Gaynor Macdonald – Temporalising the Indigenous other: The politics of tradition in nation-building
Indigenous rights were once denied because Indigenous peoples were not considered modern: now they are denied if they are. Native title requires them to be ‘traditional’, argues Gaynor Macdonald, and to call someone ‘traditional’ is to imply they do not share ‘our’ time.
A century ago it was common, acceptable even, to understand Indigenous Australians as backward savages. The theory of human difference was social darwinism, popular because it confirmed the inferiority of anyone with darker skin. Destined to disappear, there was no need to feel remorse for the savagery of the colonial processes by which Indigenous lands were appropriated, nor to include them in the ‘us’ of Federation. Evolutionism provided a form of historicism in which the non-western other became the primitive form of the modern, progressive western self. Indigenous Australians were relegated to another time and space – prior, remote, backwards, primordial. As Darwinism became scientifically unjustifiable and biological theories of difference went out of fashion, ‘cultural difference’ took its place but did not stop the temporalisation. Half a century later, the enduring image by which French anthropologist Levi-Strauss contrasted the ‘primitive world’ to his own was temporal: ‘The characteristic of the savage mind … is its timelessness’.
The cunning of allochronism
In another century, people will look back to critique the replacement form of temporalising and its effectiveness in rendering Aboriginal peoples out of time. The expression that does today what savage did for the nineteenth century and primitive for the twentieth is ‘tradition’. To call someone ‘traditional’ is to imply they do not share our time. This is allochronism, the denial of shared time. Why is the ‘traditional’ Aboriginal person regarded as more ‘authentic’ than the authenticity of changed lives? Being coeval – sharing the same time – is essential to mutual human communication and respect yet Indigenous Australians are consistently denied coevalness with other Australians. Temporal distancing takes two forms: the notion of past time, associated with backwardness and inability; and timelessness, associated with spirituality, the Dreaming, unchanging culture, harmony with the environment. The expression ‘traditional Aborigines’, and variants such as real Aborigines, remote, authentic or desert Aborigines, imply two distinctions. One is between Indigenous and non-Indigenous, the other between valued and non-valued modes of indigeneity. The allochronistic ‘traditional’ other is given higher social value, de-legitimising those who have lived harshly under colonial rule.
By denying history, allochronism conceals the darker side of Australia’s nation building, justifying the continued exclusion of Indigenous peoples from its wealth. The social suffering Indigenous peoples now contend with is subtly normalised by temporalising them as unable to cope. Recall the statement by Phillip Ruddock, then Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, attributing responsibility for social trauma to sufferers rather than those controlling the resources that could make a difference:
we’re dealing with an indigenous population that has had little contact with the rest of the world. We’re dealing with people who were essentially hunters and gatherers. They didn’t have chariots. I don’t think they invented the wheel.
They didn’t invent poverty, diabetes and unemployment either.
The modernity of tradition
Traditions are part of the present. There are no ‘traditional’ people, only people who draw on resources of earlier generations when these are meaningful. Resourcefulness changes as historical events intrude: preparing rabbit curry is a Wiradjuri tradition, older than the tradition of ‘Santa Claus’ or the wearing of clan tartans in Scotland. And what of the old fellow who used to book up the taxi driver to take him out with his rifle to shoot goanna each pension day? I sat on the red sand of the Western Desert eating goanna my Pitjantjatjara companions had caught and cooked, listening to them discussing the purchase of a city office block as a part of a $14 million investment strategy. Were they ‘traditional’? Were they drawing on ‘traditions’? Or are these stories evidence of the many ways of being modern?
Wiradjuri people in central New South Wales, far from being ‘cultureless’, testify to the ability of people to transform themselves under conditions of immense and violent change. The part played by their vast kin networks, their political and social values, the ways they have involved themselves in a century of political protest, deal with bureaucracies, manage conflict within and beyond their communities – these are stories most Australians do not know because to allochronise is to de-historicise, denying histories of struggle. Wiradjuri worlds are ones of seeming contradiction: university-educated people avoid a clever man, the willy wagtail warns of death, and the dead are buried after an Anglican funeral service to become spirit ancestors. It is a world in which the adult rite de passage may be jail for young men and pregnancy for young women but in which there are barristers, artists, photographers, teachers, bookkeepers, mothers and sons, planners and dreamers, and where the number of people one counts as ‘relations’ often runs into the hundreds. These are Wiradjuri experiences of modernity, often harsh but with their own successes. Being Wiradjuri still means being unwelcome in public places, in parks, cafes, bars and shops. It still means powerlessness, being unemployed, finding it hard to rent a house, spending another Christmas in jail. It means anger, resentment and oppression – whose observable signs are deflected as ‘health problems’: high blood sugar levels, depression and anxiety, suicide, alcohol abuse, physical abuse of self and others, cardiac arrest, hepatitis and leprosy. ‘Lifestyle diseases’ – the internalisation of Australia’s history of difference and indifference rendered politically-palatable when defined as bio-medical ailments. ‘Individuals’ are supposed to be able to control their health, even when the means of exercising meaningful and relevant controls within their communities has been denied them under programs in which they ‘self-manage’ their own oppression.
Indigenous rights were once denied because Indigenous peoples were not considered modern: now they are denied if they are. Native title requires them to be ‘traditional.’ The Githabul and Noongar wins in ‘non-traditional’ regions are a step towards coevalness (although being contested) but we remain shamed by the dehumanising of the Yorta Yorta, told their rights had been ‘washed away by the tide of history.’ A focus on ‘tradition’ conceals the histories of power and wealth accumulated through temporalising others. The ‘continuities of tradition’ of concern are the continuing strategies for distancing Indigenous peoples in ways that render them outside of socialities, justice and power.
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