Re-imagining an Aboralian future

... non-Indigenous Australia has yet to adapt to living in this place, let alone evolve into people who belong to the land. And this belonging to the land is in my definition what it should be to be Australian; this is what we should see in the mirror. And at the risk of stating the blinking obvious, we need to do so: we have nowhere else to go ...

Maggie Walter Online Opinion 9 June 2010

Maggie Walter
Maggie Walter (PhD) is a trawlwoolway woman of the pymmerrairrener nation

The labelling by comedian Robin Williams of Australians as English rednecks struck a collective Australian nerve. The severity of the cringe signifies a reflected vision we thought banished to the extent of forgetfulness, even by ourselves. There are a myriad of ways of interpreting that reflection, of portraying Australia in the mirror.

My own take is the image of Australia found in the terrain of non-Indigenous/Indigenous race relations. This is not a pretty picture but evasion is damaging. As shown by our redneck comment response, avoidance does not improve our visage; it only allows us to forget, briefly, the extent of the unpleasant picture. I also want to use this ugly reality as a springboard to a reimagining of Australia; one proposing an evolutionary new picture of what it is to be Australian.

The reflection of Indigenous positioning with Australian society is one of unremitting disadvantage. This uniquely Indigenous pattern of poverty emanates from on-going exclusion from a relative share of this society’s resources and opportunities. Socio-economic deprivation accrues and accumulates across and into the life chances of Indigenous individuals, families and communities.

For many Indigenous people, families and communities the result is a separation from hope for a different future: a fatalism towards a poor deal. The dramatically circumscribed life chances of this generation and the ones that came before are too often founded on ill-health, substance abuse, early and pointless deaths. Hard daily reality has become a normalised aspect of Indigenous life.

More insidiously in the reflection of Australia I see, Indigenous poverty where absence from the nation’s wealth is normalised and even viewed as appropriate. Notions of Indigenous prosperity can cause affront; despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary many Australians claim Indigenous people get too much already and rights, royalties or sovereignty are always contested.

The reflective picture also shows an Australia ill at ease with the place of Indigeneity in its national consciousness. Indigeneity remains unreconciled with everyday concepts of Australian society. This separation extends to the business of state, where Indigenous people are ever present as cultural icons but absent physically and symbolically from spheres of influence.

Despite the harshness of this portrayal, most non-Indigenous Australians are horrified at the idea of being cast as racist, and largely are not. Racist attitudes can be observed empirically but most research, including my own, finds a (slight) majority of non-Indigenous Australians hold racially egalitarian attitudes. Indeed, I believe a majority of Australians would welcome an Australia where Aboriginal people are equally represented across social, cultural and political domains. But it is a disengaged egalitarianism; one that does not feel individually connected to Indigenous people or the direness of Indigenous inequality.

Indeed public discussion on the issue of race in Australia is silenced in a way not seen in other western countries. Like religion and politics, Indigenous talk is a social faux pas. Equally, there is a generalised lack of knowledge of or interaction with Indigenous people and issues.

Day to day national life is marked by spatial and social separations. Over two thirds of Aboriginal people live in regional and metropolitan areas but Indigenous lives are lived outside the view of non-Indigenous lives even in the same geographic location. In this separated space it just not important for non-Indigenous Australians to know much about Indigenous Australia; even among those working in areas of influence: policy; academia, or the media.

This normalised disconnection allows the serial epiphanies, the regular rediscovery of Aboriginal poverty, marginality and abject lack of services, in all these arenas. This disengagement is not a deliberate social artefact, but it is highly functional. It allows non-Indigenous Australia, especially advantaged non-Indigenous Australia, to hold a picture of themselves and the nation that facilitate the living of individual and national life in ways that prevent the huge social, political and economic inequities of Indigenous life from having to be witnessed.

So, can the picture be different? I think it can. But to evince sustainable change we need a dramatic revision in how we think about Australia, the country and its people, non-Indigenous as well as Indigenous. What I am proposing is imagining an alternative narrative; one that provides a different national reflection. In this reimagined Australia the old ways of thinking need to be abandoned, not reworked. Concepts of what it is to be Australian and our heritage need to be radically reconceptualised.

The starting place for this radical reimagining is to swing the evolutionary gaze 180 degrees from the Indigene to the non-Indigene; exploring the self concept of non-Indigenous Australia. Who are these people and nation? This is a quandary.

Non-Indigenous people are, in nomenclature, defined as not being Indigenous: defined in the negative. Indigenous people are also referred to as the first Australians by politicians and others; does this make non-Indigenous Australians the second Australians? And if so, what does this mean? Or when politicians talk about this country’s Indigenous peoples as the original Australians, does this make non-Indigenous people the unoriginal Australians?

This approach to portraying the Australian is, of course, facetious. But it does serve to elucidate the problem of the picture of Australia in the mirror. Identifying Indigenous Australians with this land is non-contentious, it is only when we try to place non-Indigenous Australians into the landscape, physically and symbolically, that difficulty arises.

Let me highlight the point with an observation. I recently gave a paper at AIATSIS and with a bit of spare time wandered around the National Museum gift shop. I looked over the large range of Indigenous items for sale from all over the country, including some from my own state Tasmania. I then moved over to the other large section built around books on native animals, toys, native flora and fauna in text and souvenirs. And that was it, the full gift shop: non-Indigenous Australia wasn’t there. Taking the gift shop as a proxy representation of our country, why is the Indigene represented in a myriad of shapes and forms in how we sell ourselves, but the non-Indigene is not? I think an explanatory frame can be found in the still unfixed, and to a large extent stalled, sense of non-Indigenous belonging in Australia.

To elaborate, the main story running through 200 years-plus of colonialisation and constitution as a nation state has been to try and change the country to suit the new people: a belief system aligned with a frame of mind whereby the land, along with its Indigenous inhabitants was subservient to the inherent superiority of the migrant settlers. The overt statement of superiority over nature and natives is no longer uncontested in the public and political discourse but its echoes still run through the fabric of Australian life. Yet the fatal flaws in such old thinking are now obvious and its impact has been catastrophic for the country i.e. the condition of the Murray River, salination etc, and as critically, for its peoples, Indigenous and non-Indigenous.

The non-evolved connection to country can also be seen in the struggle for national identity. Limping from Anzac, to mateship, to outback, the search has become more obsessive, frenetic and perhaps more embarrassing but no less futile.

In 2009, The Australian, in partnership with Qantas, began what they referred to as a national conversation on what makes Australia great. Via a social networking website they collated the contributions of thousands of people, eventually coming up with five key facets of Australian greatness: pride, teamwork, community, fun and freedom. I am sure I am not the only person whose heart sank at the end result of this search for a national identity. Where is the unique Australian identity and connection to country in these five facets?

And it is a disconnection to country that resonates in mainstream Australia’s disconnection from Indigenous Australia. Disconnection from country also explains I think much of the non-Indigenous disengagement reflective in the picture of Australian race relations. Perhaps the usually undefined, but simmering resentment of Indigenous people and place in Australia held by a (significant) minority of Euro-Australians might be explained at least in part as an undefined resentment of Indigenous belonging. Because, the vast majority of non-Indigenous Australians do not know this country; our country. Yes, they might travel around it as grey nomads in caravans, but as an English colleague of mine noted, non-Indigenous Australians seem to him to live their lives in urban bubbles and their relationship to country remains as a tourist. It is still the exotic unknown.

The inevitable conclusion here is that non-Indigenous Australia has yet to adapt to living in this place, let alone evolve into people who belong to the land. And this belonging to the land is in my definition what it should be to be Australian; this is what we should see in the mirror. And at the risk of stating the blinking obvious, we need to do so: we have nowhere else to go. This is home, for all of us.

In outlining what can be at least a start of generating an alternative narrative I want to first disrupt the usual dichotomising of Australians into Indigenous and non-Indigenous. This disruption is not in any way suggestive that Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians are, or should be, the same. Rather, in this evolving Australian narrative our differences would be at the centre of our re-imagining of self-concepts and belongings; a potent adaptive diversity; not a rift that requires melding. Rather than focusing on how the Indigene should fit into mainstream Indigenous culture it is time to consider how the mainstream of primarily Euro-Australians might evolve a little faster in their own fit to belonging to the country. The presumptions of evolutionary inevitabilities need to be reversed with non-Indigenous peoples adapting to what it is to be Australian. This is where non-Indigenous Australia can learn from Indigenous Australia.

So, how can we accelerate the evolutionary process? Belonging is a relationship and relationship is belonging. So, in an alternative narrative of being Australian we will re-imagine and redefine our relationships: to country and to each other as non-Indigenous and Indigenous peoples. I propose two beginning tenets of what we should see in the mirror of means to be Australian:

  1. To be Australian is to understand, within self concept and in the practice of everyday life that you belong to the land, the land does not belong to you. You are from, and of, this country and it is part of you.
  2. To be Australian is to embrace, respect and acknowledge the space and place of the Indigenous and the non-Indigenous within this country. We are both, and it is this that makes us unique.

To re-emphasise I am not advocating that we are all Indigenous now. Lineage is central to identity and non-Indigenous people should retain pride in their own particular lineage, from Britain, Europe, Asia or Africa. The same goes for Indigenous people; we also are not just Indigenous but Walpiri, Quandamooka, pakana, Yorta Yorta and many other peoples.

What I do advocate is a very different imagining of Australia’s heritage; a reimagining of narrative that takes us way beyond pioneers and explorers and Anzacs, although these of course remain to one that embraces, for all of us, the ancient and contemporary Indigenous belonging to country. A new narrative of Australian heritage, one which is uniquely Australian, is in relationality with the land, and embraces our Indigenous heritage past and present as a matter of pride for all. We all share that heritage. While our lineage differs, our different heritages can be interwoven into the one grand narrative of national self concept where to be Australian links Indigenous and non-Indigenous as essential elements.

The next task is to start thinking about who we are, how our Indigenous and non-Indigenous contemporary reality can be mutually and physically recognised in everyday public life as well as integrated into private and social realms. Adaption to Australian reality involves a national evolution; a shared complex identity built on recognition, rather than competition, and where national pride can coexist with our complex and differing pasts and futures and survive the inevitable ructions of a familial relationship: between peoples and country.

Dr Maggie Walter

Maggie Walter (PhD) is a trawlwoolway woman of the pymmerrairrener nation of north east Tasmania and a senior lecturer with the School of Sociology at the University of Tasmania, Australia. Her research is driven by her passion for social policy issues, especially as they relate to Indigenous peoples, inequality and families and she teaches and publishes across these areas. She obtained a Bachelor of Arts (Social Welfare) from Charles Sturt University in 1994, a Bachelor of Social Work (Honours) from the University of Tasmania in 1998 and was awarded a Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Tasmania in 2003.