Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sunday Essay - language, history and Australia's First Peoples

Sue Stanton had a very good guest post on Bob Gosford's The Northern Myth blog dealing with the use of the word "Indigenous" to describe those descended from Australia's first settlers. This is something that has been of concern to me too. I don't really have an answer to the problem, except perhaps to suggest the term "First Peoples".

The word "Indigenous" is used in official circles because it covers both what are now called Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. For the benefit of international readers, the Torres Strait Islanders descend from those living on islands in the Torres Strait between the Australian mainland and what is now Papua New Guinea.

Aboriginal flag Both groups now have their own flag, the Aboriginal flag on the left, the Torres Strait Islander flag on the right.

Torres Strait Islanders or their descendants total around eight per cent of Australia's Indigenous population and resent being lumped in as Aboriginal. For their part, many Aborigines (at least in NSW) equally resent the use of the term Indigtorresenous because they see it as concealing their identity in what is their land.

This view is quite strongly held to the point that it can make writing difficult. At a personal level, I hadn't realised this until quite recently. I try to be careful with my use of English, and was in fact carefully using Indigenous without recognising that it could cause offence.

The terms "Aboriginal", "Indigenous" and "Torres Strait Islander" are of course labels. They would have had no meaning to those living in the past in what is now Australia. Like all labels, they acquire meanings that vary with time.

For a number of reasons, I have decided as much as possible to cease using the term "Indigenous". Not only is it offensive to many Aboriginal people, if you look at the Wikipedia article on Indigenous peoples, you can see how the term has acquired various overlays, overlays that make me uncomfortable. Instead, I plan (as indicated) to use the term Australia's First Peoples instead.

Why not the term "First Nations" as in Canada? To begin with, the concept of "nations' has no meaning in a traditional context. Equally importantly, the language groupings that existed at the time the Europeans arrived in Australia cannot, of themselves, be described as the First Nations. They were not. They were groupings that emerged over the vast history of human occupation of the Australian continent.

My refusal to use the term is quite different from the increasing popular use of the term nation.

We can see this use in the now customary welcome to country. For example:

The President (of the NSW Legislative Council) acknowledged the Gadigal clan of the Eora nation and its elders and thanked them for their custodianship of this land.

This is the best known welcome to country in Australia simply because the Gadigal occupied the territory of what is now central Sydney.

I used to have problems with welcome to country in general because I saw it as ritualistic, problems with the use of the word nation because of the lack of validity.

My position has changed through attendance at sessions where the focus is Aboriginal. That is, the welcome to country is by Aborigines for Aborigines. Here the welcome has meaning as part of a broader pattern. Further, if Aborigines want to use the word nation, then I see that as a current expression of culture and politics. I only object where the word is misapplied to the past, and then as a historian.

Turning now to the terms "Aboriginal" and "Torres Strait Islanders".

I am pretty comfortable with Torres Strait Islanders because it is a geographic term. There were variations in language and culture within Torres Strait, but the term still has meaning.

Aboriginal poses far more difficulties.

Within at least the NSW Aboriginal community, a common question is "which mob are you from?" When talking about themselves they do use the term Aboriginal, but equally often the colloquial usage is simply "black fellas" as compared to "white fellas". This can actually sound quite odd when the term is used by someone who looks as European as me.

The Aboriginal community itself is divided over the question of what constitutes Aboriginality. This holds in NSW, more so I think elsewhere where (as I understand it) those of full Aboriginal ancestry are deeply suspicious of those in the south of part Aboriginal ancestry who claim to be Aboriginal.

Part of the difficulty is that "Aboriginal" itself has very different meanings.

It is used as an ethnic descent marker in just the way I sometimes think of myself as Scottish. It is used as a collective noun to describe all those who are classified as Aboriginal. Indigenous is used in this sense too, with the addition of Torres Strait islanders. This flows across into policy - the term "Indigenous disadvantage" is an example. Then, too, it is used as a cultural descriptor. Aboriginal cultural awareness training is an example of this usage.

Three different usages, each carrying different connotations.

I have no problems with the use of the term as an ethnic descent marker. I see this usage as generally healthy because it attaches interest and pride to descent. 

I do have problems with the second usage, the collective noun.

I have argued quite consistently and indeed persistently that one should be careful of the use of the word Aboriginal in policy terms because it twists policy thinking towards uniformity of treatment when in fact policy should be based on recognition of difference. Bluntly, once something is classified as Aboriginal or Indigenous in policy terms it goes into a strange basket that almost certainly guarantees policy failure.

The third usage, the cultural descriptor, I find remarkably complicated.

Focusing just on NSW, there is no doubt that there is a modern Aboriginal culture. You see it in terms like bro, sister, auntie, uncle. You see it in the question which mob are you from. You see it in language: listen to an Aboriginal person talking to another Aboriginal person and the language changes. There are changes in cadence, words become shortened.

In Saturday Morning Musings - Aboriginal languages and the return of Kamilaroi, I spoke of my lack of linguistic skills in the context of traditional New England languages. The same actually applies to Aboriginal English today. This is partially a matter of discomfort. I am happy to be called bro, but I won't use the term in return, preferring mate. I am not Aboriginal, and feel in a peculiar way that it would be improper of me to do so. But it's also true that I don't have a good enough ear for sounds.

Working with Aboriginal people has not changed my core views formed over time out of study and thought. What it has done is to give me a much greater understanding of complexity and depth, a greater sensitivity.

Before going on, I want to repeat a few points that I have made before that I think are important in setting a context.

The moving frontier hit traditional Aboriginal life in waves that varied in time across the continent from 1788 until the 1960s when the last truly traditional Aboriginal people came out of the desert. That's a long time span.

The actual impact of that moving frontier was affected by Australia's different jurisdictions in a whole variety of sometimes very subtle ways.

As an example, NSW is not the same as Queensland. NSW policy towards the Aborigines was not the same as Queensland's. The experiences of Aboriginal peoples in both states was affected not just by frontier timing, but by the differing policies adopted in those states.

The modern Aboriginal culture in NSW is a sometimes uncomfortable amalgam of traditional life, sometimes more accurately perceived traditional life, with the accumulated experiences of Aboriginal peoples living under NSW law and policy. It has also been formed by the interaction between the Aborigines and the non-Aboriginal community. All of this creates a cycle that then feeds back into the evolving culture of Aboriginal NSW.

This post is in danger of moving into a much larger topic. Keeping strictly to the topic, the accurate use of language, if we are going to use the term Aboriginal as a cultural descriptor we have to be very careful as to the way we are using it.

The very fact that NSW existed as a separate jurisdiction created a clear NSW Aboriginal culture, something that did not previously exist. That culture is not uniform, nor is it necessarily the same as that holding in other places. In turn, the existence of national policies and legal structures has melded to some degree the cultures in different states or territories into a broader Australian Aboriginal culture. Again, I don't know what is in fact now common, what still different.

All this makes me very cautious about the way I use language.

There is actually some absolutely fascinating stuff here for an obsessive like me who starts from the local perspective. For the moment, I would like to finish with a few very simple points.

Australia has just finished NAIDOC week. To quote from the official NAIDOC web site:      

NAIDOC stands for the National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee. Its origins can be traced to the emergence of Aboriginal groups in the 1920s which sought to increase awareness in the wider community of the status and treatment of Indigenous Australians.

Today, NAIDOC is a celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and an opportunity to recognise the contributions of Indigenous Australians in various fields.

Activities take place across the nation during NAIDOC Week in the first full week of July. All Australians are encouraged to participate.

I fear that in the past NAIDOC has largely passed me by. Bluntly, I think that I saw it as another example of politically correct official thinking. This time contracting in an organisation with many Aboriginal people my reactions were very different. NAIDOC was very important to them, so had to be treated in a different light. This created another problem.

By nature I am a joiner. My first reaction to NAIDOC was to feel that I should join in. But then, and some of my Aboriginal colleagues may be surprised at this, I felt that I could not, that it would in some ways be wrong because I was not Aboriginal. I would be an interloper.

The reactions of Aboriginal people to non-Aboriginal people are quite complex.

I came outside one day for a smoke. I had been in a meeting where in my own limited way I had been fighting to protect what I saw as the Aboriginal position. The anger that I feel about well-intentioned failures, policy positions adopted for the best of reasons, sometimes actually impedes my ability to do things.

Anyway, I was sounding off. An Aboriginal colleague who had been involved in a different conversation essentially said that the area I was doing contract work in had too many whities, that it had to have Aboriginal people to do its job. Only Aboriginal people could understand Aborigines. I really got upset, almost reduced to tears I walked sharply away.

I know that the person in question is naturally blunt and did not mean quite what he said, I also understood his position, so later I apologised to him for my abrupt reaction. Still, it explains why I did not feel that I could participate in NAIDOC Week in the way I might have wanted to. Exclusion works both ways in explaining reactions.

On a more positive note, at a NAIDOC function that I did attend there was a slide show running of a school presentation from a North Coast area centred on the experiences of a particular family. The women who had arranged this was so excited. It was her family. She kept pointing to the screen saying that is my grandmother, my auntie, my cousin and so on. She also said that the kids from the community who attended the school got a great kick from seeing their story presented, at being at the centre of school attention.

I actually knew the area in question very well, so I found it very interesting.

There are a lot of problems with NSW Aboriginal young just at present, problems that worry their parents and broader families. Part of the difficulty lies in constant stereotyping, the constant attachment of negative images to words like Aboriginal. Here the Northern Territory intervention and subsequent policy responses has been something of disaster in its constant negative drag on attitudes within and to the Aboriginal community. The problem with stereotypes is that they can become self-fulfilling.

Again, this is moving into a broader issue. However, I will give one non-Aboriginal example, the changing attitudes towards Australia's Lebanese community. Community attitudes towards the Lebanese were over-whelmingly positive. That has become harder to sustain in the face of a constant drip-feed of negative, stereotyping stories. The Lebanese are not in fact one community, but all members suffer from the way in which attitudes and responses within and without become conditioned by perception.

Beyond being careful with my own use of language and argument, there is little that I can do to affect attitudes to or, for that matter, within the Aboriginal community broadly defined. However, and this is what I found so encouraging and interesting about the North Coast NAIDOC example I quoted, I and others like me can do a lot by focusing on the local and specific.

In my case, I guess, the best weapon I have is my research and writing.

In seeking to understand elements of the Aboriginal past as it applies at local or regional level, the Aborigines emerge not as Aborigines but as people and groups. Here my own obsessions can, I think, help by providing information that individuals can access for their own purposes.

It may sound odd, but I don't discuss my research or writing much with the Aboriginal people I know. There are very particular reasons for this, including my own uncertainty. However, I do like to think that (with time) the body of work will build to the point that it does serve a useful purpose.

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