Ubirr Open-mouth Mimi 2

An excerpt from my latest column for the International New York Times on the debate about Indigenous rights in Australia. It was published under the headline ‘The New Voice for Indigenous Australia‘:

The debate about Indigenous peoples seems – at least to me, an outsider – to take place on only two registers: on one hand, silence; on the other, a romanticization of indigenous life.

It may seem odd to speak of silence in a nation where the issue of Indigenous rights is so prominent in public life. But silence can come in many forms. The affirmation of Indigenous ownership at public events has become little more than a ritual incantation that allows white Australians to assuage guilt without taking the action necessary to challenge racist marginalization.

Equally troubling is the romanticization. It has become the accepted truth that indigenous peoples have a culture stretching back 65,000 years. Humans have been on the continent for that long, but no culture extends over such a time span. Today’s Indigenous Australians no more have the same relationship to the spiritual tradition of Dreamtime stories as did those first inhabitants than modern Greeks relate to ‘The Iliad’ in the way their ancient forebears did.

The idea of an unbroken, unchanged culture has a flip side that has always animated racists. It was once used to portray Indigenous Australians, and other nonwhite races, as primitive and incapable of development. Likewise with another common claim: that Indigenous people have a special attachment to the land and a unique form of ecological wisdom. This, too, draws on an old racist trope, a reworking of the ‘noble savage’ myth. The fact that in contemporary debates such ideas are deployed in support, rather than denial, of Indigenous rights does not make them more palatable.

Read the full article in the International New York Times.



The image is from cave art at Ubirr, in Kakadu, Northern Territory.

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