Last Wednesday, Warren Mundine called for changes to the native title claims process and advocated a series of treaties between Aboriginal “nations” and the Australian nation state. The head of the Prime Minister’s Advisory Council is given to programmatic pronouncements on welfare reform, extolling the merits of the pretty much meritless Forrest Review, and recycling the themes of Marcia Langton’s 2012 Boyer Lectures, but this speech raises quite different questions, contradicts other of Mundine’s views and is interesting for those reasons. Guy Rundle’s response on Friday misses a few crucial things. I propose thinking more seriously and a little more slowly about what’s going on here.

Rundle maps out two possible ways of formulating a contemporary indigenous identity, or more precisely of conceiving of Aboriginal peoplehood. There are more, to be sure, but these two are crucial.

We might think of Aboriginality as something to do with pre-colonial cultural and social forms, as a question of origins, and as something realised through processes of excavation, reclamation and the reproduction of those forms. Or we might think of the way the unified category of Aboriginal was brought into being by the colonial encounter and speaks of a shared history and the shared condition of being the invaded: the colonised in a settler colonial society. The 1972 Tent Embassy dramatised this shared condition — that was its brilliance. It’s no coincidence that the Aboriginal flag, the proud symbol of a unified, historicised collective identity, was designed and popularised in the same era.

Rundle tells us authoritatively that the second model just is how peoplehood is brought into being and experienced, it’s the relation to other categories of peoples that matter. But it ain’t 1972. Over the last two decades especially, the native title claims process has reorganised the grounds on which indigenous identities are made, lived and legitimised. State processes are at work here, and resources are at stake. Put simply, the native title era has stimulated a return to “mythopoetic origins”. To embrace an Aboriginality formed through the vicissitudes of colonial history — through shared experiences of dispossession, disjunction, movement and a deep entanglement with settler colonial economies and people — has become a liability within a system widely acknowledged to be unfair. The more “unchanged” Aboriginal groups can prove themselves to be, the more they might hope to gain. Those who have lost the most stand little chance of satisfying the requirements for continuity.

Mundine proposes to do away with the stress on continuity within native title. It’s hard to see that happening, but there’s something significant being said here. Are we seeing the beginnings of a movement back towards the very kind of collective Aboriginal identity Rundle not only sees as desirable but assumes to be obvious, without seeming to realise how arduous that is to sustain in the present?

Second, as much as state-authored processes have compelled Aboriginal groups to identify with and retrieve some version of a pre-colonial way of being, and as problematic, “cunning” and retrograde as native title is in this regard, there’s more to the story than this. Everywhere across Australia there’s an enormous amount of enthusiastic language revival work going on, for example. There’s a power in the primordial past that passes Rundle by. Going back to an identity sourced in distinctive, localised origins connects contemporary Aboriginal people with a past that many see as a source of strength: a whole world existed before becoming “the invaded”. I have worked with Aboriginal people who relish recalling a time of perceived autonomy, health and abundance.

Third, I’m struck by the fact that everyone within these debates seem to do exactly what they accuse others of doing. Langton sketches the “economic Aborigine” and the “cultural Aborigine”, and says the latter is a creation of progressive Australia’s imagination. Progressive Australia, Langton argues, cannot grant the “economic Aborigine” a reality. There’s something in this argument, and I take it seriously. But Langton, Mundine et al can’t grant Aboriginal environmentalists a reality, and so condemn, again, Aboriginal people to existing in the pre-formulated, imagined terms of more powerful others.

Similarly Guy Rundle despairs at the thought of Aboriginality being rebiologised and traced only through descent. Yes, that would be nightmarish, although it doesn’t really seem to be what Mundine is saying. But Rundle seems to have no qualms in intervening confidently into the question of how Aboriginalities are formed. Sorry, but non-Aboriginal people can’t sit around and hope that Aboriginal people will make their Aboriginality out of the symbolic and political resources that most appeal to them. Further, not accounting for the social and political conditions that make certain identities more or less possible gets us nowhere. Mundine’s speech just might be a rare invitation to grapple with these complexities.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey