This will be a funny, mixed up, personal post. I want to put a simple point, what I see as the emotional power of the indigenous connection.
I hate to admit it, but it is now 42 years since I started my honours thesis on the economic basis of traditional Aboriginal life in New England. By then, I had been on multiple survey missions and digs.
In retrospect, I was very lucky, because there were none of the emotional overlays that now exist. While I had an ethnohistoric focus because of the evidence I was using, my focus was traditional.
Some of my colleagues, Brian Harrison's pioneer thesis on the Myall Creek massacre is an example, were working on issues involving the European/Aboriginal interface. Again, I did not have a problem.
The facts were just that, facts. This was the first time that Europeans were tried for murdering Aborigines. Important in historical terms, but still facts.
I was interested in writing a history of New England. I thought that I should write the first part from an Aboriginal perspective, the invasion, then switch.
As a then avid science fiction reader interested in alternative history, I experimented with novel forms, trying to work out a scenario that would have seen the Aborigines create their own country. I struggled here.
One issue that I had to work out was just how the federated Aboriginal communities might integrate migrants, because it was clear that Aboriginal populations on their own were not large enough to survive in the face of European empires. The device I came up with was the formal adoption of migrants by specific Aboriginal tribes, so that every person in the Federated Nations had a tribal connection.
Soon after arriving in Canberra I started buying first editions of all the early texts, especially the anthropological studies, on the Aborigines. I loved the feel and the smell of the books, as well as the subject matter.
This actually created a bit of a problem for me just weeks ago when I saw Ten Canoes for the first time. I was so interested in what people did and how they did it that I tended to lose track of the story!
During this time I was also interested in Aboriginal art. At the same time I was also buying broader Australian art and books. One of my interests was the process of European adaptation to the landscape, to the Australian environment. I bought paintings and books that had a contextual link. Again, I saw no contradiction between my Aboriginal and broader historical interests.
Now how does all this link to my point in the heading to this post, the emotional power of the Aboriginal connection?
I think that very few Aborigines actually understand the emotional power of their history and connection to the landscape. This is a completely different issue from things such as ownership. Instead, it comes from a capacity to express landscape in a particular way.
I need to clarify this point because Neil in a comment (see below) misread me. I am not suggesting that the Aborigines do not understand their own connection with country. My point is that that they do, and that connection can have very strong resonance among those in the non-Aboriginal commmunity who also have a connection to country.
I am using the word country here in two different senses; one in the sense of the continent and nation, the second in the context of specific locations and areas.
It is, I think, no coincidence that it is Aboriginal painting that has become something that most Australians, at least those born here, can understand. Aboriginal painting has become part of our central culture because it is something that we can understand, to enjoy.
My argument to our indigenous people is that they need to turn some current arguments on their head. How do you reach out, to involve, to assimilate, the broader population?