Firstly, for those who have not read a similar disclaimer in other things I have written, I am Irish and English by bloodline. I am the first of my family to be born in Australia.
The now defunct Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) defined Aboriginality – a precondition for voting in ATSIC elections – as being born of at least one Aboriginal parent and being recognised and accepted as an Aboriginal person by an Aboriginal corporation. This definition seems to have been widely accepted by Aboriginal people and the mainstream bureaucracy.
The first Aboriginal protection acts that were instituted around Australia at the beginning of the twentieth century identified “full blood”, “half cast”, “quadroon” and “octoroon” as being legally “Aboriginal” but if the Aboriginal bloodline was 1/16th or less then these people were legally white. The ATSIC definition of Aboriginality pays no such attention to what percentage “Aboriginal” a person is, only if a person in holistically Aboriginal based on a bloodline connection, no matter how distant or thin. Indeed the many fair skinned Aboriginal people today and their unrestricted involvement in Aboriginal culture, spirituality and politics indicates that “race” is not a key factor in “Aboriginality”.
There have been a few documentaries on T.V. In recent times exploring the notion of “race” and genetics. Of the many facts presented in these are comparisons of genetic difference. Apparently the genetic difference between “Caucasian” and “negroid” is less than the genetic difference between two individuals within either racial category. That is, genetically, there is less difference between Europeans and Africans generally than there is between different Europeans or different Africans amongst themselves. I assume that the same principle applies to “Australoid” – the category that Australian Aborigines are sole occupiers of in the genetic filing cabinets of western science. These documentaries and their genetic research demolish the suggestion that genetics or “race” explains ethnicity in terms of human culture, consciousness and behavior.
As I understand it, within Aboriginal reality a person is connected to land by way of bloodline. A persons descendent’s down the generations from the first humans is a key element of the “dreaming”, as are the future generations. The land on which thousands of generations of ancestors were born and into which they were buried is the real vessel or container of human existence in material terms.
Such a connection to land, and all the ecosystems in it, by way of bloodline is a different concept altogether from the genetic determinism of the Aboriginal protection laws.
So what is a “non-Aboriginal” person? I believe Oodgeroo Noonuccal was the first person to use the term “non-Aboriginal”. It was a subtle but radical redefinition of race relations. Instead of defining Aboriginal people by their difference from mainstream Australians, this new term define mainstream Australians by their difference from Aboriginality. A “non Aboriginal” person is easy to identify within the ATSIC definitions, as someone who fails the test of Aboriginality.
But do non-Aboriginal people also have ancestors? Are we not also connected through our bloodline to the very first human ? Of course we are, unless we are a different species. This Aboriginal view of reality by way of dreaming is equally applicable to European or any other non-Aboriginal bloodlines. But the specific places where our ancestors are buried, and where they were born are not on this continent. But they do exist.
So, it seems that the difference between an Aboriginal person and a non-Aboriginal person is a matter of bloodline, but not necessarily genetics. However this definition of difference still does not explain difference in culture, consciousness and behavior. There are many Aboriginal people who work in the mainstream bureaucracy or church who believe and behave in ways identical to their non-Aboriginal associates. Similarly there are many non-Aboriginal people who play important roles in Aboriginal society – including traditional tribal society – which are identical to their Aboriginal associates. Some non-Aboriginal people even achieve tribal initiation, fully incorporating them into traditional family structure, but this does not change that persons bloodline or dreaming.
It seems to me that the difference between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal culture, consciousness and behavior is a very different question from the difference between an Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal person.
When Captain Cook and Joseph Banks turned up in 1770 there were no Aborigines in Australia. This was not an Aboriginal country as nobody in this country had ever heard of the word “Aborigine” before. There were just lots of human beings living diverse and connected lives, all with their own personal priorities and personal assets such as land, skills and networks of government. A boatload of freaky looking people, including Cook and Banks described all these humans as “native” or “Aboriginal” or “Indian” and categorised them as different from their own boatload of freaks.
In 1778 a small colony of similar freaks was established in what is now called “Sydney”. The dominant culture in Australia at the time, and by far the majority population, was Aboriginal. But the minority culture of the illegal immigrants was assumed by them to be the dominant culture, and by force of guns, smallpox and food and water poisoning, it became dominant in the territories occupied by the early colonies, but still a minority well into the nineteenth century. The ethnic balance shifted rapidly as Aboriginal people were killed and more and more European immigrants expanded the territories of the colonies.
By the beginning of the twentieth century Aboriginal society was very much a minority and most of the remnant population were incarcerated in missions and reserves, usually long distances from people’s traditional land. Despite dispossession from ancestors and repressive management of missions and reserves, “Aboriginal” consciousness, culture and behavior survived, though in a wounded form, as a distinct system of values, languages and behavior including identification with bloodline and land.
There is a moral argument that Aboriginal culture is the sovereign culture of this country which should be acknowledged and repatriated as part of the reconciliation process. This argument would suggest that non-Aboriginal people have moral obligations within Aboriginal law over and above the illegally imposed British law. But I find there is a more basic reason for non-Aboriginal people to embrace essences of Aboriginal culture. That basic reason is that colonial European culture does not work. In every country where colonial, capitalist industrial society has manifested including Europe it has lead to environmental destruction, pollution and institutionalised violence including war. The present concern about global warming has proven beyond doubt this globally dominant society has to change, though few are facing up to the magnitude of the changes necessary to avoid total ecological implosion. The worse things get, the clearer it becomes that major changes are necessary. However the cultural inertia of affluent society prevents honest exploration of problems as their solutions often require loss and suffering for those who presently profit from the existence of the problems. Our social and individual consciousness is to preserve our present affluence and to subconsciously and overtly deny the crises that we know our lifestyles are creating.
Living an ecologically sustainable traditional Aboriginal lifestyle such as existed in 1770 is not an option for Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal people. There has been too much damage done to the land and to the sociology of Aboriginal culture. Both the land and Aboriginal sociology are in need of healing and repair and do not sit on the horizon as a clear and obvious solutions to the problems of the twenty first century. However there seems to be a clear choice of perspective, values and consciousness between the contemporary status quo of self interested affluence disconnected from basic ecological reality on the one hand and on the other a social ecology that facilitates holistic connection to land as well as past and future generations. The difference between isolated self interest and holistic connection is not a matter of science, policy or technology. The mass and individual consciousness paradigms drive and determine the nature of innovation and development. Progress does not occur as the unfolding of a divine plan but as an unfolding of the consciousness of those who make the decisions for innovation and development to happen.
I believe it is this area of consciousness, in particular consciousness not identified with destructive and unsustainable modes such as consumerism, that the distinction between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal become blurred and as such provide solid ground for the reconciliation process as well as a unified Australian identity to take into the future. ( I admit I am a bit of a nationalist, only because the concept is a bit more manageable than globalism which, despite its complexity, is the true nature of both problems and solutions.)
Australian consciousness is infinitely malleable. It has of course changed dramatically over two hundred years, perhaps most profoundly through the development of television which provided a common reference point for all Australians, thus generating the closest thing we have to a common experience as a nation. The Internet is developing at present as a community defining phenomenon but it is also a key step towards breaking down national barriers and creating global community.
McDonald’s, Santa Clause, Vegemite, sport, microwave ovens, trendy clothes, new cars – all these lifestyle options are presented to us by a minority interest (producers) by way of the mass media and they soon enough become icons of our common lifestyle as Australians because we are constantly exposed to their imagery and philosophical frameworks. Because of repeated exposure we are all socialised into these frameworks as if their were no other options to choose from, we just accept these constructions as given.
I do not believe that by simply pumping “Aboriginal” or “ecological” messages through the mass media will bring about significant change, apart from the topic of chit chat around the nation. The real changes will come when we allow ourselves to be socialised, through repeated exposure, to the reality around us rather than artificial representations on T.V. When we allow our relationships with other people and with the places where we live to determine our philosophical, moral and lifestyle options we are in a position to take responsibility for problems through direct engagement with the reality.
Western consciousness gets most of its information second hand, either on the TV or in books which are just representations of reality. The real reality in school and at home are the very few experiences of sitting down watching a screen or sitting down reading text on paper or listening to a lecture or conversation. In Pavlovian terms, the repeated behavior that determines consciousness is sitting down and absorbing represented experience, giving us little understanding of the real nature of reality nor the real capacities available for constructive engagement with this reality
And this is, I believe, the very problem of western consciousness – a detached incapacity at the heart of society. When we have any problem in our family or our neighborhood our only solution is to call a state authority – the police, social workers or bureaucrats, whose job it is to handle problems. We are actively discouraged from accepting responsibility, conferring it all on the state through infrequent elections and tax.
And it is this problem of detachment that can be healed by exposure to Aboriginal cultural frameworks. Aboriginal society survived without a state apparatus for a long time. The principles of self responsibility and self management underpinned collective responsibility and community self management. The extended family was both the instrument of government as well as the forum for political discussion, not through meetings or parliaments but through the real and thorough process of family business including work on a day to day level.
Aboriginal society, 200 years ago and today, exists with government structure through the families and elders but it exist without bureaucracy, without detached secondary social systems to distract or obstruct citizens from the exercise of self managed government of land and society. It is the reorganisation of family and community relationships in order to take direct responsibility for each other as well as the eco-systems that they inhabit. Western society has offered utopian models of this such as anarchism, born of civil wars in Russia and Spain, that advocate an egalitarianism without the state, similar to Aboriginal society, but these models have never proven themselves to be sustainable beyond a decade or two when they have been instituted in the context of the European civil wars or Australian alternative movements. I believe the main reason why these anarchist movements have not lasted is because they are not based on family relationships – those people who we love and will defend even if we disagree bitterly with them. We will try and work things out. However the anarchist model is based on some level of ideological or personal agreement, as defined by a bureaucratic decision making rule such as 51% of a vote or consensus. The point at which disagreement exists is the point at which this system’s capacity fails. Either the system splits, implodes with the conflict or becomes irrelevant by clinging to the lowest common denominator of the disputing parties. The other reason why I believe the anarchist model fails is because of an inherent contradiction between its goal of individual liberty with its rejection of the notion of private property. Aboriginal land law differs greatly from colonial land law but it still has the inherent “ownership” by way of bloodline and ancestors. The anarchist model demands too much private business to be determined by the broader democratic process, chaining individual initiative to the will of the collective. Aboriginal custodianship of place enables a particular person with a legal mandate and superior expertise to exercise authority over a place without need to refer matters to the collective. The essence of this system is that everyone has such a place for which they can enjoy secure tenure. Disputes between people are dealt with directly by the families of these people, not a detatched system of court or collective decision making process.
The Buddha, St. Paul and Bhagwan Shri Rajneesh all speak of enlightenment; that point at which illusion is discarded and “truth” or reality is engaged with. I believe many, if not most, Australians need to go through this process of enlightenment as described by these men and others before we can begin to realistically tackle ecological problems, otherwise we will just reproduce the inadequate responses offered to date.. Western society has reduced these notions of spirituality and enlightenment to superstition, or at best an elite esoteric knowledge known by specialists such as clergy or psychiatrists but generally unknown and irrelevant to the general population. Earth based societies around the world, including Aboriginal culture, all incorporate ceremonial rites of passage for the transition from child to adult. The ceremonial side of these rites occur after a time of teaching and assessment as to whether the initiate is ready or not, the transition is not inherent in the final ceremony but in the teachings that the ceremony affirm and reinforce. These transitions are often referred to as being born again, where the child and their illusions are killed and a new enlightened adult is born. These rites of passage are not reserved for elites such as shamans or medicine people but are the central point to an education process for most of the population. The enlightenment achieved through this education is indeed a common experience of adult society and as such is a defining point of collective consciousness. The shamans, medicine people, dancers and hunters all go through elite specialist education regimes above and beyond the community’s common knowledge, but the basics of enlightenment is the primary social education process from which an adult’s specialist training in any area begins.
Most Australians live and die without this understanding or enlightenment, providing a basic intellectual vacuum in Australian consciousness with our so-called experts trapped in a world of illusion and presupposition which continually compounds itself. Universities are the bastions of represented experience where graduates emerged having spent years sitting absorbing represented experience, yet having little experience of living in and with their objects of study. This education only begins once the student has finished with their academic period. The trouble is they are thoroughly indoctrinated into the presuppositions of their academic traditions and cannot apply an open and lateral mind to the realities they find themselves in, something a child finds easy to do. The graduate is debilitated; their capacity to learn about their environment is less than when they began their study.
I am not suggesting that Aboriginal culture has all the answers for non-Aboriginal Australians, though this was the case in 1770 or 1788. I believe there are many philosophical lessons, understandings of the bush and practical wisdoms of sustainable social ecology, in particular family business, to be learnt from contemporary Aboriginal culture.
But I do believe that the way colonial Australia treats Aboriginal Australia is the most obvious litmus test as to whether we can face up to reality and accept responsibility for our problems as a nation.
Aboriginal culture, knowledge and consciousness is a valuable asset, not just to all Australians but also to the global community. As we all become more fearful of what we have done to ourselves and what we are doing to future generations it is ironic that we systematically disempower and repress the practice of Aboriginal culture, especially land management; refusing to even acknowledge it, let alone learn from and cooperate with it.
Paul Kelly’s movie “One night the moon” tells a true story of a white colonial land holder who’s racism would not allow him to let an Aboriginal tracker join the search for his daughter who had wandered off into the bush. The search party of the police and local white community never found the girl. After some time the girls mother, in defiance of her husbands wishes, asks the tracker to look for her daughter. His skills lead him straight to where the girl was, but she had been dead for some time by that stage. To me, this movie is a parable of Australia’s ecological crisis. As a nation we are ignoring profound Aboriginal knowledge while failing to solve problems such as land degradation, super bushfires and species extinction, while drawing almost exclusively on our own colonial knowledge and skill base. It is true the scientific community has recently found an interest in Aboriginal land management techniques, especially in northern Australia, however the logical conclusion of this exploration, if it is pursued, is the realisation that human beings must live in the bush to protect it. If the state authorities try to lock it up to protect it it will be seriously damaged through neglect. This could, and I say should, become a basis for housing and industrial developments as healthy and fertile contributions to the natural environment. Instead of further compounding the problems of cities and large urban centres, isolated from the natural environment with unsuccessful attempts at containing damage through recycling or energy conservation. Human developments should be designed inside the wilderness, managing, fertilising and for most cases today revegetating and rehabilitating the wilderness around the developments. Such “urban” developments in the next century could be the agents for healing damaged land in Australia rather than compounding the bulk of unsustainable cities. Such developments as agents of refertilization of country also offer great possibilities of local food production within market garden and bush tucker modes.
There is a sustainable lifestyle that is possible in Australia, that can bring prosperity to the land, Aboriginal people and the whole Australian nation. This lifestyle cannot be developed incrementally within or from Australia’s present affluent consumerist and urbanised status-quo. There will need to be basic and deep changes for this sort of change.
We are going to go through major social changes this century whether we choose to or not. Climate change, pollution, the demise of oil, over population, rearrangement of global super economies and resource wars are demanding that we make changes. The question is whether we will change too little and too late or will we adapt to our changing environment, supposedly a trait of the intelligence and opposable thumbs inherent in the human genetic make up.