Category Archives: Aborigines

Noble horses and ‘black monsters’: the politics of colonial compassion



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George Hamilton, Meeting natives on the Campaspi plains, Victoria, June 1836.
National Library of Australia

Jane Lydon, University of Western Australia

In 1866, Adelaide colonist George Hamilton published An Appeal for the Horse, arguing against the harsh treatment of animals. He claimed that in “treating [the horse] as a machine, [people] have forgotten the higher attributes of his nature, and considered only his bone and muscle”.

Hamilton was a trailblazer in challenging the cruel treatment of animals by humans. He loved horses better than many people, and frequently likened them to children, wives, or friends. Although Australian anti-cruelty laws were passed as early as 1837, more specific prohibitions against cruelty to animals were not introduced until the 1860s. Hamilton’s challenge to the boundary we have constructed between humans and animals anticipated considerable recent research that questions this divide.

In contrast, Hamilton’s compassion for Aboriginal people was conspicuously lacking. Empathy is always politicised, and emotional narratives such as Hamilton’s tell us whose lives are worthy of compassion and therefore valuable.

In 1839, on a journey droving 350 head of cattle from Port Philip to Adelaide, Hamilton had a tense confrontation with two Aboriginal men, in which he drew and cocked his pistol, ready to fire. The moment passed, and as he later explained:

Although it was my intention to fire upon my black relations, it was with no desire to kill them. No … they would have been merely winged, shot through the leg or arm, or in some place not vital.

Hamilton contrasted his willingness to harm, if not kill, Aboriginal people with what he saw as the hypocrisy of those “pious persons” who cared more about “ignorant pagan black monsters” than “their white brethren who are, from poverty, neglect and vicious teaching, fast falling into a savagedom far more frightful”. Like many at this time, he pitted the rights of Indigenous people against those of poor whites, whether in Britain or in the colonies.

Meeting natives on the Campaspi plains, Victoria, June 1836.
National Library of Australia

Picturing colonial violence

As an “overlander” who helped “open up” land routes between Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide during the years from 1836 to 1845, Hamilton was a veteran of frontier conflict. His fine-grained narratives and carefully observed drawings and prints provide a valuable insight into the story of white settlement in South Australia.

In 1845 Hamilton wrote:

The black man who roams over these wilds their lord and master is little elevated by nature from the beasts that inhabit his native forests, so far beneath the rest of his species that he seems to be standing on the line of demarcation between instinct and reason.

It seems that humans have always needed to elevate ourselves in contrast to those who are radically different – the “other” – whether that be animals, non-white races or women. This process was fundamental to imperialism and, more often than not, it was violent.

There is a shift in Hamilton’s views from his first forays into the bush around 1836 to his late-19th-century reminiscences. Some of his early drawings, such as “Meeting natives on the Campaspi plains, Victoria, June 1836”, express a friendly curiosity, offering many details of material culture and exchange between white travellers and local Aboriginal people.

But after the Myall Creek Massacre of June 1838 in north-western New South Wales, colonists became more circumspect regarding frontier clashes with Aboriginal people. Following this massacre, seven white men were hanged for the murder of 28 Wererai people, outraging white colonists and increasing racial tensions over subsequent decades. Recent research by Lyndall Ryan documents the sites where thousands of Aboriginal people and tens of settlers were killed in south-east Australia.

During the 1840s, Hamilton began to produce less sympathetic images, including many drawings and prints depicting frontier violence. These sometimes showed conflict in relatively objective terms, such as his ink drawing “Overlanders Attacking the Natives”.

Overlanders Attacking the Natives, 1846.
Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW

Even “Natives Spearing the Overlanders’ Cattle”, while showing Aboriginal people as aggressors, remains relatively neutral.

Natives Spearing the Overlanders’ Cattle, 1846.
Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW

But a series of lithographs from the late 1840s have a nastier edge, losing their quality of realist observation and descending into caricature. These show Aboriginal people attacking white colonists, with ironic titles such as “The Harmless Natives”, or “The Persecuting White Men”. Here Hamilton directs our sympathy from black to white.

The Harmless Natives, 1846-1856.
Lithographed and published by Penman and Galbraith Pirie Street Adelaide. Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW.
The Persecuting White Men, 1846-1856.
Lithographed and published by Penman and Galbraith Pirie Street Adelaide. Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW.

As Hamilton’s legacy shows us, emotional narratives and images are a powerful way of defining our relations with others.

This process is also fundamental to modern global warfare, as Judith Butler argues in her analysis of war journalism. It can be seen at work wherever interests compete. For Hamilton, Aboriginal people’s defence of kin and country challenged his own right to colonise and posed a personal threat. This made it easy for him to demonise Aboriginal people.

On the violent frontier, Hamilton was typical in defining the white colonist as victim and Indigenous Australian as persecutor, declaring in 1845:

We may soon look forward to the time when murders perpetrated by the savage on the settler will be considered something more than a peccadillo, and we may hope to see the settler at liberty to protect his life and property without the fear of escaping the blacks’ tomahawk only to run his neck in the hangman’s noose.

Here we see the emotional logic of Hamilton’s imperial cultural hierarchy and his political deployment of compassion. Suddenly, the seeming incongruity of Hamilton’s scorn for threatening Aboriginal people alongside his sympathy for the faithful horse makes perfect sense.


The ConversationJane Lydon will explore Hamilton’s life and works in a lecture at the University of Adelaide on October 18.

Jane Lydon, Wesfarmers Chair of Australian History, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Living blanket, water diviner, wild pet: a cultural history of the dingo



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A watercolour of a dingo, pre-1793, from John Hunter’s drawing books.
By permission of The Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, London.

Justine M. Philip, University of New England

In traditional Aboriginal society, women travelled with canine companions draped around their waists like garments of clothing. Dingoes played an important role in the protection and mobility of the women and children, and are believed to have greatly extended women’s contribution to the traditional economy and food supply.

Wongapitcha women carrying dogs which they hold across their backs to enjoy the warmth of the animals’ bodies,
Photo and caption: Herbert Basedow, 1924. Glass plate negative, by permission of the NMG Macintosh collection, J. L. Shellshear Museum, University of Sydney.

Dingo pups were taken from the wild when very young. The pups were a highly valued ritual food source, while others were adopted into human society. They grew up in the company of women and children, providing an effective hunting aid, a living blanket and guarding against intruders.

Nursing young dingo pups was also deeply embedded in traditional customs. Interspecies breastfeeding of mammalian young was common in most human societies pre-industrialisation, historically providing the only safe way to ensure the survival of motherless mammalian young. Technological advances in milk pasteurisation made artificial feeding a viable alternative by the late 1800s.

Cohabitation with human society represented a transient phase of the dingo’s lifecycle: the pups generally returned to the wild once mature (at one or two years of age) to breed. As such, dingoes maintained the dual roles of human companion and top-order predator – retaining their independent and essentially wild nature over thousands of years.


Further reading: Dingoes do bark: why most dingo facts you think you know are wrong


Post-colonisation, it became too dangerous to keep the semi-wild canines in the Aboriginal camps. Dingoes were targeted for eradication as livestock holdings spread across the country. Their removal would have had a profound impact on the women, resulting in a great loss of traditional knowledge and status.

DNA studies estimate that the dingo arrived on the Australian continent between 4,700 and 18,000 years ago, representing perhaps the earliest example of human-assisted oceanic migration. They were adopted into Aboriginal society, maintaining a symbiotic partnership that lasted thousands of years, and for this reason have been celebrated as a cultural keystone species.

The dingo’s ability to locate water above and below ground was perhaps its most indispensable skill. Written records, artworks and photographs in museum archives reveal dingo water knowledge as recorded by European explorers. Records reveal a number of accounts of wild/semi-wild dingoes leading Europeans to lifesaving water springs.

In Australian cartography, a “Dingo Soak” refers to a waterhole dug by a mythical or live canine. There are other freshwater landmarks across the continent – “Dingo Springs”, “Dingo Rock”, “Dingo Gap”.

In Aboriginal mythology, the travels of ancestral dingoes map out songlines, graphemic maps tracing pathways across the continent from one water source to the next. Their stories tell of the formation of mountains, waterholes and star constellations. In some accounts, dingoes emerged from the ground as rainbows; in others they dug the waterholes and made waterfalls as they travelled through the landscape.

Ethnographic evidence

Human-dingo heritage is preserved in ethnographic collections in Paris, London and Washington DC. Artefacts include talismans and ornaments made of canine teeth, bones and fur; rain incarnations and love charms. Funerary containers were decorated with dingo teeth, providing protection for the spirit in the afterlife.

In one portrait from the Smithsonian collection, an Aboriginal woman wears a dingo tail headdress – a talisman believed to hold great power and worn by warriors going to battle.

Woman with headdress looking to the side, 1870-1873 by John William Lindt, albumen print 20 x 15cm.
Smithsonian National Anthropological Archives USNM INV 04926900

The Smithsonian Institutional Archives also reveal a wealth of information about the post-colonial social history of the dingo. Many semi-wild dingoes were kept in early Euro-Australian settlements, then transported live to England, France and later to America as diplomatic gifts or exotic animal displays.

It was noted that the dingoes remained essentially wild despite numerous attempts to domesticate them – they failed to respond to any amount of discipline, kindness, bribery or coercion. Despite 230 years of surviving on the fringes of human settlements, travelling in menageries and circus troupes, living in zoos and semi-domestic arrangements, this remains true today. The dingo has retained its independent character and irreversible prey drive.

However, they did breed quite well in captivity and zoos often had excess pups to trade. Occasionally these pups went to private homes. Affectionate and tractable when young, eventually their carnivorous nature would get the better of them. The majority soon ended up in difficult circumstances and back in the hands of officials.

Dingo pup, 1930. Popular official guide to the New York zoological park.
Zoo Ephemera collection, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Library.

A Roosevelt connection

The Smithsonian holds records of the first live dingoes to arrive in Washington DC in 1901, a gift from the US consul to New South Wales. A number of pups were later born at the National Zoo and documented in the daybooks and records of births, deaths, sales and exchange.

One file contains a curious letter, offering a home to one of the dingo pups on display, dated May 14 1908. The request for the pup was signed by Theodore Roosevelt junior. At the time, Theodore’s father was in office as the 26th president of the United States, and the Roosevelt family were in residence at the White House.


Further reading: A wolf in dog’s clothing? Why dingoes may not be Australian wildlife’s saviours


The Roosevelt children were well known for their eclectic pet collection. Many arrived as diplomatic gifts and ended up at the National Zoo, or were traded through the local Schmid’s Bird and Pet Animal Emporium at 712 12th Street NW. The list included snakes (which ended up, uninvited, in the Oval Office) and a pig, smuggled into the presidential residence under the care of a young Quentin Roosevelt.

The pig, once discovered, ended up in Schmid’s Emporium for sale under a sign stating: “this pig slept last night in the White House”. No records have surfaced about the Roosevelts’ dingo. However, five months later – around the time that the pup would have been challenging all boundaries of domestication – a sale notice appeared in The Washington Post, dated October 16 1908, under: DOGS, PETS, ETC.
“JUST RECEIVED, Dingo, Australian wild dog … SCHMID’S BIRD STORE 712 12TH.”

Baudin’s dingoes

The first live exhibit of dingoes in an international display appeared in the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes in Paris in 1803. The pair, a male and female, had been collected by Captain Nicholas Baudin in Port Jackson, and transported to France on Le Naturalist in the care of François Péron (zoologist) and Charles-Alexandre Lesueur (artist).

Frederick Cuvier, naturalist and zookeeper, was assigned to care for the dingoes in Paris. In 1924, he wrote:

This dog, who was female, was about eighteen months when she arrived in Europe. She lived in freedom in the vessel where she was embarked, and despite the corrections inflicted on her, as well as a young male that died as a result of a punishment too harsh, she continued to evade punishment and consume all that suited her appetite.

The female lived for seven years in the gardens, the male survived just two months after arrival.

Eventually the bodies of both were transferred to the stores of the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle and preserved for perpetuity. Notes in the museum state that early on in the voyage of Le Naturalist, before departing King Island for France, the male dingo had “been too brutally castrated because of his independent character” and these injuries eventually killed him.

The taxidermy specimens remain in the vaults of the museum today.

NASA’s dingo encounter

In 2006, a team of NASA scientists from the Smithsonian’s Centre for Earth and Planetary Studies were in Australia’s Simpson Desert studying the formation of parallel desert dunes similar to those found on Mars.

Senior scientist Ted Maxwell took a photo of a wild dingo casually observing the scientists while they were staking out a dune on the Colson Track. Maxwell recorded the co-ordinates of their location, noting that it was a 60-kilometre journey across the desert to Dalhousie Springs, the nearest known permanent water source. The dingo appears completely at ease.

A dingo inspects scientists’ work during their expedition in the Simpson Desert, Australia. May, 2006.
Ted Maxwell, Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum.

Another reference to a dingo appears in the Smithsonian records in 2014, this time as the NASA Curiosity Rover crossed the Martian landscape. The vehicle passed an ancient dried freshwater lake on Mars, before travelling up through “Dingo Gap” in the sand dunes.

The NASA scientists had mapped the surface of Mars into quadrangles, and named the locations after sites on Earth with a similar ancient geology or rock formations. Dingo Gap is named after a location near the remote Kimberly quadrangle in Western Australia.

The ConversationSo, in contemporary celestial narrative, a valley on the Martian landscape is named after the Australian wild dog, the dingo, that thrived for thousands of years in one of the most extreme environments on Earth.

Justine M. Philip, Doctor of Philosophy, Ecosystem Management, University of New England

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Australia: A History of Massacres


The link below is to an article that takes a look at the history of Aboriginal massacres in colonial Australia.

For more visit:
https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/jul/05/map-of-massacres-of-indigenous-people-reveal-untold-history-of-australia-painted-in-blood


History textbooks still imply that Australians are white



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Who is portrayed as Australian? ‘Opening of the first parliament’ Tom Roberts c.1903.
Wikipedia

Robyn Moore, University of Tasmania

In this series, we’ll discuss whether progress is being made on Indigenous education, looking at various areas including policy, scholarships, school leadership, literacy and much more.


Despite improvements to their content over time, secondary school history textbooks still imply that Australians are white.

Textbook depictions of Australianness are not only relevant to experiences of national belonging or exclusion. Research has shown that students who aren’t represented in textbooks perform worse academically.

My PhD research analysed portrayals of Australianness in secondary school history textbooks from 1950 to 2010.

This time frame covers a period of significant social change in Australia, symbolised by the transition from the White Australia era of the 1950s and 1960s, to multiculturalism, which has existed since. Textbooks reflect these broad social changes.

1950s and 1960s – a celebratory narrative

Textbooks published in the White Australia era openly taught a celebratory version of history in which Aborigines were either absent or derided.

White people were portrayed as the developers of the nation. This can be seen in the following extract from the preface of A Junior History of Australia by A. L. Meston, published in 1950:

The object of this little book is to tell the wonderful story of our own country. Fewer than one hundred and fifty years ago no white man lived in our land. In so short a space of time by the pluck, hard work, and energy of our grandmothers and grandfathers, and of our mothers and fathers, a splendid heritage has been handed down to us.

This extract assumes the reader is white. Aboriginal students are overlooked. Similarly, Aboriginal contributions to each and every stage of national development are ignored.

Aborigines are only mentioned occasionally in textbooks from this era. When Aborigines are included, the portrayals are usually negative, as shown in the drawing below.

The caption from this image endorses the derisive perception of Aborigines reported by English explorer William Dampier, who first visited north-western Australia in the late 17th century.

This image from a textbook published in 1950 was titled ‘One of Dampier’s miserablest people’.
A Junior History by A L Meston

Has anything changed since the 1960s?

The White Australia Policy was replaced by multiculturalism in the 1970s.

Subsequent changes to textbooks reflected this broader social change: Aborigines and non-white immigrants featured more prominently and were portrayed more respectfully.

For example, most history textbooks published from the 1970s onwards have an initial chapter on pre- and/or post-colonial Aboriginal life and a later chapter on post-war immigrants.

Despite improvements such as these, history textbooks still imply that Australians are white. This occurs due to inconsistencies between what is written (the explicit content) and the underlying messages or meanings (the implicit content).

For example, initial chapters that discuss Aboriginal life prior to colonisation are followed by others on European “discovery” and “exploration”, which imply that the continent was vacant and unknown prior to the arrival of Europeans.

There are also inconsistencies in who is considered Australian. Aborigines are named as Australian in initial chapters on Aboriginal life. However, this description of Aborigines as Australian is contradicted by the exclusion of Aborigines from notions of Australianness in the remainder of the text.

The main narrative describes the experiences of white Australians in various eras such as the gold rushes, Federation, the Depression and the world wars. This implies that Australian history is white history and that Australians are white. By excluding Aborigines from these sections, whites are framed as normative or “real” Australians.

21st-century textbooks

Current textbooks show further, albeit, minor improvements compared to those published in the latter decades of the 20th century. For example, Europeans are portrayed as arriving in Australia, rather than “discovering” it.

Another improvement is that references to Aboriginality are no longer restricted to the initial “Aboriginal” chapter. However, Aborigines appear only momentarily in the main narrative. When contrasted with the detailed coverage of white experiences, the cursory treatment of Aborigines implies that Australian history is the story of white Australians.

This pattern is evident in chapters on the gold rushes. The painting below frequently appears in these chapters in textbooks published in the 2000s. This painting, which depicts white people searching for gold, represents the overall focus of these chapters on white people. Aborigines are absent.

‘An Australian gold diggings’ Edwin Stocqueler c.1855.
Wikipedia

Representations of Aboriginality in these chapters are limited to a throwaway line on the impact of the gold rushes on Aborigines, with no mention of Aboriginal responses.

Some 21st-century textbooks also include fleeting references to Aboriginality in chapters on national identity.

Descriptions of nationalism in these texts often include a section on late 19th-century Australian art. This section typically cover iconic artists such as Tom Roberts and Frederick McCubbin.

However, some textbooks published this century also include an example of Aboriginal art in this section, typically William Barak’s painting “Figures in possum skin cloaks”.

‘Figures in possum skin cloaks’ William Barak c.1898.
National Gallery of Victoria

The belated inclusion of Aborigines in chapters on Australian national identity is a welcome improvement. Nevertheless, this inclusion is momentary.

Who’s responsible for textbook content?

According to the Australian Constitution, responsibility for school education resides with the states rather than the federal government.

The first steps in the development of a national curriculum were taken in the 1980s. However, it wasn’t until the development of a national curriculum in 2013 that textbooks began to be marketed on the basis of meeting curriculum guidelines.

The cross-curricular priorities in the current version of the Australian curriculum state that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students should be able to see themselves, their identities and their cultures reflected in the curriculum. This is supported by research which shows that embedding Aboriginal perspectives within the curriculum improves educational outcomes.

The ConversationAustralian history textbooks have made considerable progress towards presenting more inclusive and balanced narratives. However, this progress has stalled. My research shows that Australian history textbooks continue to portray Australians as white. Further work is needed to ensure textbooks adequately represent all Australians.

Robyn Moore, Graduate reseach assistant, School of Social Sciences, University of Tasmania

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Fifty years on from the 1967 referendum, it’s time to tell the truth about race



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‘We cannot talk about building truthful relationships without being honest about the racialised realities of our social world.’
3CR

Chelsea Bond, The University of Queensland

On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum, in a sunset ceremony in central Australia, approximately 300 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates from across Australia delivered the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Convened by the Referendum Council, the statement put forth an Indigenous Australian position on proposed constitutional reform, rejecting constitutional recognition in favour of a treaty.

Through the establishment of a Makarrata Commission (a body that would oversee agreement-making between governments and Indigenous groups), the Uluru statement expressed Indigenous peoples’ “aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia”.


AIATSIS

Yet, 50 years ago, 90% of Australians voted in favour of what they believed would be a “fair go for Aborigines” in supporting the amendment of two clauses within the Constitution.

Fifty years on, there remain some uncomfortable truths about what those amendments did to improve the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia.

Bain Attwood and Andrew Markus have argued that the “yes” vote did little to change the administration of Indigenous affairs; nor did it grant Indigenous peoples citizenship rights, voting rights or put an end to racial discrimination.

The constitutional amendments attended to what appeared to be racially discriminatory clauses, which excluded Aboriginal people. The result may well have made Australia appear less racist, but it did not address the inherently racist nature of the constitution.

One example is the amendment to Section 51 (xxvi), referred to as the race power, which excluded Aboriginal people from the Commonwealth’s special powers to introduce laws affecting “the people of any race”.

The original intent of this clause was to enable the Commonwealth to “regulate the affairs of the people of coloured or inferior races” in restricting immigration of non-white non-British populations.

In 1901, the Commonwealth’s power was put to work with the introduction of the Immigration Restriction Act, known as the White Australia Policy, and was rationalised by the then prime minister, Sir Edmund Barton. He said:

I do not think either that the doctrine of the equality of man was really ever intended to include racial equality. There is no racial equality. There is that basic inequality. These races are, in comparison with white races — I think no one wants convincing of this fact — unequal and inferior.

Campaigning on the 1967 referendum.
AAP/National Library of Australia

It is hard to imagine how our inclusion as a raced people within this racially discriminatory clause would be emancipatory. In being raced, we were not just named – we were claimed.

When the First Fleet arrived in 1788 on the land of the Gadigal people, it did not just bring convicts, marines, seamen and civil officers. It also brought with it “the Aborigine”, and our racialised construction as Aborigines has served the colonial project well.

Being an Aborigine has circumscribed our being, our relationship to this place and to the state. In being raced, we have become known by the state and through our relationship with it. It has cemented a relationship of power over us, physically, morally, intellectually, politically and legislatively.

Racism is not just echoed in the words of right-wing commentators or the jokes of professional football players; it is ingrained in our society, enshrined in our institutions and our legislation. Race is inescapable and it has been central to the colonial project.

We cannot talk about building truthful relationships without being honest about the racialised realities of our social world.

As a racialised subject, I have been subjected to lies dressed up as racialised truths that insist upon our inferiority. Every day, we are forced to contest these lies while having to live with them. In order to get by and get on in a social world that discounts us, we create for ourselves other lies.

I remember the words of my father growing up, insisting that if I worked ten times harder than them, that I would “make it” – that it was possible to rise above my station, to rise above race. These were lies that we lived with in order to make the injustice of the world seem less insurmountable.

But I cannot be blinded to the ways in which my presence is read racially, regardless of how hard-working I am, how articulate I might be or how acceptable my presence might appear.

It does not inhibit the surveillance by police who perceive my presence as a predisposition to an unknown criminal act.

It does not inhibit a rendering of me as an Aboriginal mother or my husband as an Aboriginal father being deemed at risk of not being able to look after my children properly.

It does not prevent colleagues from seeing my presence as a scholar as an equity act, as an accommodation of my intellectual incapacity or as a cultural broker to white knowing.

The lie I can no longer live with is the insistence that our racialised being can be remedied through our own efforts: that if we just acted better, if we just articulated ourselves better, that if we were recognised better, that our lives would be better.

I don’t know if we can overcome race completely, but I do know that we cannot minimise the power of race by ignoring the power of race. Race was the foundation on which this nation was built and it continues to structure our society, its institutions and social life.

We cannot build a better nation by simply piling new bricks or new clauses to cement over the reality of race and the way it manifests interpersonally and institutionally.

While it was a remarkable feat that, 50 years ago, 90% of Australians supported in principle the idea of a fair go for Aborigines, we cannot get too swept away with the idea that the attending to the power of race is unfinished, or that it is confined to a constitutional clause or two.

At every turn, conversations about race are downplayed, dismissed or booed into submission. It would appear that more effort in this country is spent on not looking racist than on not being racist. The danger of the next step (in whatever direction that might be) is that we will fail to tell the truth about race.

We can only hope that the federal government and the Australian people will heed Indigenous peoples’ call for a “fair and truthful relationship” through a fair and truthful conversation about the power of race in maintaining power over Indigenous peoples’ lives and lands.


The ConversationThis essay is an excerpt from Chelsea Bond’s keynote address at the State Library of Queensland’s 50 Years and Counting event.

Chelsea Bond, Senior Lecturer, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit (ATSIS Unit), The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Defying Empire: the legacy of 1967



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Brenda L. Croft.
shut/mouth/scream (detail) 2016
Courtesy of the artist and Stills Gallery

Joanna Mendelssohn, UNSW

The Third National Indigenous Art Triennial: Defying Empire at the National Gallery of Australia would have been unimaginable 50 years ago. Despite the widespread goodwill towards Aboriginal people in 1967, there was little recognition that they had a living visual culture. Those few curators, such as the late Tony Tuckson, who admired the aesthetic qualities of the intricate forms made by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in remote areas of the north, rejected as kitsch works by artists such as Albert Namatjira who incorporated western traditions.

For the last three decades, Indigenous artists working in non-traditional media have made their mark, including at the two preceding National Indigenous Art Triennials and at national and international art exhibitions – including the Venice Biennale. It is not news to say that some of Australia’s most admired artists are Indigenous, so why is Defying Empire such a satisfying exhibition?

It all comes back to that year, 1967. Curator Tina Baum has woven a narrative and an argument around the legacy of that remarkable act of national unity when 90.77% of Australians voted to include Aboriginal people in the census, and to enable laws to be made on their behalf.

Ray Ken of the Pitjantjatjara/Yankunyatjara peoples and Lola Greeno of the Pakana people were adults in 1967. Maree Clarke of the Mutti Mutti/ Yorta Yorta/Wurrung peoples was a small child. Karla Dickens, a Wuradjuri woman was born months after, while Sebastian Arrow of the Yawuru came a generation later in 1994 – but all the artists here can claim to be heirs of the Referendum.

Judy Watson, the names of places 2016 – part of a project to record all the sites of massacres of Aboriginal people in Australia.
Courtesy of the artist and Milani Gallery

The word “1967” dominates Reko Rennie’s NGA Play installation at the entrance foyer of the building. This forms part of a special interactive project created for the exhibition, challenging adults and children alike. His defiant banner, Always Here, waves at the top of the escalators. His traditional Kamilaroi/Gamilaraay patterns also evoke camouflage.

Reko Rennie’s Royal Flag 2013, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
Purchased 2013.

NGA

Some Indigenous Australians survived over the years by camouflaging who they were, protected by paler skin. Others were stolen, their true identities hidden from themselves by the camouflage of institutional lies. This second history of camouflage is especially relevant to Reko Rennie’s OA RR, a gloriously dappled Rolls Royce parked at the National Gallery’s entrance.

Rennie’s grandmother was stolen and in her honour he has recorded his return to Kamilaroi land, filming from above the circular tracks in the red dirt made by the car to assert the ownership of the Kamilaroi people.

Stolen children

The running sore of the legacy of the stolen children runs through Defying Empire. Many of the artists are descendents of stolen children, but for Sandra Hill it is even more immediate. She is a Nyoongar woman who as a child was stolen, as were her mother and grandmother before her. In her Thin Veneer, layers of varnished wood stamp out the homogenised pattern into which she can never fit.

That question of identity lies at the core of Brenda L. Croft’s work. Croft was the curator of Culture Warriors, the first National Indigenous Triennial in 2007, but in recent years has turned her gaze away from the work of others and onto the legacy of her father Joe who was stolen from his Gurindji/Malgnin/Mudparra family when a small child. Her journey back to Gurindji country and the consequence of the Wave Hill walk-off is explored in great detail at Still in my mind, currently on view at UNSW Galleries.

The NGA work focuses on the tough landscape around Wave Hill, the remarkable portrait shut/mouth/scream, based on a fragment study of her grandmother’s face.

Brenda L. Croft shut/mouth/scream (detail) 2016.
Courtesy of the artist and Stills Gallery

As well as children stolen, the history of race relations in Australia is of people murdered, sometimes indiscriminately as in Judy Watson’s exquisite record, the names of places – part of a project to record all the sites of massacres of Aboriginal people in Australia.

Then there are the particular events. Dale Harding’s their little black slaves perished in isolation evokes the 1930 killing of a girl forced into domestic labour and killed when her wooden prison shack caught fire. Harding’s reconstruction includes the pungent smell of the black burnt walls. Harding, a descendent of the Bidjara, Ghungalu and Garingbal peoples, is only too aware of the extent of the massacres in Queensland in the 19th century.

Dale Harding Black days in the Dawson River Country – Remembrance gowns (detail) 2016.
Courtesy of the artist and Milani Gallery

Black days in the Dawson River Country places Victorian style dresses to commemorate the murder of a young girl, killed in broad daylight in the main street of the town now known as Toowoomba. Her murderer (wrongly) claimed she was wearing a dress owned by his murdered mother.

Yhonnie Scarce Thunder Raining Poison 2015, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
Purchased 2016. This acquisition has been supported by Susan Armitage in recognition of the 50th Anniversary of the 1967 Referendum.

Janelle Low

Not all the deaths were deliberate. The glass artist Yhonnie Scarce, of the Kokatha/Nukunu peoples in South Australia, was born in Woomera. She has created Thunder Raining Poison, where glass yams evoke the poison rain that fell on her grandfather’s country at Maralinga bringing sickness and death. Her magnificent control of the medium is seen in the Glass Bomb (Blue Danube) series where dark glass yams are contained in larger glass bombs – blown glass inside blown glass.

The colonial legacies of mass killings are also at the core of work by Julie Gough, from the Trawlwoolway people of Tasmania. Her Hunting Ground videos revisit the site of some of the terrible massacres of the early 19th century, and incorporate reproductions of the smug letters recording the deaths of hundreds of people, offering their bodies for dissection.

A fellow Tasmanian, Lola Greeno of the Pakena people, works in the ancient tradition of making shell necklaces, which she has exhibited for many years. She has produced a virtuoso series of works, with large mussel shells interspersing more delicate shapes. I have become so used to seeing (and admiring) her work over the years that it was a surprise to see her strike a different note.

Lola Greeno’s Green Maireener shell necklace 2016.
Courtesy of the artist and Handmark Gallery

The room in which Greeno’s work is displayed is near the entrance to the dedicated exhibition space, and is almost a separate homage to the first generation of Indigenous artists to have lived most of their creative life recognised as such.

Greeno from Tasmania, Yvonne Koolmatrie of the Ngarrindjeri people from South Australia, Pedro Wonseaamirri of the Tiwi people from Melville Island and Ken Thaiday senior of the Mariam Mer people of the Torres Strait, have well established records of exhibiting their work in national and international exhibitions.

Koolmatrie’s giant woven eel traps and baskets floated in the Australian pavillion in the Venice Biennale in 1997, her style is well established. But as well as the more familiar works, confidently executed, the exhibition includes a woven spiny echidna, complete with genuine echidna quills.

Ken Thaiday senior’s work has evolved from his original headdresses used in Torres Strait Island dance, to giant variations on these. His presence, along with that of Brian Robinson is a reminder that the reason the National Gallery has named this exhibition the Indigenous Triennial and not Aboriginal is that the people of the Torres Strait Islands may relate to Aboriginal culture, but remain distinct.

It brings into focus the central curatorial concern: how to show the complexities and the unities of an Indigenous culture that crosses both geography and generations, that deals with loss and redemption, that recognises the continuing intermingling of blood in what might be eight generations of colonisation, and yet never loses identity.

There’s a sense of the this in Raymond Zada’s video installation, At Face Value, that morphs a series of faces from black to blonde, from male to female, in a continual questioning of the notion of identity.

Tony Albert The Hand You’re Dealt 2016, Courtesy of the artist and Sullivan + Strumpf.
Sam Noonan

Tony Albert of Queensland’s Girramay/Yidinji/Kuku-Yalanji peoples has a different take on the notion of identity. He honours the many Indigenous soldiers who fought in Australia’s wars as equals to their white comrades only to face discrimination on their return. This is a part of a continuing project on his part as he is also responsible for the Aboriginal war memorial in Sydney’s Hyde Park.

Albert’s work hangs near the quiet exposition of the most enduring act of defiance of empire – Jonathan Jones and Uncle Stan Grant Senior reinserting traditional Wiradjuri murru (design) into 19th century colonial prints. Uncle Stan Grant Senior has been a leader in the revival of Wiradjuri as a living language, which is also a part of the national revival of Aboriginal languages and the recovery of lost histories.

The defiance of Empire is not about being brash, but about endurance. While empires rise, they also fall. Those who appeared be conquered are now seen to be the long-term victors.

The ConversationDefying Empire is at the National Gallery of Australia from 26 May – 10 September 2017.

Joanna Mendelssohn, Honorary Associate Professor, Art & Design: UNSW Australia. Editor in Chief, Design and Art of Australia Online, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


‘Right wrongs, write Yes’: what was the 1967 referendum all about?



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At a demonstration, Faith Bandler (right) and her daughter Lilon (2R) appeal to national unity as grounds for constitutional amendment.
Aboriginal Studies Press

Russell McGregor, James Cook University

On May 27, 1967, campaigners for Aboriginal rights and status won the most-decisive referendum victory in Australian history.

The referendum attracted more than 90% of voters in favour of deleting the two references to Aborigines in Australia’s Constitution. Campaigners for a “Yes” vote successfully argued those references were discriminatory and debarred Aboriginal people from citizenship.

Ever since, and as we approach the 1967 referendum’s 50th anniversary, it has been popularly remembered as the moment when Aboriginal people won equal rights – even the right to vote. In fact, the referendum did not secure those outcomes.

By 1967, all Aboriginal adults already held the right to vote in federal, state and territory elections. Racial discriminations had been removed from the statute books at the federal level and in all states and territories except Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory. And even those three laggards were moving toward legal equality.

So what was achieved?

Constitutionally, the 1967 referendum secured the amendment of Section 51 (xxvi) and the deletion of Section 127.

The former section specified the federal parliament could make laws with respect to the:

… people of any race, other than the Aboriginal race in any state, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws.

The words “other than the Aboriginal race in any state” were deleted.

The latter section stipulated that in:

… reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a state or other part of the Commonwealth, Aboriginal natives shall not be counted.

Neither section prevented Aboriginal people from exercising the same legal rights as other Australians. The rights of Aborigines were abridged not by the Constitution, but by laws enacted by federal and state parliaments.

Two days before the referendum, the Sydney Morning Herald published this photograph.
above the caption: ‘Racial discrimination – what’s that?’

Sydney Morning Herald

How was the campaign run?

Campaigners for a “Yes” vote, however, told a different story. They insisted constitutional change was a necessary precondition for Aboriginal equality.

Yet the campaigners’ ambitions went beyond legal equality. They sought the inclusion of Aboriginal people as respected members of the national community. This had been a principal goal of Aboriginal and pro-Aboriginal activists since the early 20th century.

The 1967 referendum was the culmination of a long struggle for rights and respect, for social esteem as well as equality before the law.

Accordingly, publicity material for the “Yes” campaign did not focus narrowly on the legal implications of constitutional change. More often, it exhorted Australians to welcome Aboriginal people into the fellowship of the nation. As the opening line of a popular campaign song ran:

Vote “Yes” for Aborigines, they want to be Australians too.

Effectively, the proponents of a Yes vote transformed what could have been a dry, legalistic tinkering with the Constitution into a plebiscite on Australian nationhood.

In achieving this transformation, the campaigners held an unusual advantage. Uniquely among Australian referendums, for the 1967 question on Aborigines there was no campaign for a “No” vote. And even the government broke with convention by providing, in the official advice to voters, only the case for “Yes”. Consequently, campaigners could talk up the importance of the changes they advocated virtually unrestrained.

New South Wales campaign director Faith Bandler told voters:

When you write Yes in the lower square of your ballot paper you are holding out the hand of friendship and wiping out nearly 200 years of injustice and inhumanity.

Hyperbole of this kind is not unusual in political campaigns. What was unusual is that there was no organised opposition to contest the claims of the Yes campaigners, or to counter them with equally extravagant rhetoric for the negative.

Much of the publicity material for a Yes vote was couched in broad terms of rectifying past wrongs.
Gordon Bryant Papers/NLA

The lack of a “No” campaign undoubtedly boosted the “Yes” vote. It was equally important in shaping remembrance of the referendum.

Lacking an opposition, the “Yes” campaigners had a virtual monopoly on the narratives about what the referendum meant. Their expansive conception of the referendum as a plebiscite on nationhood prevailed.

A symbolic win

The triumph of the “Yes” vote was primarily a symbolic victory. It did not win rights for Aborigines, and the government of the day did not utilise the extension of Commonwealth powers secured by amendment of Section 51 (xxvi). Nor did Gough Whitlam’s government after it came to power in 1972.

Whitlam did, however, invoke the resounding “Yes” vote of 1967 as a moral mandate for change in Aboriginal affairs.

Symbolic victories are important. Shortly after hearing of the massive “Yes” majority, veteran Aboriginal activist Pastor Doug Nicholls proclaimed it was:

… evidence that Australians recognise Aborigines are part of the nation.

As Nicholls knew from three decades of involvement in Aboriginal politics, recognition of his people as part of the nation was a hard-fought achievement.

Regardless of its slight legal consequences, the 1967 referendum was an important event in Australian history. It was a symbolic affirmation of Aboriginal people’s acceptance into the community of the nation.

The ConversationYet the referendum affirmed only the broad principle of national inclusion. On how that principle should be translated into practice – on the terms of inclusion – the referendum was silent.

Russell McGregor, Adjunct Professor of History, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Indigenous players didn’t invent Australian rules but did make it their own



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Indigenous children depicted in an etching playing the game of marngrook, which some have claimed inspired the game of Australian rules.
Wikimedia Commons

Roy Hay, Deakin University

It would be wonderful if there was a connection between the Indigenous games of ball and football – like marngrook and pando – and the codified game now known as Australian rules. But, despite several attempts since the suggestion was first raised, no-one has been able to show anything other than the vaguest similarities between some features of the Indigenous games and what the white men were playing in the 1850s and 1860s.

The notion of a personal conduit through Tom Wills, the only one of Australian rules football’s founders with the slightest connection with Indigenous games from those years, was advanced and amplified later. But it is not supported by any evidence in Wills’ quite extensive writing, nor by the innovations he introduced into the game or sought to bring about.

The current revival of the idea of Indigenous influence on football’s origins diverts attention from another, much more uncomfortable and largely untold story about Indigenous relationships to football in the second half of the 19th century.

Indigenous people who played their traditional games, particularly in regional areas, saw or interacted with the white men at football. They would probably have been involved in it very quickly if they had been allowed to do so. But since they were effectively kept out, they formed their own teams and played with each other, or tried to break into local activities or competitions when they could.

This story can be partially gleaned from evidence already available in the colonial archive. It returns a better explanation of why some Indigenous people today believe the game had a history in which their predecessors were deeply involved to whatever extent they could be – given their scarce numbers in Victoria, and the locations on the periphery of the colony where they were effectively confined.

It is more powerful, more persuasive and more noble. On the eve of this year’s AFL Indigenous Round, it has potential to give an indication that those people who tried to break into the white men’s game before 1900 are the real heroes – not Wills.

Did football borrow from Indigenous games?

Football as codified in Melbourne in 1859 was only “a game of our own” initially in the sense that it was based on a cherry-picked selection of very few of the rules of various English public schools, particularly Eton and Rugby.

It was a very simplified form, with only ten rules in 1859. These rules allowed limited handling, but no throwing of the ball, and there was no offside rule.

Tom Wills was one of the pioneers of Australian rules football.
Wikimedia Commons

Nothing in Wills’ voluminous correspondence with the newspapers and with his family and friends offers the slightest hint of any borrowing from Indigenous games. Nor, more importantly, do any of the tactical and legislative innovations he introduced or suggested in the formative period of the domestic game.

The pattern of the game as played in the 1850s and 1860s bears little resemblance to the modern game of Australian football. It was a very low-scoring, low-level kicking and scrummaging game. Weight and strength counted for more than any ability to jump or initially to run with the ball.

Positional play and carrying the ball came in before long, and Wills was involved in pioneering both. But these were not features of marngrook.

In 2016, Jenny Hocking and Nell Reidy wrote the Australian game was different from the English games. The ball was kept off the ground to avoid or reduce injury – and this shows Indigenous influence, they claimed.

The noble art of hacking an opponent’s shins, tripping and holding were the main causes of injury. These were gradually banned by the rules, though they did not disappear as a result. In the mid-1860s, Wills was still in favour of hacking, which was allowed under Rugby School rules. But he could not convince his peers to allow it.

Far from any of the Hocking and Reidy argument pointing to closer links between marngrook and Australian football, it simply reveals the gulf between pre- and early-contact Indigenous games and what the white men did.

Why the claim for involvement?

Several scholars have drawn attention to attempts, some successful, by Indigenous players and teams to break into the white men’s games.

Nobody suggests Indigenous Australians invented cricket, yet they formed the first Australian team to tour overseas in 1868 – and Wills coached the players involved a year earlier. It does not demean Indigenous players in any way to suggest they learned the white man’s game and then tried to take part whenever they could.

They were largely excluded from involvement because there were so few of them. They were restricted to remote areas. And they were subject to the control of the “protectors” and others, and the barriers imposed by the white cricket clubs and their memberships.

Indigenous people were being “ethnically cleansed” by settlers, disease, neglect and policy. If they could not protect their country, fundamental to their being, how could the few survivors penetrate the white men’s effective bans on their absorption into settler society?

Despite that, a pioneering few managed to work their way into the local code of football. It is these people who should be researched and recognised: they are the real heroes.

The key reason Indigenous players were unable to take part in football in significant numbers from 1860 onwards is primarily demographic. By the 1860s, the Indigenous population of Victoria (where what became Australian rules was played) had been reduced to a few thousand. Most were in the remoter parts of the colony or in reservations under the control of the “protectors”.

If, as recent demographic history suggests, around the time the Europeans arrived there was population pressure in Victoria, then the subsequent destruction of the local nations must have been appalling in its severity. If careful recalculations are correct, there may have been around 60,000 Indigenous people in the land area of the later colony of Victoria in 1780, but only around 650 as calculated in the census in 1901. This is a decline of nearly 99%.

What complicates that calculation is the existence of significant numbers of people who were not counted as Aboriginal and did not identify as Aboriginal in any administrative source.

The so-called Half Caste Act of 1886 defined non-pure-blood Aborigines as non-Aboriginal and insisted they be removed from the reservations and become ineligible for public support on the eve of the great depression of the 1890s. This effectively “disappeared” a significant number of people. Such people had every incentive not to identify themselves as Aboriginal.

The AFL will pay tribute to Indigenous Australians’ involvement in football this weekend.
AAP/Dan Peled

What does this all mean?

Our interpretation may help explain why, to this day, Indigenous people believe Australian football is their game – not because they invented it or contributed to its origins, but because they forced their way into it, despite all the obstacles, in the second half of the 19th century.

Particularly in regional and remote areas, they had more success in doing so either as individuals or by forming teams to compete. Sometimes they monopolised the game in their locality, and word spread about their capacity to play and beat the white men at their own game.

The Bendigo Independent reported a game in 1900 between an all-Indigenous and an all-white team as:

And yet here in Bendigo, the “pivot” of Australia, was to be witnessed the sight of its best team of footballers having rings run round them (and those very literal ones) by the despised and fast-dying Aboriginal.

Indigenous Australians’ claim to the game of Australian football comes by virtue of participation at grassroots level in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some of the skills they had honed long before the white men arrived could be used to develop different ways of playing the game: speed at ground level, rapid hand movement and brilliant hand–eye and foot–eye co-ordination, plus physical play, as well as high marking.

The oral tradition has always had difficulty with precise chronology, so modern-day Indigenous people relying on the stories handed down through the generations find it very hard to pin down when key developments occurred.

It is not unreasonable, then, to conclude it was in the second half of the 19th century that Indigenous Australians began the prolonged process of infiltrating the white man’s game of football and, most importantly, making it their own.


The ConversationThis piece was co-authored by Athas Zafiris, a freelance researcher and publisher of football and popular culture website Shoot Farken.

Roy Hay, Honorary Fellow, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Cave dig shows the earliest Australians enjoyed a coastal lifestyle



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Three main excavation squares within Boodie Cave.
Peter Veth, Author provided

Sean Ulm, James Cook University; Ingrid Ward, Flinders University; Peter Veth, University of Western Australia, and Tiina Manne, The University of Queensland

Archaeological excavations in a remote island cave off northwest Australia reveal incredible details of the early use by people of the continent’s now-submerged coast. The Conversation

Out latest study reveals that at lower sea levels, this island was used as a hunting shelter between about 50,000 and 30,000 years ago, and then as a residential base for family groups by 8,000 years ago.

As the dates for the first Aboriginal arrival in Australia are pushed back further and further, it is becoming clear how innovative the original colonists must have been.

The earliest known archaeological sites so far reported are found in inland Australia, such as Warratyi rock shelter in the Flinders Ranges and Madjedbebe in Arnhem Land. These places are a long way from the sea, and were once even more so when past sea levels were lower and the coast even more distant.

But we do know that the earliest Australians were originally seafarers. They came from island southeast Asia and no matter which route they followed had to make sea crossings of up to 90km to get here.

The earliest landfall on the continent is now likely to be at least 50m below the present ocean. Until now we have known very little about these first coastal peoples.

Our research, published this week in Quaternary Science Reviews, begins to fill in some of these gaps.

Island dig

For the past five years an international team of 30 scientists has been working in collaboration with the Buurabalayji Thalanyji Aboriginal Corporation and Kuruma Marthudunera Aboriginal Corporation on Boodie Cave, a deep limestone cave on the remote Barrow Island, off the Western Australia coast.

Since the initial early dates for Boodie Cave were reported in 2015, our team has been forensically analysing the archaeological and palaeoenvironmental remains, as well as re-dating the site to build up a robust picture of the lives of the people who lived here.

PhD student Fiona Hook at the Boodie Cave excavation.
Kane Ditchfield

The results from radiocarbon and optically stimulated luminescence dating techniques from four independent dating laboratories show that Boodie Cave was first occupied between 51,100 and 46,200 years ago.

These dates make Boodie Cave one of the earliest known locations in the settlement of Australia and the earliest site anywhere near the coast.

Project leader Peter Veth discusses the significance of the Boodie Cave discoveries.

Mainland connection

When Boodie Cave was first occupied, Barrow Island was part of the mainland, with the shoreline between 10km and 20km further west.

The shoreline became even more distant as the planet moved into an ice age and sea levels dropped to 125m below present, around 20,000 years ago. Shortly thereafter global temperatures warmed and, as the ice melted, sea levels rose quickly.

Throughout this long period people returned again and again to Boodie Cave. The limestone that forms the cave provides ideal conditions for preservation, giving us incredible details about the people who lived there.

The cave contains one of Australia’s longest dietary records. These animal remains provide us with profound insights into what people were hunting and collecting from initial settlement onwards, and how they adapted to a new and ever-changing arid landscape.

PhD students Jane Skippington and Kane Ditchfield sorting material excavated from Boodie Cave.
Bob Sheppard

Besides wallabies, kangaroos and other terrestrial animals, the archaeological deposits contain marine shells transported from the distant coast.

In the deepest levels, when the shoreline was 20km or so distant, there are only four different types of shellfish that we have directly radiocarbon dated to 42,300 years ago. These shells represent the first direct evidence of marine resource use in Australia, and some of the earliest in our region.

Marine shell dating up to 40,000 years ago was excavated from Boodie Cave, including this baler shell artefact dating to around 6,800 years ago.
Fiona Hook

With rising sea levels the coastline came closer to the cave and the number and variety of marine resources increased exponentially.

By 8,000 years ago, there are 40 different types of marine shells as well as exceptionally well-preserved remains of sea urchin, mud crab, reef fish, marine turtle, marine mammal and a variety of small and medium-sized terrestrial animals.

By 6,800 years ago the cave and the whole island was abandoned as rising sea levels finally cut it off from the mainland.

Hunting shelter

We argue that Boodie Cave was used as an inland hunting shelter between about 50,000 and 30,000 years ago before becoming a residential base for family groups by 8,000 years ago.

Dietary remains in addition to shell artefacts, incised shells, shell beads and thousands of stone artefacts show that Boodie Cave was a frequently visited location on the landscape.

Boodie Cave is located on the second bluff in the centre of the photograph.
Kane Ditchfield

Our study clearly shows that not only were Aboriginal people continuing to use marine resources across a period of dramatic environmental change, but they were also exploiting a range of desert resources. This demonstrates a successful adaptation to both the coasts and deserts of northern Australia.

Recent genetic studies suggest that colonisation was coastal, with people rapidly moving around the east and west coasts of Australia before meeting up in modern South Australia.

But the coasts along which the earliest Australians traversed were very different to today’s, not only in terms of ecology but also in distance. In some places the earlier coastline would have been hundreds of kilometres from its present position.

Peter Veth (left) with Thalanyi elders Anne Hayes, Roslyn Davison and Jane Hyland at Boodie Cave on Barrow Island.
Peter Veth

Sea levels rise

Over the past 20,000 years sea level has risen 125m, submerging the continental shelves surrounding Australia and separating the mainland from New Guinea and Tasmania.

Our findings provide a unique window into the now-drowned Northwest Shelf of Australia.

Lead archaeologist Peter Veth excavating a rich layer of dietary remains and artefacts below the surface of Boodie Cave.
Kane Ditchfield

Boodie Cave provides the earliest evidence for coastal living in Australia and gives us an indication that coastal resources have been important to people since initial colonisation.

Nearly one-third of Australia’s landmass was drowned after the last ice age and along with it evidence for coastal use by some of the earliest Australians.

Thousands of archaeological sites have been recorded on the continental shelves of Europe, Asia and the Americas, but no submerged prehistoric sites have been reported anywhere off Australia.

These submerged landscapes of Australia open up an entirely new frontier of archaeological research and will shed even further light on the lives of the first people to arrive on Australian shores.

Sean Ulm, Deputy Director, ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, James Cook University; Ingrid Ward, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow on the ARC DP Deep History of Sea Country project administered by Flinders University, Flinders University; Peter Veth, Professor of Archaeology, University of Western Australia, and Tiina Manne, ARC DECRA Research Fellow, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Australian politics explainer: the Mabo decision and native title


Kate Galloway

The Conversation is running a series of explainers on key moments in Australian political history, looking at what happened, its impact then, and its relevance to politics today. The Conversation


On June 3 1992, the High Court of Australia handed down its decision in the long-running case of Eddie Koiki Mabo and his compatriots from the Torres Strait island of Mer. Together they challenged the authority of the Queensland government to claim not just sovereignty but also ownership of the land comprising their ancestral home.

What happened?

Queensland annexed the Murray Islands through the Queensland Coast Islands Act of 1879. The court had to determine the effect of this annexation on the rights of the Meriam people to their land.

In its argument, the state claimed that on becoming sovereign over this territory, it derived ownership of all the land comprised in it – including the island of Mer.

This concept, known as universal and absolute beneficial crown ownership, was derived from the idea that Australia was “terra nullius”. According to international law, this implied that a territory was uninhabited. Consequently, England could lawfully claim sovereignty over that territory.

Similarly, under English law, Australia was deemed to be “settled and uninhabited”, and therefore English law was fully imported into the new territory.

A feature of this law was that the Crown was the absolute owner of all land — a relic of English feudalism. If, by law, the Crown was the absolute owner of all land, there was simply no possibility of recognising any other type of landholding, including that of Eddie Mabo.

By contrast, Mabo argued that, despite the state’s claim to sovereignty, he and his people retained ownership over the land. The basis of this argument is the well-known reality that Australia was not uninhabited at the time of colonisation. To maintain a law based on this outdated fiction would be unjust.

The court agreed. Although it could not upset sovereignty, the fact of sovereignty could no longer support the state’s claim for absolute ownership of all land. It recognised a new category of territory – one that was “settled but inhabited”.

As an inhabited territory, the original inhabitants – including Mabo and his community – retained ownership of land.

However, the state did have the power as sovereign to extinguish pre-existing ownership rights. But the Anglo-Australian legal system would continue to recognise those rights until they were extinguished. This is known as native title.

What was its impact?

Although in the early days the Mabo decision generally seemed welcome, it was not long before it became increasingly divisive.

Many celebrated a huge victory for justice for Indigenous Australians. Some of this enthusiasm foresaw a new age of reconciliation, perhaps even a new republican constitution.

But, increasingly, in the months after the decision, many opposed what they saw as the decision’s support for the “white guilt industry”. Mining companies asserted that a “flood” of land claims would inhibit mining in Australia contrary to the national interest. The Australian Mining Industry Council (now the Minerals Council of Australia) took out full-page advertisements to that effect.

Adding to the panic, Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett claimed that Australian backyards were under threat from Aboriginal land claims – he has since admitted he was wrong.

The decision has remained important to Indigenous communities throughout Australia, notably because Anglo-Australian law now officially recognises the prior existence of Indigenous peoples. No longer is Australia “terra nullius”.

However, there have also been Indigenous voices expressing criticism of the decision. Noted scholar Irene Watson observes:

Post-Mabo most people believe we have gained justice. We are still working for the same goal, land rights and self-determination, but we are also working harder than ever before, for now we are also working on unmasking the illusion; the illusion that “the blacks have got it all”.

What are its contemporary implications?

The decision had a huge impact on Australian life. However, regardless of which side of the debate you might be on, it is clear that our institutions and society can cope with such apparently enormous shifts.

Some suggest the Mabo decision did not go far enough to achieve real justice. This indicates that, despite the perhaps inevitable argument that follows profound change, we can afford to be aspirational in embarking on reform efforts.

It is also clear that divisive language, such as that of the debate that followed the Mabo decision (and since), is unnecessary. Knowing that our institutions can withstand the “shock” of change surely means we can engage in a well-modulated and respectful public discussion to achieve it.

Finally, we clearly cannot be complacent following even apparently significant advances in the law’s approach to Indigenous Australians’ claims for justice. There remains work to be done; any single advance will not be sufficient.

To fulfil the promise of Mabo, to advance justice for Indigenous Australians, we need a suite of reforms embracing law, policy and the economy.

Kate Galloway, Assistant Professor of Law

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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