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Respect and Indigenous interconnectivity

Mike Leggett reports from the Fulbright Symposium in Darwin

Mike Leggett acknowledges assistance from the Australian Film Commission for him to attend the Fulbright Symposium, offers thanks to the organisers and participants, and respect to the Larrakia people, on whose land we met.

“I thank the organisers of the Fulbright Symposium for the invitation to speak and I pay my respects to the Larrakia people on whose Land we meet,” stated the first speaker. This was an acknowledgment picked up and repeated by each speaker who followed, by Indigenous and non-indigenous representatives alike, from all the five continents. It characterised and set the tone for four days of entwining dialogue, exposition and revelation that celebrated the Indigenous cultures of Australia in an interconnected world. It was about Respect—respect amongst a world community of cultures who have survived the onslaughts of colonisation.

Sitting in the tranquil gardens of the Art Gallery and Museum of the Northern Territory in Darwin, breathing the pungent tropical air cooled by winter breezes, with the Arafura Sea as a backdrop to the proceedings and cultural expression happening all around as the talking continued, the sense of an eventual positive outcome for Aboriginal communities was irresistible. The political realities for Indigenous Australians however, are another matter, and were reflected within the Symposium itself—conflicts over Aboriginal representation and the professional ambitions of academics and anthropologists; conflicts over the objectivity of a session on Mining sponsored by Rio Tinto; and doubts even about the productive outcomes from such an event.

As a briefing for the non-indigenous the outcome was palpable. The complexity of describing Land and Country and its centrality to the culture—without the Land there is no culture—came from many viewpoints, and most convincingly from Indigenous speakers. Kinship and community, Law and Knowledge unify the custodians within egalitarian principles long regarded as sacred. These are principles that challenge the basis of non-indigenous society, politicians, miners, pastoralists, artists and cultural workers alike.

The flourishing of visual arts throughout the communities who have secured the stewardship of their traditional lands demonstrates these principles. The richness and variety of work not only in the Museum’s collection but also in the tourist shops in town testify to this.

The interconnectedness of the communities and the continuing embrace of technological means to develop that sense of community/communicability was the broad emphasis given to the symposium. The implications of cyberspace and digital media were only occasionally, but tantalisingly, amplified, and these I outline in this short report.

David Nathan from the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Studies (AIATSIS) gave a succinct but dense account of the issues and outcomes of the adoption of the Internet by many communities, in particular the innovations that have occurred. There are approximately 60 websites now related to Indigenous matters, 40% of which are run by indigenous organisations—these are all linked at [expired].

Prime among these is the site run by the community at Maningrida in Arnhem Land for more than two years now, ( - expired). The site is designed to make visible to the rest of the world the full range of public cultural tradition found in the clan estates that comprise this Country through a catalogue of visual works and essays.

Whilst this has been useful for the direct marketing to a worldwide audience of cultural artefacts, Peter Danaja and Murray Garde from the community described some of the drawbacks of being so available—even at the end of a 400-kilometre line from Darwin. For instance, electronic colonisation-by-response from New Agers seeking instruction for the purposes of establishing their individual spiritual needs through the borrowing of Indigenous cultural knowledge and skills (particularly in the playing of the didjeridu, “the mother of all flutes” amongst cult Northern Hemisphere groupings), has created demands quite impossible to meet. However, as access to the internet spreads across Arnhem Land and beyond, it is regarded in a more positive way as being like a linked kinship system, with allied projects such as the building of an oral history database being part of a long-term project for later use by families. As Kathryn Wells observed in an early session: "Indigenous art and Culture is re-shaping and re-claiming a subjective identity for Indigenous people in a global context and is thus re-defining non-indigenous cultural definitions of 'authenticity' in terms of Indigenous definitions of authorship."

Chris ‘Bandirra’ Lee has been establishing cultural recognition, knowledge and respect for the communities of Queensland through the Indiginet project attached to QANTM Co-operative Multimedia Centre based in Brisbane (also with an office in Darwin). Digital networks are being integrated with the more traditional networks with an emphasis on access and training for these communities and with a wider access to be given to the global community when the time is right.

The network metaphor also extends to off-line formats. Moorditj, one of the DoCA funded Cultural Expressions on CD-ROM Projects is due for completion in 1998. Under the direction of Leslie Bangama Fogarty and Richard Walley (“We’re fed up with teaching without having control...”), the CD-ROM examines the work of 200 Indigenous artists through interactive linking in relation to four themes: firstly land, law and language; secondly cultural maintenance and ceremony; thirdly, the influence of other cultures; and finally, social justice and survival.

The Jurassic technologies of phone, radio, television, satellites and, more recently, the Telstra planned ISDN links were referred to by many speakers, all extolling the benefits enjoyed through the adoption of these technologies (in particular Kevin Rangi from Aotearoa National Maori Radio). Some pointed to the dangers to communities of half-resourced or incomplete projects—“Well, the cable wouldn’t quite reach…” While the symposium progressed, papers and interviews were broadcast across remote communities in Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific and Asia by third year Broadcast to Remote Area Community Services (BRACS) students of NT’s Batchelor College.

Many speakers referred to copyright reform and intellectual property rights in the digital age. Terri Janke launched Our Culture, Our Future, the principles and guidelines currently being submitted for adoption by the UN Human Rights Sub-Commission. Michael Mansell questioned the collection of genetic property from the world’s Indigenous peoples, and objected to non-indigenous notions of ownership over culture. In a later session we were reminded of the trust that had been extended to scholars when collecting artefacts 30, 50 to 100 years earlier, and making sound and image documentation of Aboriginal culture. Many compromises had since occurred to this trust and with this material, including its exploitation on websites in a form unauthorised by its traditional owners.

The symposium had much vibrant activity at the edges including a French anthropologist demonstrating a digital archive of stories and paintings based on the dreaming tracks and song cycles of a desert community. Two Indigenous artists resident in Tasmania, Harri Higgs from Nira Nina Bush Place and Julie Gough of the University of Tasmania in Hobart, resolved Palawa Aboriginal law issues in Darwin around forms of representation that had been used in works exhibited in Hobart.

The symposium emphasised the many facets that construct Respect. The final speaker Galarawuy Yunupingu spoke of the imperative in respecting the land as a living entity from which we are all born and to which Indigenous knowledge and the cultural basis of Native Title is intrinsically linked. The symposium showed that the resourcing and recognition of Indigenous skills, knowledge, place and their cultural practice within a global continuum is necessary if we are to survive in any meaningful way.

Within weeks, the Howard government's introduction of legislation based on the ‘Ten Point Plan', (rebuffing the High Court Wik decision recognising historically proven joint custodianship of pastoral leases) represents a rebuttal of shared stewardship of the land and country with Australia’s Indigenous people.

Respect for land, law and country is a lesson still to be taught to the non-indigenous policy-makers as we embrace an inter-connected world.

Mike Leggett acknowledges assistance from the Australian Film Commission for him to attend the Fulbright Symposium, offers thanks to the organisers and participants, and respect to the Larrakia people, on whose land we met.

RealTime issue #21 Oct-Nov 1997 pg. 20

© Mike Leggett; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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