“The sun comes up on the land of red dirt,
the land where the black man done the leg work…”
– ‘Change the Game’ – Colli Crew
(song here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f0rJajbIs-o)
People in australian radical/left spaces pay a fair amount of lip service to the Aboriginal struggle for justice. Formal recognitions at meetings and events that the land we live and work on is the rightful property of Aboriginal groups are ubiquitous in our organising, to the point where we aggressively (and rightly) criticise people for forgetting to “do an acknowledgement”. Also very common in the social justice scene are statements about how as settler people “we all benefit from the dispossession of Indigenous people” and how it is therefore “everyones responsibility to work to undo this injustice”. This is very encouraging and certainly a vast improvement over the norm in white society, which is to totally ignore Aboriginal perspectives.
However, I worry sometimes that the formality of “the acknowledgement” can act as a barrier to sincere engagement with the violent reality of our past & present, and to sincere engagement in solidarity work with Aboriginal people. Acknowledgements of country have a wide political currency in Australia, and are also a common prelude to the meetings in Parliament and meetings in the boardrooms of mining companies in which these institutions carry out the contemporary practice of colonialism. This should indicate to us that an acknowledgement alone is no guarantee of respect for Aboriginal people. It’s important to recognise that mere acknowledgement is not action – on their own, acknowledgements of country are at best tokenistic, and at worst they are dishonest excercies in excuse making. For white society, they mostly seem to function as a kind of moral pardon, a discursive wave of the hand which brushes away any discomfort about the obligation to substantially engage with difficult moral & political questions and helps white people to feel better about themselves. I’d encourage white people to see a formal acknowledgement of country as the bare minimum, and to reflect on how we can move beyond it.
I’m not intending to condemn any particular individual or group for this. I think it’s totally natural for us to think this way, given the way the white education system handles ‘Aboriginal issues’, and given the enormous social distance between mainstream settler Australia and Aboriginal people which ensures we don’t get the other side of the story. The curriculum tends to render colonisation as a historical event rather than an ongoing practice, assuming that it stopped after the invasion and settlement of the country, and ignoring the connection of contemporary policies of cultural assimilation and social-political-economic oppression with a history of extermination. Aboriginal culture is similarly rendered as a historical object, perhaps an object of curiosity or pity, but basically something primitive from the distant past and not relevant to the modern world. This denies the continuing strength and dynamism of Aboriginal culture and its relevance to contemporary Aboriginal people and their communities.
When acknowledged at all in the classroom and in public, the violence of the British invasion is constructed as a historical inevitability arising from the ‘clash of cultures’, rather than a conscious process which resulted from deliberate policies and choices made by real people and institutions. This can be seen as a subtle extension of the social-Darwinist logic which formed the ideological basis of colonisation from the beginning – the idea that Aboriginal societies were destined to vanish from history due to their inability to compete with the genetically and culturally ‘superior’ Europeans. These days when people say stuff like this, it might be about “technological” or “political” superiority instead, but the gist is the same – Aboriginal people were naturally and inevitably subsumed by a stronger society. This assertion of the inevitability of conflict denies the agency of the people who did the dispossessing, and who committed the violence, and thus denies their moral responsibility for the genocidal consequences of their abhorrent actions.
In reality, violence was never inevitable – the Australian frontier was not always a site of cut and dry black/white opposition, but a space of complex negotiations between societies. It was a space of intense contradictions, imbued with all the messiness of real people trying to make their lives in complicated circumstances. For example, at the height of the war between Wiradjuri people and early settlers in the 1820s, Wiradjuri resistance leader Windradyne had a good relationship with the Suttor family who owned one a cattle station near Bathurst. George Suttor, head of the family, had learned the Wiradjuri language and made an agreement with Windradyne that in return for the right of access to their traditional country for ceremony and harvesting, the Wiradjuri would not attack the Suttors or take their livestock. The genuine respect between the two is evidenced by the fact that the Suttors allowed Windradyne to be buried on their cattle station, in a time when actively destroying Aboriginal connections to their land was the norm. Such stories are not uncommon, and they demonstrate that there was nothing inevitable about violence. Mutual understanding was possible, even after settlers had taken land, if they made the effort to engage with Aboriginal communities on their terms. Violence prevailed because settler society chose violence.
As a kind of counter to the apologist narrative most of us absorb from high school, i’d like to explore in a bit of detail what people are getting at when they say this stuff about how as settlers “we all benefit from dispossession”. I hope that this might provide a bit of a basis of historical understanding to spur people into action, an understanding of how our past influences our present, but also an understanding of how history is created through struggle and how we can have a role in shaping it. I’ll talk about three aspects of history. Firstly, i’ll illustrate how the dispossession of Aboriginal people from their land was and remains the ideological and practical underpinning of settler society. Secondly, i’ll discuss some insights from recent scholarship (though always known by Aboriginal people, of course) which demonstrate how Aboriginal management of country over millenia created the fertile lands so desirable for colonists. Thirdly, i’ll talk about how the early settler economy relied on Aboriginal expertise, knowledge of country and labour in order to survive. Ill then explain how each of these things is directly relevant to contemporary life in australia.
First of all, let’s look at how the theft of Aboriginal land was justified by the early colonists. While the mainstream understanding, embedded in the education system, is that dispossession was the result of misunderstandings or incomprehension on the part of white people, the reality is that the colonists were well aware of what they were doing. For some settlers, the violence may have been seen as a grubby underside to their new life pursuing riches in a “wild” continent. But others explicitly articulated a view that the conquest of the continent was not only necessary for the pursuit of white interests, but was the right thing to do. These people drew on hundreds of years of European legal and philosophical thought which had accompanied the expansion of European empires in the Americas, Africa and Asia. Elaborate moral justifications for the extreme violence of this process had been developed, often centered around the moral and cultural superiority of European people as Christians compared to the world’s Indigenous peoples, constructed as heathen ‘savages’. European colonists argued that by bringing Christianity and ‘civilisation’ to ‘backward peoples’, they were ultimately acting in the best interests of Indigenous peoples. Violence was excused as a necessary part of this process. For settlers, the imperative to economically exploit new territories was linked to a religious imperative to go forth and till the soil. In Australia, unique among all settler-colonial societies, colonists went so far as to assert that the continent was legally uninhabited and didn’t bother making formal agreements with Aboriginal groups about the acquisition of land. Colonists told themselves that a) Europeans and Christians, the entire world was their birthright; b) Aboriginal people needed to be brought under the yoke of ‘civilisation’ for their own good; and c) Aboriginal people were so “primitive” that they couldn’t even be considered to legally own the country – the land was thus terra nullius, latin for “land belonging to nobody”, and dispossession was morally acceptable.
The depth of Aboriginal connection to country has always been an enormous challenge to the legitimacy of the colonial project. White scientists now unanimously support Aboriginal people’s centuries-old argument that they have been the custodians of this country for an unimaginably long time. The vibrancy, dynamism, complexity and diversity of Aboriginal cultures put colonists’ conceits of their own superiority to shame. It was obvious from the beginning that Aboriginal societies knew, loved and were responsible for every metre of the continent. It was equally obvious that this fact had to be denied at all costs if the colony was to remain justifiable. Settlers set about waging two wars on Aboriginal people – firstly, a physical conflict in which the objective was to sever Aboriginal groups’ relationship to their country as quickly as possible. Colonists used the guns and biological weapons which had enabled them to succeed in conquering the Americas to shatter Aboriginal societies’ capacity to meet their own economic needs, reducing Aboriginal populations so that there weren’t enough people to produce food. They destroyed Aboriginal food sources, emptying harbours and rivers of fish, trapping and shooting game animals, and destroying Aboriginal crops like yams and native grains. The second front of this war was an ideological one, in which the awful stereotypes of Aboriginal people and communities as backward, lazy, violent, misogynist and so on were founded. Those settlers who bothered to make genuine connections with Aboriginal communities saw intelligent, complex people with a fierce devotion to their land, people deserving of humanity and respect, but this was an inconvenient truth in the context of the frontier and it was silenced by the crude jeers which remain a staple of mainstream Australia’s response to Aboriginal cries for justice.
Secondly, it’s important to understand how generations of Aboriginal labour embedded in the landscape was instrumental in creating the fertile country for which settlers were prepared to commit murder. Again, some strands of contemporary whitefella science have come out in support of what Aboriginal communities have always been saying – that they were not shiftless hunter-gatherers, wandering aimlessly around the continent hoping for their next meal to jump out of the scrub, but actively managed the continent over generations to promote animals & plants perceived as useful for food, medicine and other uses. Aboriginal groups used fire to distribute plant communities in ways which made food reliable and abundant – in this way, it was possible to create mosaics of forest & grassland which made it easy to predict where grazing animals like kangaroos would be, and to funnel them into areas where they were easily speared. In many places, Aboriginal societies farmed yams and native grains, which were nutritious and could be stored for use in periods of drought and hardship. Some groups, like the Gunditjmara, build dams and traps in order to harvest fish and eels. Many colonists were astonished by the seemingly endless plains of rich grasses, and soft, fertile soils, comparing the land they were seeing for the first time to the beauty of wealthy gentlemen’s estates in Britain. This comparison is key, because it conveys not only an appreciation for the productivity and beauty of the country, but a sense of order and regularity – a sense that the landscape was the product of human intervention. So successful was this management that Aboriginal people were documented by early colonists as setting aside the most stable water and food sources for use in times of hardship, and holding enormous feasts to accompany cultural festivals that could go for weeks – hardly the image of Aboriginal people as perpetually-starving nomads which is more familiar to whitefellas. The fertility grasslands, crop fields, and fish traps was highly prized by Aboriginal societies, and they were also recognised as extremely valuable by settlers, leading to some of the most bitter battles of the frontier war.
Thirdly, we should recognise the instrumental contribution of Aboriginal people to the early settler economy, which would have failed without them. In addition to managing the land for tens of thousands of years to produce the grazing land so prized by colonists, Aboriginal people provided expert labour to the first generations of European farmers and grazers seeking to make a living in unfamiliar country. After their lands were conquered, Aboriginal communities were brought into white settlements as pastoral workers, fishers, whalers, and domestic workers. Aboriginal people’s exhaustive knowledge of their lands, waters and resources made them invaluable in settler’s endeavours to turn profits in the colony. For example, Yuin people on the south coast of NSW saw work in fishing and whaling as an opportunity to maintain their ancestral connection with the sea, and in the days before technological improvements made them redundant they were the most important workers in these industries and lavishly praised for their skills. In the arid centre, Aboriginal knowledge of water sources was vital in keeping herds of cattle and sheep alive, and saved countless white pastoralists from bankruptcy or starvation. Although traditionally vital in customary harvests of fish and crops, Aboriginal women and girls were excluded by Victorian misogyny from work in the fields, and used instead as domestic labour which was vital in keeping households working. For generations after invasion, Aboriginal people were never paid for their work. They would be given rations, but no wages. It was not for another 180 years, in the 1960s, when Aboriginal people were finally guaranteed the legal right to equal pay for equal work, and even then it was often not enforced. The contemporary prosperity of Australia was literally build on the backs of countless Aboriginal workers, whose contributions were unrewarded in their lifetimes and which remain unremembered and uncelebrated. The fact that settler australia celebrates idiots like Burke & Wills, who died in the desert of hunger and thirst after shooting at local Yandruwandha people who were trying to help them, while we ignore the stories of the Aboriginal people who made the early settler economy work speaks volumes about the dishonesty at the heart of our national psyche.
So as we’ve seen, this country is indeed “the land where the black man done the leg work”. Settler society in australia is based in every sense on Aboriginal people’s relationship with their land – either in denial, through the concept of terra nullius and the denigration of Aboriginal culture, or on its exploitation in industry. These dynamics are in the very DNA of settler society and far from being historical curiosities, they are directly relevant to all sorts of struggles in 2015. The current push to close remote homelands communities in Western Australia is motivated by the desire to sever Aboriginal people’s connection to their lands in order to facilitate the expansion of mining activity in the area. Mining companies and conservative governments understand that living on country and practicing traditional culture gives Aboriginal homelands communities a great deal of strength to resist the destructive impact of mining on their country, and accordingly are trying to force the communities off their lands. In cities, Aboriginal communities are fighting for self-determination over housing, health and education services, struggling to build and maintain culturally and socially appropriate institutions owned and managed by Aboriginal people instead of the usual paternalism of white organisations. It’s important to remember that for Aboriginal people, the systemic removal of their children, destruction of their languages and cultural practices and degradation of their land are all contemporary experiences. Memories of violence of the frontier at the hands of the early police force only a few generations ago are disturbingly relatable for Aboriginal people today as they experience enormously disproportionate rates of incarceration and police violence. Every single block of land in the country was at some point stolen from an Aboriginal community, and their descendants remember and remain justifiably outraged.
As a whitefella, my journey to understanding this stuff has been challenging. It has involved a long process of self-reflection about my history and place in australia as a descendant of some of the early settlers, a challenging of all i’ve absorbed from my education and from the dominant paradigms of the society i’ve been raised in. But I believe it’s been absolutely necessary. I’ve found that Aboriginal communities are still fighting hard after 227 years to restore control over their lands and their lives. The legacy of colonialism lives on, but so does the legacy of resistance. The only moral way forward as descendants of settler colonists is to reconcile with our history, and support Aboriginal groups in their contemporary struggles by giving them our time, energy, organising capacity, resources, networks, and money. It’s the least we can do given all the work they’ve done, unpaid and uncelebrated, building for us.
For people interested in chasing stuff up, ive learned a lot of this stuff through books like the following:
henry reynolds – ‘the other side of the frontier’ & his other seminal books on frontier conflict in australia
bill gammage – ‘the biggest estate on earth’, which discusses Aboriginal land management before colonisation
mudrooroo – ‘us mob’, an introduction to black culture and politics
heather goodall – ‘invasion to embassy’, a history of struggles over land in NSW since 1788 – also her book ‘rivers and resilience’, which discusses Aboriginal people along sydney’s georges river and the complexities of their relationships with settler society
galarrawuy yunupingu – ‘our land is our life’, an anthology on the land rights movement in the NT and elsewhere
bruce pascoe – ‘dark emu’, which argues that Aboriginal communities farmed, built permanent settlements, and were not hunter-gatherers
as well as some docos and other stuff. But the main way i’ve learned about these things is at the campfire at the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy, or out on country with Elders. The main thing to learn is that this knowledge is out there in the world, in real people, not just in books. If you want references or specifics on anything i’ve said just contact me and i’ll point you in the right direction.