Perspectives of identity in being Australian

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  • Published 20120605
  • ISBN: 9781921922534
  • Extent: 264 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

THERE ARE, FOR many Australians, constant tugs of conscience about the fate of the Indigenous Peoples of Australia – the Aboriginal people of the mainland and the Torres Strait Islanders, who became Australians when Queensland annexed the islands between 1872 and 1879. The founding story of Australia is one of brutal dispossession and every Indigenous man, woman and child in Australia bears the trauma of that violence.

Acknowledging our inheritance should not engender a paralysing guilt, but rather a mature realisation of the moral obligations created by our past, which we won’t ever escape. This is the beginning of pride in belonging. Anthropologist Patrick Sullivan’s Belonging Together: dealing with politics of disenchantment in Australian Indigenous policy (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2011) argues that Australians should recognise their futures as inextricably bound with that of Indigenous Australians.

Sullivan contends that Australians limit their identity because they do not perceive Indigenous heritage as a factor in being Australian, or that Indigenous peoples are essential to the identity of other Australians. I believe we must revitalise our subjective understanding of being Australian. Non-Indigenous Australians must embrace an identity that is commensurate with living in an Indigenous land and Indigenous philosophy and spirituality should be a guiding theme in our identity.


I REACH OUT for a sense of belonging because I do not want to be forever an immigrant in Aboriginal land. My quest for identity began with reading the revised history of Australia which emerged in 1968, when the anthropologist WEH Stanner delivered the ABC Boyer Lecture series later published as After the Dreaming (ABC Books, 1969).

In the second lecture, The Great Australian Silence, Stanner rebuked Australian historians for eulogising European achievement in a hostile environment and leaving the massacre, dispossession and tenacious resistance of Indigenous peoples out of the story. It was an expression of the racism of the time that Aborigines were considered as being of anthropological rather than historical interest.

Henry Reynolds, former professor of Australian History at James Cook University and noted writer on the Indigenous experience, was profoundly influenced by Stanner’s writing, and consequently began to investigate the record of relations between Aborigines and Europeans since 1788, documenting his research in Why Weren’t We Told (Viking, 1999).

The revision of Australian history had an important influence on Australian society – enough to inspire the legal profession and make the Mabo decision possible. The revised history represents colonisation as invasion, frontier conflict as war, the Indigenous response as resistance, dispossession as greed and the lack of moral restraint as racism. I believe that it is only in redress of the wrongs of the past that we can go forward into a future beyond the debilitating shadow of our history.

One of the great pursuits of my life has been learning how I might generate a sense of belonging to this country. Travelling around outback Australia including Cape York Peninsula has been part of my quest. However, my most beneficial endeavour has been to read stories like Deborah Rose and the Mak Mak People’s Country of the Heart: an Indigenous Australian Homeland (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2011) set in the Northern Territory. There is a constant stream of books of this kind. They are a rewarding way of finding out how Indigenous people relate to country. Caring for country in the indigenous sense is holistic and addresses the needs of ecosystems.


IN THE MABO decision of 1992, the High Court of Australia ruled that at the time of the British invasion in 1788, Indigenous peoples owned the Australian continent and they were entitled to have their right of ownership protected under British law. As of 30 June 2011, successful determinations of native title cover 1,228,373 square kilometres, or 16 percent of Australia. This is in spite of the fact that until recent years, federal and state governments have been native title’s most determined opponents.

The Mabo decision was a major fillip to non-Aboriginal Australians whose identity is bound up with acknowledgement of Indigenous rights. However, it soon became evident that Australian governments, both state and federal, were not whole-hearted in their approach to native title. The Noongar case that began in October 2005 is a prime example of their attitude. Noongar country covers the southwest corner of Western Australia – it stretches from below Geraldton to the south-coast west of Esperance and includes the Perth Metropolitan Area.

In September 2003, the South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council (SWALSC) lodged a native title claim on behalf of 218 family groups of Noongar people over this area with the Federal Court of Australia (FCA). The WA Government and the Commonwealth were the primary respondents but sixty-six other groups were listed as parties including utilities like Telstra and local government bodies.

SWALSC commissioned two historians, John Host and Chris Owen, to write an account of the claim that was published as ‘It’s still in my heart, this is my country’: The Single Noongar Claim History (UWA Publishing, 2009). The FCA split the Noongar claim into two parts: Part A concerned native title rights over Perth, and Part B, which covered the remainder, was set aside by the court for a separate proceeding.

In his decision, Justice Wilcox of the FCA found in favour of the Noongar people. He ruled that the traditional norms the Noongar claimants follow today are to a large extent those that Noongar society observed at the time the British claimed sovereignty in 1829. He accepted that Noongar society continues largely as a group united by common observance of traditional laws and customs and he ruled that the Noongar people hold native title rights over Part A of their claim.

There was considerable support for Justice Wilcox’s decision in WA and across the nation. However, the WA Government and the Commonwealth appealed immediately. The Full Federal Court of three judges heard the appeal over three days. On 23 April 2008, the FCA upheld the appeal and referred the matter back to the court for hearing by another judge.

The Justices ruled that the Noongar people had failed to prove continuous recognition and observance of their traditional laws and customs from 1829 to the present day. They said Justice Wilcox had not determined whether the Noongar people had observed their traditional laws and customs substantially uninterrupted in each generation (my emphasis) since the British assumed sovereignty in 1829.

They also criticised Justice Wilcox for considering the changes inflicted on Noongar society by European settlement as a factor in the people’s retention of their customs. They said the reason why Noongar society stopped following some of their traditional laws and customary practices was irrelevant to the case. The ruling demonstrates the onerous burden of proof native title claimants have in proving their claim. Nonetheless, there was a twist in the tale of the Noongar case.

Immediately following the appeal verdict, both SWALSC and the WA Government acknowledged they could not afford protracted court battles. Subsequently, deputy premier Eric Ripper informed the WA Parliament in December 2008 that the WA Government and SWALSC had signed a Heads of Agreement document to work together to assist native title negotiations in the southwest corner of WA.

Under the agreement, the WA Government agreed to provide $2.65 million over three years to implement a capacity building program for claimant groups and to establish legal entities for managing the benefits that flow from negotiations. SWALSC is now in a position to engage with the WA Government to reach settlement of the whole Noongar claim.

The agreement provides the broad parameters for negotiations in a spirit of cooperation. The agreement sets out a two-year timeframe for the negotiation of a settlement package that will resolve all current and future native title claims across Perth and the southwest region of WA. The readiness of the WA Government to negotiate is due to the validity of the Noongar case and the government’s recently acquired enlightened perception regarding native title rights.

SWALSC says a just settlement package is not only about native title but should include a land package, an economic package, a social justice package and maintenance programs for Noongar language and culture. SWALSC will seek a statement of the unique status of Noongar people in their country as traditional owners. Non-Indigenous Australians should consider that resolution of Indigenous claims to reparation for dispossession is a valid part of their identity as Australian.


INCREASINGLY, AUSTRALIAN HISTORIANS are writing about how Aboriginal people shaped the continent of Australia. Historian Bill Gammage argues in The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia (Allen & Unwin, 2011) that Aboriginal people created the continent of Australia through precise firing of the landscape. Their practices showed long-term planning and the firing of land for hunting opened up the landscape to provide lush pasture for native animals to graze upon. This is possession in its most fundamental sense.

The objective of traditional burning was to produce a mosaic of patches of country at various stages of recovery. Much has changed since the 1788 invasion – topsoil has blown away, hills have slipped, salt has risen to the surface because of the removal of trees, and soil has compacted through the introduction of cloven-footed animals. This has caused once soaking rain, once soaking, to run off scouring gullies and eroding the soil. After dispossession, the Aboriginal mark on the continent diminished rapidly. Acknowledgement of the prior possession of Indigenous peoples, belated though it might be, should be a source of pride for a modern Australia.


THE ABORIGINAL DREAMINS is a comprehensive account of the activities of ancestor beings in creating the world. Songlines are ceremonial narratives about how land was distributed among the people, following the path along which a creator ancestor moved to bring country into being; they crisscross Australia, linking people otherwise separated by thousands of kilometres. Songlines are ceremonial songs of country that connect Aboriginal people and place.

Aboriginal people have often been portrayed as living on the edge of want and they have been depicted as the playthings of nature without the security of a bed for the night. However, they were not the scavenging people the British believed them to be. Apart from times of prolonged drought, they had a material and spiritual life of abundance.

This was not mere chance – they made their lives through providential management of country in which they aligned themselves in balance between a religious orientation to the land and low impact hunting and gathering practices. They were an energy conscious people and at the time of the British invasion, they lived a sustainable way of life.

If non-Aboriginal Australians are ever to feel at home in this land, we must learn to identify with our country. If we succeed, one day we might become as Australian as the Aboriginal people of 1788 were. We might even consider our identity as encompassing Aboriginal values in relation to land. But we need to identify the factors involved in having a spiritual empathy with this land.


THE PROCESS OF reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians requires balancing our history through addressing injustices of the past with acts of justice now and in the future. Our identity as Australian depends on the implementation of social and land justice for Indigenous people.

We must actively respect the status of Indigenous people as traditional owners and the value of traditional eco-knowledge if we seek to live in harmony with the land. We need to acknowledge that the country is profoundly rich in spirit and meaning that Indigenous peoples have nurtured and passed down over millennia. This is our heritage if only we would grasp it.

We must respect the deep spiritual strength of Aboriginal lore and acknowledge the injustice of their story but also their indomitable courage and warmth of heart. We must hear their plea to educate their grandchildren and embrace them in our prosperity. Indigenous philosophy and spirituality should be a guiding theme in building kinship with country. I believe there is a groundswell developing across the nation to resolve the injustice over land through collaborative processes.

The process of colonisation has impacted on the health and wellbeing of Indigenous people – the connection between the people and the country of their birth was severed and must be reinstated. In the Indigenous worldview, land has spiritual meaning; nature and culture are inseparable; and the health of the natural environment and its people are intimately connected – our wellbeing is influenced by the degree in which we are actively involved in caring for the earth. This is a conceptual framework that can promote holistic responses to climate change and other environmental challenges.

We should recognise that traditional indigenous eco-knowledge is much more than the heritage of Australia’s Indigenous peoples; it is vital for creating a sustainable future for our island continent. Through our relationship with the earth, we are motivated by the spirituality of our existence and our wellbeing is enhanced by a commitment to sustainability. We should explore the ecological foundations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures so we too can become nurturers of the earth.


MANU AUSTRALIANS WHO consider the issue of belonging to the land in the indigenous sense speak of being alien to this place. In Born of the Conquerors (Aboriginal Studies Press, 1991), noted Australian poet Judith Wright said that for non-Indigenous Australians, alienation from the land is born of our inability to feel kinship with plants and animals.

Dr Deborah Rose was one of three anthropologists commissioned by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) to conduct a study of totemism among Aboriginal people. The paper Indigenous Kinship with the Natural World in New South Wales (2003) was the outcome of research among the Yuin people of Wallaga Lake on the state’s south coast and the Ngiyampaa People of Cobar in the central west. The Yuin people say they consider totemism to mean relationships of kinship with the natural world. The research shows there are subtle differences between each group’s totemic practices.

Dr Rose says the study revealed that totemism conveys three main meanings among the Aboriginal people of NSW – identity, kin relationship and worldview. In the identity dimension, the purpose of the totem is to represent the individual’s connection to country. The dimension of relationship is found in Aboriginal people who share a common totem that establishes a relationship of mutual life-giving between the group and plant and animal species. Totems can also extend to entities like wind, rivers and mountains. The Pacific Black Duck is the principal totem of the Yuin People.

The dimension of totemism as worldview includes relationships of connection between humans and other entities of the natural world such as sacred sites and creation beings like the Rainbow Serpent. Worldview is about a people’s basic assumptions about what kind of world they live in, what forces control it and what the place of humans is. Dr Rose says the NPWS is in a unique position to advocate Aboriginal forms of respect across species, landscapes and ecologies to become a living reality in NSW and in Australia.

One of the Yuin Elders in the study said of the Rainbow Serpent: ‘It brings us all together. It is for all Australians.’ She proposes non-Indigenous Australians have a bridge to cross – to leave our alienation from the land and step into a future of caring for country under the auspices of the Rainbow Serpent. What a gift that is.


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About the author

Paul Newbury

Paul W Newbury writes on indigenous issues and the environment. In 2011, Eureka Street online magazine published his Reconciliation Trilogy: Why Wattle Day should...

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