TAKE A TRIP down the old corrugation road with some Bardi people and you'll soon find out something about globalisation, indigenous people and the exact location of your own tailbone. Dubbed Australia's "second-worst road" by locals – who measures such things? – the red pindan soil of the Kimberley is ridged into hard peaks only 15 centimetres apart, peaks that tighten your neck muscles as systematically as they torture your 4WD's suspension. In shock, the tourists grin for the first few minutes, madly videoing the evidence of an Australia beyond the reach of KFC or tarmac. At about half an hour in, the novelty has worn off; grins fade and, for the unlucky, seasickness sets in as the peaks widen to a couple of metres and the vehicles start to surf their agonising three-hour course to One Arm Point, Lombardina or Djarindjin.
The corrugation road truly is shocking: physically, emotionally and in most other senses, except the most paradoxical one. Politically, the condition of the track reflects very little about the disempowerment of blackfellas in Australia's north-west. These eight or ten tiny settlements are black communities with not a lot of work, not a lot of capital inflow, not a great deal of connection to mainstream Australia, let alone the globalised world economy of Bill Gates. There is the Christian residue of mission life and (as in every part of rural Australia, white or black) problems with grog, with ganja, with violence. But despite the newish Besser-block internet centres where you can dial up to New York or Beijing, there is also a keenly felt sense of cultural continuity. Some impressive leadership. Lots of bonefish in season; plenty of turtle still. Language is strong. Ceremonies form an important part of life, and for Bardi people the awfulness of the corrugation road is not another symbol of the whiteman's neglect. It is, rather, a welcome moat, protecting them from what they've seen happen to once-sleepy Broome. Given the option to "improve" the road, local communities have strongly resisted. The Bardi prefer their corrugations, their bulldust holes, the lack of petrol stations and public amenities. They have deliberately chosen to welcome only those tourists who are serious enough to brave three hours of discomfort bordering on pain. "It won't keep all the terrorists [tourists] out, more's the pity, but it sorts out the wheat from the chaff," one former ATSIC councillor told me. "Keeps out the yobbos, up to a point."
To outsiders, this might sound like economic suicide, but to the Bardi it is a rational and eminently satisfactory solution to their globalisation dilemma. And if you think about it for three seconds, it is also economically smart – domestic and international tourists both come seeking "the exotic" and what's exotic about urbanised blackfellas? As the Eora and Turrble, in Sydney and Brisbane, can tell you, not much these days – not if you're looking for really black skin and dot art in the dust anyway. For the Bardi I spoke to, though, this tourist appeal is an unimportant side benefit. The main point of the bad road is to keep the outside world just that – outside. They have learned the lessons of history; kardia are more trouble than they're worth. And in the Aboriginal English of remote Australia, kardia means not just white skins but outsiders of all complexions. Parochial by definition, many of the indigenous nations are sick of the havoc that progress has wrought. Our colonial diaspora is only just ending; we are ill equipped to deal with an uncontrolled tourist influx into remote black lands.
WHEN THE FIRST Fleet set up shop, 500 or so Indigenous nations already occupied the continent. They differed from each other in languages, cultures and knowledge of the outside world. Northern Aboriginal nations had traded for centuries with Macassans and others; pearls farmed by Yolngu had almost certainly reached Europe via India, and hung around pale privileged necks. Inland nations necessarily had less experience of outsiders, though knowledge of other lands beyond the sea would have reached them along with the trade objects, songs and dances they received from saltwater Aborigines like the Bardi and the Bundjalung.
Little if any of this was visible to the British at Port Jackson. They generally saw, not long-established indigenous nations leading productive and peaceful lives, but heathens wandering about on the King's good land. It was soon established that not all Aborigines spoke one tongue but the concept of us as estate owners, farmers or nations was never cemented in the European consciousness. In 1901, after well over a century of white occupation, King O'Malley spoke in the Federal Parliament on the question of whether Aborigines were even human.
Thirty years later, Norman "Tinny" Tindale became one of the first white men to accurately portray Aboriginal belonging. Tindale was a white man born in South Australia to missionary parents. The Salvation Army took the Tindales travelling, first to Tokyo, where young Norman learned street Japanese from his playmates, then to Groote Eylandt off the Northern Territory coast. Tindale's interest as a young scientist was less in Aborigines than in entomology – he eventually became notably expert on the lives of moths and other insects. In his months living with Groote Eylandt Aborigines, however, he learned the language. He walked the land with Aboriginal mentors and learned some portion of Aboriginal expertise in ecology, expertise that Barry Lopez has described:
... native people still living in some sort of close, daily association with their ancestral lands... radiate the authority of first-hand encounters. They are storehouses of it. They have not read about it, they have not compiled notebooks and assembled documentary photographs... When you ask them for specifics, the depth of what they can offer is scary.
Tindale was privy to teaching by such Aboriginal scientists; he was also educated in indigenous political geography, and a lifelong project was born. Tindale understood what other white men of influence did not, or would not: as families and as individuals we owned particular pieces of land, just as much as they
During that expedition, Tindale's main informant, a Ngandi man named Maroadunei, introduced the young scientist to the concept of bounded tribal territories, "beyond which it was dangerous to move without adequate recognition". Yet Tindale went to Groote Eylandt as a naturalist, and returned as one. The crucial shift in his career took place well after his return to Adelaide. Tindale had it on the best (indeed the only) authority that Aboriginal people were far from aimlessly nomadic. Nations and clans had very clear territories; permissions were required to cross them and uninvited visitors were then, as now, unwelcome, to put it mildly. But his employer, the Museum of South Australia, was extremely hostile to this interpretation and refused point-blank to publish Tindale's map. Tindale fought on, but the establishment orthodoxy remained: Aborigines were nomadic savages, with no attachment to any particular piece of land over another.
Given this mindset of the authorities, the stage was set for the systematic removal of Aboriginal children and the attempted destruction of what indigenous families remained. The same men who dismissed Tindale's fieldwork were deaf to the cries of Aboriginal parents. The world's oldest culture was besieged and our people were soon scattered to the four winds. The Aboriginal diaspora was born. A lot of Aboriginal children ended up in or near their own nation, but some were shipped the length and breadth of the continent. Some went as far as England and Holland. Your 18th- and 19th-century diaspora from Europe saw the remnants of shattered civilisations seeking new lives in the Antipodes. Our Aboriginal diaspora in the 19th and 20th centuries was the result of the deliberate breaking of indigenous nations; the forced dispossession and removals that cleared the way for a new white nation. Your scattering of nations has slowed; ours walks the streets of Aboriginal Australia daily, seeking a bed, a job, some title other than The Defendant.
THE PRACTICE OFchild removal began soon after 1788 and reached its height in the early to mid-20th century. Between one-third and one-tenth of all Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families in the 20th century (HREOC Bringing Them Home, p.37 1997). Many are still alive today, some only in their thirties. Some of these children's descendants have merged into the white mainstream. As a result, Australia has a substantial population of citizens who are culturally white, but with Aboriginal bloodlines. Their Aboriginality is latent. If these people choose to identify with their indigenous bloodline and to learn the culture, then they may grow into a new indigenous identity, and perhaps gain acceptance as Aboriginal by the black community. But whether or not this happens, we know they are out there – the Ray Martins and Samantha Rileys.
For most of the stolen children and their families, though, Aboriginality was never a choice. Skin colour is often destiny for Aborigines and the pointy end of 20th-century racism usually compounded the inherent traumas of child removal. Some stolen children were lucky in their adoptive homes. They found kind and loving parents, parents who were unafraid to tell the children that they were Aboriginal. But for every child with this story, there seems to be several tragedies. Half of the deaths investigated by the royal commission into black deaths were removed children. Look today in the juvenile detention centres of the east coast and you will find that more than three-quarters of the prisoners are Aboriginal children and, of those, not one black family will be untouched by the assimilation policy. Many teenagers in lock-ups will also be in departmental care, and some will be the fourth generation removed from their parents in the family line.
VIOLET IS 56, and her straight silver hair has been hennaed to auburn. She was born in the Territory to an Aboriginal mother, and clearly has white blood as well. She attended school in remote Australia until the Welfare came for her at six years old. Violet and her siblings were moved to near Darwin. These were (relatively) settled years, hunting bush foods on an Aboriginal mission, together with her brothers and sisters, if not her mum. Then a second disastrous removal, this time ripped away to a children's home in a southern capital. One other sibling went with her, and the years of abuse began. At 15, Violet was on the street, a refugee from white Australia and its institutions.
Decades later, Violet went to Link-Up, the indigenous organisation that tries to help stolen children reconnect. She found her family scattered from Penrith to Port Hedland, from Darwin to Cairns. She discovered she was a year younger than she thought. Her mother is alive but lives seven hours' flying time away. Even if Violet could afford the fare, this damaged old woman cannot, in any case, give her the love she so desperately seeks.
Violet is unemployed, an alcoholic and a poly-drug user. Her house is riddled with holes where Violet, or possibly her husband, has trashed doors, walls, furniture. Three of her five children were removed from her care. She is an angry woman, on the brink of divorce, and she speaks to me – one of the few people she knows who possess the miracle of literacy in Govspeak – of "getting a grant or something" that will enable her to travel to her childhood home in central Australia. "I feel like I'm nobody," she tells me, scratching maniacally at her upper arm, "like I'm nothing. I hate myself. If it wasn't for the pain I'd kill myself today."
What Violet wants, almost as much as she wants her next hit, is to be transported back. Back in time, back in space, back to the red dirt of the Centre, back to what the Bardi are still so strenuously defending as I type, and as you read.
THE WORD DIASPORA comes from the Hebrew and originally referred, not just to the Israelites, but also to the lands within which they were dispersed. As the Israelites were forced away from their lands, the word altered to mean the movement of people alone, and the lexicological connection was broken. But, of course, the Jews never forgot their homeland and when they did lose their language in favour of the Europeanised Yiddish, they later sat themselves down and revived Hebrew from the dead. And to keep the faith, the Jews of the diaspora continued to remind each other through the centuries of what the future held for them, "next year in Jerusalem".
The Jews have a homeland once again, for all its conflicts and injustices, but the word diaspora lingers on. We speak now of the African, the Chinese, the Irish diasporas – the movements of peoples around the globe in search of jobs, safety and freedom.
Today, indigenous people from every continent meet in forums such as the United Nations, pressing for our rights, forging international alliances. The International Year of Indigenous People in 1993 highlighted the common plight of the world's tribal citizens. Somebody somewhere must have been listening. Using modern lobbying techniques, the Mirrar of Kakadu in the Northern Territory shaped up to the multinational corporation that would have mined their lands of even more uranium, and won. Mohawk wearing war paint protest in the streets of Canada and the images flash around the world. Optimists would paint this borderless revolution as our new indigenous diaspora. They might see a world where tribal nations exchange ideas and solidarity; where the Ainu and the Pitjantjara, the Cree and the Sami find strength in numbers and in our common outrage at what the industrial world would do – is doing – to us.
Such a vision might indeed be real – "next year in Jabiluka" – but it ignores one critical impact of globalisation on indigenous lives. What distinguishes us from the rest of the world is not feathers and ochre, not red or brown or black skin. It is not even language. It is time. Time and the relationship to the natural world that time allows when measured in lifetimes, not 10-second news grabs.
In the 1970s, we were told by scientists that our ancestors lived in Australia as long as 20,000 years ago. A decade or so later, the figure was revised. Forty thousand years of Aboriginal occupation was revealed, according to a campfire, a skeleton exposed by the winds, an implement shaped by human hands. The orthodoxy now sets the figure at about 60,000 years, a figure that I had to go and look up, since the numbers put on us by Migaloo archaeology seem of so little significance to my Aboriginal life.
This endless probing and measuring has about it a feel of incarceration. If the archaeologists/anthropologists/geologists can finally post a number onto indigenous existence in this place, then they can slam the door on our claims – our belief – that we have always been here. Self-evident Aboriginal belonging to the continent could be fenced in intellectually, just as we were once fenced in physically on missions and reserves. Our previous existence could be contained, limited, known. Yet the numbers that appear on the pages of The Weekend Australian remain distant to our lives. The game of comparing occupations is a silly distraction from the danger that besets us and our indigenous paradigms.
THE WORLD WE are told we should desire – a globalised world of PlayStation and genetically modified foods – is less and less unionised, less and less a world for families, more and more one of overworked, isolated individuals. It's one of short sound bites, of clocks and watches with second hands, of big cities where tired parents grasp desperately for half an hour "quality time" each night with the small strangers they call their children. There is no room for indigenousness in this world, or if there is, it is the indigenousness that you visit as a tourist once or twice a decade, to remind yourself how your own ancestors in Europe or Africa or Hawaii once used to live.
We who struggle to keep living our indigenousness in opposition to such a world know that we have to be here for the long haul to protect our country. We have been taught, and our hearts have remembered, that anyone really only belongs anywhere through the relationships they maintain with lands and waters, with their ancestors, and with all the living ecosystems they form part of. These relationships take time, real time. They cannot be nurtured in the gaps in peak-hour traffic and on flexitime work breaks.
How long have we been here? You can keep the 20, 40, 60 thousand years in your scholarly dissertations. It's the time it takes to grow a generation, or a grasstree, or a language, that is important. Violet lost almost a lifetime in the diaspora of assimilation, a lifetime that she should have spent learning about her country and rearing her children in that same country's law. We have lost many generations, many languages in 200 years. The black Australian cultures that value the land and all that lives on it are hanging by a frail thread that post-industrial values may yet snap. That danger – the snapping at our heels of globalisation – is what the Bardi still understand, and fear. That's what the corrugation road is for.