Songs, Land Rights, and Archives in Australia


For Aboridinal Australians, songs give dynamic proof of land ownership. Richard Moyle encapsulates the connection between the songs and the land in his book, Alyawarra Music (1983). Certain people own songs and the permission to perform them. The owners of the songs also own the ceremonies connected with those songs. The texts of the songs relate to culture heroes from the ancient time before recorded memory known as the Dreamtime. The travels and feats of these culture heroes occur at specific places which can be traced on a map. The people who own the songs also own the land from which those songs come.

Recordings of many of these songs are held by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) in Canberra. This article will look at how AIATSIS has changed in relation to the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, to the push for land rights, and to the preservation of cultural materials in the form of sound recordings.

Indigenous land rights

Within the last 200 years, Australian Aboriginal people lost possession of their land. For them, land title exists in the form of song, myth and ritual - not on paper. When the Aboriginal people of Yirrkala, Northern Territory, were arguing for their rights to negotiate with a mining company in 1971, they presented their title in the form of ceremonial objects and songs to Mr. Justice Blackburn of the High Court of Australia. Although the judge was sympathetic to their case, the evidence was ruled to be inadequate. Australia, as terra nullius (empty land) under British law, did not recognize the rights of Aboriginal Australians to their own land.

Rapidly, a series of actions sought to redress this injustice. In 1973, the Aboriginal Land Rights Commission was formed, and by 1975 a legal process was developed to enable Aboriginal people to claim freehold title to land within one area of Australia, the Northern Territory. In 1976 the first successful land claim was lodged. A host of others followed; at present, over 50% of the Northern Territory has been granted to traditional owners. The Northern and the Central Land Councils were established to assist indigenous people with the process of land claims within the Territory and to offer help in maintenance of that land once it was granted to traditional owners. However, 1997 marks the end of the period for new claims to be lodged. Some other mechanism is sorely needed.

In 1992 one of the most dramatic legal cases in the history of Australia overturned the concept of terra nullius. The Meryam people of Murray Island in the Torres Strait questioned the right of the Queensland government to control the use of island without considering their rights and successfully challenged the entire concept of terra nullius. They claimed ownership on the basis of maintaining their customs and laws. Part of proof consisted of reference to archival materials - wax cylinder recordings, photographs, and films made by the Cambridge Expedition to the Torres Strait in 1898.

As a result of this case, a new type of land rights known as native title was recognized throughout Australia, and claims could be heard outside of the Northern Territory. Freehold title would not be granted through native title, but recognition of prior ownership and connection with the land would make traditional owners equal partners with developers and others. Sacred sites would be recognized and any profits from that land would be shared with traditional owners. Native title legislation and procedures are in flux; however, Aboriginal people now have the hope of lodging claims in States where land rights did not exists before. Proof includes recordings of songs, and lawyers work with archivists in locating evidence of cultural continuity.

These legal mechanisms recognized what Aboriginal people have always known - that their songs, myths and rituals provide evidence of ownership.

Evolution of AIATSIS

In 1961, a multi-disciplinary conference made up of eminent academics was held in Canberra to examine the state of research in relation to the indigenous peoples of Australia. After vigorous lobbying a Parliamentarian known as The Honorable William Wentworth, succeeded in persuading his colleagues to pass an act in 1964 which created the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (AIAS). Later, that act was amended to lengthen the name and scope to the people of the Torres Strait.

This new institute was to promote Aboriginal studies, to publish or assist in the publication of research in fields of Aboriginal studies, to encourage cooperation amongst other institutions involved in such studies, and to assist in the training of research workers.

Aboriginal culture was seen to be disappearing at an alarming rate, therefore William Wentworth wanted the AIAS to "grow as quickly as possible in the near future while the very scarce material, the vanishing evanescent material, still exists. Then, its work in a few years time will tail off because there will no longer be this invaluable field available for study."

The AIAS Council financed research projects all over Australia, producing a plethora of books, articles, and theses. The primary source material of this research - the field notebooks, audio tapes, photographs, videos, and films - were deposited in the archives and the library of the Institute. A sound archive was created in order to preserve the field recordings made by its funded researchers. Later, film and photographic archives were formed for the same purposes.

The Institute was far ahead of its time in recognizing the importance of indigenous Australian culture. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander musics were studied as valid art forms; preservation and conservation work began for cave and rock-face paintings; copious information was gathered on intricate social structures. Indeed, Aboriginal people were a much valued and much studied group.

In 1974, a series of lightning bolts jolted this scenario. In a letter to the Council of the Institute entitled "Eaglehawk and Crow," a number of Aboriginal leaders demanded equal representation in Institute membership and Council, a voice in the aims and objectives of the Institute, and a say in what research would be done, how it would be done, and by whom. Aboriginal people wanted to change from the status of a studied people to that of equal partners in the recording of their culture. Other issues concerning cultural self-determination came to the forefront at the same time. One of the most important of these was land rights.

Land claims and the AIATSIS response

The administration of the Institute, responding to Aboriginal people, provided expertise in the form of researchers who helped to document land claims. Aboriginal people began to perform ceremonies, now recognized as viable evidence of land ownership, for the Aboriginal Land Commissioner at the land claim hearings.

Documentation relating to songs found its way into land claim hearings. In 1979, Richard Moyle traced routes of songs showing where the Dreamtime ancestral kangaroo and other culture heroes traveled throughout the Aboriginal clan land, or `country' of Agharringa. This writer tendered notations of women's songs as evidence for the Kaytej (in present orthography, Kaytetye) Warlpiri Warlmanpa Land Claim in 1981. Many of these songs appear on recordings held in the sound archive of AIATSIS.

Songs and the land

As an example of the direct connection of songs with the land, let us examine the Rain Dreaming, or Akwelye song series of the Kaytetye people just north of Barrow Creek, Northern Territory. This women's song series shows the travels of the Rain ancestor as it proceeds from west to east towards the center of Kaytetye rain-making activities, the site Arnerre. The women sing of a site just to the south of Arnerre, describing the Dreamtime women holding a stick, or kwerrpare, and swaying with it as they dance. The map of Australia shows where the song area is located, and the detail map illustrates the general area of the song track, or travel route of the Dreamtime women. The sites and the track are shown only generally in order to respect the privacy of the owners of the sites. The photograph shows the view of Mt. Strzelecki and Arnerre, as viewed from the approximate song site.

Archives and legal issues

Aboriginal people see the work of AIATSIS and the holdings of the archives as important to their own cultural identity. Sound and video recordings provide evidence in court for some of the following types of legal proceedings: 1 the stolen generation hearings examining oral historical evidence identifying the families of indigenous people who had bee removed from communities and sent to training centers or orphanages because they had some white ancestry; 2 native title claims where continuity of cultural practices serve hard evidence of land ownership; 3 land claims (NT. Act of 1976) where recordings of ceremonies serve as indigenous land deeds.

Also, in another legal area, law reform in copyright is proceeding in order to recognize the special rights of Aboriginal people to cultural materials. Issues being examined are: 1 unlimited term of protection for cultural materials; 2 recognition of group ownership; 3 recognition of moral right.

Sound archives and the future

Aboriginal people, realizing the importance of sound recordings, are establishing their own culture centers or "keeping places." Media centers, such as Warlpiri Media at Yuendumu, Northern Territory, on the edge of the Simpson Desert, amass recordings of traditional stories and songs so that their television programs will not consist solely of serials and situation comedies from the USA or from urban Australia. AIATSIS staff work with such centers, sending them copies of historical recordings and offering assistance in preservation and conservation of media.

Self-determination, one of the fruits of the 1974 Eaglehawk and Crow letter, figures prominently now at AIATSIS. Approximately 25% of AIATSIS staff are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Indigenous people have strong representation on the grant-assessing Research Advisory Committee, and the AIATSIS Council has a majority of indigenous councilors. A standing item on the council agenda concerns the state of the archives and the library.

Marcia Langton, an Aboriginal woman from Queensland and presently Chair of AIATSIS, delivers a challenge and exhortation in her vision of the future role of sound archives.

The challenges in devising policies for research, museum, library, or archive collections lie in finding the best way to provide a high curatorial standard so that heritage values are preserved, while avoiding repressive policies that restrict the freedom of researchers. These policies must preserve the integrity of Aboriginal culture, history, religion, and ceremonial life. This is particularly important given the demand by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to have aspects of their culture recorded for posterity. But the indigenous owners must be the ones who advise directly on conditions of access and use for these priceless records of the voices of their people.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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