Trusting Aboriginal Tradition

There's probably some Law of Controversy that shows a direct relationship between the length of time that a scandal stays in the public eye and the levels of complication it involves. If there isn't, then the Hindmarsh Island affair suggests there should be. Just when we think that its moral has been found, the Hindmarsh saga reveals new dimensions.

Hindmarsh has offered us several morals so far, one of which was implied in recent comments by Frank Devine and Christopher Pearson in The Australian. They seem to share the view that invented traditions can't be trusted—giving as evidence the fabrication of secret women's business at the heart of the Hindmarsh affair.

Pearson (The Australian, 19/9/1996) called for an overhaul of the indigenous heritage protection Act on the basis of its 'crucial flaw' of 'defining as traditional anything that Aboriginal people accept as such'; while Devine (The Australian, 14/11/1996) has attacked anthropologists who claim that 'inventing traditions in order to cheat and deceive is "cultural revitalisation"'.

The implication is clear: we 'really need to watch these anthropologists', as Devine says—and any cheating, deceiving Aborigines they might be supporting. Unfortunately, in the current climate this prescription might all too easily lead (even if unintentionally) to a general mistrust of any Aboriginal claim about tradition, and this should cause some concern.

Anthropologists now speak of 'cultural revitalisation' because the academic debate about tradition has gone beyond simple black-and-white arguments about whether traditions are recent and 'invented' or ancient and 'authentic'. If the argument is getting foggy, as Devine complains, that's because it's now cast in shades of grey. While there are ancient traditions in most cultures, it's now clear that there are also many of recent origin in any culture. Furthermore, traditions can be both invented and authentic; every tradition had to be invented at some point.

Shades of grey are difficult to cope with, and it would be easier if we had some handy rule to clearly identify an 'authentic tradition'. The obvious candidate is age. Pearson, for one, wants to see a test of 'antiquity' as part of the indigenous heritage protection Act.

But for the broader Australian community to impose a strict rule of antiquity on Aboriginal tradition would be to single Aborigines out for special treatment—in this case, especially harsh treatment. After all, we don't demand that the traditions of the AFL be ancient. And Aborigines have potentially a far more ancient antiquity than other Australians.

Obviously, no Government could reasonably demand independent proof that an Aboriginal tradition is tens of thousands of years old. But neither could it do so for two hundred years, or even a hundred. Nineteenth-century records on Aboriginal traditions would be patchy at best, and certainly not a reliable resource for lawyers and judges.

To demand 'independent' proof of a tradition's genuineness is in fact the very problem, because it excludes precisely the people who can say what Aboriginal tradition is today: Aboriginal people living today. Non-Aborigines can only ever describe Aboriginal tradition; only Aborigines can decide it.

In doing so, they might decide that something is a tradition which is later shown to be of recent origin—just as the world has decided that the lighting of the torch is an Olympic tradition, when originally it was a final flourish at the opening ceremony of the 1936 Berlin games.

Dot-painting, for example, is a highly-visible element of modern Aboriginal culture, a tradition with long roots. But in its modern form of bright colours on canvas it dates back only two decades.

'Ah,' you might say, 'but that's not the same as instantly declaring any old piece of land a sacred site.' But if dot-paintings can change their form (from sand to canvas) while maintaining their traditional essence, so can sacred sites change while maintaining theirs. After all, Christians create new sacred sites on any old land every time they build a church.

Here, of course, is where the academic arguments are seen as so much pettifogging. The debate is not about tradition's changeability, the critics argue; it's about intentional deception. And after all, Aborigines themselves were divided over the traditional significance of Hindmarsh.

But the fact that tradition was used to further certain Aborigines' interests should come as no surprise, when tradition has been enshrined as the test of authenticity in land matters. Those Aborigines were merely making best use of the political tools available to them—in this case, the tool of tradition, an inherently malleable and contestable concept.

Hindmarsh amply demonstrated the difficulties that arise when Aborigines disagree on what their traditions are or should be. But if political parties and the non-Aboriginal community feel that this is a problem, the solution is not for them to tell Aborigines what their traditions should be, or to set unworkable tests of 'antiquity'.

Other solutions suggest themselves—not all of them attractive. One possibility is to turn every conflict of interest into a fight—for non-Aborigines, for example, to openly oppose Aboriginal interests. Some have already shown their willingness to take this unfortunate path. But for Governments or the major parties to take sides in this way would be politically dangerous, for they claim to represent and respect all Australians. For them to make too many obviously anti-Aborigine decisions would risk completely alienating Aborigines and strengthening their demands for sovereignty, an option no major party is willing to consider.

They can't have it both ways, though. A claim to represent the whole nation also imposes obligations to treat minorities with due respect. Sometimes this means keeping off-limits when minorities request it, even if that means 'taking their word for it', as former-Senator Tickner did in the Hindmarsh case.

One way to show respect for other groups is to show respect for their cultures, of which their traditions are a big part. This doesn't mean that one must completely understand those traditions, though of course it helps to make the attempt. Neither does it mean that one will always wholly admire them; and in extreme cases, a concern for higher values such as human rights will override one's desire to respect a particular tradition. But that is not the issue in Hindmarsh; an argument over the building of a bridge is hardly the same as an argument over, say, widow-strangling or female circumcision.

Showing respect for others' traditions does, however, require trust in their judgement about the validity of what are, in the final analysis, their traditions. In some cases, such as Hindmarsh, non-Aborigines may suspect that certain Aborigines are using doubtful claims about tradition as a purely short-term political tactic (though when so many other avenues for redress have been closed off to Aborigines, it seems unfair to blame them for that). But for Government policy to proceed on the assumption that the claims of Aborigines and other minorities should always be treated with suspicion would be entirely the wrong approach.

There may be room for negotiation in any particular case, but negotiation surely cannot succeed without trust. Trust is essential for achieving reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians, and for ensuring a harmonious multicultural Australia—to which the alternative can only be an unwelcome absence of harmony. We would all do well to keep that in mind.


This page: 27 January 2000; last modified 16 February 2001.

©2000 Rory Ewins