Branding the blacks – a “community of thieves” and the tyranny of terminology
A guest post by S. J. Stanton
The term “indigenous“, as it is used in relation to “the Intervention” and all that is associated with that term – is not about people, and its not even about paedophilia. Instead it is about programs, policies, power, politics and (personal) promotion and profit.
It is also about exploitation, abuse and failure.
Exploitation, abuse and failures at the hands of successive governments as each pursues its ‘politics of disadvantage‘, or should it be named ‘politics of incompetence‘?
Maybe government could get a few pointers from Peter Sutton’s Politics of Suffering. Whatever politics it is, it has been hurting and disadvantaging Aboriginal people for a couple of centuries now and has, moat recently thanks to the Northern Territory Emergency Response (the Intervention), hit a new high under the new brand name “indigenous“.
Perhaps “the politics of profit” or indeed “the prophets of profit” might be good titles to consider as well.
Once upon a time I criticised the term Aboriginal – and the imposition of that stylised identity by the colonisers as a collective identity for mainland Aboriginal Australians. And while the terms ‘Aborigine’ and ‘Aboriginal‘ are still among the most disputed in contemporary Australian language, the all-encompassing term “indigenous” and its current use is not only unsuitable but inappropriate and extremely misleading.
From where I sit and listen and observe, “indigenous” does not relay a true sense of the meaning as is embraced and understood by Aboriginal or Indigenous peoples themselves.
The real meaning of the term indigenous is best expressed by Chris Cuneen and Terry Libesman:
Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies…consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing in those territories…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. (Cuneen & Libesman, Indigenous People and the Law in Australia, (1995)
The emphasis should be on the latter part of the definition and the term should not be used simply as a brand name for a government product.
While the terms “Aboriginal Australian” and “Australian Aboriginal” are wholly consumptive terms by which Anglo/Other Australia goes about integrating a range of different aspects of diverse Aboriginal clans, their ideals, aspirations, philosophies, knowledges, politics, religious and cultural tenets and ceremonial practices, I believe the term holds far more credibility than the term “indigenous” right now.
Admittedly both terms are colonial constructs of what westerners decided are appropriate identity markers or classifiers of the Other, and Aboriginal people have had to face a never-ending re-defining of Aboriginality almost since the term was first adopted – now they are being forced to re-define that again, under the new name and category of “indigenous”.
A while ago Marcia Langton stated that:
“Aboriginality…is a field of intersubjectivity in that it is remade over and over again in a process of dialogue, imagination, of representation and interpretation – [and that] Both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people create “Aboriginalities”… in the infinite array of intercultural experiences…” (Langton, Representations and Indigenous Images, Global Diversity Conference, Sydney, 1995.
I cannot imagine that even she would believe that this same type of dynamic is taking place in the current western construction of “indigenous“.
The current practice and use of “indigenous” which has been adopted as yet another Australian way of grouping together of Aboriginal people they know and understand little about, simply so as to accommodate their limited understandings and out of their laziness and disinterest, speaks loudly of continuing paternalism (and maternalism) and of expediency and the continuing government knee-jerk reactions of band aiding instead of fixing.
Australians may have got away with the pan-Aboriginal identity thing in the past but the pan-indigenous identity categorisation of peoples leaves a broad and wide-open scope for almost anyone to take advantage of. Yes, it is true there were huge problems with the previous government and ATSIC definitions of Aboriginality, but they were much clearer to understand and negotiate in comparison to the catch-all use of the term “indigenous“.
At least the colonists who assisted in the creation of the term Aboriginal and therefore ‘Aboriginal identity’ did so in part to satisfy their own understandings of the Other. Aboriginal Australians, in the most part, accepted this identity too. However, nothing can take away the point that, whether this adoption of new identity was both clearly determined and determining [See: Bain Attwood, The Making of the Aborigines (1989)] the term Aboriginal/Aborigine has dispossessed these peoples of their separate identities.
Placing Aboriginal people now in the neat little homogenous group known as “indigenous” further dispossesses and disadvantages them – regardless of the multiculturalism that supposedly thrives in the broader Australian community, or the “spirit of reconciliation” which supposedly unites Aboriginal and mainstream Australia. Disadvantage, regardless of the flashy new identity of “indigenous” continues.
The term “indigenous” continues to strip, indeed further rob, Aboriginal people of their basic human rights as citizens of Australia and it prevents them from being equal participants in the overall Australian social contract.
I listened to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on Darwin TV recently talking about “overcoming indigenous disadvantage“.
PM Rudd, Minister Macklin, NT Chief Minister Henderson et al – including all the same olds (Aboriginal and Other) were sitting at the big round tables with their various “indigenous” hats on, rabbiting on about their “indigenous” solutions and giving their “indigenous” expertise. They all keep missing the main point that disadvantage will only begin to be relieved when all Aboriginal Australians are granted full citizenship rights and privileges. These rights include the right to self-identify and to be in charge of their own futures.
Aboriginal people must have an Aboriginal Minister. Its time!!
It is time too, for Rudd, Macklin et al to realise they are talking to the wrong black “leaders” and that they will always be advised by the wrong white “experts“. It is one thing to talk about Aboriginal dependency and welfare but I don’t hear anybody criticising the co-dependency that exists between “indigenous advisers” and non-indigenous “experts“.
I’m tired of people stating that there is no Aboriginal leadership – there are many strong and good leaders – and I’m not talking about the consultants and advisors and the Australian Government’s “community managers” and other tyrants – or the carpetbaggers and “southern specialists” that have waltzed into the Northern Territory of late – or those who may be the belles and beaus at the NAIDOC ball.
Most Aboriginal people affected by the NT Intervention are disadvantaged, effectively homeless and are refugees within their own country – Australia. They don’t attend NAIDOC balls and other activities and I bet most have not even heard of Reconciliation and probably don’t care if Rudd said “sorry” because it has changed nothing for them.
I bet the majority of them don’t even know they are named “indigenous”.
My suggestion is that government has to address Aboriginal disadvantage the same way such problems are addressed in relation to international refugees and migrants especially in relation to re-settlement, social security, jobs, health, education, equity, restoration of rights and dignity. The levels of support services for the Aboriginal refugees and disadvantaged, internally-displaced peoples are poles apart from what is offered to international refugees and other new arrivals.
You only need to be standing in a line at Coles and Woolies in Darwin or any other city or town in the NT to hear Australians make awful racist remarks while comparing the two groups of peoples – praise and sympathy for one and abuse and denigration for the other.
The sadder part of that story is to hear international refugees and migrants parrot their Australian counterparts in demonising Aboriginal people. It is a sad state of affairs that Aboriginal people have to compete for space within such a hostile environment. What hope have they got?
Lastly, PM Rudd acts almost shocked to hear about the level of Aboriginal disadvantage – what rock did he live under in Queensland for all those years?
He obviously is not aware of conditions at Palm Island, or has not followed the recent happenings there between Police and residents. If he does not have time to visit a few Aboriginal communities in Queensland perhaps he should spend some time reading about the state of affairs in his home State.
He could start with Rosalind Kidd’s The Way We Civilise: Aboriginal Affairs – The Untold Story (1977). Described as “…one of the most chilling and thorough studies of the governmentality of Indigenous people…[Kidd's] investigation of previously inaccessible government records reveals the moments of ‘eternal optimism’ and ‘congenital failure’ that fashioned government relations with Aboriginal people in Queensland between 1840 and 1988.”
His reading list should include:
Richard Broome, Aboriginal Australians: Black Responses to White Dominance 1788-2001 (2002);
Rosemary Neill, White Out: How Politics is Killing Black Australia, (2002);
Michael Meadows, Voices in the Wilderness, (2001).
He obviously has never read C. D. Rowley’s The Destruction of Aboriginal Society (1970) – perhaps Minister Macklin and his government are looking in there for hints and suggestions?
If Rudd read Rowley’s book maybe he might just figure out what is going on and what could and what should be done to halt the current destruction of Aboriginal society.
My final book suggestion for Rudd, Macklin, Henderson, et al is the Australian classic by Xavier Herbert, Poor Fellow My Country (1970). I’m sure even they would appreciate the poignancy of the title – as well they should heed and comprehend Herbert’s message:
Until we give back to the black man just a bit of land that was his and give it back without provisos, without strings to snatch it back, without anything but complete generosity of spirit in concession for the evil we have done him – until we do that, we shall remain what we have always been so far: a community of thieves.