By unconsciously participating in this process we do worse than ignore the other, we subjugate and de-value it. When I climbed the mountain without any ethical investigation into its significance and meaning, I too was participating in this process, or to use the more idiomatic, by climbing Mt. Warning, I was walking all over Wollumbin. Following the notion that “to name is to own” (Barcan et al 1999 p.48) further inequities emerge when I deconstruct the ownership of this place.
Where Wollumbin belongs to the spirits, ancestors and people of the Bundjalung (Nayutah et al 1988), Mt. Warning belongs to the Crown. Ownership of land in a Western sense differs dramatically from its Aboriginal counterpart. Where it suggests control and dominion in a European understanding, Indigenous ownership suggests responsibility, custodianship and identity. Rather than the land belonging to them, Indigenous Australians see themselves as “belonging to the land” (Parbury 1988 p.14).
Indigenous artist, Jimmy Pike beautifully articulated the essence of this disparity from an Aboriginal perspective when he asked how the Queen of England could possibly own his Walmajarri land when “she doesn’t even know where the water holes are” (O’donnell, Christopher 2001 p. 4). Indigenous ownership is intrinsic to identity and belonging. In other words, ownership is a practice rather than an abstract apprehension or allocation in the European colonial sense. It is this practice that creates Aboriginal space.
It follows therefore that the Aboriginal understanding of Michel de Certeau’s notion that space is a “practised place” (de Certeau 1984 p. 117) might be space is an owned place. While this may also be true of some European notions of ownership, Indigenous identity cannot be separated from the land like European identity can, especially “New-World” European identity. “New” Australians are historically one of the most voluntarily mobile populations in the Western world (ABS, 2004). It is considered quite normal to buy and sell (su)real estate and regularly pack up and move on, whereas Indigenous notions of place are not so interchangeable.
Bob Hodge writes that because of the meanings attached to specific landscapes by Indigenous Australians, their dislocation has deprived them of the very basis of their semiotic existence (Hodge in Barcan et al, 1999 pp. 63-64). Aboriginal ways of knowing espouse a conscious connection to the land that is a very real and very natural relationship for Aboriginal people. It is a concept best conveyed through an Aboriginal voice. Indigenous poet Billy Neidjie describes it thus; “That tree, grass… that all like our father. Dirt, earth, I sleep with this earth.
Grass…just like your brother. In my blood in my arms this grass. This dirt for us because we’ll be dead, we’ll be going this earth. This the story now. (Neidjie, 1989) Dr Deborah Bird Rose, Senior Fellow at the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies at the Australian National University calls this concept a “land ethic” (quoting Aldo Leopold); “the land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants and animals” (Rose 1988 p. 378). European understanding struggles with this notion in anything other than the abstract.
This, I suspect, is based on a Judah-Christian European construct of life that positions “mankind” (sic) atop a static pyramid of dominion over all other life whereas Aboriginal constructs view life as an interconnected chain – no link being of greater importance than another. It is these two different cultural approaches to life and the land that underpin the production of our two sites. In Our Land Our Spirit, Jolanda Nayutah describes Wollumbin as the Bundjalung’s most important initiation site for men, “In traditional Aboriginal life, only the fully initiated men could go to the top of the mountain” (Nayutah et al 1988 p.21).
To the Bundjalung people, the practice (ownership) of Wollumbin created a sacred social space – referred to in our vernacular as a sacred site. In 1875, after an estimated forty centuries of continual practice of place, recorded Indigenous rituals at Wollumbin abruptly ceased – fourteen years after the arrival of European agriculture and thirty one years after arrival of the “cedar-getters”, “the social and economic structure of Aboriginal Society [had] collapsed” (NPWS 1985 pp.6-8).
Throughout the latter half of the 20th C, Indigenous practise of Wollumbin was slowly revived through the re-gathering of scattered knowledge by the descendents of the original inhabitants. The practice of Mt. Warning by non indigenous Australians has changed considerably over the last two centuries. Though originally seen as a source of natural resources, more recently the recreational, ecological, geological, physiographic and historic values have taken precedence. Mt.Warning was deemed “Forest Reserve” in 1904, notified for “Public Recreation and Preservation of Native Flora” in 1909 and finally declared a “National Park” in 1966 (ibid pp. 8-11).
The main activities undertaken are recreation and tourism which in turn are the primary concerns of the current management plan (ibid p. 1). The disparity of these spaces, I feel, makes the possibility of co-operative futures difficult. In Climbing Wollumbin I referred to a “collision of cultures” and an “intersection of unfinished stories” (Feain 2003 p.19), using the metaphors of traffic and travel to allude to the possibility of new stories and negotiations.
Though well intentioned, in hindsight this was somewhat naive. Since exploring the cultural inequities I’ve discussed in this essay, the notion of an intersection would be erroneous in that it suggests engagement and negotiation with an alternative flow of traffic. The more appropriate analogy might be that of a freight train running a railway crossing.
When I reassess the gap between my expectations and experience of climbing Mt.Warning, it is clear now that my trauma was caused by the incongruity of meanings and the disparity in the practices of this place. In fact it shocks me to find that by simply engaging in an apparently healthy and harmless cultural activity I was a semi-conscious participant in the subjugation of Wollumbin and the continued de-valuing of another culture. I say “semi-conscious” now because, as I mentioned earlier (par. 4), I was aware of Wollumbin before I climbed. My “imaginary geographies” (Baldwin et al 2004 p. 174) had it well and truly located.
My personal trauma is thus explained, and in doing so, has woken me from a coma induced by another trauma – the vast cultural trauma of dispossession and genocide. Resolution of this trauma will not be so simple. Peter Read (from the Centre for Cross Cultural Research at the Australian National University) optimistically advocates the notion of “parallel belonging” in his adventurous book Belonging (Read 2000 pp. 134 ; 210). This almost poetic text is full of anecdotal warmth yet produces few solid signposts. His steps to “mature belonging” (ibid p.210) where he interprets a walk with his Indigenous friend as symbolising our cultures co-existing comes across a little over-simplistically.
Stephen Muecke, Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Technology, Sydney offers more useful ideas when he speaks about a shift from old “imaginary geographies” – the epic us-and-them type narratives that polarise Indigenous and other Australians – to “‘nomadic’ narratives where smaller ‘mental maps’ full of meaning, fuss and everydayness are arguably better to think through specific problems” (Muecke in Barcan et al 1999 p.128).
Such a notion proposes the employment of personal tactics in the face of problematic strategies like the reconciliation movement and could empower individuals bogged down in the cultural quagmire of inherited collective guilt. Regardless of their merits, both ideas have one thing in common – they are new ways of practicing old places. I doubt we can merge our old meanings but perhaps through such practices we can produce new spaces of mutual meanings.
1. I didn’t discover this fact until researching this essay. 2.The complex and semioticly rich social organisation of Indigenous Australia was centred on the extended family rather than the Western idea of “tribes”. Though essentially erroneous in description of Aboriginal social structures, the term has been re-adopted by Indigenous people seeking a broader kind of identification (Berndt et al 1992 p. 40).
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