Reading 9: People on Country

The Book: People on Country

This book tells a story about Aboriginal Australians who live on, work on and care for the land and seas that they own. It is a story about community-based natural and cultural resource management at a time in history when such management really matters. Like all such expositions, it is only partial but, significantly, draws on a diversity of local Aboriginal and researcher perspectives. I want to begin with two personal epiphanies that foreshadow a transformation that is occur¬ring on the Indigenous estate, as community-based groups increasingly embrace state-sponsored resource management as an alternate approach to development. I then provide some broader historical, political and environmental policy contexts, before signposting some of the difficult questions that the book and its contributors address with their stories about the struggles to establish a sound footing for the very new Caring for Country movement.

People on Contry
Vital Landscapes
Indigenous Futures
Editors John Altman and Sean Kerins
The Federation Press, 2012

 

 

Epiphany II: A short walk with Junun on Kuninjku country

I was camping at Mumeka on the Mann River in January 2003. My partner, Melinda Hinkson, was with me, and it was the middle of the wet season. We were collecting data on the hunting economy at Mumeka over a two-week period, to make comparison with the identical two-week period in 1980 when I had resided at the same place with many members of the same family group. One change between the two periods was access to guns for hunting; they were more readily available in 1980 before John Howard's gun laws of 1996.

In 2003 Mumeka residents were sharing an old single barrelled shotgun with their relatives residing at another outstation community, Kukodbabuldi, about 5 kilo metres away (see Figure lOA page 171). So we could go hunting to supply Mumeka people with wallaby meat a close friend, whom I had known since 1979, and I walked together to Kukodbabuldi to borrow 'the gun'.

My friend was Joshua Jununwanga (usually called Junun), now deceased, a man of Darnkorlo patri-lineage of Yirritja moiety and Narritj subsection; in classificatory kinship terms he was my 'granny' or mother's mother's brother (in Gregorian terms he was, in fact, three calendar years younger than I). Darnkolo estate was his inherited father country and Kurulk estate, where Mumeka was located, was his mother country; these two estates together represented the country he knew best; it was his neighbourhood, territory with which he had intimate ancestral and ritual connection and managerial responsibility. This neighbourhood covered about 400 square kilometres that over his lifetime Junun had criss-crossed innumerable times by foot and in vehicles. Junun was a hunter, an artist, a ceremony man, long-time outstation resident, serious ecologist and senior traditional owner. Our walk that day was a round trip of about 12 kilometres in extraordinarily hot and humid conditions. We took the low 'road', an eons old walking track along the Mann River margins, to Kukodbabuldi and came back via the high road, a formed vehicular dirt track through tall open savanna woodland; this was not the first time we had walked this route together, but it was the first time for about 23 years. It was a transect deeply imbued with memories and nostalgia for us both.

As we walked together, communicating quietly in Junun's bad English and my far worst Kuninjku dialect, I was struck for the umpteenth time by how deeply Kuninjku know their country, and the intimacy of their engagements with it. I have made many walking trips on country, alone and in groups, but one-on-one greatly intensifies the interactions.

As we walked Junun sang out to the ancestors, reminding them who I was, using the Kuninjku terms for 'old friend' and 'dear one'. But knowing my interests well he also gave me a refresher course and tested my memory on floral species and their uses; he pointed out scars on the landscape, some caused by animals, some by backhoes digging gravel borrow pits to repair the road; and he recited place names, sacred places, ceremony places and camping places that we came across.

We recalled other walks we had made together, past hunting trips, successful and unsuccessful, people who had passed away and those at Kukodbabuldi we were about to visit.

For much of the time we did not talk, I watched Junun negotiate our walking path, maintaining a keen eye and ear for crocodiles. He stopped at a place near the sacred billabong at Kukodbabuldi to point at the exact spot where 23 years earlier he had spotted, and I had shot, a wallaby (with a .22 rifle, he reminded me, sitting shot), he pointed out animal tracks and damage caused by pigs, some that we sighted but we had no gun. We came across ring-barked trees and Junun recalled specific paintings that he or other artists had produced from the bark material, and we came across long abandoned vehicles and other detritus of late modernity, whose social history he narrated with ease. Junun commented on changes in river and channel courses, pointed out fire patterns in the landscape, recounted what has been hunted, where, when and by whom and commented on seasonality and recent annual climatic variations.

It is almost a cliche, but the country we traversed was Junun's back yard where he had lived most of his life. Country provided his ontological grounding, his embodied sense of who he is; country sustained him and was dear to him. As an owner of his estate and manager of his mother's country, Junun was, in turn, committed to sustaining it. He made clear he was concerned by pig and buffalo damage, cane toads, and Mimosa outbreaks on the nearby resource rich Bulkay flood plains. His instinctive knowledge, and that of many other Kuninjku living on country, is critical to its management.'

People on Contry
Vital Landscapes
Indigenous Futures
Editors John Altman and Sean Kerins
The Federation Press, 2012

Land and property rights

The brutal colonisation and associated economic and political marginalisation of Indigenous Australians can be understood as a conflict over land and resource rights."

In 1788, British colonists travelled across the globe to Australia. The world¬view of their leadership was flush with Enlightenment belief in the wonders of industrialisation, and with self-serving Lockean theories of property that those who tilled the soil should enjoy rights in land. This was the advent of European modernity and colonial dominance and with it came the bedding down of the legal notion of private property. In Australia on the other hand, Indigenous people were hunter-gatherers who had inhabited the continent for 50,000 years and whose ways of survival and form of property were fundamentally different. In western legal parlance, the 1788 Australian way could be understood as a form of community!' or limited common'< property. But in Indigenous ontology there was no clear distinction between persons and things such that underpins western notions of property. Relations to the sentient landscape (even today as in my walk with Junun) were consubstantial, and distinctions between subjects and objects were limited, while relations between people, people and places and people and species were paramount."

From 1788 there was an extreme clash of property cultures in which the powerful- armed with modern weapons - triumphed and Indigenous societies were initially destroyed with 'remnants' incarcerated on reserves for their protection and then offered the option of assimilation to escape. Nancy Williams proposes that a European theorisation of property was a part of the colonial project that justi¬fied expropriation of land from Indigenous owners." The logic of settler colonial society was, and arguably remains, predicated on the expropriation of Indigenous lands and resources and the concomitant destruction of Indigenous societies. As Patrick Wolfe argues, invasion is not a historical event linked to some distant date like 1788, but an ongoing process.

As the colonial frontier spread across the continent, land was alienated. This process occurred everywhere except in the most remote areas where state colonisation arrived relatively late and large tracts of land (perceived as of little economic value to the colonial project) were reserved for Indigenous use. In the late 20th century, in the aftermath of the abandoned assimilation era, land was progressively returned to Indigenous people via a series of statutory measures. Initially, Commonwealth land rights law was legislated for the Northern Territory, a jurisdiction under federal control. This return of reserve land, and the ability to reclaim unalienated Crown land, was a social justice measure linked to the intro¬duction of an Indigenous affairs policy defined, by the state, as self-determination.

In 1992 an unexpected judicial decision by the High Court found in favour of the plaintiffs in the Mabo judgment, thereby recognising that a form of native title existed at common law in situations where it had not been extinguished. Some, and I include myself here, regarded this as a judicial revolution. Others have suggested that Australia was merely catching up with other settler majority colonial societies, caught perhaps in the tide of global history."

Subsequently, the Commonwealth Native Title Act was passed principally to legally validate extinguishment, but also to provide a means for Indigenous people to claim back unalienated land where they could prove continuity of customs and traditions and uninterrupted connection to lands and waters.

The processes for claiming land under both land rights and native title laws have been referred to in the terms of 'repressive authenticity"? and the 'cunning of recognitiori'" - the late modern Australian state was permitting return of land, but only if claimants could legally prove forms of 'original' connections and continuity of custom as if uninvaded.

However, land rights and native title laws did not provide land owners with access to commercially valuable resources, especially subsurface minerals and fresh water - such rights were viewed as too modern to be grasped in terms of tradition - and so control of lands and resources remains limited. It is only in the Northern Territory that land owners are provided with a legal right to veto commercial activity on their land, a right that constitutes a de facto property right. Under native title law, groups have no such free prior informed consent rights especially in relation to exploration and mining on their land.

People on Contry
Vital Landscapes
Indigenous Futures
Editors John Altman and Sean Kerins
The Federation Press, 2012