UCFORUM subscriber: Rev Dr Lorraine Parkinson has written this article for the the UCFORUM. It is a case for looking at the First Peoples with a much wider camera lens than is usually the case. She hopes it will make a positive contribution to the conversation around the Voice and the forthcoming referendum.
It is fair comment that history is written by the winners. Until recently the authors of Australian history from Captain James Cook onward may well have been described as such. Harvard philosopher George Santayana’s adage: “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”, bears repeating. As this nation prepares to vote yes or no to the proposal to include the Indigenous Voice in the Constitution, Santayana’s axiom begs the question: are there lessons of history from which modern Australia is still failing to learn? Where the original inhabitants of this continent are concerned, the problem may lie partially in the absence of historical records that could have been understood as such. Before the arrival of Captain James Cook and his compatriots, apart from the odd European or Asian encounter with indigenous people, the continent of now-called Australia had not produced what in European minds could be called recorded history. Ancient indigenous laws, art, song lines, dreaming stories, handed down traditions of daily life, could all be called a kind of history, as they speak of a mind-blowingly ancient civilization. But who ruled it? Where were records of the boundaries of tribes and indigenous nations? What milestone developments had taken place in the lives of the people? Eurocentric questions, one and all.
Non-indigenous modern Australians may think, so what? The culture of the First Peoples is now known in sufficient detail to inform us of their lifestyle, including their deep relationship with the land. Yet what has been regarded as ‘real’ Australian history taught in Australian schools, has until recently always begun with Cook and continued on through white explorers, federation and Australian involvement in overseas wars. Attempts to include the First People’s story in the school curriculum are usually framed by lessons in culture, perhaps tribal and familial structures, some attention to traditional languages and, mainly for young children, spiritual resources such as ‘dreaming’ stories. A didgeridoo player and indigenous dancers at public events, plus ‘acknowledgment of country’, are widely thought to be all-sufficient means of ‘paying respect’. It is true that those developments are helping to bring Australia’s First People into sharper focus in the minds of contemporary Australians. But surviving indigenous traditions differ from perceived ‘legitimate’ European history, where records of monarchs and their conflicts mark the shifting boundaries of tribes and nations.
The historical records of the colony that became Australia reveal that in the first encounters between First Peoples and white colonists, the prevailing European mindset could do no other than come to a comprehensively misguided perception. For them, the lack of any sign of property ownership among the indigenous people meant the absence of civilisation as they knew it. In their minds that left the way wide open to the complete (often deadly violent) appropriation of the whole continent. As the indigenous people did not have ‘ownership’ of anything, particularly of tracts of land, it was believed to be legitimate to declare the land empty – terra nullius.
Or so they thought. There was no attempt to ask questions about the nature of the land itself and how the First People had regarded it in the absence of those Eurocentric property-based signs of civilisation. The people were dismissed as primitive; apparently not worth the bother of investigating. Only very recently have shameful massacres of indigenous people been included in Australian History. Nowhere have the heroic efforts of indigenous warriors to defend their land in Australian wars been properly documented. For those who survived the savagery of the colonists, the future was enforced deportation from their ancestral country into open-air prisons, otherwise known as reservations and missions. That there still exist traditional customs, paintings and memories among Australia’s dispossessed people, brutally separated from the land that gave birth to those traditions, is nothing short of miraculous. Yet those ancient traditions are now in danger of extinction, under the influence of racist-based alcohol-induced hopelessness in the current generations. The disappearance of indigenous languages spoken under the southern skies for millennia is hardly disturbing the flow of modern Australian history.
Yet some understanding, or at least curiosity about the way of life the explorers and colonists found among the First People, must surely have begun with the first attempts to establish a European-style civilisation in the new land. That process required absolutely everything apart from rocks, trees and water, to be brought across the sea. Ship-loads of everything needed to set up farms and villages and towns had to be imported. Ways of producing food for the settlements were invariably copied from the ‘mother’ country. In the first instance, everyone knew that a farm has domestic farm animals – the cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and chickens needed to establish and resource permanent dwellings and settlements. No such creatures had been sighted by the earliest discoverers of the Great South Land. Neither had they seen evidence of crops grown from grains such as wheat, oats, barley, rice, corn. Nor were there potatoes, pumpkins, peas, beans, turnips, tomatoes, apples, plums, apricots, peaches, pears and so on. All needed to be brought here.
Most importantly, how could the land be cleared for the introduced grazing animals and ploughed for crops, without the most important animal of all – the horse, or even a bullock or donkey? Other continents had those, plus camels, elephants, llamas or alpacas. There were no draught animals anywhere on the Great South Land. Climbing aboard a kangaroo was out of the question, as was hitching a wagon to a dingo or a wombat. Without draught animals, inventing the wheel was unnecessary; unthinkable, to say the least of it. All of those foundation stones of European civilisation were highly conspicuous by their absence. So they all arrived on ship after ship, along with dogs, cats, rabbits, foxes, deer, trees such as elm and oak and the flowers of an English garden.
Apart from the work of a few anthropologists, it is unclear that while busily recreating Europe Down Under, any intentional investigation of the ancient way of life on the land was seriously entertained by successive Australian governments. Few people looked past the colonial perception of the First People as ‘primitive’, to ask how they lived without what the settlers regarded as essentials. Did anyone wonder how those colonists themselves might have lived without the resources they brought with them? If anyone did think to ask that, around them were people who could have answered such questions.
Recorded Australian history has a long way to go to reach a sense of completion in the 21st century. That can happen only when the unique and enduring alternative civilisation that has lived and thrived on the Great Southern Land for tens of thousands of years is held up and celebrated for its own achievements. Only then can an informed change in attitude truly overcome contemptuous inherited racist attitudes toward the First People. When their unique relationship with the land, expressed in daily life on it and deep spiritual understanding of it, is recognised and respected, then Australia can begin to wake from its more than two-hundred-years-old sleep.
For at least 60,000 years this continent has never been terra nullius. Beyond the understanding of the colonists, the first inhabitants of this land did have and still have, a comprehensive relationship with the plains, deserts, forests, mountains, lakes, rivers and coasts that provided them with all they needed to live and thrive as tribes and nations. Their knowledge of the seasons of flowering and fruiting trees and plants, of the inland and ocean waters, plus the migration patterns of animals and birds, undergirded a lifestyle of moving on to where food was plentiful as the seasons went by. For the most part a permanent dwelling was simply impracticable – out of the question.
Only lately have government departments begun to take real notice of the handed-down expertise of indigenous people in preventing big bushfires and conserving wildlife. How much more can be learned about caring for this unique continent from those who have always known it best? In this age of changing climate and its devastating effect on the land and its native animals and birds, the voice of the people of the land is sorely needed in the decisions of governments. An indigenous ‘Voice’ to Federal Parliament, enshrined in Australia’s Constitution, would be one positive step in the direction of equality in living and life expectations.
Devoid of the burden of racist attitudes inherited from the Eurocentric impressions of colonists, a movement toward a wider view of history can open the way to respect and reconciliation. The Uluru Statement from the Heart is an amazingly generous invitation from the First Peoples to all other Australians to join them on that journey to equality. Australian history will be complete when the whole nation gathers yearly to celebrate the unique civilisation that has lasted for 60,000 years on this Great South Land.