Sunday, December 28, 2008

Sunday Essay - academic research and indigenous ownership

During the last week or so I have spent some time browsing around trying to fill some gaps in my knowledge of the distribution of Aboriginal language groups in New England. I had downloaded some of my posts with the thought that I might actually be able to write a properly referenced paper.

Looking at the material I had written, the main thing that stood out were the gaps.

I am very nervous about writing in this area in part because I don't always know about the most recent work. There is a real problem for those of us researching from home because so much of the academic material is behind pay-walls. This is fine for those in university environments who can access material through university library subscriptions, but I cannot afford to pay out cash to access individual items unless I know that the item in question is absolutely critical. And in most cases I don't know this until I have read the article. Sort of a chicken and egg problem.

I am also nervous because the question of the distribution of languages and people is now bound up with ownership questions.

I have no real problem with the modern habit of paying tribute to the traditional owners of the land, although I find it sometimes ritualistic. But who were the owners?

At one level, this should not matter.

Traditional Aboriginal life was structured very differently from conventional models built into current thinking, with family groups aggregating to larger clans or hordes linked on kinship lines that then aggregated into language groups.

Professor Peter Austin notes that the southern two thirds of Australia plus eastern Arnhem Land belonged to a single language family called Pam-Nyungan. Within this, there were a multiplicity of languages that shaded into each other.    

From a historical viewpoint, languages and relationships between languages are interesting because of the clues they can provide to the changing pattern of Aboriginal history.

Much has been lost. So far as New England is concerned, the 1970s stand out in some ways as the last lost opportunity.

Peter Austin's short history of research into the Gamilaraay (Kamilaroi) language from New England's Western Slopes and Plains records that the Late Stephen Wurm visited and collected some material in 1955. At the time there was one fluent speaker, a small number of others with a reasonable knowledge of the language.

Professor Austin also quotes Arthur Capell, someone who had been working in the indigenous language area since at least 1945. In 1963, Capell wrote of the Gamilaraay:

The speakers are mostly elderly but possess considerable knowledge. SAW has recorded some 300-500 items and a fair amount of structural information, along with 12 minutes of tape recording. Up to 50 speakers have been located, Gamilaroi is one of a number of related dialects in NW N.S.W. and a comparative study of the whole series of dialects might well be made.    

Nothing appears to have been done. By the time Professor Austin began his studies in the 1980s these speakers had been lost. The language has gone through a form of revival, but while a revived language may be important in cultural terms, it is not the same as the original.

Despite the lost opportunity, and this is not unique to the Gamilaraay/ Kamilaroi, the earlier work on languages can still tell us a lot in combination with other things. Yet this brings us to the ownership problem that I alluded to earlier.

The question of ownership has become very important because traditional ownership now carries with it questions of rights, power and prestige that can lead to serious conflict, claim and counter claim between and within communities.

Traditional indigenous structures means that there is no clear correlation between ownership then and our current concepts of ownership. Take, as an example, the ritual phrase used in central Sydney - "We acknowledge the Gadigal Clan of the Eora Nation who are the traditional owners of the land on which  ...". There are variants, but this is pretty typical.

Leave aside questions such as what is a clan, what is a nation, where did ownership actually rest? At least everybody seems to broadly agree on territory in this case.

But given that "ownership" can now carry with it questions of rights, powers and prestige, what do you do when there is conflict over ownership?

This creates a problem for me as a historian trying to understand, because what I write may upset people and become cannon fodder in local disputes. It is sad but I think true that a fair bit of recent historical and archaeological research has been carried out not in pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, but in support of or even opposition to claims about rights.

I have tiptoed around this issue for a while. I think that it's time to place it front and centre. We have a mess.

The actions of various Government institutions pushed different Aboriginal groups together, damaging or even destroying traditional kin relationships. We failed to carry out the research at the time that might have helped us resolve some of the complex relationship questions.

More recently, we have created structures that have made the issue of belonging and ownership very important. So far as NSW is concerned, State and Federal economic policies have encouraged rural population loss. While this affects all, Aboriginal in-migration has led to further mixing.

Many NSW Aboriginal communities are riven with tensions between families, between originals and new arrivals, between groups with rival claims. The LALCS (Local Aboriginal Land Councils) control certain lands, but who controls (or should control) the LALCS? The very question of Aboriginality is a growing issue. Are we going to introduce DNA testing to establish who is entitled to what? Some indigenous people think that we should.

Just to make the point a little further, let me quote from an email I received. I have disguised the places.

The community in blank has a shocking name for not working together that has spread around the country. While working in another blank, the Elders group informed me that I was up against a rock and hard place working with them - they don't have any communication with the blank mob but keep to relatives who leave blank and come to visit them ..

Or to paraphrase a report from another place. I say paraphrase because I do not have the original.

They (the new arrivals) do not recognise the Elders. There is no respect. We have tried to teach our children this (respect), to get them to go to school, to work hard The new arrivals destroy all this.

Again, another disguised quote:

There is a constant running debate about tribal boundaries in and around blank. The blank mob claim it as theirs - they descend from (name omitted). The blank family are from another blank and have control of the local LALC (why are they still voted in?)

My point in all this is one that I have made before, we need to spend more time disentangling issues, more time getting information, more time asking questions, more time focused on the variety in indigenous conditions, less time arguing fixed positions.

In all this, we need to focus also on the positives. To quote from a paper written by Maria Lane just before her death, one element in a series of posts that Joe Lane and I were talking about:

In 2007, a record 9,370 Indigenous students were enrolled at universities around the country.  This represented a forty per cent increase in award-level enrolments in ten years, a healthy average increase of close to four per cent per year.   The increase in enrolments in higher-level courses has been even greater.  Almost two-thirds of Indigenous students enrolled were female and, in fact, a higher proportion of Indigenous women were enrolled at universities in 2007 than non-Indigenous ‘domestic’ men.    These figures are set to rise markedly by 2020.

Remember, in 1965 there were just two indigenous university graduates.

Despite the problems and tensions, I will continue with my research if only because I want to understand. However, I would plead for more rigour and less emotion, less special pleading, in our discussion on indigenous issues. 


Lexcen said...

Jim, very interesting analysis. You have captured the core of the problem. So how do we go about dealing with a stone age culture? How do we understand a stone age mentality? Westerners are so far removed from what we a confronted with that labels, categories, definitions and concepts familiar to us are useless when applied to aborigines. I doubt that this cultural gap can be bridged with mere attempts at understanding this other culture. The aboriginal culture is inextricably associated with the aboriginal lifestyle. Can such a culture exist without the lifestyle? Can such a culture continue to sustain it's integrity when divorced from the lifestyle. I doubt it.

niar said...

dear Jim,
sorry for cannot visit yor blog recently.
I have moved to the Jakarta right now.
But I want to attempt to always writing and read your article.
keep writing Jim

Jim Belshaw said...

Lexcen, it is always hard to understand a culture alien from our own, stone age or other. It is harder still where that culture has evolved in response to external forces that we may not understand either.

I do not think that a stone age culture as such can survive, but then this decision was really taken some time ago when the last Aborigines living a hunter-gatherer life left the desert.

Ending of a stone age culture does not mean the end of all aspects of that culture. Native foods may still be gathered, kin-ship systems and language may still continue. Culture evolves, combining new and old elements.

One of the difficulties that arises in these situations is the way evolving culture or cultures reflect external factors.

To a degree, the very concept of Aboriginality itself has been defined through interaction between the dominant settler culture and indigenous responses. "Aboriginality" as such did not exist in 1788 - it evolved.

The process of cultural evolution is quite complicated and, I think, poorly addressed in current discussion. All minorities, and this includes some of my own responses because I too come from a minority Australian group, define themselves in part by comparison to the majority. To be a minority is automatically them and us.

Part of my continuing argument in the context of the Aborigines is the need to drop below those labels that have become stereotypes (and these labels in themselves become cultural factors)to understand the nature of the differences beneath. Dear me, I feel another post coming on!

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Niar and thanks. Good luck in Jakarta. If you are like me when I left home, you will find it both alien and exciting.

Do write about your experiences. I for one would love to learn more.