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Putting the Pieces Together

In his recent book, Reconciliation. A Journey, journalist Michael Gordon descends into an Aboriginal Australian "heart of darkness" to discover the relevance of the federal government’s campaign for reconciliation to tortured and dysfunctional indigenous lives. With an open heart and mind, Gordon describes in horrific detail the impact of the majority population on a colonized people. His fieldwork reveals four layers of "truth" about the status of Australia’s first people, stark realities that must be addressed in the quest for reconciliation:

--the Third World conditions in which so many Aborigines dwell, where passive welfare and substance abuse have created a "lost" generation

--the "conspiracy of abdication," where governments and bureaucrats institute novel programs that are insufficiently funded or not followed through, and consequently fail

--the disturbing ignorance among the mainstream population of the history of treatment of Aboriginal Australians

--widespread prejudice, stereotyping, and institutional discrimination.

Gordon leaves us with an image of Aborigines barely surviving against the withering odds of alcohol-related violence and suicidal apathy. Nowhere in his text is there mention of the myriad of ways in which Aborigines "nurture the sacred" in their everyday lives or of how traditional and non-traditional beliefs and practices sustain the people in circumstances that Gordon rightly describes as tragic.

This fifth layer of truth--indigenous "wealth"--appears to lie outside of Gordon’s project, but failing to consider the rich cultural and spiritual lives of the First Australians is a serious flaw. It contributes to the maintenance of stereotypes--something that Gordon has tried so hard to avoid. Prioritizing the dichotomy of plan makers and plan receivers (pain givers and pain sufferers) in the picture he paints of contemporary Australia merely feeds the existing unpleasant image so many non-Aborigines have of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. It is impossible to envision reconciliation--where there is no superior and no inferior voice, no dominant or submissive entity--when considering only four layers of truth.

Indigenous wealth is defined by Downing et al. (2002) as access to common resources, localized prestige, secure positions within society, culturally appropriate housing, food security, social support, and identity. It is embodied in relationships, in cherished and sacred family practices, and especially in land embellished with cultural meaning. Indigenous peoples invest vast amounts of time and resources in their cultures, institutions, and social support systems and it is here that their real wealth is located. Since the earliest days of colonization, Aborigines have been subjected to plans that have steadily eroded their collective wealth. Whether extermination, protection, assimilation, or integration, the central feature was always the same: to maximize access to Aboriginal territories and minimize non-Aboriginal inconvenience. Is Australia’s plan for reconciliation any different?

Flick’s comparison of Australia’s reconciliatory endeavor to a sorry-looking jigsaw is apt. Many of the puzzle’s original pieces are lost, others have been withheld, and the puzzle has only the barest of outlines. Inside are scattered connected pieces, but no semblance of order, no overall composition. Empty spaces--emblems of dispossession and ongoing conflict--predominate. Though the monopoly on where these pieces go (and even what they look like) is ending, the overall design is still far from apparent. According to one of Gordon’s informants, Aborigine Smiley Johnson, if we are to consolidate Aboriginal wealth in Australia (and complete the puzzle), we must first know what it is like to walk in Aboriginal shoes: "Non-Aborigines should be a blackfella for a day and feel the hurt and the emotion and the stuff we know goes on. We don’t want them to love us or whatever, just to understand what it’s like. If they were in Aboriginal shoes, they wouldn’t be asking for any more or any less than we’re asking for."

Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s land rights project for Aborigines in the 1970s was sensitive to this plea. According to his plan, First Australians would no longer be expected to give up their land and cultures for the greater common good. They would instead have the power to determine their own futures on their own territories. Here was a plan to empower indigenous peoples, not impoverish them—a plan that promoted (not diminished) their collective interests and enhanced Aboriginal sovereignty (as described according to international legal norms) instead of negating it. But the growing conservative lobby thought this so-called radical rights plan would promote separatism and hold back both the Aborigines’ and the country’s development. They viewed land rights not as a way of making amends for past injustices but as an Aboriginal welfare issue, to be dealt with by bureaucrats. And so the stage was set for an enduring political battle between those in favor of justice for Aboriginal Australians and those whose predominant interest was in trying to solve the “Aboriginal problem” by less costly means than giving back the land. This division is still evident today in Australia’s reconciliation debate.

The federal government’s current policy of "practical reconciliation" involves working toward better outcomes for Aborigines in health, education, employment, and so on, while disregarding or downplaying the importance of first creating a rights platform upon which reconciliation might be built. Gordon’s book delivers a stinging attack on this position. In reflecting on his numerous in-depth interviews with indigenous Australians, Gordon seeks novel ways of settling historical, political, economic, and social grievances while simultaneously charting a new course for the future. His reconciliatory proposal acknowledges the need to construct a platform that provides real opportunities for Aboriginal advancement: in short, nothing less than the realization of the sovereign rights of Aborigines as unique and distinct peoples. Surprisingly, however, the issues of compensation, reparations, and restitution are not highlighted, and nowhere among his 10 principles for an "enduring resolution" is reference made to land rights.

Land is central to the process of reconciliation. When, at the termination of one of the nation’s great land ownership struggles, Gough Whitlam poured dirt from his hand into that of Wave Hill’s Vincent Lingiari, he set a precedent for all non-Aborigines to seek rapprochement with the First Australians at the same personal level. With a simple gesture, Whitlam alerted non-Aborigines to the need to build on the present fragile and guilt-ridden partnerships and to stop thinking of reconciliation as a welfare issue and more as an issue of "wealth," sovereignty and spirituality. Only through Aborigines, and with their agreement, could non-Aborigines find meaning, purpose, and identity as Australians. As Peter d’Erico (1998) said:

"Ultimately it is land--and a people’s relationship to the land--that is at issue in indigenous struggles. To know that sovereignty is a legal-theological concept allows us to understand these struggles as spiritual projects, involving questions about who we are as beings among beings, peoples among peoples. Sovereignty arises from within a people as their unique expression of themselves as a people. It is not [only] produced by court decrees or government grants, but by the actual ability of a people to sustain themselves . . ."

Articles featured in this issue of the Cultural Survival Quarterly, guest edited by Deborah Bird Rose and Ian S. McIntosh, speak to the unique relationship Aboriginal people have with the land, and highlight the spirituality underlying the most basic of practices--from gardening, working with the young, or singing to protect the country and its biodiversity. The fifth layer of truth is often ignored in commentaries surrounding Australia’s indigenous peoples, and we call on readers to consider the ways in which the collective wealth of all Australians may be enhanced through a process of reconciliation.

Ian S. McIntosh is director of Cultural Survival.

References & further reading

d’Erico P. (1998). Sovereignty: A brief history of the context of US Indian Law. The Encyclopedia of Minorities in American Politics. American Political Landscape Series. Colorado Springs: Jeffrey D. Schultz & Company.

Downing, T., McIntosh, I., & Moles, J. (2002). Indigenous Peoples and Mining: Strategies and Tactics for the Encounter. London: Mining Minerals and Sustainable Development Project.

Gordon, M. (2001). Reconciliation. A Journey. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press.

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