Time for a stroll through the hall of mirrors Mr Rundle. I have never read such an incoherent, ill-informed lot of pseudo-intelligentsia bullshit in all my life. Your piece lays out the bleeding heart white left-wing view of Indigenous Australians in all its bigoted glory. You’re also way out of your depth on native title and land rights issues and clearly don’t understand the basics of what you’re talking about.
"Mundine wants to dissolve collective Aboriginal identity altogether."
"A people is not constituted as a people by its mythopoetic origins, retrojected into the past, but by its relation to other peoples, of reciprocity, power, oppression or what have you"
"On [January 26, 1788], Great Britain brought the Aboriginal people into being, as a unified notion, by invading them. ... So these are the people any treaty would be between - between the invaders and the invaded. It doesn't make sense as a treaty in any other conception."
“To say that invasion constitutes a people in their collectivity shouldn’t be taken as a slur or a diminishment, obviously. Collectivity born in struggle is a step towards self-determination. What Mundine is proposing is to decompose it back to the social form of smaller geographical groups defined against each other, rather than being defined against whites.”
Aboriginal people are one people because they were all invaded by Great Britain. The British couldn't tell the difference between the blackfellas they encountered as they spread out across the continent - they just conquered the lot of them. Those groups therefore became One Aboriginal People, defined by their relationship as invaded people to their invaders. But don’t take this as an insult. Groups brought together by struggle and pain are taking a step toward self-determination. Those groups shouldn’t think of themselves the way they have for thousands of years, but as one group against the common enemy.
I can tell you Mr Rundle - as a descendant of those individuals who had first contact with the British - my Bundjalung ancestors were a people for more than 40,000 years before the British arrived, however much of a myth-making throw-back that may seem to you. So were my Gumbaynggirr and Yuin ancestors. They had their own defined lands, language, culture, history, stories, religious beliefs and those "head-spinningly complex" kinship systems you refer to. All of these existed quite independently of the British. And these groups have no interest in being “defined against whites”. They aren’t defined against anyone. They just are.
My ancestors did not become One Aboriginal People with all the other groups after invasion. The idea of a single Aboriginal identity is – as you’ve acknowledged – a construct borne from the way other people looked at us, not from the way we looked at ourselves.
Sure, Aboriginal tribal groups had similar experiences of conquest and upheaval and we have come together with a common interest. We are very much kindred spirits. But we haven’t forgotten our first nations – or to use the word that Indigenous Australians use – our mobs. In fact, the first questions Indigenous Australians ask each other when they meet for the first time is “Who’s your mob?”.
I want my tribal nations recognised. Not as an invaded peoples. But as peoples and nations in their own right.
This is hardly a new idea. The Romans invaded almost all of Europe a few thousand years ago. Are the Europeans One People because of that, or separate nations? When the Germans marched through the European continent last century, did that make the nations they conquered all One? Last I checked, the Treaty of Versailles was signed by the individual nations involved in the war – not the “invaded” and the “invaders”. Likewise the Paris Peace Treaties after World War 2.
And what about Africa? Overrun by several different invading nations who carved up the continent with little regard for the traditional tribal boundaries, something that still causes problems today. Are they “Africans” and “Europeans” to you? They might beg to differ.
“Secondly, let’s look at these "nations" that Mundine wants to trace back to. Are they real? Are they a fiction? They are both. The term "nation" was adopted in recent decades to get away from inaccurate talk of "tribes", and to recognise that, over geographic and language areas, tribes and smaller groups saw themselves as part of a larger whole.”
But the term is also misleading. Firstly, it was adopted from the Native American usage. But Native Americans were a semi-agricultural people with vestigial class structures, aristocratic hierarchies, and super-chiefs who were not unlike kings. Power extended across wide areas, which is why they were able to mount a more explicit resistance to white settlers, something they could know as a war. Even so, the nationness of a lot of these nations only fully emerged as a product of the struggle with whites.
In Aboriginal Australia, hunter-gatherer/kinship societies, no such hierarchies emerged -- or could, given the absence of agriculture. Aboriginal groups were knit together by the most head-spinningly complex system of kinship relations, totem animals, taboos, obligations, gift-giving circles and rules of marriage (one of the most damaging things of the destructive ignorance of people like Gary Johns is their simple disdain for this history. They construct Aboriginality as simple absence, waiting for whites).
So what were these larger ensembles? Well, there is no word for them, because they were no one thing. They could break apart and recombine, internally divide, and suffer, it would seem, sudden derecognition. They interleaved territorially sometimes and became tightly bounded in others. Nation has been used as a catch-all term, in part to remove the primitivist associations of "tribe". But some of those who have pushed its use, from the Left, are guilty of a current confection for simplistic political purposes.
Thus what Mundine is proposing is a series of treaties between a real and powerful entity, the Australian state, and a series of historically retrojected ones whose current form -- by people who claim allegiance to them -- is very different to the sort of thing they once described. The one powerful "other" that indigenous people have in relation to the settler state -- their collective being -- would be taken out of the equation. Sheer genius.”
Aboriginal groups weren’t nations – they were amorphous, changeable ensembles of people that were both real and fictional. Actually, it’s very hard to explain what they were or how they defined themselves (head-spinning in fact). It’s not correct to call those societies nations because they weren’t as established as the Native Americans - they didn’t have semi-agriculture or sovereign-like hierarchies. People have only starting using the term “nation” because the term “tribes” offends people. If a treaty with Indigenous Australians recognises these traditional “ensembles” then Indigenous Australians will lose their collective power which comes from being not British.
So what if the first nations of Australia could break apart and recombine, internally divide, suffer sudden derecognition, interleave territorially or become tightly bounded in others. That’s no different from any other continent in the world. Study a bit of European history if you want to see examples of breaking apart, recombining, internally dividing etc.
But is Scotland a nation? I think so.
We can all tie ourselves in knots trying to define what is a nation. For my speech I picked a definition from the Oxford Dictionary: “a large body of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular state or territory”. By the way that dictionary defines a "tribe" as “a social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognized leader”. Other dictionaries define those terms differently again.
I don’t really mind if Bundjalung is described as a nation, a country, a tribe or all of the above.
What I do know is that the inhabitants of the Australian continent before 1788 were not one group of people with common descent, culture, history and language, nor were they a single group with social, economic, religious, or blood ties, a common culture and dialect or one recognised leader. They inhabited this continent as part of separate groups with different languages, different traditions, stories, history and culture.
Of course there were similarities and areas of overlap. Just like there are on any other continent. Boundaries can be blurred, people move around and marry into different groups, people learn neighbouring languages. So what. The kinship systems – head-spinningly complex as they may be – all had ways of dealing with these complexities.
When people say that Indigenous Australians are no more than one collective group united against a common (white) enemy they deny our history, our culture, our reality and our very essence.
There was a time when Aboriginal leaders chose to frame Aboriginal people as one group in campaigning for Aboriginal rights. This pan-Aboriginal movement emerged in and around the 1960s and implicitly promoted the idea that Aboriginal People are one nation. This approach suited the politics of the time. It mirrored the Black Panther movement and set Aboriginal people within the broader context of a global black movement – a black consciousness. Unity was strength. And as a united group Aboriginal people achieved a great deal. That didn’t change the fact that we were separate nations with distinct and unique heritage, language and culture.
Indigenous Australians will always be united as kindred spirits in our shared history since 1788. But we haven’t forgotten our ancient heritage. Australia has moved a long way beyond those times. The Mabo decision of the High Court re-focussed land rights back to the original nations. I believe this country is now at a stage of maturity where Indigenous Australians can seek recognition of their traditional nations without compromising the broader struggle against racism and exclusion.
“Mundine’s argument is really sinister here -- he wants to remove the notion of communal association as defining indigenous identity and substitute some sort of bloodline, like an aristocratic descent. There’s a lot of old junk bound up in this: a rebiologisation of race, a touch of noble savagery, a political attempt to exclude urban mixed-heritage Aboriginal people -- and a dangerous tilt towards pedigree, to rendering race as a category of physicality, rather than as a historical and material identity.”
“Mundine’s arrangement would result in people with uncheckable claims to pedigree in an oral culture being able to make claims on territory remote from them, whose "nation" provenance has been established through scholarship that often involves a bit of guesswork.”
A lot of nonsense
Anyone who has read my speeches and articles, particularly during the recent s18C debate, knows that I have no interest in “rebiologisation of race”, “excluding urban mixed-heritage Aboriginal people”, “pedigree” or “rendering race as a category of physicality, rather than as a historical and material identity”.
The only relevant criteria in determining native title and other custodianship of land, culture and heritage should be descent. Indigenous identity is not defined by “communal association”, whatever that is. I don’t care what people look like or whether they can also claim descent from other groups. Descent is the foundation of nationality all across the world. It should be no different here.
I have spent a good part of my working life in land rights and native title. I have worked with some of the best historians and anthropologists in Australia working in this area. There is no guesswork involved. Ultimately, if a person can’t trace their ancestry back to the traditional Indigenous nations then there is no basis for them to identify as an Indigenous Australian.
* * *
So here are three suggested follow up actions for you Mr Rundle.
Go talk to some traditional owners about your ideas. See what they think about the idea of “collective Aboriginality” and being “defined against whites”. Ask them to explain their “head-spinningly complex system of kinship relations” that even their young children can understand. Suggest to them that their self-determination is best founded in their collective struggle against a common enemy and see what they think.
Get to know some Indigenous Australian and understand how they identify themselves. Also ask them who speaks for their country. (You’ll get a hint from the Welcome to Country ceremonies.)
If you really believe a single treaty between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is the way to go, identify for the rest of us who is going to sign the treaty on behalf of indigenous Australians. And when you figure that out please tell me.