By Larry Stillman
Acknowledgment of Aboriginal presence and identity continues to be a difficult and controversial issue. Despite formal acknowledgements such as “welcome to country” statements, or the flying of the Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander flags, it is hard to know how deeply and in what ways an understanding of what contemporary indigeneity affect us as Australians in all our complex identity.
I make this point knowing that many words in the concept in the above statement can be contested: for example, the concept of a unitary “indigeneity” when we know that there were perhaps 400 groups or peoples, not to speak of clans before 1788, and today, many people, despite the upheavals of the past or the actions during the Stolen Generation period, still continue to identify with a particular mob or group, or have created new forms of identity and affiliation. And of course, there are some people who give Australia’s first peoples no credit for who they are at all and regard their white-skinned descendants as frauds (the Andrew Bolts of the world).
I suspect that part of the problem for most of us, particularly for people in a state like Victoria and particularly for people in Melbourne who don’t go to suburbs where there has traditionally been an indigenous population, is that indigenous people are by and large invisible. In Victoria, they were so thoroughly colonized that it is easy to go through life without obviously encountering an indigenous person other than through the media via reports about sporting stars, the drastic Northern Territory National Emergency Response, better known as the Intervention, or dreadful health statistics. Occasionally we hear about outstanding members of the indigenous middle class, but that is about it.
I have been lucky enough over the years to have done some work a variety of indigenous people from different parts of the country and I know that for all of them, identity is a complex thing, to be approached very carefully if at all, and I am very aware of the dangers of untoward and accidental appropriation of indigenous symbols and beliefs. I’ve also become very aware of the sensitivities because I have other colleagues (including a number of people who identify as indigenous) who have toiled for a long time on working with indigenous people to reclaim their lost identity by locating government, mission, and other records to help them prove that “ yes! – we are people, we have families, we have connections to country”.
The critical importance of connection to country cannot be underestimated. Especially from a Jewish perspective, with its history of dispersion from many countries and places, and the rise of political Zionism, the sensitivity of many Jews to indigenous presence and rights has been high in Australia, or at least strong enough that there has been a demonstrated history of Jews being involved in land rights issues, particularly Jews involved with left Jewish groups such as the AJDS . As a qualification to this observation, it should be noted that Philip Mendes has argued that there has been overall, an under-presentation of Jews in support of indigenous rights as compared to the role played by Jews in the US civil rights movement. Thus, there was a “lack of organized and sustained Jewish advocacy for Indigenous Australians at least until the late 1980s”. [https://www.ajds.org.au/wp-content/uploads/JewishLeftAndIndigenousIssues.pdf p. 2]
Thus, a new website plus61j.net.au came on line, and featured a large photo of Ayers Rock, and this also featured on its Facebook page. At first glance, I thought, “hurrah, something to do with Indigenous Rights and Australian Jews”. However, the Facebook page only included the statement that it was “a new centre for Jewish Australia’s pro-Israel, pro-two states, pro-peace community. Sharing opinions, broadening public conversation.” By and large, the site features articles on Israel/Palestine from what might be called a middle of the road position, but not much if anything about indigeneity as far as I can see, despite the presence of Uluru. I did not think too much more about the site, and the whole issue of appropriation (my lapsus), until this message appeared on its Facebook page in early August 2015 (I have not altered the spelling).
“How dare you use uluru and portray it as the centre of jewish Australia. How dare you, have no conscience??? It is FN’s [First Nation] people’s sacred site, how dare you claim it as your own. Your arrogance and disrespect is so blatantly typical of an oppressive regime. Leave the rock, uluru and Our homelands alone. We are the caretakers and guardians of this country, which you know was forcivily taken from us by the European settlers and the English Monarchy back in 1770s, you know of the genocides that were and still being committed by their descendants to this very day, yet here you are doing the same thing, stating claim on somthing you have no right to. Tell me plz what would “Father God” say if here was here? Plz tell me, I am interested in your reply. Because if you treat your enemies with such malious and unshameful cruelty, why should you even have a place anywhere here, if your just going to do the same?? Plz reply, I am anxious to hear what your reply is going to be. Thank you. “
The response was:
“Thank you for your comment [Name removed by me]. We acknowledge Aboriginal people as the first inhabitants of Australia and Uluru as a central sacred place that symbolises that primacy for all Australians. Members of our Panel have worked over many years to promote that recognition and the rights and welfare of Aboriginal Australians and we are happy to provide more information if you send us an email address or telephone number.”
I felt that this was an incredibly patronizing answer. Even if it was only a complaint from one person, based on my experience, I thought it was a response that many indigenous people would have if they had known about the website. But based on a sense of hopelessness about having any influence, many would do nothing. This set me thinking about the issue of appropriation and powerlessness. Here we have a website that is using an important symbol of indigenous identity for its particular, other, mostly foreign purposes. The connection to Zionism, and the relative power of the Jewish community would be especially controversial.
An indigenous person had spoken out – about what was clearly felt to be cultural and political appropriation.
Plus61 had patronized indigenous Australians, particularly because it had, without the permission of the known custodians of Uluru, made a clear identification between that place and a particular Zionist agenda. I added my support to the complainant’s lament in online comments. What made me quite concerned was that the Panel (those responsible for the site content) included people with distinguished records in indigenous-related activity in the country. Why was the issue apparently not being taken seriously? I decided to get in contact with them. One person was taking a bush work in the Kimberleys – the most indigenous of places (an automatic email response), but eventually, I ended up having a very long phone conversation with another member of the editorial group. She agreed that the issue should be addressed seriously. I strongly suggested that they write some form of consciousness-raising editorial. I think I may even have suggested that they have indigenous people write some responses.
For some time, nothing seemed to happen. Then it has, well, half happened. The large photo of Uluru has been removed from the website – there is now a blank (see below), but the Facebook page remains (as above). Unfortunately, the original photo and header is not to be found on the internet in a cache or archive.org.
I find this quite, well, quite an inadequate response.
Identity is such a critical issue for indigenous Australians, but the response should not be to just block out one’s own mistakes and let the comments be buried in the website. I think the correct thing to do, as AJDS has done on its own part when found at fault, is to make public what must have been an internal debate, and at least to write something to understand what has been learned, if anything, from that episode. We do need to engage in “broadening the conversation” to quote +61J on this issue.
That the +61J website continues to focus on Israel/Palestine and religious issues, and hasn’t made an attempt to discuss in an original way indigenous identity and spirituality in light of their apparent error says to me that +61J has a very weak claim if any at all to use or make a link with an important indigenous site (and not that the photo still appears on Facebook). But be clear. I am not picking on another group in the Jewish community for the sake of it. It just happens that this even occurred in one cultural space that is important to me. It is an issue that is of course relevant to anyone who chooses to appropriate indigenous culture in any community.
More articles by Larry Stillman:
“Why isn’t the Anti-Defamation Commission responding to local racism?” 27/8/15
“Vale Steve Brook, our comrade” 19/8/14
“ECAJ, JCCV and Australian Government Donation to UNRWA” 29/7/14
“Responses to the Sodastream controversy” 16/2/14
“AJDS Letter to Julie Bishop Australian Foreign Minister” 17/1/14