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The importance of Indigenous Australians’ self-representation in any medium in local Aboriginal Lang


According to the AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia, boundaries between Aboriginal languages and social groups are very different than in the past, and continuously evolving: this map is complex, and gives an idea of the richness and variety of Aboriginal cultures.



However, even today Indigenous Australians do not receive the recognition they deserve as populations with their own differences and singularity, history, knowledge and heritage. Moreover, in the past it has often happened that others have spoken on Aboriginal Australian’s identity, trying to define them without knowing the Indigenous’ perspective on their own cultures. This is why today, more than ever, it is important that Indigenous voices are heard in any medium in order to have a complete and fair representation of Aboriginal Australians populations.


In the past decades, Aboriginal people never had the occasion to have a cultural exchange with the invaders, as they were associated to ‘lower races’ by European occupiers and soon stigmatized as ‘primitives’ according to the scientific theories that were trying to explain the biological differences between people.

Because of that, over time ‘the inferiority of the indigenous population was accepted by many colonized 'natives' who internalized the racial stereotypes and the domination which sustained them’ (Fanon, F 1967 in Hollinsworth, D 1998, p.43). Moreover, European nations began to believe in a sort of superiority, both racial and cultural, after their economic and military domination, and this superiority was thought to be generated by the differences, interpreted as permanent, between the dominated and the dominant (Kiernan, 1969 and Malik, 1996 in Hollinsworth, D 1998).



Alexis Wright

Luckily, in recent times Aboriginal people have started to change this situation: slowly, more and more Indigenous voices try to find their own space in the social discourse, giving a new, truthful representation of Aboriginal identities.

Although, despite their efforts, racism remains strong to this day: quoting Wright (2002, p. 15), an Aboriginal Australian writer, ‘I see similar processes happening today where words are being used as weapons to flog Aboriginal people (...) in the denial of Indigenous rights, denial of history, and decades of denial of essential services for our communities.’ Furthermore, Australians still have a strong power on Aboriginal lands, as soon as they impose English names on Country (Rose, D 1996) and its organic elements: on account of this, original names are eventually forgotten, as well as their pronunciation.


Besides, ‘Attaching names to landscapes legitimizes the ownership of the culturally dominant group that ‘owns’ the names. The process is accepted as natural, representing a ‘given’, that this country belongs to and is a white Australia’ (Birch, T 2003, p.150). This behavior suggests that Australians maintain the imperialistic spirit which guided them during the colonization. These reflections show how important it is that Indigenous people use their languages to self-determinate, starting from describing themselves and their Country with their own languages.


Self-representation is essential in that it gives us an inside point of view on cultures and knowledge of Aboriginal Australians. It encourages the interest in understanding them, it creates bridges between non-Aboriginal scientists and Indigenous scholars to share discoveries, techniques, instruments, medicinal remedies, the usage of resources and more over the capacity to act respecting nature, in order to preserve it and to develop human societies. If more possibilities were given to Indigenous people to share their heritage and experiences, they would be able to help their languages and cultures to stay alive, to honor the ancestors and to be seen by others as a richness.


In recent times, a few Acts (such as the Racial Hatred Act of 1995), Codes of Ethics and Protocols for regulation and self-regulation of industries were released in order to respect Aboriginal Australians’ image in broadcasting services (and not only), and to protect intellectual property of Indigenous’ productions. However, despite the existing guidance and laws in Australia, too many journalists, writers and public personalities are not always aware that they tend to give negative, inaccurate and stereotyped representations of Indigenous lives and issues; this happens almost every day in newspaper articles. As Stockwell and Scott (2000, p.29) argue, ‘Acceptance or rejection of a person’s claims of Aboriginality can only come from within the Aboriginal community, so broad and sensitive consultation with community members is the best way to determine a person’s Aboriginality’.



The Aboriginal flag

The two professors emphasize the necessity for Australian authors to find personal connections with Indigenous people, in such a manner that also non-Aboriginal people are able to present correctly Indigenous communities in the news media, but also in any other production. However, the best way to tell Aboriginal stories would be to let Indigenous people speak for themselves: in fact, only an Aboriginal person would be able to seize the complexity of Aboriginal people’s identity.

In addition, the right of Indigenous people to define themselves is a part of the wider right to self-determination (Dodson, 2003 p.31), which concerns every aspect of life, even the choice of their own flag.

But against this, Dodson himself affirms that ‘there is ample evidence that Aboriginality will continue to be defined and constructed for Aboriginal peoples’ (2003, p. 32), and that self-representation of Aboriginality was, and still is, deeply influenced by others’ definitions, as well as the way in which that representation is conveyed in public, as ‘our different voices may be heard once again only in the language of the alien tongue’ (Dodson, 2003 p.39).


That’s why personalities such as Kim Scott and Alexis Wright are so important. The dual Miles Franklin award winning writer is an example for everyone, as he was able to get a national recognition for his ability in presenting Noongar history and culture through his semi-biographical novels, giving at the same time relevance to Noongar language. Also Wright is an outstanding woman of culture, who fiercely stands for defending Indigenous rights. She acknowledges the power of writers and their words, and how their voices are echoes for years of speeches, protests and silences. ‘Literature is a very good tool for speaking out about the pain of humanity for Aboriginal culture in this country’ (Wright, 2002 p.13).

As many others media, a book is able to reflect writers’ emotions to an audience, immersing it in the author’s world and imagination. Wright says that ‘our words are weapons too. Our books are time bombs and already breaking down many barriers on their way across the world’ (2002, p.20). There is still, for sure, a long way to reach equality, but Indigenous Australian literature seems to be on the right path to make things better.


In Nourishing Terrains (1996), Rose gives many examples of wonderful poems and songs dedicated to Country, an identity to which each Indigenous Australian community feels connected. It’s easy to imagine how beautiful those writings would be if they were written in the Aboriginal language of the writers’ families. The reason why such languages are being decreasingly spoken is why they have to be protected from extinction. The way in which Country is described, as it was a mother to whom its sons refer to with love, is not powerful enough to recreate the meaningful stream of images that is surely given by the Aboriginal terms.

Anyone else apart from Indigenous Australians would be able to describe that connection with the land. For instance, Rose (1996, pp.10-11) suggests that the English name for Country is ‘landscape’, which results empty compared to the energetic vitality of which the term ‘Country’ is filled with.


Finally, regarding to the usage of words, Onus (2003, p.94) adds that ‘language is the foundation upon which a cultural revival can be built, not just something that describes or gives information (...) each language brings with it a unique set of perceptions and understandings of the individual’s relationships within the greater society’.

Nevertheless, Aboriginal identity’s expression does not come only from writing forms of art, such as poetry, narrative and news media: figurative and musical arts also play an important role in shaping a new, complex description of Indigenous culture. According to Onus (2003), art has always been categorized as less relevant than other productions: however, it also shares the cultural heritage of a population, expressing through images Aboriginal Australian’s identity.

The author seems confident that Indigenous artists are increasingly finding their own space of expression among other artists, and that ‘although the artists’ materials may change, the imagery and stories will remain strong and everlasting’ (Onus 2003, p.96).


In an interview conducted by Minter (2006, p.145), Brook Andrew, a contemporary conceptual art’s Indigenous artist, argues that ‘the ability to tell our own stories through art (...) is a powerful means to reclaim the right to our own history and life’. In fact, referring to what Michael Dodson (2003, p.32) said about Aboriginal identity, it can be claimed that art is classified and talked about from a mainstream white perspective as well, and this is why Andrew reacted to alien labels with the black arts movement, that critics this behavior looking at art from an Indigenous Australians perspective instead of the dominant one.

Aboriginal songwriter Eddie Peters

Brook Andrew’s works and statements are another example of how more and more Aboriginal people nowadays are trying to tell their stories, and to give value to their production. Intellectual property rights protecting Indigenous people’s artifacts are also applied to art but, according to Terry Janke (2012), the current intellectual property law framework needs to be improved.


There are still too many episodes of willful appropriation of Aboriginal art and vilification of Indigenous spiritual believes, episodes that should be sanctioned by the law but that most of the time are not considered worthy of being discussed and solved by the court (on this point, Janke presents many case studies as an example, such as the Wandjina sculpture fact in the Blue Mountains, which was one of the few episodes in which at the end the issue has been solved).

In ‘Our culture: our future’ another of her publications (1998), the lawyer explains that Indigenous people have the right to possess their heritage. It should be recognized that the foundation of a group’s identity is based on its languages, knowledge, artifacts and history; this recognition is important in that, even if it’s important that Indigenous people speak for themselves in their own languages and ways of expression, their voices cannot be truly recognized and heard without some form of legal protection, one that they deserve just as much as any other Australian.


Finally, for what concerns cinema and television production, it can be said that even if there are protocols that establish guidance, no specific law was passed to protect wrong representation in Australian media, and Aboriginal people films and broadcasting services.

Since 1980, CAAMA, the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association, publishes contents which express Indigenous culture, but still, in forty years no critical theory on Aboriginal filmmakers’ production has been written. Indigenous directors aren’t still considered enough in their role as artists, despite the key part they have in the inner representation of Aboriginal societies and communication of their culture. In every culture, film production has always had an essential role in the communication of the values, history and organisation of a society.


As soon as a work is recognized worldwide, its importance as an historical document remains trough time, and records the cultural frame in which it was shaped. For example, Green Bush by Warwick Thornton is an open window on the director’s community, on Aboriginal music, rights movements, art.

For all it has been said, it should be acknowledged that to preserve Indigenous languages, terms, and to protect the Aboriginal right to self definition and self determination is essential in order to avoid the extinction of precious pieces of Australia’s history.

Now more than ever Indigenous people need to take back their names, knowledge and courage, and to continuously find a way to share Aboriginal people’s identity through every medium, so as to bring the world a complex and complete image of various Indigenous societies, cultures and life styles.


References

Birch, T 2003, ‘ ‘Nothing has changed’: the making and unmaking of Koori culture’, in Grossman, M (ed.), Blacklines : contemporary critical writing by indigenous Australians, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Victoria, pp. 145-158.

Dodson, M 2003, ‘The end in the beginning: re(de)finding Aboriginality’, in Grossman, M (ed.), Blacklines : contemporary critical writing by indigenous Australians, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Victoria, pp. 25-42.

Horton, D 1996, AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia, AUSTRALIAN INSTITUTE OF ABORIGINAL AND TORRES STRAIT ISLANDER STUDIES, last reviewed 25 September 2018, viewed 2 October 2018,

https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/articles/aiatsis-map-indigenous-australia

Hollinsworth, D. 1998, ‘'Race' : what it is, and is not’, Race & racism in Australia/, 2nd. edition, Social Science Press, Katoomba, New South Wales, pp.29-45.

Janke, T and Lawson, P, New Tracks: Indigenous knowledge and cultural expression and the Australian Intellectual Property System, 2012, Terri Janke & Company Pty Ltd, Rosebery, News South Wales, pp.4-8

Janke, T 1998, Our Culture : Our Future. Report on Australian Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights, Part 1, Chapter 1.

Minter, P 2006, ‘Telling our own stories [interview]. Peter Minter talks with artist Brook Andrew’, BLACK TIMES. Meanjin: New Writing in Australia, vol. 65 no.1, pp.141-147

Onus, L 2003, ‘Language and lasers’, in Grossman, M (ed.), Blacklines : contemporary critical writing by indigenous Australians, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Victoria, pp. 92-96

Rose, D 1996, ‘Country’, Nourishing Terrains. Australian Aboriginal Views of Landscape and Wilderness, Australian Heritage Commission, pp.7-15

Stockwell, S & Scott, P 2000, All-media guide to fair and cross-cultural reporting, Australian Key Centre for Cultural and Media Policy.

Wright, A 2002, ‘The politics of writing’, Stories without end..., vol. 62, no. 2, pp. 10-20

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