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Dynamics of Difference in Australia
Indigenous Past and Present in a Settler Country

Francesca Merlan

Mar 2018 | 336 pages | Cloth $59.95
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Table of Contents

Preface: Region, Position, and Ethics of Representation
Introduction: Persistent Difference

Chapter 1. Nobodies and Relatives: Nonrecognition and Identification in Social Process
Chapter 2. Imitation as Relationality in Early Australian Encounters
Chapter 3. Mediations
Chapter 4. Treachery and Boundary Demarcation
Chapter 5. Cruelty and a Different Recognition
Chapter 6. Race, Recognition, State, and Society
Chapter 7. The Postcolony: Sacred Sites and Saddles
Chapter 8. Recognition: A Space of Difference?


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Region, Position, and Ethics of Representation

This book is about relationships between indigenous and nonindigenous people in Australia at different points in time and especially about "differences" as detectable and active in those relationships. I take differences to be identifiable forms of being in common, together with some sense of commonly shared values, that contrast with other forms similarly held in common by "others." The aim in each following chapter is to explore kinds of difference and the extent to which difference has served as a mode or pathway of engagement or a delimiting boundary, in the first place between indigenous and nonindigenous actors but subsequently in ways that make those categories more complex and more directly contested. The book's aim is not to examine "culture/s" as if entirely separate but to examine what we understand as cultural by considering difference in indigenous-nonindigenous engagement and its implications. I have found it plausible and indeed illuminating to consider differences over long time spans, so the material in this book moves between moments of early indigenous-nonindigenous encounter and the present.

Many nonindigenous people in southern Australia say that they infrequently meet and do not know any indigenous people. That this is possible is some indication of the relatively peripheral position and small proportion of indigenous people and communities in urban and especially southeastern Australia. Like many who set out to do research with indigenous communities, my intention on coming to Australia was to go north, where indigenous people constitute a much larger proportion of the population and it is unlikely that one would not "see" them. Seeing is different from getting to know, and in this Preface I set out the conditions in which I came to know Australia's north and became involved in the indigenous-nonindigenous relations this book explores.

The book is concerned with historicity but is also ethnographic, based partly on my own ethnographic research, as well as on my search to win ethnographic insights from historical material. The link between ethnography and analysis in the book raises two issues that need to be addressed here. The first is what is nowadays often called in the human sciences "positionality"—the call for us as researchers and authors to reflect on our own position in relation to the people we write about, focusing on issues of relative privilege and our ethical responsibility to avoid exploitative research. The other is the matter of "relationship." The book is about indigenous-nonindigenous relationships, and this account focuses on relationships I came to have with indigenous people and communities over time.

I came from the United States in 1976 to take up a three-year research fellowship in the Top End of the Northern Territory of Australia. I had never been in Australia before. What made me think I could arrive and do this kind of research? I had some personal preparation and inclination. As a child I had spent periods of time in North American Indian communities in which Indians were the majority, and as a Ph.D. student I had done research in communities where relations between Indians and outsiders were marked by a high degree of physical and social separation, but influences from dominant North American society were also pervasive. Both of these things are true of northern Australia too. There had been in my family history some relationships with indigenous people in northern New Mexico where I was born, and I felt a continuing interest in those Native American settings that seemed as interesting as others I knew, including that of the first-generation Italian immigrants in Brooklyn on my father's side of the family with whom I also spent much of my childhood. I cannot, however, recall any personal feeling of nostalgia for traditional lifeworlds other than the ones I found around me (cf. Rosaldo 1989). But I did have a sense from early on of different social milieus, their uprooting and reconfiguration. At the time I set out for northern Australia, I had few specific preconceptions about what life would be like there or the character of relationships between indigenous and nonindigenous people. An entire framework of supported academic research made it all possible.

I had applied for and been granted a research fellowship from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies in Canberra, the national capital, to investigate the changing locations and languages of indigenous people in an area of considerable social diversity, three hundred kilometers southeast of Darwin, the Northern Territory's capital. The town of Katherine was the supply center and focus of the region for both indigenous and nonindigenous people, inhabited by about five thousand people when I arrived. A number of Aborigines in the town had long lived there, but they had become a minority among the Aboriginal population as new arrivals came in and stayed, mostly on the town's fringes. Several hundred Aboriginal people were camping on the fringes, many of them recently displaced by changes in the conditions of rural work. Some of these communities were expelled by pastoralists and/or fragmented as Aboriginal people came to be more fully included in an economy of government welfare benefits.

Unknown to me, changes were being set in train in the relations between Aboriginal people and other Australians that were to shape much of my activity for years to come. The biggest was the Australian Parliament passing the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act in 1976, enabling Aboriginal people to claim traditional ownership of territory they regarded as theirs. This law was the product of years of activism by and on behalf of indigenous people, mainly taking place in Australia's urban centers but imaginatively stimulated by remote Australia. Land rights were politically possible on a large scale only in the Northern Territory because as a territory rather than a state it was under the direct control and jurisdiction of the federal government. By the 1970s federal government endorsement of land rights was bipartisan (unlike in the Northern Territory itself, where there was widespread opposition among the non-Aboriginal people who by then composed a majority of the population there).

From Katherine, I also became familiar and lived in some outlying indigenous communities, two of which especially figure in following chapters: Barunga, seventy kilometers southeast of Katherine on the Central Arnhem Road (then largely unpaved, now paved); and Jilgmirn.gan (locally usually spelled Jilkminggan) on Elsey Station about 114 kilometers south and east of Katherine on the Roper Highway. A range of other towns, town fringe camps, stations (ranches), and other locations interconnected with these were all places I spent time, partly because interlinked kindreds whom I came to know lived in a range of different places (see Figure 1). Communities like Barunga (and Beswick to the northeast) had been established or reconfigured in the postwar period, with the administrative intention that Aboriginal people could be contained there and kept away from town. Others like Jilgmirn.gan on Elsey were long-term station communities, places of settlement reconfigured on pastoral properties where Aboriginal people were living on small excision areas of the homelands of at least some members of the community. Many of these station communities had been much larger until around the time of implementation of the minimum wage, phased in from 1966 to 1968, when they were turned off many of those properties or discouraged from living there. The new conditions meant that pastoralists were unwilling to accept the continuing residence of numbers of indigenous people. Indigenous camps on some stations were now greatly reduced or only seasonally occupied. Others like Jilgmirn.gan on Elsey—not too far from the small town of Mataranka (about thirty kilometers), in the homeland of most camp residents and familiar to others married in or present for other reasons—continued to hold their populations.

I received mixed but generally welcoming treatment from indigenous people in the various living situations I got to know, through links of kinship and shared experience among members of the various camps and settlements. My becoming "adopted" shortly after my arrival as a "granddaughter" to two principal women in two different camps in Katherine provided a framework and transferrable elements of recognizability for my receptions elsewhere; this, I came to understand, was the genius of indigenous regionalism, its network-like character and tensile strength (Chapter 5). These elements structured the kin identity I could be assigned in new locations and, on a personal level, my reception by particular people. My hosts and their families welcomed my interest in where they had come from, their languages, their connections to home territories. Many spent considerable time involving themselves in our shared travels, recordings of language, biographical, and story material of all kinds. In part, this was because some people (of those who had been displaced) harbored desires to return to where they had come from, but not all did. Nor did all see the recording of this material as something relevant to the future of their own families and people: "It will be good for white people, not for my family," one man memorably said. Alongside these research concerns I became very involved with how indigenous people were managing in their present, and in this we made considerable common cause.

I spent at least two years (1976-78) in the north before the Northern Land Council asked me to be involved in a land claim over a spectacular national park, the site of Katherine Gorge and River, considered by local (nonindigenous) townspeople to be the premier attraction of the Katherine region, and a centerpiece of the regional economy. I therefore had a clear idea how contentious this case would be. Nonindigenous townspeople were worried that indigenous ownership of the park would exclude them. They were worried about the effect on tourism. No favorable public view had yet formed concerning the possible tourist values of indigenous presence and ownership; that was to come only later.

The people I was getting to know had been enormously changed by colonization, from around the 1880s, when gold mining began around Pine Creek (and with lesser intensity, near the growing town of Katherine) and pastoral properties (ranches) were taken up and stocked where environmental conditions seemed favorable (and even where they did not, leading to repeated failures). Indigenous people had moved to these places of settler colonial occupation—mines, towns, pastoral stations. As well, they had been subject to large-scale exterminatory violence arising from settler occupation during what many older indigenous people recalled as "killing times," or sometimes "wild times." Indigenous people who "came in" to pastoral properties from the colonially appropriated bush remade their lives there but were affected by continuing violence, disease, and eventually, by concentration in army camps during the Second World War.

These experiences gave rise to differences among indigenous people in their relations among themselves and in their relations to white people. Those who had lived as the labor force on (especially larger, continuous) pastoral properties tended to have a greater sense of cohesion among themselves (a context of parts of Chapters 5 and 6) and had found white bosses to whose predictable expectations they had learned to accommodate; while those who had lived in the mining fields tended to have experienced continuing exposure to volatile and changing work regimes, substance abuse (opium, methylated spirits, alcohol), and sexual exploitation (Chapter 6). Somewhat different kinds of personalities were to be found within these sets of people.

After World War II, some resided in the government settlements or communities established to contain them, others returned to outlying pastoral properties whence they had come, and still others, often illicitly, lived on the fringes of regional towns. There was movement among all these locations in Aboriginal walkabouts, which became ever less common. Aboriginal presence around towns was prohibited to all but officially employed Aborigines until 1948. Alcohol was prohibited to them until 1964, and paternalistic employment situations of low or no wages, with some keep, were common until 1968. Their influx into regional towns began as nationwide union activism resulted in the implementation of a minimum wage. Pastoralists had warned that wage parity would result in Aboriginal people being turned off cattle stations. Exploitation of indigenous labor, according to Patrick Wolfe (1999:27), was a "contradiction, rather than an inherent component" of replacive and tendentially eliminatory settler colonialism (although see McGrath 1987 for an important qualification to this view). Indeed, pastoralists rapidly replaced indigenous labor with technologies; as well, they began to employ indigenous workers casually.

The nonindigenous people of Katherine had made little or no provision for the fringe-dwelling Aborigines, and, with few exceptions, they repudiated the fringe dwellers for being who they were and for the squalor of their conditions. Many indigenous people in the postwar settlements built to contain them had nevertheless begun to orient more regularly toward towns as sources of supply and because of the increasing Aboriginal social intensity there. Administrative moves began to gain tenure for camps and to give the residents basic services. Their increasing access to cash (wages and the monetization of welfare) and the removal of controls on their access to alcohol in 1964 had contributed to their becoming a troubling presence in town. Legal purchase of alcohol had been symbolically coded by some Aborigines as achieved "citizenship" (see Sansom 1980), but alcohol undoubtedly became an enormous medical and social burden on Aboriginal people and communities, and it has remained so. The nonindigenous town's negative image of Aborigines as fringe dwellers contrasted with more romantic and traditional imagery prevalent in urban Australia. Northern white Australians, on the other hand, felt their understanding of northern conditions to be far superior to that of nescient southerners. The prospect of "traditional ownership" of the beautiful Katherine Gorge national park, as far as most townspeople were concerned, was incompatible with the region's developed tourism. Aboriginal ownership would only impede tourism, and their presence would spoil town amenity.

As I spent most of my time with Aboriginal people living around the town, camping in fringe locations, I noticed many things that have stayed with me ever since. Most obvious was the woefulness of their fringe-camp living conditions. Indigenous people were vulnerable to exploitation. Shortly after I arrived, a woman limped into a fringe camp where I had become a regular visitor and part-time resident some kilometers out of town. She needed to recuperate from having been abducted (evidently lured with alcohol), driven away, and raped by several white workers who were haunting Aboriginal camps for just such purposes. The woman was concerned with recovering and with the rage and retaliation (against herself) that she feared from her husband. I notified a recently appointed community affairs officer in Canberra to try to bring about an investigation of this event and others like it. The victim declared that she did not want police involvement, but I soon received a letter stating that investigation would require certain kinds of evidence and witnesses and asking if we could provide them. Alcohol consumption in almost all cases like this contributed to a general moral alarm in such towns and supplied a reason for blaming the victims.

Further, an Aboriginal family living in town with whom I spent a great deal of time ducked their heads, or otherwise took evasive measures, at the sight of police, no matter whether we were sitting in the open outside their house as they frequently preferred to do or just walking or driving around in my car, doing nothing at all that would normally be considered suspicious. "Yinyigben, yinyigben" (police, police), the older people would hiss to others in Wardaman, the language of this kindred, and everyone knew that meant: Duck! A long, remembered history of interaction was reflected in their behavior. There was little sense among them that the police might be helpful, although that feeling has changed to some extent since then.

As my involvement developed in conveying information about land claims to indigenous people, or attending while it was being conveyed, I saw that there was an enormous gulf of incomprehension between information givers and supposed receivers (see Thiele 1982; Merlan 1995; Cowlishaw 1999). None of the institutions or motives involved in the process was initially at all familiar to most Aboriginal people. It was not (simply) a matter of language but a mutual lack of institutional familiarity and a dearth of meanings that could be exchanged between people who had limited fluency with each other's everyday and imaginative worlds. The situation was paradoxical: while older Aboriginal people were among those most likely to know something about land areas that might be claimed in terms contained in the Land Rights Act, they were the least likely to understand why representatives of the Land Council and others were now coming to talk to them about these things. Many had never spoken to outsiders about the kind of mythological and sociological information that was required to pursue claims; they even regarded some of it as not to be widely disseminated (Michaels 1985), and they were understandably nonplussed by, and sometimes mistrustful of, outsiders' intentions. They also had, at first, little sense of what kind of information would help them in their claims. How could they intuit what had been consolidated as expert understanding and was now required as proof of relationships to land they might claim? They often said things that would be decidedly unhelpful, and some were concerned that with proof of their ownership they would be made to go back to where they came from. In addition, many had only limited knowledge of the places under claim. Such information was not evenly distributed among them (Chapter 7).

Some of the Aboriginal people, especially around town, wished to claim areas where they were now living, so that they could carry on with their lives as they were. Yet the Northern Land Council was encouraging them to make much wider claims. The wishes that such people expressed were negatively evaluated, dismissed, or subordinated by the Northern Land Council's grander sense of the opportunities.

It has taken some time for me to comprehend that scene. I first felt satisfaction that this transition, from complete dispossession to the possibility of repossession, had occurred. But then I noticed that the Northern Land Council had little feel for the actual effects, on people's current outlooks, of the violent and dislocating histories that many had experienced either directly or as survivor generations of earlier colonization. The Land Council expected these dispossessed people to be involved in making the claims that the legislation and the Land Council were now enabling, but the process to which the dispossessed were being brought was unfamiliar, and the wider national negotiations over indigenous-nonindigenous relationships were unknown to most of the former.

I subsequently reflected on these mismatches between the authorities pursuing land rights and the people that they were established to help. The topics of these papers ranged from increasing indigenous awareness and use of money in the context of generalized kin relatedness (Merlan 1991b) to the question of their participation in land claims (Merlan 1995). My 1998 book Caging the Rainbow suggested that the entire land claims process might be best interpreted as attempted governmental mimicry of what had become understood, through legal precedents and anthropological involvement, as "traditional" forms of indigenous relationship to land. Aborigines were then expected to reproduce evidence of these forms of relationship in order, belatedly, to reclaim country from which their forebears had been dispossessed. Claimants could win cases if they could demonstrate their traditionality, thus both benefiting from policy and reinforcing their distinct status; while those who could not meet criteria of traditionality could neither win cases nor change the disadvantaged and prejudicial condition in which they lived.

In particular, I have been vexed that the indigenous people with the longest-term attachment to the area of Katherine town were considered by relevant authorities, legal representatives, and others to be a liability to the land claim because they no longer lived their relationship to the town in the expected traditional modalities of myth and dreaming and associated embodied relationship to places. History was not supposed to have occurred in order for claims under the Northern Territory Land Rights Act to be successful. Guided by the statutory requirements, my land claim research showed that these were people who had formerly been of the Katherine area in terms of long-term connection and validating mythic identity. Their attachment, though changing in character over time, was why they were still there. However, the impact of settler appropriation was that they were largely unaware of many of the elements of their past that would have allowed them to be identified as its long-standing occupants. Written records and stories serendipitously recorded from their elder relatives by a locally residing agronomist and by a passing anthropologist (Arndt 1962; Reay n.d.) attested their long-standing occupation of the Katherine town area. However, circumstances had changed their collective memory and store of information, and they had become townspeople of a (marginalized, disadvantaged, racialized) sort. They did not match expectations of the new land claims dispensation, despite their own strong sense of relationship and homely belonging to the town. An impatient senior barrister, acting for the Katherine land claim, had dismissed them as a "cancer" on the case. Such selective recognition of indigenous claims has become known as "repressive authenticity."

This situation brought home to me that we cannot expect successful land claims to heal all the injuries of dispossession. The terms on which claims were to be made were unavailable to many. To satisfy the enormous machinery of administration and governance required to restore land ownership many of the Aboriginal people I knew in the 1970s had had to reorient their lives away from the bush, toward town and community where they lived an increasingly cash- and store-dependent life. While their aspirations to claim land grew as they came to understand what was possible, claiming land was only one concern in their lives. The intensity of emphasis on claiming land seemed to be a symptom of a much larger mismatch in indigenous-nonindigenous relationships (Merlan 2007). Land rights, like the current "Recognise" initiative, which figures in my Introduction and Chapter 8, has been a settler preoccupation, and this requires interpretation.

I nevertheless went on to be involved in as many claims as I could manage in the region I knew well, on the basis that here, at least, was some provision for indigenous futures. Was this a good choice? The processes have indeed resulted in the return to Aboriginal landholders of large areas of otherwise vacant Crown land. The resulting changes have not necessarily included clear improvements in life conditions broadly understood. The claims era has left in its wake many landholding groups, many institutions (governmental and otherwise) that have responsibilities for looking after and managing the affairs of such groups, and related business groups and arms. Government policy has encouraged indigenous people to form corporations) through which they could interact with the formal and informal institutions of Australian society. The Aboriginal people who provided the information and experience that helped to win land claims were made signal members of corporations, but their inclusion was often titular rather than empowering, in my experience. These corporations are now staffed and led by younger people with different, and usually less intensive and extensive, experience of country.

Observing this transition over almost forty years, I have been led to write this book and to explore what we may understand as cultural that persists in circumstances of radical change and how differences change and emerge.