Tag Archives: Tony Birch

Vincent and Neale’s Unstable Relations

Eve Vincent and Timothy Neale (editors), Unstable Relations: Indigenous People and Environmentalism in Contemporary Australia (UWAP Scholarly 2016)

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‘Be led!’

Murrawah Johnson, a Wirdi woman, was speaking last November to a mainly non-Indigenous audience in Sydney about the Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners Council’s campaign against the proposed Adani coal mine. ‘You have to learn how to be led by Indigenous people,’ she said, not hiding her frustration at the colonialist attitudes of some (many? most?) conservationists.

In some ways this rich, accessible and multi-layered collection of essays is a response to such expressions of frustration, including widely broadcast ones such as Noel Pearson’s criticism of conservationists during the Wild Rivers Act controversy in Queensland between 2005 and 2014, or Marcia Langton’s 2012 Boyer Lectures, in which she accused the white conservation movement of having for 40 years made deals with state governments ‘to deny Aboriginal people their rights as landowners and citizens of Australia’. The writers, being academics, don’t stoop to reminding us that Langton’s research for those lectures was funded largely by mining companies: they meet evidence with evidence, argument with argument. I find it hard to convey the intense pleasure of reading this kind of sustained, thoughtful, evidence-based writing in the Twitter–Trump Abbott-slogan era.

Not so long ago, the general assumption among white Australians was that there was, in the words of Neale and Vincent’s introductory chapter, ‘an essential affinity between Indigenous interests in and relations to land and water, on the one hand, and environmental objectives on the other’. That has changed. The underlying assumption in this book, however, is not that there is an essential antagonism but that relations between environmentalists and Indigenous people in Australia have ‘long been “unstable”‘, and take on ever more diverse forms. The book seeks ‘to learn more about the current status of environmental–Indigenous relations through the use of specific, empirically grounded case studies’.

Contributors include activists, historians, geographers, anthropologists and one or two people who aren’t easily classified. Though there are plenty of notes and bibliographies, the book is very readable, the kind of academic writing that addresses a readership outside the academy. Though as far as I can tell all but one of the writers are non-Indigenous, or ‘settler-Australian’, many Aboriginal voices are quoted, and most of the writers are explicit in their commitment to the ‘green–black alliance’.

The book embraces complexity. It kicks off with a look behind the headlines of Queensland’s Wild Rivers Act controversy of 2005–2014 by Timothy Neale, and then a fascinating exploration by Jon Altman of the complexities of Kuninjku people’s responses to the huge and environmentally damaging growth in buffalo populations in their part of Arnhem Land.

Richard J Martin and David Trigger travel to the Pungalina on the Gulf of Carpentaria, and describe the kinds of intercultural negotiations that are needed there between Garawa people, cattle station owners, the tourism industry, government agencies and the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (an organisation that has established a wildlife ‘sanctuary’ there).

Jessica Weir tells the story of the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations’ (MLDRIN) success in bringing an Indigenous perspective to struggles around water in the Murray–Darling system.

Robert Leviticus discusses ‘wilderness’, a problematic term that is too often understood as erasing Indigenous people. He goes on to discuss the views of David Lindner, ‘a practical conservationist who has never been a member of any organisation, but who has worked on the wetlands of the South Alligator River in Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory since 1972, and lived near or next to them since 1979, shortly after they were included in the newly declared first stage of Kakadu’, a kind of Crocodile Dundee but with less bullshit, and a better articulated respect for Yolngu relationship to the land.

Eve Vincent turns her ethnographic eye on the ‘greenies’ who follow the lead of a Kokatha woman whom she calls Aunty Joan, and manages to be both very funny (often enough at her own expense, as one of the group she is describing) and enlightening about crosscultural issues.

Stephen Muecke discusses Indigenous-Green knowledge collaborations at the James Price Point Dispute 2008–2012. The earlier settler  colonialism, he argues, has been superseded by extraction colonialism, which is even more disengaged  from the region. He quotes Nyikina leader Anne Poelina as saying that ‘we are all being colonised: it is not a black or white question any longer’.

Michaela Spencer looks at two cases of Indigenous people and environmentalists trying to work collaboratively within a neoliberal framework.

In the next three essays, activists speak.

Monica Morgan, Yorta Yorta activist, talks about the campaign to have national parks declared in the Barmah and Millewa river red gum forests  on the Victoria–New South Wales border, in which she was a key leader. She articulates a key challenge in alliances between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people on conservation issues:

One of the things we learnt was that it doesn’t matter how much – and I don’t want to be confronting to you – but however much non-Indigenous people say they are committed, in the long run they are committed to their society. I think it’s ingrained within the education: it’s ingrained with their thought patterns that they concede and they’ll work within a status quo. And I think our rights are seen in that way as well. […]

Always our people were forever saying, ‘ Well we don’t recognise your system but we acknowledge it’s there.’ we tried to push the boundaries and lay down, ‘This is who we are and this is what we think, based on our traditional knowledge.’

Whether in the end you are going to agree with it or not, it’s entirely up to you. And of course they never did.

Dave Sweeney, the Australian Conservation Foundation’s nuclear-free campaigner, and Anthony Esposito, who has worked on many environmental organisations and traditional owner organisations, both describe decades of struggle to rise to that challenge in their activism. Sweeney finds ‘profound and convincing sense’ in something  Bruce Pascoe wrote in his book Convincing Ground:

The blacks didn’t die, and the whites aren’t going away.

Tony Birch, novelist, has the final word in the book, arguing that ‘new conversations, framed through humility, are required to shake Western discourses from a sense of arrogance and apathy’. I’ll give the final word in this blog post to Dave Sweeney:

We’re the beneficiaries of crime. SO that brings with it the responsibility to actively address that. It also brings with it the requirement to suck up stuff even when it’s unfair, because there’s a bigger picture. At the same time, I don’t reckon it does an individual or a nation or a movement any good to just say ‘sorry’ all the time. Those environmental activists, those who are locking on at Jabiluka, those who are doing stuff to try and actively make a difference, did not poison waterholes. hey are the inheritors, they are the beneficiaries, but they didn’t do that stuff. And they are actively, in their life, trying to undo that stuff.

Environmental activists shouldn’t make the mistake of getting burnt, saying sorry, or, the opposite, saying ‘get lost, that’s unfair’ and withdrawing. And on the other side, Aboriginal people are generally are amazingly generous of spirit and continue to slap us around a little bit, continue to jerk the chain, remind us of the power imbalance. But don’t have it set in concrete that you cannot ever be other than a colonial thief. Otherwise we’re in a frozen, no-good zone.

 

Overland 225

Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 225 (Summer 2016)

overland225.jpegI’m late at getting to this issue of Overland – sorry! One advantage of lateness, though, is that just about everything from this issue has been uploaded to the Overland web site, so I can give lots of links.

There’s always a prize or two in Overland. Nº 225 has the Fair Australia Prize, supported by the National Union of Workers, and the Story Wine Prize, whose winners get to appear on the labels of wines produced by The Story Wines, a small Melbourne company.

The Fair Australia Prize includes prizes for poetry, fiction, a cartoon and an essay. Of the winners, Stephen Wright’s essay On setting yourself on fire, stands out: it begins with the horrifying phenomenon of self-immolating Tibetan monks and expends into a rumination on the demands of activism. (Incidentally, he talks about dozens of monks, but I believe it’s more like hundreds – see Martin Kovan’s article in a 2013 Overland.)

Only the first place winner of the wine prize, ‘Sweeping‘ by Cameron Weston, appears in the hard copy journal. It’s a masterly piece of compression. The runners-up are online.

Elsewhere, as always with Overland, the articles provide useful counterpoint to the mainstream narrative, with an occasional oddity. The one I found most interesting was ‘The antis‘ by Liam Byrne, about the campaign against conscription in the First World War. Byrne starts with the assertion that this is a forgotten piece of Australian history, which surprised me, but if he’s right – in spite of writing as if the campaign happened almost entirely in Victoria thing, he has done a good job of jogging the collective memory:

At its root, the conscription campaign was about the future of a country being decided by the mass of people who lived in it. It was about them deciding who would go to war; either those who chose to, or those the government selected. This act of mass democracy unleashed social energies in an act of political creation. It was a time when the working-class citizens of the country, so often denied a political voice, made themselves heard.

There are essays on Donald Trump (accompanied by an image of Trump as the Joker) and Pauline Hanson (by Vashti Kenway, a nice reminder when read alongside David Marr’s Quarterly Essay that parliamentary politics is not the only game in town), on class, women (one on Joan Didion’s influence, one on ‘feminine’ robots) and Indigenous Australia (‘Cultural appropriation is not empathy. It is stealing someone else’s story, someone else’s voice’ – Jeanine Leanne) . An article on Julia Gillard’s speeches sets out to discuss their poetics, but pays attention mostly to the manner of their delivery and their reception by the press and social media. Another on the state of the working class  gives university lecturers, hardly the group most people would think of as typical workers, as a key example of increasing precariousness. Alison Croggon’s regular column distinguishes interestingly between invisibility (sometimes desirable) and erasure (definitely not desirable).

There are two fine short fictions apart from the prize winners – Liam by Tony Birch and  Agistment by Alex Philp.

The big poetry feature is a collaborative work, On the occasion of Gig Ryan’s sixtieth birthday. Seventeen Australian poets contributed two stanzas each to a Sapphic ode for the event. The result is as impressively impenetrable as much of Ryan’s work.

There are some fabulous illustrations. Sam Wallman, who did the cover art, has a double spread that beautifully fills the promise of its caption, ‘Hand made signs at the anti-Trump rally in New York City on the first Saturday after the election November 2016’. Brent Stegeman gives us Donald Trump as the Joker and Pauline Hanson as a literally flaming redhead.