. Settlers and Convicts, p.214.
B. Geographic Memoirs of NSW, (London 1825), p.224.
19. Mr Shelley
to Rev. G. Burder, 6 October 1814, Bonwick Transcripts, in Woolmington,
op. cit, p.23.
20. Rev. Robert
Cartwright to Macquarie, 6 December 1819, in Woolmington, op cit., p.17.
op. cit, p.67.
Duckworth, "On the Brains of Aboriginal Natives of Australia in the
Anatomy School, Cambridge University", Journal of Anatomy,
Vol.42, 1907, p.69.
Kendall, "The Glen of Arrawatta", in Elliott, B. & Mitchell,
A. Bards in the Wilderness, p.70.
in The Australian, 9 September 1988
J. `Definition of an Aboriginal', The Sydney Morning Herald, 16
26. A Resolution
was put up by the National Party council in the electorate of Maryborough
Queensland stating that: "a claim to be Aboriginal cannot be made
unless the claimant has 50% Aboriginal blood".
made by Tim Fisher, leader of the National Party, 1993.
T.G.H., "Anthropological and Ethnological Research", in Shiels
(ed.), Australian Aboriginal Studies, Oxford University Press,
G., Aboriginal Rights in International Law, 1978, p.67.
Langton, Well I heard it on the radio, and I saw it on the television,
Australian Film Commission, 1993, p.33.
Submitted to the Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and
Protection of Minorities by the Special Rapporteur, Mr Jose R. Martinez
Cobo, and hereafter referred to as the "Cobo Study".
Chapter V, para. 168.
34. op. cit.,
para 220, criteria used in the 1964 census.
35. op cit.,
para 57, 1950 census.
op cit., p.50, para 379.
39. The right
to self determination is guaranteed by the International Covenant of
Civil and Political Rights, Article 1.
40. See Richard
Broome, "Shall We Call a Koori a "Koori"?", Australian
Historical Association Bulletin, No.68, September 1991, p.45.: "The
most sacred right of humanity is to be ourselves and be in control of
the making of ourselves. Our group identity and control over our lives
is symbolised by the name we associate with ourselves."
8 of the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as
at the Eleventh Session of the WGIP, 1993.
Labor Organisation Convention 169, Article 1(2).
Constitution, Section 51(xxvi).
45. A. O.
Neville, former Commissioner of Native Affairs for Western Australia,
"The Half-Caste in Australia", in Mankind, Vol.4, No.7,
September 1951, p.275.
46. This section
is largely drawn from a fuller analysis of the use of the application
of the Exemption Certificate in Aboriginality or Aboriginated; the
politics of essentialism, identity and self representation, Honours
thesis by Darlene Johnson, provided by the author.
Protection Act 1943, Section 18.
48. See Johnson,
op cit, for an expanded analysis of these sections.
op cit., para 328.
50. Vine Delorio
Jn., We Talk, You Listen, Macmillan, 1970, pp.14-15.
Man, op cit, p.7.
del Rosario a Quiche of Guatemala, speaking to Heidi Moksnes, "Culture
is how we survive", IWGIA Newsletter 3, July-September 1992.
Mudrooroo , Writings From the Fringe, Melbourne, Highland House,
defines essentialism as: "the error of imputing essences, fixed
and necessary characteristics to a category of people", see Cowlinshaw,
G., "Introduction: Representing Racial Issues", Oceania , Vol.
63, No.3, March 1993, p.187.
makes this point; "The essentialising by Aborigines is not the
same as the biological racism of the white group- the latter is part of
the structure of domination, the former part of the structure of resistance".
57. Hall makes
this point when he says: "Not an identity grounded in archaeology,
but in the re-telling of the past." Halls, S. 1990. "Cultural
Identity and Diaspora", in J. Rutherford (ed) Identity, Community,
Culture, Difference, London" Lawrence and Wishart, p.224.
del Rosario a Quiche of Guatemala, speaking to Heidi Moksnes, "Culture
is how we survive", IWGIA Newsletter 3, July-September 1992.
actual phrase was "the liberating power of remeberance",
quoted in Jay, M. (1988) "Reflections on Marcuse s Theory of Remembrance"
in Pippin et al. (eds), Marcuse: Critical Theory and the Promise of
Utopia, London Macmillan 1988.
updated 1 December 2001