issue 186 - August 1988
Giant Jigsaw Puzzle
Native peoples everywhere have a profound spiritual attachment to the land
and to the natural world. The animals, the insects and even the landforms are a
source of meaning and a guide to living. In Alice Springs, Wayne Ellwood
asked Australian Aboriginal activist Pat Dodson to describe
his people's complex relationship to the land.
We've been trying to tell white Australia for 200 years what the land means to Aboriginal people. And it hasn't been easy. A Western person looks at land and asks the price. What can be developed on it and how fast?
We see things differently. Our life comes from the land; it can't simply be exploited as a commodity. It's more like a mother, a nurturing source; it provides the intelligence for why I exist and who I am. It provides me with the reasons for the way I behave, the way I live. Our songs, dances and ceremonies, even the tensions or cooperation between tribal groups, are all interconnected with the dreaming paths.'¹
From an Aborigine perspective Australia is a giant jigsaw puzzle. On each piece there is a group that has custody and responsibility for songs and dance and caring for the sacred sites. You interconnect with those groups through specific protocols. And you can't transgress those; you can't cross tribal boundaries unless you abide by those rules. That's why we find it difficult to relate to Western notions of private ownership, of boundary fences and of development at all costs.
We are born into an extended family which can cover a vast geographical area. If I am from Arnhem Land in the north I may be related to different language groups thousands of kilometres away. That means I have responsibilities and rights in distant lands even though technically the country belongs to another tribe.
Our connection with a specific area is based in what we call the Law. By that we mean Aboriginal law: our spirituality, our songs and teachings are connected to the secrets of initiation and to the education of young people to adulthood. They are related and you have to learn all these disciplines over a period of years.
Elders teach you but the knowledge is also imbedded in the landforms. It emanates from the land. Law governs and regulates behaviour between individuals, groups and the land. Traditionally disputes, arguments and disagreement were subject to our Law - there was an attempt to work things out through consensus and counselling. But when that failed, punishment could be swift and effective.
The sea, hills, grass, wind, clouds, trees, birds, insects and rivers all speak a meaning that helps unravel the mystery of creation and existence. As human beings we stand in the middle and are essential to all things. In traditional Aboriginal society no one person was more important than another - all were parts of a whole. Growth and stature were measured by contribution, participation, responsibility and accountability.
These things are integrated with the Law, the community and the land. It's a complex interwoven tapestry of meaning. You don't have that in Western society. Your value is in terms of what you can make, the number of degrees you've got or how much you own.
Once our people were robbed of their land they were subject to deliberate policies of extermination and assimilation; they were put into settlements and missions and forced to adopt the values of Western society. Thank heavens that failed but it's also left us either marginalized or totally frustrated and angry with white society.
It's also produced a strong survival instinct among Aboriginal people. In spite of the atrocities we have survived. We've survived the kidnapping of children from their mothers into missions that were really more like concentration camps. We've survived the courts and the number of deaths occurring in prisons. We've physically survived. But more importantly we've been able to maintain our cultural and spiritual links with the land.
When the whites first came here they used the Latin phrase terra nullius to describe the land. That meant that it was empty, unused. They knocked down the trees and blasted our sacred places. They fenced off the best water for their cattle. When we resisted they shot and poisoned us. They still say they know more than we do about our land and what we want and need. They say it is important to fence it, to graze it, to mine it.
Now the government says: 'you prove that you have always owned the land and we'll give it back to you.' They want us to be grateful but according to black laws land cannot be given or taken away. We belong to the land; our birth does not sever the cord of life which comes from the land - our spirituality, our culture and our social life depend on it.
We reject the notion that there is a dominant society that will overtake ours. What we want is recognition from white Australia of the right to exist as Aboriginal people. We want to have the right to land and to our cultural traditions. We want to contribute, to participate in the broader society but we want to do that without being continually undermined and assaulted.
We're not talking about living in a stone-age environment; we know we live in the modern era when someone in America can press a button and blow the whole world apart. We understand that we are participants in the broader society, in its economy and in its political structure.
It's very difficult for white people to understand our ways. There's so much inbuilt bias and prejudice but I think we've got to move towards reconciliation otherwise there's going to be an absolute disaster in Australia. If white Australians really want to understand us then we are prepared to show them our special affinity with this land. Through that sharing we might come to a better meeting of our minds and our hearts about how we should live together in a far more equitable way.
We are trying to create our own economic base so we don't have to rely on government handouts. But our negotiations with the mining companies must be on an equal footing if it is our land. The constant threat is to remove our legal rights so governments and companies don't have to negotiate with us. Our great challenge is trying to find structures in the commercial area and in the political area to manage our own affairs.
We also believe white people have things to learn from us. Our extended family relationships may be an antidote to the nuclear family which leaves so many people out in the cold. And we believe in sharing so that no one goes hungry and no one starves. That's not communist; that's a part of Aboriginal society.
We also have strong democratic traditions of everyone being able to have a say. If a long time is needed to discuss something we take a long time. We have a consensual approach, not a dictatorial one. We also believe in conserving the environment not exploiting it.
The industrial nations don't share those values but their values are leading us to total destruction. We've got to find alternative principles if humanity is to survive.
Pat Dodson is Director of the Central Land Council, an organization representing 75 Aboriginal traditional, tribal land owners throughout central Australia.
1. 'Dreamtime' is as Aboriginal term used to describe the period when divine powers created the earth.