16 March, 2009

Whose land is it anyway...

"For Indigenous Australians, the land is the core of all spirituality and this relationship and the spirit of 'country' is central to the issues that are important to Indigenous people today. For Aboriginal people culture, nature and land are all linked."

The sentiment of the statement above has caused much frustration and dissatisfaction for many people within Australia over the decades of land rights debate. I think its time for that feeling to stop.

In 1972, Gough Whitlam, a fierce proponent for land rights, announced that his party would, if elected, 'give Aborigines land rights - not just because their case is beyond argument, but because all of us as Australians are diminished while the Aborigines are denied their rightful place'.

Inevitably, many arguments against land rights for indigenous people evolved. These were generally solid economic positions as the ‘land’ in question was often positioned on some resource where both private and political interests laid. Others held a broader (or more shallow) position and suggested that the dispossession of land many years ago by Europeans, however unjust, can have no relevance to today's generation of Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals. Others still argued that the ‘claim’, or ‘right’ to a piece of land based on ‘culture’ was not sufficient to hold legal title.

These arguments, right or wrong have been mixed in with a load of legal, political and economic positions and have left many with a misperception as to the relationship between indigenous Australians and the land. For now, lets put aside all thoughts of legal, political or economic repercussions, and focus solely on the spiritual, cultural and emotional connection with the land. Without this foundation, I believe little reconciliation can be achieved.

I am no environmentalist, and when I used to read of the connection with the land, my understanding was generally limited to a warm fuzzy feeling associated with the familiarity of the backyard I grew up playing in. However, Indigenous connection to the land moves beyond any simple form of nostalgia. Nor does it help for us to think in terms of the childlike principle of ‘finders keepers, losers weepers’. Indigenous grieving for the land moves beyond the convenient western idea of ‘justice’.

Just recently, while doing some further thinking on the issue of connection, I was suddenly drawn to thoughts of the Israelites through the Old Testament. With a Judae-Christain heritage, most Anglo Australians would, at a bare minimum, tolerate such a comparison. The Israelites have held, since the promise to Abraham, that God blesses them through the possession of land. This possession was always more than a practical and appreciated blessing, it was the very sign of covenant fulfilment and indeed the presence of God Himself in their lives. For the Israelites, and for Jews and Muslims today, connection with the land is very much a cultural and spiritual matter, and countless people have fought and died for this issue alone. Now however 'silly' we may think that is, we would never dismiss the premise of their sacrifice. We understand, that to these religious and cultural groups, the land is inherently significant to their sense of fullness, and in fact, to their everyday life.

Extending this analogy further, we look to the inability of the Israelites to cope through periods of exile from the land. We praise characters like Daniel who were able to withstand the pressures of assimilation, and we mourn for those who lost their affinity with God through the periods of disconnect. Interesting too, when we think of the animosity that inevitably existed between those who did and did not remain faithful to their cultural practices through the times of exile, and to those who were unable to cope at all and fell into a life far removed from God's plan.
The point? Two hundred years is not a long time to recover from the horrific separation and destruction of ones land, especially when that land in inherently linked to ones spirituality. Our nation has yet to realise the impact colonisation has had on the indigenous community, and until we start to accept the depth of hurt, confusion and loss felt by the indigenous community today, we will not see significant reconciliation, or in my opinion, make significant inroads in closing the gap in social outcomes between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.

The government will continue the process of assimilation, no matter how discreet, and will introduce rules that ban indigenous languages being used at school during teaching times, and will introduce fines on parents who don’t get their children to school, and will commence a whole host of other initiatives that intend to increase the participation rate and inclusion of indigenous people. And while the motive is usually solid, the effectiveness of continuing to force a square peg in a round hole will inevitably prove negligible. Reconciliation must come first, and this cannot truly until we begin the process of repentance and restoration.

Just something to think about in your travels.

Thanks, and sorry for the delay! Feel free to let me know what you would like to hear more about for future blogs!



1 comment:

Amanda VM said...

Up here in Alice when I meet Aboriginal people and ask their name they say "my name's __, I'm from __." Or when they're talking about someone else they say "that so-and-so, from __."

Perhaps this is similar to people asking the usual second question of, "what do you do?" For many people work is part of their identity. For many Aboriginal people the land they're from is part of their identity. To me, this helps in understanding the strength of connection with the land and the importance of it.

Also, in relation to Gough Whitlam's statement... people wonder why there is so much trouble with alcohol and violence and things, but what else can one expect from a situation where people have continually had their authority, dignity, and ownership undermined by significant systematic disempowerment?

It's easier to talk about 'them' and 'us' because the issues are hard and painful. However, such an attitude refuses to accept that problems are problems of the whole community, not just of part of it.

You can see it in the people who try to ignore the issues and live separately - they know there's still something not right and my guess is that it haunts them. We must accept that the difficulties belong to and affect us all as a whole community. That is such an important part of reconciliation.