How Do We Precisely Define Indigenous Culture in Australia Today

Commentary I am proud of the fact that in 1967, along with more than 90 percent of other Australian citizens, I voted YES in a referendum to grant full franchise and civil rights to Indigenous Australians. Previously, a sort of apartheid had applied in the country, a recognition that aboriginal cultures were separate and therefore to some extent exempt from our laws—and from many of our privileges as well. It was patronizing and arrogant, of course, but there was a measure of respect in it as well and I can’t recall from my days in primary school any teaching about the aboriginal culture that was less than kindly and sympathetic. It is certainly a remarkable thing that such a high proportion of our people, 55 years ago, voted positively in a country notorious for knocking back referenda! In fact, it’s unique in our political history. The situation has worsened in the years since and there is now a lot more, not less, hostility between Indigenous Australians (and their supporters) and the rest of us. “Patriotism is not enough,” said Edith Cavell, the famous British nurse who saved the lives of soldiers from both sides in World War I. A poster of the famous nurse Edith Cavell was used to encourage men to enlist after she was executed by the Germans. (National Archives and Records Administration) But for many in Australia, the lesson of Australia Day (Jan. 26) is that there’s not enough patriotism. Every year at this time, we are told how horrible Australia is by citizens who have come to loath their own country, and the calls to “change the date” of the national celebration is redoubled. We can’t change the date: it is a fact of history, the anniversary of the introduction of western civilization into Australia, English common law, our language, our science, our music, and our art. Those who see no value in all such things write them off as worthless and undeserving of commemoration. But in praising the achievements of the West there is no disparagement of native culture, no lack of fellow-feeling for those who were dispossessed, overwhelmed, or even murdered by settlers. It happened, the bad along with the good, and the whole nation has been immeasurably enriched by the blending of cultures. However, a new kind of apartheid is emerging in Australia, one that will do nobody any good. It must be resisted. I confess to being very worried about the notion of “aboriginality” in today’s world. This has become a dangerous ground to walk on. Each one of us has four grandparents, eight great grandparents, sixteen great-great-grandparents and so on, back into the mists of time. Traditionally in the English-speaking world, at least, we make it easier for ourselves to achieve some kind of understanding of ancestry by concentrating on the patrilinear line. So, for example, my own mother was always proud of her Scots background. She did not set foot in Scotland till relatively late in life, but it wouldn’t have made any difference to her thinking if she had never been there: what was important to her was the fact that her father was of Scots descent, as was his father, and so on. But this kind of ancestor tracing is no better than a chimerical fantasy. Her mother was Irish, and Lord knows how many other ethnic components there were in her genetic makeup. The reality is that she was probably no more Scottish than most people in the Australian community of her generation. But focusing exclusively on the male line is a typical human device for making the complicated appear simple. It is also quite extraordinarily sexist and out of keeping with the spirit of our times! That digression into my Mother’s Scottishness was a necessary prologue to returning to my worrying thoughts about aboriginality. As we all know, there are tribes of aboriginals still living wholly with much of their ancient cultures intact, their ancient customs maintained, their languages vibrantly in use. But intermarriage with Europeans has diluted the ethnicity of many others and we lack the vocabulary and the will to drill down into the facts and try to determine exactly what these groups of people see as the definition as aboriginal or indigenous and how they interpret it in today’s terms. Koomurri-Bujja Bujja dancers arrive for the smoking ceremony during the WugulOra Morning Ceremony as part of Australia Day 2022 celebrations at Walumil Lawns in Sydney, Australia, on Jan. 26, 2022. (Bianca De Marchi – Pool/Getty Images) When I say that we lack the vocabulary, I mean of course that terms like half-caste or quarter-caste are absolutely and rightly taboo, and we have to rely instead on the less precise notion of identification: “I am an indigenous person if I identify as one and if the other members of the community accept me.” To my mind, this is not good enough if it is to be applied to the practicalities of social and political life. We need greater clarity and we need to take account of the possibility that some claims to a

How Do We Precisely Define Indigenous Culture in Australia Today

Commentary

I am proud of the fact that in 1967, along with more than 90 percent of other Australian citizens, I voted YES in a referendum to grant full franchise and civil rights to Indigenous Australians.

Previously, a sort of apartheid had applied in the country, a recognition that aboriginal cultures were separate and therefore to some extent exempt from our laws—and from many of our privileges as well.

It was patronizing and arrogant, of course, but there was a measure of respect in it as well and I can’t recall from my days in primary school any teaching about the aboriginal culture that was less than kindly and sympathetic.

It is certainly a remarkable thing that such a high proportion of our people, 55 years ago, voted positively in a country notorious for knocking back referenda! In fact, it’s unique in our political history.

The situation has worsened in the years since and there is now a lot more, not less, hostility between Indigenous Australians (and their supporters) and the rest of us.

“Patriotism is not enough,” said Edith Cavell, the famous British nurse who saved the lives of soldiers from both sides in World War I.

Epoch Times Photo
A poster of the famous nurse Edith Cavell was used to encourage men to enlist after she was executed by the Germans. (National Archives and Records Administration)

But for many in Australia, the lesson of Australia Day (Jan. 26) is that there’s not enough patriotism.

Every year at this time, we are told how horrible Australia is by citizens who have come to loath their own country, and the calls to “change the date” of the national celebration is redoubled.

We can’t change the date: it is a fact of history, the anniversary of the introduction of western civilization into Australia, English common law, our language, our science, our music, and our art.

Those who see no value in all such things write them off as worthless and undeserving of commemoration.

But in praising the achievements of the West there is no disparagement of native culture, no lack of fellow-feeling for those who were dispossessed, overwhelmed, or even murdered by settlers.

It happened, the bad along with the good, and the whole nation has been immeasurably enriched by the blending of cultures.

However, a new kind of apartheid is emerging in Australia, one that will do nobody any good. It must be resisted.

I confess to being very worried about the notion of “aboriginality” in today’s world. This has become a dangerous ground to walk on.

Each one of us has four grandparents, eight great grandparents, sixteen great-great-grandparents and so on, back into the mists of time.

Traditionally in the English-speaking world, at least, we make it easier for ourselves to achieve some kind of understanding of ancestry by concentrating on the patrilinear line.

So, for example, my own mother was always proud of her Scots background. She did not set foot in Scotland till relatively late in life, but it wouldn’t have made any difference to her thinking if she had never been there: what was important to her was the fact that her father was of Scots descent, as was his father, and so on.

But this kind of ancestor tracing is no better than a chimerical fantasy. Her mother was Irish, and Lord knows how many other ethnic components there were in her genetic makeup. The reality is that she was probably no more Scottish than most people in the Australian community of her generation.

But focusing exclusively on the male line is a typical human device for making the complicated appear simple. It is also quite extraordinarily sexist and out of keeping with the spirit of our times!

That digression into my Mother’s Scottishness was a necessary prologue to returning to my worrying thoughts about aboriginality.

As we all know, there are tribes of aboriginals still living wholly with much of their ancient cultures intact, their ancient customs maintained, their languages vibrantly in use.

But intermarriage with Europeans has diluted the ethnicity of many others and we lack the vocabulary and the will to drill down into the facts and try to determine exactly what these groups of people see as the definition as aboriginal or indigenous and how they interpret it in today’s terms.

Epoch Times Photo
Koomurri-Bujja Bujja dancers arrive for the smoking ceremony during the WugulOra Morning Ceremony as part of Australia Day 2022 celebrations at Walumil Lawns in Sydney, Australia, on Jan. 26, 2022. (Bianca De Marchi – Pool/Getty Images)

When I say that we lack the vocabulary, I mean of course that terms like half-caste or quarter-caste are absolutely and rightly taboo, and we have to rely instead on the less precise notion of identification: “I am an indigenous person if I identify as one and if the other members of the community accept me.”

To my mind, this is not good enough if it is to be applied to the practicalities of social and political life.

We need greater clarity and we need to take account of the possibility that some claims to aboriginality may be based on economic or social considerations.

It’s a hard saying, but we are going to have to ask questions about the nature of ethnicity if justice is to be done to all.

It is easy to understand why a young person whose mother and grandmother, for example, were aboriginal and demonstrated strength and caring and whose non-aboriginal father or grandfather was absent or abusive, might resent his European ancestry and prefer to think of themselves as belonging to their mother’s people.

But is one great grandparent a sufficient qualification? Should it be? Why would such a person feel so alienated from the prevalent European culture as to shrink from all association with it?

Additionally, and this is a serious issue that obliges us to ask the question in all honesty, “What is it about Australian society that repels so many of its sons and daughters and where and how have we fallen short of becoming a just and moral community?”

Perhaps Cavell knew a thing or two: patriotism is not enough.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.


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David Daintree is director of the Christopher Dawson Centre for Cultural Studies in Tasmania, Australia. He has a background in Classics and teaches Late and Medieval Latin. Daintree was a visiting professor at the universities of Siena and Venice, and a visiting scholar at the University of Manitoba. He served as President of Campion College from 2008 to 2012. In 2017, he was made a Member of the Order of Australia in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List.