The rigid restrictions placed on what culture and cultural heritage are ‘allowed’ to be do not help Indigenous groups. In fact, they can be damaging to them.
In 2011, I spent some time working as a student anthropologist in Queensland Native Title Courts. The grand and imposing building, highly formal atmosphere and tiny office space I was allocated (I’d love to say it was windowless to add to the effect, but I’m afraid in reality it had quite a beautiful view of the river) were about as far removed from the naive visions I’d had of applied anthropology as you could get. But then again, as I would learn, the process of legal anthropology in Australian Native Title (land claims) work was about as far removed from actual anthropology as you could get too.
In Australia, the way in which indigenous people can legally own the land that they have always lived and hope to continue to live on is decided by a process based on proof of continuity. In essence, this means huge regions of people must prove links to every inch of the land they ‘claim’ to inhabit through the historical tracing of ancestry there back through the generations. It was the job of the anthropologists to help trace genealogies, study archaeological evidence on site, and conduct linguistic studies of the language groups in the claim regions.
This last element was the stickler for the claim group I was working on. A by-law in the land claims process was that if more than one group claimed to occupy a region of land, they would effectively go head to head in a court of law, fighting each other over whose claim to it was more legitimate. In my first six weeks there, the case I worked on had originally started out with two competing claims for one region, but had quickly and tragically split into three due to the results of a linguistic examination. It had traced one of the claimant families back to a language group ‘somewhere further east’. It didn’t matter that their children had lived there, as well as their children’s children, and had settled, integrated and lived quite harmoniously in this region after that point. This group were settlers, the split of the group – despite our best efforts – damaged the claims of all three groups, and in the end, the case was thrown out entirely. The land legally belonged to none of them.
And why was the migration of one indigenous group – hundreds of years before – damaging to the claims of all of them to legally own the land they lived on? Oh, because of migration from hundreds of years before. The entire native title law is based around the idea of ‘Terra Nullus’ – latin, I’m sure for, “Queen says its MINE”. In other words, this means that – even if she or any white settlers from the 1800’s had never even stepped foot on this land – it legally (all of it, the entire land mass of Australia) belongs to the Queen of England and her Australian government. They’ll give it back, but only after they’ve set up a few thousand hoops to jump through and define, in law, the requirement for nothing to have changed in that region the entire time. Nothing. Must. Have. Changed between pre-colonisation and 21st century Australian living.
I know what you’re thinking – this system of entitlement, indigeneity and proof sounds like the wet dreams of the British Far Right. The British National Party (BNP), and their recent ‘charitable’ doings of organising food banks for needy,’indigenous’ Brits are a perfect example of this. As long as you can prove your links to this somewhat smaller, somewhat greyer island, you can take as many tins as you’d like. This blatantly unfair, manipulative guise of ‘welfare’ or charity – while far, I’d hope, from actual laws and the need for genealogy charts – has a startlingly similar assumption to what ‘culture’ and ‘heritage’ are as the Australian legal system. Both work on the basis of an unchanging, rigid, and completely unrealistic system of proof that – low and behold – seeks to serve those at an existing power advantage. This uninfluencable image of culture isn’t just unfair; it’s not human.
This is not to say culture is not important. In fact, its critical. But it should be recognised as a fluid, negotiated and human process just as susceptible to change, reinterpretation and evolution as any other part of life. It should be recognised within the prism of unfair power relations, a cruel history of migration, colonisation and oppression and of the need to allow for change and human nature to be recognised for what they are.
Throughout our new culture section, we have looked at the term ‘culture’ – particularly in relation to Indigeneity, our first theme – within this view. We set out to find examples of renegotiation of what aboriginal culture means, through social media, blogging and the advancement of citizen journalism. At the heart of this is, was the recognition of the opportunities 21st century technology and access has allowed marginalised groups in re-representing themselves through alternative media – challenging widely held mainstream norms about what they ‘are’, and redefining this category in the very process of talking to and about themselves.
As always, creative, young, and diverse people are embracing and shaping new ways of portraying themselves, and of acting out ‘culture’. The political sphere, the legal system and – to a large extent – the mainstream media need to recognise this fluid and so obviously nature of culture as true before it another opportunity to embrace change – and decrease marginalization – is lost.